« НазадПродовжити »
altogether, he was encouraged to enter the workhouse, where we are told that he fed upon the fat of the land and indulged in luxurious idleness. It is stated, on the authority of an assistant Poor Law Commissioner writing
the time of the change :
“ The English pauper is better fed than the independent labourer ; the suspected thief receives in gaol considerably more food than the pauper; the convicted thief receives still more ; and the transported felon receives every day very nearly three times as much food as the honest, independent peasant. The Kentish pauper has what are called three meat-days a week, in many cases four, and in some five; his bread in many degrees better than that given to our soldiers ; he has vegetables at discretion; and especially in the larger workhouses it is declared with great pride 'that there is no stinting,' buť that we gives 'em as much victuals as ever they can eat.””
Of course they lived better than many of the ratepayers. The description of the old Poor Law system is concluded with these words :
“As a national jest-book, the history of our parishes and the contents of their ledgers stand, we must confess, unrivalled ; but when we reflect that the sum total of this expenditure has annually exceeded seven millions, that the poor rates of any country are the symbol of its improvidence, and the sure signal of its distress, we must also admit that there exists in the history of our kingdom nothing more sorrowful, more discreditable, than our late Poor Law system.”
It will hardly be suspected that I am lamenting the
* Sir F. B. Head. Essays contributed to the Quarterly Review. See “ English Charitv"
close of such a state of things, or advocating in any respect a return to it. Nothing that I am at present about to suggest as a remedy or a reform was attempted under the former routine, or is incompatible with the present one.
It was no wonder that such a system came to an end, and that its gross injustice, as well as its injurious tendency, loudly demanded an alteration. An amendment was accordingly made, and has been the law in England sufficiently long for its results to be examined and fairly judged at the present day. When flagrant abuses are found to exist, it is hardly to be wondered at that a somewhat violent reaction frequently takes places in redressing them ; and if over-indulgence was the fault of the old Poor Law, it can hardly be denied that harshness has been the characteristic of the new one. I have no doubt that it was originally framed with all due caution and deliberation, and that in the main its rules have worked beneficially for the country. But of late years a suspicion has begun to arise, that along with great benefits there exist also many evils which demand attention and remedy ; evils, perhaps, not inherent in the system itself, but which have developed themselves and grown up around it in the course of years; unforeseen at the beginning, and hardly then admitting of a remedy, but becoming apparent in the progress of events and of experience.
To these evils and their proposed remedies it is now my task to direct the attention of my readers, referring them to the publications at the head of this article for fuller information upon the subject of the management of our dependent poor,-a subject strangely neglected by the public till a very recent period, considering that the wellbeing of more than 600,000 of our fellow-creatures is involved in the management of the workhouses in England.
The existence of a Poor Law, or a national provision for the poor, has been an established fact in England ever since the reign of Queen Elizabeth. It was called into existence when the system of providing for the helpless poor was done away with by the abolition of the monastic institutions of the country. Other countries have continued to manage their poor without the aid of a law, and I believe there are some persons who think these plans are preferable to our own, and hold out less encouragement to pauperism. They believe that such a state is not a necessary and unavoidable one, but the invariable consequence of improvidence and vice, and that with regard to these undesirable qualities, our country is pre-eminent amongst the nations of Europe. This fact is taken as a proof that the existence of a Poor Law does not work favourably on the national character, but tends to lower its independence and energy. How far this is in reality the case I am not prepared to say. The Poor Law is at all events an acknowledged necessity in England, and without it we should find ourselves in a state of great perplexity at the present day. I will assume it to have been originally established for the relief of what we may call unavoidable misfortune, and as long as every class of society occasionally claims the assistance of its more fortunate members, the lowest class alone is not to be blamed for requiring aid. In our large and over-crowded towns especially, the numerous causes which produce loss of health, and the temporary or permanent failure of wages from that or other causes, may surely account for a large proportion of misery which may be called unavoidable ; and if so, we can hardly deny that it is the duty of a Christian state to provide help for it. That prudence and foresight are to be encouraged by every means in our power (especially by the more careful education of the young of both sexes) cannot be denied ; but to wait till such a consummation is attained, which would result in the absence of all poverty requiring the systematic help of the more fortunate classes, were as hopeless as to wait for the day when sanitary measures and the progress of medical science for the prevention of disease should render the erection of hospitals unnecessary, and as unreasonable as to expect that the increase of reformatories should enable us to close our prisons. To mark the exact line of avoidable and unavoidable poverty will ever remain an impossibility : the utmost we can hope to do is to approach towards it, and by a vigilant supervision of those who are relieved, discourage as much as possible the idle and undeserving. Such an attempt seems hardly to have been made under the old system, and it is not surprising that the introduction of changes and the suppression of many abuses should have been hailed with unmixed satisfaction, and for a time all defects in the new system were overlooked. Some of the administrators of the old régime of course looked coldly upon innovations of any kind, but the change was generally welcomed as the means of ridding the country of a great and ever-increasing burden.
I will now proceed to make some remarks upon the different classes of misfortune, for the relief of which the Poor Law is intended, and which are supposed to have a right to claim its assistance. I hope to be able to show that there is a class of deserving poor who are entitled to a better treatment than they at present receive in the administration of our public charity ; and, also, that a more efficient and discriminating management would not tend to increase, but rather to diminish, pauperism.
With regard to the persons for whom the provision of a home in the workhouse is afforded, I may quote the words of Mrs. Jameson, in her book on the “Communion of Labour.” She says, “ The purpose of a workhouse is to be a refuge to the homeless, houseless, helpless poor ; to night wanderers ; to orphan children ; to the lame and blind ; to the aged, who here lie down on their last bed to die. The number of inmates varies in different parishes, at different seasons, from 400 to 1000.
In the great London unions it is generally from 1500 to 2000.”* Assuming, then, that all these are not impostors, or otherwise undeserving of compassion and help, I will briefly consider what is their present general condition, and what measures are taken for their welfare.
In the first place, whatever the management of workhouses may be, it is stated to be a fact, that they are less
* The following lists give the number of inmates in some of the metropolitan unions on Christmas Day, 1856 :- Marylebone, 1966 ; St. Pancras, 1639 ; Lambeth, 1056 ; St. George-in-theEast, 1205 ; St. Matthew, Bethnal Green, 1110; Whitechapel, 1044 ; Stepney, 1006. Others contain numbers varying between 200 and 1000.
“Of the 11,310 who thus closed their career not in their own homes, 6552 died in workhouses.”—Registrar-General's Report, 1856.