POOR-LAW REFORM: How ENGLAND HAS HITHERTO DEALT BY HER POOR.
"TEE poor always ye have with you " : every country has its poor, and must perforce deal with that class as a constituent ele- ment of the community. Lawmakers, whether from want of wisdom or want of courage, have often forgotten the existence of the class, purposely overlooked it, or blinked the fact as well as they could ; but there it stands, to be seen by all with their eyes open. It is a thing, indeed, that differs in different countries : there is a wide variation between the poverty of the Scotch kelp- gatherers and that of the Manchester factory-hand ; England, in her worst districts, knows no such general destitution as is com- mon in Ireland ; the well-conditioned poor labourer of the Val d'Arno would excite the admiring envy of a Savoyard village; the idle beggar of Rio de Janeiro would sneer at the endless toil of the Swiss cottager : but in all countries there is that class which is distinguished by the scantiness of its resources, and by the fact that a slip downwards in the social scale lands it in actual destitution. In most countries, if not in all, this class of "the poor " is so numerous as to constitute really the bulk of the popu- lation. It does so in England. So far as a poor-law is concerned, the essential question is, how to diminish the chances that the poor may fall into the state of actual destitution, how to diminish the evil effects of such a fall when it does occur.
England, like most other states, has endeavoured to shirk that wide and difficult question ; and when forced to contemplate it, has dealt with it partially. She has, of course, been punished by a greater amount or degree of pauperism than she would otherwise have suffered, and by a much severer infliction of the secondary evils flowing from the existence of pauperism and the abuse of imperfect preventives. It is to stop a repetition of those evils that a thorough and comprehensive investigation of the subject is desirable.
In times long past, England seems to have left her poor to the care of private or religious charity. This is a very ancient re- course. vv en Mary Magdalene broke the box of ointment over the feet of Jesus Judas Iscariot asked—" Why was not this oint- ment sold for three hundred pence and given to the poor ?" It is true that "this he said, not that he cared for the poor, but be- cause he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein " ; yet the hypocrite calculated on appealing to a common usage. Nor is the plan of leaving the poor to spontaneous charity altogether without its advantages : it prevents that defined cer- tainty of aid which is one of the inducements to make a trade of pauperism ; the gift from riches to poverty is accompanied by good feeling on both sides, "blessing him that gives and him that takes," and mitigating the severance of classes and in that form it is a tax that does not excite odium against the collectors. But such abandonment of the poor by the state would be quite in- compatible with all laws against mendicancy. Nevertheless, the lawmakers of England began at that wrong end. Our first poor-laws were directed to the suppression of vagrancy. That was the gist of the statute passed in the twelfth year of Richard the Second. It forbade the wandering of labour- ers who were out of work, and ordered that "impotent" persona should be sent to the place of their birth. Subsequently, such persons were forbidden to beg out of their birthplace. Mixed up with the purpose of restricting vagrancy appears to have been a disposition to check the wandering in search of higher wages : and hence villeinage was succeeded by that law of "settlement" " under which the labourer, though no longer adseriptusglebee, was bound to the parish. We have not yet quite outlived that semi- barbarous law, nor its motive.
Vagrancy, however, was a monster too strong for legislators. No doubt, in those lawless times " sturdy vagabonds" and valiant beggars were very formidable persons ; and when the suppres- sion of the monasteries sent all the dependents of religious charity adrift, the bands of begging freebooters must have been strongly reinforced. From the time of Richard to Elizabeth, legislation racked its cruel fancy in vain for effectual penalties : among them were the stocks, bread-and-water diet, whipping "until the body be bloody," imprisonment, death, and slavery ! Always in vain. In fact, the severity: of these enactments prevented their enforce- ment. It was not in human nature for the Magistrate, with the whining wretch before his face, to inflict the torture to which the Legislature, regarding the mendicant as a remote abstraction—a very contumacious illogical, and perverse abstraction—was exas- perated. The substantive attempt to suppress vagrancy by penal measures was a total and a protracted failure. Another idea gradually insinuated itself into the legislative mind. Attention was awakened to the fact that there really were poor as well as vagrants. A statute of Henry the Eighth directs, that of paupers "such as be lusty be kept at continual labour " ; an early act of Elizabeth enforces the payment of contributions for alms to the poor by admonition of such "obstinate persons" as refused to give and forty years later was promulgated the famous "Forty-third of Elizabeth." The author of that statute had either conceived a new idea, with a vagueness equal to its im- portance, or he was afraid to put it forth in all its force, as being before the age : at any rate, the act draws a most important dis- tinction between poverty and vagrancy or confirmed pauperism. It supersedes the old system of violent punishments against vagrancy ; gives to the poor subsistence in return for labour • and provides for the vagrant houses of correction, with mills, elms, cards, and the like. That act remained ostensibly the basis of those which succeeded; but it was subject to various modifications, having all sorts of par- tial objects, until the law became a mass of confusion, in which its original principle was quite lost. Pity for the poor, indolent acquiescence in importunity, and other motives more or less un- worthy, led to lavish allowances. Jobbing and peculation added their voracity to that of the professed pauper, and poor-rates often strayed unduly into the pockets of favoured parish-contractors. Farmers, seeing the ease with which money flowed through that channel, obtained for their labourers parish-allowances in aid of wages ; which saved the farmers' pockets at the expense of the parish, and incidentally had the effect of converting the indus- trious by wholesale into paupers. Allowances to families, at so much a head, created a trade in the breeding of children, legiti- mate or not, as pretexts for the parents to receive so many shil- lings a week. On the other hand, indiscriminate parsimony, seek- ing a diminution of poor-rates suggested a trade in parish-appren- tices: under the name of indentures and premiums a virtual sale was effected, and the parish-boy became a slave. The desire to shift the pauper led to the encouragement of absurd marriages, to endless litigation about settlements, (lawyers' jobbery cultivating the said litigation,) and to the hunting of pregnant women from parish to parish in order that the expected child "might not be- come chargeable." The notion of profiting by the labour of the parish-poor originated Gilbert Unions. Meanwhile, the necessity of providing a home for the professional pauper gradually erected the "workhouse." Thus grew up the system of poor-laws as it stood before the act of 1834. The abuses of the law had become so flagrant a violation both of sense and decency as to be quite intolerable. Political economy was in the ascendant. Mr. George Nicholls, a retired East India captain, who had been elected to parochial office in a country-town, was struck with the monstrosities of the law, set about the work of purification, and published a pamphlet; attention was drawn to the subject; political economy became very busy about it, and ob- tained the ear of the Legislature. Then a Commission was appoint,- ed, including Mr. Nicholls, Mr. Senior, a high political economist, Mr. Chadwick, whose fame has been made by the New Poor-law, and other great authorities : they recommended a statute; Lord Brougham advocated it ; Whig Ministers adopted it; Parliament registered the ; and it was handed over for administration to a Board, selected from among the party- of its authors. Never did the doctrines of a particular school find a more triumphant acceptation from constituted authority than the Poor-law Bill did; and the most influential part of public opinion was in its favour. Indeed, it may be said that the strong sense of existing abuses, combined with views of social economy too much restricted, pre- disposed most men of active and practical minds to think well of the New Poor-law. A sentiment, almost fanatical in its repug- nance' stood out against it ; but the opponents did not take the pains to fortify their declamation with reason or argument, and thus it operated to strengthen the conviction which they assailed. Confidence in the new law was strong. We do not say this in blame : the Spectator, be it confessed, had its share in the then prevalent opinion, and censure is altogether beside our present purpose : we are simply reviewing facts with the enlarged ex- perience of subsequent years. The objects and expected results of the New Poor-law Bill are thus stated by a distinguished member of the school from which it emanated- " The main principle of the proposed measures was, that in administering re- lief to the indigent, 'the condition of the pauper should in no case be so eligible as the condition of persons of the lowest class subsisting on the fruits of their own industry.' The necessity of the systematic adoption of this rule is obvious; and it was further justified by the Commissioners by a reference to evidence, which seemed to prove that a condition worse than that of an independent agricultural labourer may, nevertheless, be a condition above that in which the great body of the English labourers have lived in times that have always been considered pros- perous. A good deal of evidence was also produced to show that in the few in- stances where i the principle had been applied the results of its adoption had been found to succeed n an invariable order: the first result being the conversion of able at-bodied into independent labourers, and a simultaneous reduction of
the ' expenditure; the second observed result being a rise in the wages of labour; the third, a diminution of improvident marriages; and the fourth, in- creased content of the labourers, as the reward of their industry increased; and the fifth, a diminution of crime.".
The act has by no means realized the promises of its promoters. It has not made the poor independent : of late years our daily papers have teemed with inquiries, official or otherwise, into the condition of the poor in the agricultural districts—the very parts that the new law was most to benefit ; and proof has been heaped on proof, that their condition is debased and dependent to the list degree. The act has not raised wages : they remain, in the agri- cultural districts, and have remained for generations, at a dead level ; in the manufacturing districts they fluctuate altogether with the state of trade : if the law has had any effect, it has been in depressing wages, by inducing the poor to accept lower rates rather than enter the bastilles ' : the Andover Inquiry Com- mittee established that point. The law has not increased the contentment of the poor : on the contrary, ever since its first promulgation it has been the object of odium. The pretence that it would establish an improved administration, has been rendered a byword since the disclosures of the Andover Committee, which showed the administration to be a mass of irregularity and dis- organization. It may have mortified the tribe of parish-contrac- tors; but imperfect supervision has made that fact doubtful—has suffered such peculation as that at Andover, and has even per- mitted such strange connexions as that between offices under the Commission and private speculation in the Haydock Lodge Lunatic Asylum. The act has diminished the gross expenditure of the country under the head of poor-relief. It may have checked improvident pauper marriages, for certainly that abuse has ceased to be a flagrant nuisance. It checked false affiliations —and promoted child-murder. By the help of high official protection, the law and its adminis- tration have contrived to prolong their existence for a decennium ; but only by the repeated sacrifice of essential points, until not a "principle" in it remains untouched. The administrators never ventured to apply the "workhouse test" with any strictness. They were obliged to mitigate the austerity of their diet-tables. Their bastardy clauses so inexorable to frail womanhood, have been relaxed. The extension of unions has been given up. A bill to alter the law of settlement has passed, and another to make a more sweeping alteration stands over to be passed next session. And the central authority bears upon it the mark of condemnation.
The failure of the law and its machinery at so many points seems to distract even hostility. The Times relaxes its assaults on the law, in order to strike a coup de grace at the falling Com- missioners. The Morning Chronicle first defends the law by at- tacking the Commissioners, and then finds that a law which makes workhouses worse than prisons has some parts at least that are indefensible. The results of the statute are execrated by many more than those who take the pains to discover the causes in the law itself: it is easier to revile the three respectable gen- tlemen at Somerset House, as half fiends half idiots, than to trace out the complicated sources of defeat involved in the impossible task which has foiled them—the attempt to carry out a minutely elaborate and impracticable statute. There is an impatient cry to
* Statistical Account of the British Empire. By J. IL leCu11och. Vol. IL, p. 617.
abolish the nuisance, without any intelligible proposal as to sub- stitutes. A few are for restoring the famous Forty-third of Elizabeth—imperfect as it was even for the sixteenth century, corrupted as it had been by every subsequent modification! It is evident from these signs, that public opinion is brought to a stand—is unsettled from its past conclusions, unprovided with new ones. Some active steps cannot long be delayed. The im- perative necessity for action, coupled with the absence of mature conclusions, should send us back to inquire, why it is that our endeavours in this behalf have hitherto failed—what are the causes of past failure—what is the nature of a poor-law, what are its true objects ? We think it can be shown that the existing law has failed because it confounded really separate objects, and notably the aid of the poor with the restraint of vagrancy ; we think that candid deliberation might find the path to a true poor- law ; and, in separate papers to follow this, we shall invite the reader to study those points.