DISTRESS OF THE LABOURING CLASSES IN ENGLAND.
SINCE the opening of Parliament, very contradictory statements have been made as to the condition of the labouring classes in the Northern and Midland counties. Mr. Arrwoon of Birmingham, and Mr. FIELDEN of Oldham, who must have excellent opportu-
nities of knowing the real condition of the population among whom they reside, have asserted in the most unqualified manner, that the distress of the operatives at the present time is dire be- yond all precedent. These assertions have been met by counter statements. We doubt not that, in consequence of the revival of trade which usually takes place about this season of the year, the manufacturing classes are better off than they were a short time ago; but, when the Spring orders are executed, the dis- tress will certainly return ; and, two months hence, the periodical complaints of want of work and reduced wages will again be heard. During eight or nine months of every year, the sufferings of the poor inhabitants of our mining and manufacturing districts are intense and unremitting.
Now, that extreme poverty inevitably tends to produce crime, and that the utmost severity of the law is, for the most part, un-
availing when directed against famishing criminals, will not be
denied by any one who is acquainted with the past history and present state of Ireland. The vice and turbulence of the Irish are mainly owing to the extreme difficulty of obtaining the means of
living. The Marquis of WESTMEATH, indeed, maintains that it is not distress, but sheer wickedness, that prompts the Whitefeet to
the commission of outrages against life and property : but until that discerning personage can point out to us a state of society, on an extended scale, where frequent crimes against property have not invariably been preceded and accompanied by intense suffer- ing on the part of the poor,—or where a respect for the laws is not a sure indication of worldly comfort,—we shall take leave to con- sider his opinion as the result of obstinate prejudice, and as evi- dence of a state of mind which utterly disqualifies him from legis- lating beneficially for his native country. It is not, however, to the state of Ireland that we now wish to direct attention, but to the fact, that one of the main causes of Irish suffering and crime is at work among the labouring classes in our own country. In England, the labour-market is glutted; and, except at particular and brief periods, wages are much reduced. The working classes are yearly becoming more impoverished; and, consequently, less disposed to respect the rights of property, or to dread the punishment of crime. The number of convictions
in England and Wales, which for the seven years ending in 1817, was 35,259, and during the next seven years had increased to 62,412, during the seven years ending in 1831 rose to the fearful height of 85,257. The amount levied for poor-rates in England
and Wales during the year ending in March 1831, was 8,279,2171. If the difference in the value of money is taken into account, it will be found, that this sum is larger by some millions than was ever levied for the same purposes during the worst years of the war.
It must be the aim and wish of every reflecting, every humane man, to apply a remedy to the evils which these returns prove to
exist. Hitherto, however, little has been done, except perhaps by the diffusion of knowledge. Assuredly we do not mean to de- cry the advantages of education; but still we maintain, that in order to its having a due and permanent influence, it must be ac-
companied by an improvement in the worldly condition of the people. Education in England has not had lair play. It is proved by the reduction of the wages of labour, the augmentation of the poor-rates, and the enormous sale of cheap publications, that po- verty and information have gone on increasing together. This
state of things Mr. HUSKISSON declared to be without a parallel
in the history of nations. It accounts for the fact, that the diffu- sion of knowledge has not, apparently, caused a diminution of crime. A man with the fear of starvation before his eyes will not be restrained from satisfying his appetite by the precepts of mo- rality, or even of religion. There are multitudes, moreover, who
though not driven to this extremity, yet nourish a feeling of hos- tility towards the upper classes of society, which, however unrea- sonable it may be, they are in no want of arguments to justify to themselves. This discontented spirit among the labouring popu- lation—the natural consequence of their being under-fed, over- worked, and, in these circumstances, over-instructed—may lead to dangerous results. It may break forth into acts of open violence sooner than we anticipate. It must be highly desirable, therefore, to allay it if possible, by some prompt remedy for the evil to which it owes its origin. Now there can be no question, that one mode of relieving the sufferings and allaying the discontent of the poor, would be by supplying them with cheap food. No single legislative enactment could contribute so much towards this as the abolition of the Corn- laws. We shall be told, that, constituted as our Legislature is, its members being for the most part men of landed property, many of whom are embarrassed in their fortunes, the speedy abo- lition of the Corn-laws is out of the question. Such, we fear, is the case. But there is no reason, because the great and most effi- cient remedy is unattainable, that we should not attempt a minor one. One of the minor remedies lies, probably, within reach. We allude to the removal of the duty upon foreign provisions, which is now twelve shillings per hundredweight, or about thirty per cent. ad valorem, and acts as a prohibition upon their impor- tation for home use. Were this duty repealed,—and its repeal would inflict no loss on the revenue, for it produce§ nothing,— there would at least be one important article df food supplied at a much cheaper rate than it is at present; and the reduction of wages, which must inevitably take place as soon as the present de- ma,nd for our manufactures is supplied, would be met by a corre- sponding reduction in the price of butcher-meat.
The principal objection to this reduction of duty would be, that it would interfere with the provision trade carried on by the Irish; who export annually to this country, beef, pork, butter, and live- stock, to the amount of about two millions. No doubt, it wookt have that effect; but if it should gradually lead to the conversion of pasture lands into tillage in Ireland, and thus create a demand for labour, and induce more settled habits of life among the pea- santry, the consequences would be in a high degree beneficial both to that country and to England. Without exaggerating the ad- vantages which would follow the adoption of our suggestion, we
think it cannot be denied that the relief' which it would to the labouring classes, would be immediately felt, and that it would be attended with great ultimate good to the Irish landholders and peasantry, against whose interest it might at first seem to militate.