THE CONFUSION OF THE POOR-LAW.
Fort three centuries have the estates of the realm been legislating against "sturdy vagabonds and valiant beggars," and still the peaceful citizen is defrauded by the professed mendicant or bearded by the lusty ruffian—ay, in the very streets of London by the broad light of day. The letters of correspondents in the Times are counterparts to the preambles in the statutes of Henry the Eighth and dward the Sixth. "A Lady" declares that she has been compelled to give money to free herself from mina- cious importunity, in town, suburb, and village; "A Pedestrian," who admits that be is a "timid old gentleman," relates how a limping beggar flourished an open razor at him in Vere Street, under pretext of offering it for sale, but with the.coolest intima- tion that "he must sell it before he could obtain a dinner"; "Provincial" tells of a sturdy beggar who threatened him with a cudgel, within range of the police. These stories might be multiplied and varied ad infinitum. Numerous hordes of "sturdy vagabonds and valiant beggars," of coun- terfeit cripples and simulated sufferers under helpless starva- tion, infest town and country, and live on the alms of the orderly, the charitable, and the timid. The amount of this tax for London alone is conjecturally estimated by the Times at a million sterling per annum ; and " Provincial" asserts that "every town, every village, every hamlet in the kingdom, con- tributes in nearly like proportion to this degrading, excessive, and voluntary tax." The exact statistics are of course unattain- able but the class pervades the whole country, and it is sup- ported by the voluntary contributions of the timid and humane. A clergyman among the correspondents of the Times suggests that the giver of alms should be subjected to a penalty. Pro- vincial" proposes that all charity should be poured through some accredited channel, such as clergy, wardens, or visiting societies. But the irrepressible practice of almsgiving attests the fact, that the public, on the one hand, does not repose implicit confidence in the.sufficient breadth of associated charity, and on the other, that the pUblic.will not forego the duty of personal gift to the poor, badly as it may be performed. Meanwhile, the sturdy vagabonds and valiant Iseggars possess the streets and highways, snatching from the hand %;Kcharity the alms intended for misfor- tune, and levying a black mialsin open defiance of law and police. Such are the facts. The class does subsist upon the contributions of the public ; but, practically ignored by our ineffectual vagrancy laws, the class enjoys an irresponsible immunity from regulation Now what does the law do with the true-pauper—the wretch whose destitution is tested by the workhouse ? Not the " casual poor," who are fools enough to importune the workhouse authori- ties of St. Andrew's Holborn instead of threatening the correspond- ents of the Times, and obtain cold pavement and pailfuls of water for supper instead of jolly tramping-house fare : we mean the tested paupers. Look at the farming establishments near London, under the very eye of the central Commission. Mr. Charles Cochrane has sent us a circular containing a correspondence be- tween himself and the Poor-law Commissioners, in which he de- scribes a visit to the farming establishment belonging to the City of London Union,—Marlborough House, at Peckham Rye. With the permission of the proprietor and director, Mr. Richards, I inspected it on Thursday the 14th September. The inspection commenced about twenty-five minutes to twelve, and ended near half-past two; Mr. Richards having attended me on the occasion. On his showing me the beds on which the casual poor slept, he himself informed me that they laid three in a bed together, and in a state of nudity; and I beg to add the further particulars, that the beds were not on bed- steads, but placed on the floor. With reference to the arrangements for the casual poor washing themselves (from fifty to sixty in number) in two buckets of water, I was informed of them by the yardsman, in the presence of Mr. Richards, and in his bearing. I also beg to add some further particulars. The yardsman ex- plained to me that the one bucket consisted of water with some soft soap and soda mixed in it; the other of plain water, in which the poor, after they have used the former one, rinse, or as the yardsman termed it, wrench themselves, and then dry their persons on one round jack towel, from three to four yards in dimensions. The two buckets of water, the yardsman also informed me, were changed twice a week. I thought proper to ask the yardsman if they did not allow the men the use of soap? When he replied, with a singularly derisive chuckle, 'They would steal it if they had it.' n The Commissioners, in their reply to this statement, admit that they have very lax control over the contractor and his servants, as such persons " cannot be held to be paid officers within the terms of the act": but they declare that the Union is about to build a workhouse to which all the in-door paupers will be re- moved, and that Mr. Cochrane's statements shall be brought un- der the notice of the Guardians. In the further correspondence, the Cosimissioners treat Mr. Cochrane as a very obtrusive and troublesome person ; but they do not contravene his statements. But we are not left to the irregular election-hunting intervention of Mr. Charles Cochrane : look at the authenticated and shocking disclosures respecting the farming establishment for pauper children at Tooting. Whatever the fault and crime of parents, we must accopt the children more sinned against than sinning; vet here we see them housed like beasts, stinted like horses " at livery," and in the agonies of the pestilence suffered to die un- tended like brutes in the knacker's yard. It may be a question whether there ought to be a provision for the poor ; none, that if a provision be undertaken it ought to be effectual. But here we see several parishes uniting to shuffle off the responsibility and intrusting the care of helpless children to a person of such cha- racter as that disclosed by the facts of this revolting case. The "sturdy vagabond and valiant beggar" pursue their career unimpeded except by the occasional commitment from a police- office to a prison whose regimen physics their abundant profligacy and restores their zest. The more submissive pauper is consigned to the semi-penal discipline of "the house," or the bestial economy of the farming establishment. Turn again to the letter of "A Mechanic," of which we quote the chief part among our miscellaneous news, to see how the pro- vision for the poor is regarded by "the poor" in the genuine sense of that term. The well-conducted artisan who falls into distress dares not invoke the aid which should be open to him above all : he is deterred by the harshness, the squalor, and the odium ; and instead of resorting to the workhouse, his thoughts revert, like those of his fellows, 'to evil things"—some turbulence hostile to "the possessors of wealth," in which the poor shall at- tain a precarious prey. What is it that these facts teach ? That the Poor-law fails in its main objects—to relieve the genuine "poor" in their distress, to control the sturdy vagrant, and to protect society alike from the attacks of the valiant beggar and the still more dangerous disaffection of the suffering classes. It has shrunk to a code of rules for the regulation of the limited and distinct class of pro- fessed paupers.
And why ?—Because it confounds all classes alike ; the indi- gent by misfortune, the voluntary pauper, the tramping vagrant, and the sturdy beggar. It neglects the distinction which was observed even in the earliest of our statutes for compulsory relief— since the 27th Henry VIII. 0.25, passed in the year 1536, provides that the impotent shall be charitably relieved, that the " lusty " shall be set to work so that they shall get their own living by the labour of their own hands; and that the obstinate vagrants shall be whipped, cropped, and even hanged upon persevering in the of- fence. In its details the statute was equally feeble and savage,•
but the distinction is a just one. It was better marked in the ce- lebrated Forty-third of Elizabeth ; it was neglected in the prac- tice of our Poor-law, except in some places. The evidence taken in 1834 goes to show that such a distinction is not impracticable ; but the framers of the new Poor-law, too exclusively absorbed in
other considerations, neglected it, and it has altogether vanished from the statute-book. The present statutes confound all classes and treat all alike—the helpless, the poor, and the vagrant— by means of a law half eleemosynary and half penal, which by its nature omits to control the vagrant and excludes the deserving ,! poor.