THE POOR-LAW REPORT OF 1834.* IT was a happy idea
that led Mr. Rathbone, on the occasion of the debates last year on medical relief, to move that the "First Report of the Commissioners for Inquiring into the Administration and Operation of the Pant-laws in 1831" should be reprinted. This reprint, which was issued about a fortnight ago, could hardly have made its appearance at a more seasonable time ; for when the existence of large masses of unemployed labourers and artisans in London and throughout the country is being forced in a more than usual degree upon the attention of the public, and is leading to a demand alike for relief works and for a laser administration of outdoor relief, not only on the part of the unemployed themselves, but by responsible public men on the platform and in the Press, it is peculiarly appropriate that we should be reminded by the appearance of this Report of the com- plete failure of that Poor-law system which, founded upon senti- ments of humanity, dealt outdoor relief with a lavish hand,—a hand that was equally lavish whether the relief were given, as in some parishes, "in lieu of labour," or, as in others, "in return for work." And independently of the immediate anxiety with regard to the present distress, there has recently been such an increased desire in many quarters for State interference in social matters, and especially for the improvement of the condition of the working classes, that it is well that our legislators and the public should be reminded, not so much of the hard-and-fast doctrines of the economists, but of the hard and startling facts upon which those doctrines were in great measure founded.
The Report begins with a short sketch of the progress of the Poor-law from the reign of Richard II. to the famous 43 Eliz., c. 2, which statute still forms the basis of our Poor-law system. But it was not to that statute that the evils which the Commis- sioners had to inquire into were due. On the contrary, they say :—
" It is now our painful duty to report that in the greater part of the districts which we have been able to examine, the fund which the 43rd Elizabeth directed to be employed in setting to work children, and persons capable of labour, but using no daily trade, and in the necessary relief of the impotent, is applied to purposes opposed to the letter, and still more to the spirit of that law and destractive to the morals of the most numerous class, and to the welfare of all."
Those evils were due to the various expedients for freely affording outdoor relief to the able-bodied which prevailed, in whole or in part, for fifty years previous to 1834, and which were introduced or extended with the best intentions in order to alleviate the sufferings among agricultural labourers caused by a succession of bad seasons and consequent high prices of food. The Report classifies those expedients as follows :—(1), Relief without labour; (2), the Allowance system ; (3), the Rounds man system; (4), Parish Employment; and (5), the Labour Rate system. • Poor-law COMIllidg0114STS. First Report of 11334. London : Hansard. But the most universal, and, it may be said, the most pernicious of these was the Allowance system. Th system, generally speak-
ing, was that the parish allowed to labourers relief in aid of their wages. Thus the Magistrates in a county or district would fix what the income of a working man ought to be in money, or in the price of so much bread, and -upon the income so fixed every man could count with confidence. If he were unable to obtain work, he could come to the parish and claim the whole of such income; if he were in work wholly or partially, he could at the end of the week come and claim the sum by which what he had earned fell short of that income. The amount, however, of the man's wages was not too curiously in- quired into, and in no case was the inquiry carried back more than a week, or at most a fortnight ; while in some parishes no man was supposed to earn more than a given sum, such as eight shillings, so that, however high his wages had in fact been, he could at the end of the week claim from the parish the difference between eight shillings and his declared income.
But the principle adopted by the Magistrates for fixing the income to which they declared a man to be entitled was pro- bably the weakest point of the whole system, and the one attended with the gravest consequences. That principle was that a man's income should depend not upon his own merits, but upon the size of his family. The Magistrates used to pro- mulgate scales, either varying with the price of bread—like the one for the county of Cambridge, by which the price of seven quartern loaves a week was allowed to a man and wife, of eight loaves if they have one child, nine if they have two, eleven if they have three children, and so forth—or a mere money scale,. allowing Is. 6d. or 2s. a week, as the case might be, for each head in the family ; and according to these scales, "the Church- wardens and Overseers of the Poor were requested to regulate the incomes of such persons as might apply to them for relief or
employment." "In some parishes," says the Report, "no inquiry whatever is made respecting earn;ngs, but the birth of a child endows the parent with an allowance, whatever be his
income." And the following evidence is added to illustrate this :—
" I attended the vestry with one of the principal farmers. One of his labourers, who was in constant employ at 17s, per week, came for his ' pay ' for a third child, just born, at is. a week for six months ; it
will then be raised to le. 6d. a week." "The practice of granting allowance for children is so general and confirmed [in the Northern Division of Devonshire], that the pauper is in the habit of giving formal notice to the overseers of the pregnancy of his wife."
Socialists are fond of talking about "the right to live," and demand something more than the limited recognition of it which our presentamr-law system affords ; but we see that in the first
thirty years of this century, not only was that so-called " right " fully repognised and established, but so also was the "right," as Mill calls it, "of bringing creatures into life to be supported by other people."
Before quoting from the Report to show the terrible results which followed so extensive a recognition of these rights, it may be well to allude briefly to two other expedients by which out- door relief was administered. The Roundsman system was that the parish paid occupiers of property to employ paupers at a certain rate of wages. This was effected in various ways, one of which was that the parish sold the labour of their paupers by auction ; but in general, says the Report,—
" The parish makes some agreement with a farmer to sell to him the labour of one or more paupers at a certain price, and pays to the pauper, out of the parish funds, the difference between that price and the allowance which the scale, according to the price of bread and the number of his family, awards to him."
The relief given in return for parish employment constituted hardly more than 5 per cent. of the whole, which is the more surprising when it is remembered that the 43rd Elizabeth "does not authorise relief to be afforded to any but the impotent, except in return for work." It appears that the chief reasons for the abandonment of this practice were—(1), that it was less troublesome to the authorities to afford relief gratuitously ; (2), that working in gangs had a very bad moral effect on the pau- pers; and (3), that parish employment did not afford direct profit to any individual. The evidence as to the evils of this system is most striking, and amply proves the insubordination which it aroused among the labourers in the districts where it prevailed. It was a thing almost unknown that parish labourers should work as long or as hard as the other classes of labourers; and their wages were usually the same, and not unfrequently higher than those of ordinary labourers. Effective superintend- ence was almost out of the question, and a man who gave himself
trouble was laughed at by his companions ; and in many places there was "created in the minds of the paupers a notion that it was their right to be exempted from the same degree of labour as independent labourers." As a result, employers found the independent labourers remarkably independent ; and if any difficulty as to work or wages arose, it was common and
not unnatural for the labourer to say, "I can get as much on the roads as if I worked for you," or, "I can have 12s. a week by going on the roads, and doing as little as I like." "Right to employment" is another motto of the Socialists, and it was
to such lengths as these that this country had been brought in the early years of this century by acknowledging the "right to employment."
The Report might with advantage have dwelt more upon the respective merits, or rather demerits, of the various modes of relief, and have explained to what extent they severally prevailed throughout the country. But the worst evils were common to all of them. The poor were led to look upon relief as a right,—a right which they enforced through the Magistrate if the parish officer refused it. The former disgrace of being a "parish bird" had almost, if not wholly, passed away. The certainty of relief had abrogated the Divine and natural law, "If a man will not work, neither shall he eat ;" it had effectually destroyed every inducement to thrift or prudence on the part of the labouring classes, and so far from marriage being considered as a drain upon a man's resources, it was, as we have seen, generally a safe and easy means of increasing his income. But we will let the Report speak for itself on. the effects of the old Poor-law system, alike on the labourers themselves and on the community :—
"It is obvious that the tendency of the allowance system is to diminish, we might almost say to destroy, all these qualities [skill, intelligence, diligence, and honesty] in the labourer. What motive has the man who is to receive 10s. every Sakarday, not because 103. is the value of his week's labour, but because his family consists of five persons ; who knows that his income will be increased by nothing but the increase of his family, and diminished by nothing but by a diminution of his family ; that it has no reference to his skill, his honesty, or his diligence ; what motive has he to acquire or to pre- serve any of these merits ? Unhappily, the evidence shows not only that these virtues are rapidly wearing out, but that their place is assumed by the opposite vices."
It is then stated that the answers to circular inquiries, whether the labourers in various districts were supposed to be better or worse workmen than formerly, have varied with the Poor-law
administration in those districts ; where it is good, the replies have been favourable to the workmen ; but the reverse is the case where the influence of the allowance and scale have been felt, such replies as the following being received from such districts :—" Relying upon parish support, the labourers are indifferent whether they oblige or disobey their masters, are less honest and industrious, and the mutual regard between em- ployer and servants is gone."
"Bat the severest sufferers," says the Report, "are those for whose benefit the system is supposed to have been introduced, and to be perpetuated, the labourers and their families." The testimony as to the degrading effect of the system upon the labourers actually relieved is overwhelming. It is by them that the beer-shops are frequented ; their cottages can at once be distinguished from those of labourers who maintain them- selves ; "the wives of paupers are dirty, and nasty, and indolent, and the children generally neglected and dirty,
vagrants, and immoral." One of the Assistant-Commissioners reports that,— "In every district he found the condition of the independent labourer strikingly distinguishable from that of the pauper, and superior to it, though the independent labourers were commonly maintained upon less money."
Domestic affection among paupers was almost destroyed by a system which led each member of a family to look to the parish as a means of support, so that, in some places, "mothers and children will not nurse each other unless they are paid for it." But though the paupers were, in the opinion of the Commis- sioners, the severest sufferers, morally and materially, from the system, we cannot help feeling greater indignation at the in- justice perpetrated by that system on the honest, struggling, independent labourer :—
6, We have seen," says the Report, "that one of the objects attempted by the present administration of the Poor-laws is to repeal, pro tanto, that law of Nature by which the effects of each man's improvidence or misconduct are borne by himself and his family. The effect of that attempt has been to repeal, pro tante, the law by which each man and his family enjoy the benefit of his own prudence and virtue."
Thus, if a respectable man were known to have saved a little money, he would not in general be employed, because this would be no saving to the rates ; whereas the penniless man found work in preference, for his employers knew that otherwise he would come upon the parish. Consequently, the labourers in general not only avoided accumulation, but spent any property they might have in order to entitle them to wages or relief. Again :—
"Those who are guilty of a still more important act of prudence and self-denial—that of deferring the period of marriage—are punished sometimes by being refused permission to work, sometimes by being allowed to work only a given number of days in each week, and sometimes by being paid for a full week's labour only a portion, often not half or a third of what they see their married fellow-work- man receive."
Similar reasons influenced the employers in this case, for the
parish was only saved 3s. or 43. a week by employing a single man, whereas by employing a man with a family it would be saved two to four times that amount. As a result, it is shown that frequently men married young for the express purpose of qualifying themselves for getting work. Abundant evidence is given in support of these propositions, and not the least inter- esting is the evidence of a number of respectable working men.
One more disastrous result of this system must be mentioned in conclusion—viz., the ruin which it was bringing on the community as a whole by the continuous increase of the rates. It is true that only one parish is mentioned where there was an actual dereliction of estates from this cause. That was Cholesbury, in Buckinghamshire, where the sum raised for the relief of the poor had risen from 210 in 1801, to 2367 in 1832, when "it suddenly ceased, in consequence of the impossi- bility to continue its collection ; the landlords having given up their rents, the farmers their tenancies, and the clergyman his glebe and his tithes." But in other pauperised parishes the same process was going on. Rents were being reduced to half, or less than half, what they had previously been ; and 5s. an acre for good land was a common rental, because 21 per acre was a common poor-rate. Farms were being constantly thrown up by the tenants because they could not stand the increased rate ; and while the value of land was thus falling, the population in the same districts was increasing. One witness, speaking of his parish, says :—
"The annual value of the real property, as assessed in 1815, was 23,390; in 1829, 21,959; and it has undoubtedly fallen since then. The population has more than trebled in thirty years ; and that in spite of an emigration of considerable amount, at the parish expense, in 1829. The eighteenpenny children will eat up this pariah in ten years more, unless some relief be afforded us."
Of course, it will be said that no one proposes to reintroduce the Poor-law system that existed prior to 1834,—and again, that in the case of temporary distress, the institution of public relief works is admissible. With regard to the latter, we would only urge that to justify public relief works, it must be shown that the causes of the distress are exceptional, as were those that led to the Lancashire cotton famine; while on the present occasion there is reason to suppose that much of the distress in London, at any rate, is not temporary, or where temporary, is not excep- tional, but recurs every winter in a greater or less degree. That no one proposes to reintroduce the old system pure and simple, we frankly admit; but there can be no doubt that the forces which led to the introduction of that system are now reasserting themselves, chief of which are the long-continued agricultural and commercial depression, and a well-meaning but mistaken kindness on the part of the public towards those who are the chief sufferers thereby. The Poor-law history of the eighteenth century seems to be repeating itself in the nineteenth. In 1722 was passed one of the most salutary of Poor-laws, instituting the workhouse test, and practically abolishing outdoor relief. For half a century the country enjoyed the full benefits of this law, and the progress of pauperism
was stayed. Bat when a new generation of politicians had sprung up, who had forgotten the evils of the old system, we find guardians appointed to protect the poor against the parsimony of overseers, and the workhouse test and other safeguards swept away, by Gilbert's Act in 1782. Then followed all those benevolent but mistaken measures which led to the monstrous evils which it was the "painful duty "of the Commissioners to describe, and the salutary legislation of 1834
was the result of their Report. Another half-century has passed away, during which the benefits of the new law have been experienced; and we find again a new generation of politicians who, forgetful of the evils of the old system, and
with the best intentions, arc once more talking of drawing freely on the rates for the relief or assistance, in one mode or another, of both the urban and the rural poor.
It is on this account that, in our opinion, Mr. Rathbone has done great service to the country by bringing within the reach of all, at this important juncture, "the most remarkable and startling document to be found in the whole range of English social history." Members of Parliament will have no excuse for yielding, as they too readily do, to demands for State assistance in various ways on the part of the uneducated majority of the present electors ; it is for them to lay the lead- ing facts of this Report before their constituents, especially the working men, the most enlightened of whom will not be slow to learn its lessons.