Page images

must not forget the project of supporting the poor from national funds, or, in other words, of immediately doubling the expenditure, and introducing every possible abuse into the administration of it. Then there are worthy men who call upon gentlemen of fortune and education to become overseers-meaning, we suppose, that the present overseers are to perform the higher duties of men of fortune. Then Merit is set up as the test of relief; and their worships are to enter into a long examination of the life and character of each applicant, assisted, as they doubtless would be, by candid overseers, and neighbours divested of every feeling of malice and partiality. The children are next to be taken from their parents, and lodged in immense pedagogueries of several acres each, where they are to be carefully secluded from those fathers and mothers they are commanded to obey and honour, and are to be brought up in virtue by the churchwardens. And this is gravely intended as a corrective of the Poor-Laws; as if (to pass over the many other objections which might be made to it) it would not set mankind populating faster than carpenters and bricklayers could cover in their children, or separate twigs to be bound into rods for their flagellation. An extension of the Poor-Laws to personal property is also talked of. We should be very glad to see any species of property exempted from these laws, but have no wish that any which is now exempted should be subjected to their influence. The case would infallibly be like that of the Income-tax-the more easily the tax was raised the more profligate would be the expenditure. It is proposed also that alehouses should be diminished, and that the children of the poor should be catechised publicly in the church, both very respectable and proper suggestions, but of themselves hardly strong enough for the evil. We have every wish that the poor should accustom themselves to habits of sobriety; but we cannot help reflecting sometimes that an alehouse is the only place where a poor tired creature, haunted with every species of wretchedness, can purchase three or four times a year three pennyworth of ale—a liquor upon which wine-drinking moralists are always extremely severe. We must not forget, among other nostrums, the eulogy of small farms; in other words, of small capital, and profound ignorance in the arts of agriculture; and the evil is alsó thought to be curable by periodical contributions from men who have nothing, and can earn nothing without charity. To one of these plans, and perhaps the most plausible, Mr. Nicol has stated, in the following passage, objections that are applicable to almost all the rest :

“The district school would no doubt be well superintended and well regulated ; magistrates and country gentlemen would be its visitors. The more excellent the establishment, the greater the mischief; because the greater thc expense. We may talk what we will of economy, but where the care of the poor is taken exclusively into the hands of the rich, comparative extravagance is the necessary consequence: to say that the gentleman, or even the overseer, would never permit the poor to live at the district school as they live at home, is saying far too little. English humanity will never see the poor in anything like want, when that want is palpably and visibly brought before it ; first, it will give necessaries, next comforts ; until its fostering care rather pampers than

merely relieves. The humanity itself is highly laudable ; but if practised on an extensive scale, its consequences must entail an almost unlimited expenditure.

“Mr. Locke computes that the labour of a child from 3 to 14, being set against its nourishment and teaching, the result will be exoneration of the parish from expense. Nothing could prove more decisively the incompetency of the Board of Trade to advise on this question. Of the productive labour of the workhouse, I shall have to speak hereafter; I will only observe in this place, that after the greatest care and attention bestowed on the subject, after expensive looms purchased, &c., the 50 boys of the Blue Coat School earned in the year 1816, £ 59 103. 3d. ; the 40 girls earned, in the same time, £40 75. 9d. The ages of these children are from 8 to 16. They earn about one pound in the year and cost about twenty.

“The greater the call for labour in public institutions, be they prisons, workhouses, or schools, the more difficult to be procured that labour must be. There will thence be both much less of it for the comparative numbers, and it will afford a much less price; to get any labour at all, one school must underbid another.

“It has just been observed that the child of a poor cottager, half clothed, half fed, with the enjoyment of home and liberty, is not only happier but better than the little automaton of a parish workhouse : and this I believe is accurately true. I scarcely know a more cheering sight, though certainly many more elegant ones, than the youthful gambols of a village-green. They call to mind the description given by Paley of the shoals of the fry of fish : ‘They are so happy that they know not what to do with themselves; their attitude, their vivacity, their leaps out of the water, their frolics in it, all conduce to show their excess of spirits, and are simply the effects of that excess.'

“Though politeness may be banished from the cottage, and though the anxious mother may sometimes chide a little too sharply, yet here both maternal endearments and social affection exist in perhaps their greatest vigour : the attachments of lower life, where, independent of attachment, there is so little to enjoy, far outstrip the divided, if not exhausted, sensibility of the rich and great, and in depriving the poor of these attachments we may be said to rob them of their little all.

“But it is not to happiness only I here refer, it is to morals. I listen with great reserve to that system of moral instruction which has not social affection for its basis or the feelings of the heart for its ally. It is not to be concealed that everything may be taught yet nothing learned, that systems planned with care and executed with attention may evaporate into unmeaning forms where the imagination is not roused or the sensibility impressed.

Let us suppose the children of the district school,' nurtured with that superabundant care which such institutions, when supposed to be well conducted, are wont to exhibit ; they rise with the dawn ; after attending to the calls of cleanliness, prayers follow; then a lesson ; then breakfast; then work, till noon liberates them, for perhaps an hour, from the walls of their prison to the walls of their prison court.

Dinner follows; and then, in course, work, lessons, supper, prayers ; at length, after a day, dreary and dull, the counterpart of every day which has preceded, and of all that are to follow, the children are dismissed to bed. —This system may construct a machine, but it will not form a man, Of what does it consist? of prayers parroted without one sentiment in accord with the words uttered : of moral lectures which the understanding does not comprehend, or the heart feel ; of endless bodily constraint, intolerable to youthful vivacity, and injurious to the perfection of the human frame. The cottage day may not present so imposing a scene ; no decent uniform ; no well-trimmed locks; no glossy skin; no united response of hundreds of conjoined voices; no lengthened procession, misnamed exercise; but if it has less to strike the eye, it has far more to engage the heart. A trifle in the way of cleanliness must suffice ; the prayer is not forgot ; it is perhaps imperfectly repeated, and confusedly understood : but it is not muttered as a vain sound; it is an earthly parent that tells of an heavenly one; duty, love, obedience, are not words without meaning, when repeated by a mother to a child : to God—the great unknown Being that made all things—all thanks, all praise, all adoration is due. The young religionist may be in some measure bewildered by all this; his notions may be obscure, but his feelings will be roused, and the foundation at least of true piety will be laid.

“Of moral instruction, the child may be taught less at home than at school, but he will be taught better! that is, whatever he is taught he will feel ; he will not have abstract propositions of duty coldly presented to his mind; but precept and practice will be conjoined; what he is told it is right to do will be instantly done. Sometimes the operative principle on the child's mind will be love, sometimes fear, sometimes habitual sense of obedience ; it is always something that will impress, always something that will be rememlered.”

There are two points which we consider as now admitted by all men of sense :-Ist, That the Poor-Laws must be abolished ; 2dly, That they must be very gradually abolished. We hardly think it worth while to throw away pen and ink upon anyone who is still inclined to dispute either of these propositions.

With respect to the gradual abolition, it must be observed that the present redundant population of the country has been entirely produced by the Poor Laws, and nothing could be so grossly unjust as to encourage people to such a vicious multiplication, and then, when you happen to discover your folly, immediately to starve them into anihilation. You have been calling upon your population for two hundred years to beget more children ; furnished them with clothes, food, and houses ; taught them to lay up nothing for matrimony, nothing for children, nothing for age ; but to depend upon justices of the peace for every human want. The folly is now detected; but the people who are the fruit of it remain. It was madness to call them in this manner into existence ; but it would be the height of cold-blooded cruelty to get rid of them by any other than the most gentle and gradual means; and not only would it be cruel, but extremely dangerous, to make the attempt. Insurrections of the most sanguinary and ferocious nature would be the immediate consequence of any very sudden change in the system of the Poor-Laws; not partial, like those which proceed from an impeded or decaying state of manufactures, but as universal as the Poor-Laws themselves, and as ferocious as insurrections always are which are led on by hunger and despair.

These observations may serve as an answer to those angry and impatient gentlemen, who are always crying out, What has the Committee of the House of Commons done ?—What have they to show for their labours ?-Are the rates lessened ?-Are the evils removed ? The Committee of the House of Commons would have shown them. selves to be a set of the most contemptible charlatans, if they had proceeded with any such indecent and perilous haste, or paid the slightest regard to the ignorant folly which required it at their hands. They have very properly begun by collecting all possible information upon the subject; by consulting speculative and practical men; by leaving time for the press to contribute whatever it could of thought or knowledge to the subject; and by introducing measures, the effects of which will be and are intended to be gradual. The Lords seemed at first to have been surprised that the Poor-Laws were not abolished before the end of the first session of Parliament; and accordingly set up a little rival Committee of their own, which did little or nothing, and will not, we believe, be renewed. We are so much less sanguine than those noble legislators, that we shall think the improvement immense, and a subject of very general congratulation, if the Poorrates are perceptibly diminished, and if the system of pauperism is clearly going down in twenty or thirty years hence.

We think, upon the whole, that Government have been fortunate in the selection of the gentleman who is placed at the head of the Committee for the revision of the Poor-Laws; or rather, we should say (for he is a gentleman of very independent fortune), who has consented that he should be placed there. Mr. Sturges Bourne is undoubtedly a man of business, and of very good sense: he has made some mistakes; but, upon the whole, sees the subject as a philosopher and a statesman ought to do. Above all, we are pleased with his good nature and good sense in adhering to his undertaking, after the Parliament has flung out two or three of his favourite bills. Many men would have surrendered so unthankful and laborious an undertaking in disgust; but Mr. Bourne knows better what appertains to his honour and character, and, above all, what he owes to his country, It is a great subject ; and such as will secure to him the gratitude and favour of posterity, if he bring it to a successful issue.

We have stated our opinion, that all remedies, without gradual abolition, are of little importance. With a foundation laid for such gradual abolition, every auxiliary improvement of the Poor-Laws (while they do remain) is worthy the attention of Parliament: and, in suggesting a few alterations as fit to be immediately adopted, we wish it to be understood, that we have in view the gradual destruction of the system, as well as its amendment while it continues to operate.

It seems to us, then, that one of the first and greatest improvements of this unhappy system would be a complete revision of the Law of Settlement. Since Mr. East's Act for preventing the removal of the poor till they are actually chargeable, any man may live where he pleases, till he becomes a beggar, and asks alms of the place where he resides. To gain a settlement, then, is nothing more than to gain a right of begging ; it is not, as it used to be before Mr. East's Act, a power of residing where, in the judgment of the resident, his industry and exertion will be best rewarded; but a power of taxing the industry and exertions of other persons in the place where his settlement falls. This privilege produces all the evil complained of in the Poor-Laws; and instead therefore of being conferred with the liberality and profusion which it is at present, it should be made of very difficult attainment, and liable to the fewest possible changes. The constant policy of our Courts of Justice has been to make settlements easily obtained. Since the period we have before alluded to, this has certainly been a very mistaken policy. It would be a far wiser course to abolish all other means of settlement than those of Birth, Parentage, and Marriage, -not fo limited reason state in the Committee, that it would diminish the law expenses (though that, too, is of importance), but because it would invest fewer residents with the fatal privilege of turning beggars, exempt a greater number of labourers from the moral corruption of the Poor-Laws, and stimulate them to exertion and economy, by the fear of removal if they are extravagant and idle. Of ten men who leave the place of their birth, four, probably, get a settlement by yearly hiring, and four others by renting a small tenement ; while two or three may return to the place of their nativity, and settle there. Now, under the present system, here are eight men settled where they have a right to beg without being removed. The probability is, that they will all beg; and that their virtue will give way to the incessant temptation of the Poor-Laws : but if these men had felt from the very beginning, that removal from the place where they wished most to live would be the sure consequence of their idleness and extravagance, the probability is, that they would have escaped the contagion of pauperism, and been much more useful members of society than they now are. The best labourers in a village are commonly those who are living where they are legally settled, and have therefore no right to ask charity--for the plain reason that they have nothing to depend upon but their own exertions ; in short, for them the Poor-Laws hardly exist ; and they are such as the great mass of English peasantry would be if we had escaped the curse of these laws altogether.

It is incorrect to say that no labourer would settle out of the place of his birth, if the means of acquiring a settlement were so limited. Many men begin the world with strong hope and much confidence in their own fortune, and without any intention of subsisting by charity ; but they see others subsisting in greater ease, without their toil—and their spirit gradually sinks to the meanness of mendicity.

An affecting picture is sometimes drawn of a man falling into want in the decline of life, and compelled to remove from the place where he has spent the greatest part of his days. These things are certainly painful enough to him who has the misfortune to witness them. But they must be taken upon a large scale; and the whole good and evil which they produce diligently weighed and considered. The question, then, will be, whether anything can be more really humane, than to restrain a system which relaxes the sinews of industry, and places the dependence of laborious men upon anything but themselves. We must not think only of the wretched sufferer who is removed, and, at the sight of his misfortunes, call out for fresh facilities to beg. We must remember the industry, the vigour, and the care which the dread of removal has excited, and the number of persons who owe their

« PreviousContinue »