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Tt has been judiciously observed, that the Poor Laws, carried into effect as they now are, contain within themselves the principles of their own destruction, and that of the country. And it has been also observed, that so insufferable are the oppressive, and evidently ruinous consequences of the present practice respecting the poor, that, if not remedied, the whole system will be cried down by clamor.
That such should be the opinions of some of the most intelligent men in the country, and that a sense of regret at the existence of those laws should become every day more generally prevalent, can no longer be matter of surprise. It is, however, highly necessary to obviate the mischief and desolation that would arise upon suffering the hasty abolition of those laws to take place, either from general clamor, or from the ruinous principles inherent in their frame and constitution, or from the corruption which has been progressively introduced in the mode of carrying them into execution. On the general subject, there now remains so little disagreement among our well-informed men, that there is seldom occasion to discuss it in the abstract. "Practical remedies are much more difficult to devise, and admit more shades of difference; and it is truly said, that the axioms of political economy, like those of natural philosophy, can only result from .experience and repeated observation."
Great is the mischief that has arisen from the system of compulsory charity: it destroys the connecting feelings between the several ranks of society, and their mutual dependence on each other; it has ruined the morals of the people, rendered them odious and insolent, and independent of character ; it encourages the worthless and audacious, whilst the poor of real merit often lose the benefit of that charitable assistance, which in this country they would certainly experience, if pity was not suppressed by the feeling of that senseless and extravagant expense incurred by the present system.
A dependence on parochial relief, in all cases as now administered, has lessened the honest exertions of the poor, depraved their morals, and destroyed all notions of a provident spirit. As a charity, it ceases to deserve that name when it furnishes an indiscriminate relief, extending bounty to improper objects, and thereby multiplying their number: as undistinguishing benevolence, it offers a premium to indolence, prodigality, and vice: as inconsiderate pity, it rashly stops that natural course of things, by which want leads to labor, labor to comfort, the knowledge of comfort to industry, and to all those virtues by which the multitude add to the strength and prosperity of a country ; and neglecting that respectable poverty which shrinks from public view, it encourages all those abominable arts which make beggary and parish relief a better trade than labor.
It would have been most happy for this country if the contribution for the poor had continued voluntary, as is the case in every other country in the world, except England.
The provisions of the law for the poor in England and Scotland are nearly coeval, and in principle nearly the same; but the latter prudent and sensible nation has managed far better, and differently, than England, in not admitting the glaring abuses and mismanagement that have prevailed here: they have avoided the impolitic system of compulsory charity, and preferred the continuance of voluntary contributions. It appears, however, in the few instances where they have in a degree followed the bad example of this country, that the same evil effects have been experienced.'
The difference in the results of the management in the two countries is to be ascribed "to the different mode in which relief has been administered, and to the different description of persons in whom the raising, managing, and distributing the parochial funds is respectively vested."
The writer of these observations, who has had forty-eight years' experience in the management of the poor, and, as a magistrate, is fully aware of all the difficulties which have arisen from the abuse of the Poor Laws, and the misconception of their great object; considers all the deviations from the principle of the law of Elizabeth as promoting the mischiefs which now embarrass us.
Originally the maintenance of the poor was principally an ecclesiastical concern; a fourth part of the tithes in every parish was ap
1 See the instance in the county of Selkirk, Commons' Report, p. 153.
propriated for that purpose; and whatever more was necessary to be done, was made up by voluntary contributions. The tithes of many parishes had been bestowed on the monasteries; the relief of the poor consequently devolved on them, and when their dissolution took place, the poor, and other persons who had been maintained by them in idleness, were in a manner deprived of subsistence, and became disorderly; to repress the irregularities of those idle and needy persons, and of the soldiers and mariners who were turned loose after the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the 43d of Elizabeth was enacted.
The preceding acts of Edward VI. and of Elizabeth appointed overseers and persons to make voluntary collections only for the poor.
The law in question, although proved by experience in our times to have been erroneous in principle, cannot be blamed as a matter of expediency under the circumstances which gave rise to it; but a false interpretation, and bad execution of it, have rendered it noxious in the extreme, highly oppressive of the landed interest, and or all occupiers of land, and has crippled the resources of the country.1 It has been so much misconstrued and abused, that it has in a great degree destroyed a provident spirit on the part of the lower ranks, and promoted the neglect of their families and children by suggesting notions that the parish is obliged to maintain, not only their children, but themselves also; thereby leading them to look to other means of subsistence than their own industry. A greater mischief cannot be imagined.
The original law answered all the purposes for which it was intended ; it gave a power to the parish officers to provide for the relief of the lame, blind, old, and impotent, being poor and notable to labor, and to set the idle to work, and also to set to work the children of all those parents who were not thought able to keep and maintain them, and to apprentice them out.
The words, "set the idle to work," have been strangely misconstrued, and considered as making it obligatory on the parish officers to find employment for the people, or to relieve them, which was by no means the intention of the act: it only meant to give a power to the parish officers to oblige or force the idle to work; it was intended as a punishment for vice, and not for the relief of the poor.
1 The tax levied on the country under the name of Poor Rate, previously to the late extraordinary increase, amounted to seven millions sterling, a sum surpassing the whole revenue of the greatest empire, two or three only excepted; and in the current year it issupposed that it will amount fully to ten millions sterling.
It is a great mistake to suppose that the object of what we call the Poor Laws, was merely charity: their object was also the correction of the depravity of the lower ranks, "to check sturdy beggars," and to discourage various abuses.
It seems to be proved that all the deviations from the law of Elizabeth have been for the worse ; and that the nearer we revert to it the better, making such additions as the alteration of the times requires, and, above all, rendering it as much as possible simple, intelligible, and precise in the powers given, and as little liable as may be to be perverted by quibbles.
Full forty years ago the writer of these observations promoted reforms respecting the management of the poor in the extensive parish of Fletching, where he resides; and by a literal adherence to the 43d of Elizabeth, the poor rates were reduced to Is. 6d. in the pound yearly, and they were in progress to be lower, when other avocations called him from home, and the parish gradually was involved in bad management, abuse, and great expense. In 181 2 the poor rate of the same parish, which in 17&9 amounted to 387^. 5 s. 9d. had risen to 2461/. 15s. Id. at 15s. in the pound, on a rental of 3300/., at about three-fourths of the full rental; which alarming increase, the neglect of the poor, and the glaring abuses, occasioned him to make new efforts to establish a workhouse. Finding there was no probability of forming a district house of industry, and taking into consideration the poverty of the parish, and the expense which would fall heavily on the farmers and others who might not continue long residents in it, he undertook to erect a competent building, the present workhouse, for which the parish is charged less than 5/. per cent, on the money expended for that purpose.1
1 He established a parochial workhouse in the place of one of the vilest houses for the reception of the poor that can possibly be conceived: it was called a workhouse, where no work was done; one of the paupers was chief, or manager: there was no order; the poor were in a miserable condition, yet the expense was great, and might have enabled them to live better than the generality of the small farmers. There was no attempt at teaching the children any thing; they were under no control—the building was a ruin. He made a considerable addition to a farm-house, and formed it into a regular workhouse for the reception of old persons and others incapable of labor, and for upwards of 50 children. An intelligent governor and matron were placed at the head of this establishment; the rules and regulations, when strictly attended to, ensure economy and good discipline. There being no law which justifies the relieving of families on account of a number of children, those children which the parents neglected, and declared they could not maintain, are taken into the workhouse, where they are properly fed, clothed, and well educated, and remarkably healthy: they are employed in various ways, principally in knitting, spinning, and weaving; and they now chiefly supply the workhouse with linen, sheeting, clothing, and
In the year ending Easter 1810, the poor rate ha l fallen to 1615/. 14s. on the same rental; which diminution of expenditure, notwithstanding a considerable occasional expense incurred by the new establishment, and in the last two years by the repairs of the church, is imputed entirely to a strict adherence, as far as was practicable, to the spiritand letter of the law of Elizabeth, by which much less was left to the random management of vestries and parish officers, ignorant of law, who conceived that the extravagant abuses generally practised were become law, or superseded the law.
In 1816 the expenditure on account of the poor was likely to have decreased still farther; but an opposition in vestry having at that time counteracted the execution of the preceding regulations,1 it increased within the year upwards of 1000/.; viz. to 2623/. We may observe, that since the commencement of the last war, the parliamentary taxation of the country has more than quadrupled, and the parochial assessments, including poor rates, tithes, highway, county, &c. have increased still more enormously, partly resulting from the new burdens thrown upon the parishes, but still more from the abuses, misinterpretation of, and departure from, the principle and letter of the Poor Laws, as originally instituted.
There seems to be a general agreement, and it must be obvious to every individual who has attentively observed the rise and progress of our difficulties, that the present management of the poor is a disgrace to the policy and political economy of the country; it is abominable, and must not be tolerated longer. In many parishes the amount of the poor rate has been so oppressive, as to make the collecting of it almost impossible, and in severaliustances, absolutely impossible; and the enforcing of it has added to the number of paupers no inconsiderable proportion of the smaller tenantry, me
stockings. Possibly the several articles might be purchased fully as cheap; but work is thus furnished according to the abilities of the poor, and their children are brought up to such trades or manufactures as may be useful to them wherever they may reside. When they are of a proper age, and whenever there is an opportunity, the children ought to be apprenticed or put out to service. At the same time that the poor are thus infinitel) better taken care of, the expense is greatly diminished. His principal object in establishing this workhouse was not to maintain the poor who were capable of labor, but to instruct and bring their children up in such habits as would enable them to maintain themselves.
'Most.of the respectable persons, and others of the parish, were so disgusted with the proceedings, and disgraceful language and conduct which prevailed among a set of low ignorant persons in vestry, several of whom were little above the condition of paupers, that they declined attendance: and the highly respectable and exemplary curate was so ill treated, that, to the great prejudice of the parish, he quitted it.