[-225-] CHAPTER VII.
Inmates of Workhouses—The Republican character of the communities in
Workhouses—Difficulty of obtaining accurate statistics regarding
them—Marylebone Workhouse—Its size and statistics—Statements and
calculations as to Metropolitan Workhouses generally—Farming out
paupers—The horror generally entertained of the Workhouse—Description of a
particular case, illustrative of the fact—The romantic incidents in the life
of many inmates—The New Poor-Law Bill—Its harshness and injustice to the
THE workhouses of the metropolis are institutions which are rife with materials for a work whose principal object is to sketch life and society in London. In them are to be seen every variety of human character—good, had, and indifferent. In the workhouses, also, are always to be found people of every clime: they are refuges for the destitute and the indolent of all nations. Nor ought I to omit to mention, that though the inmates of workhouses are, when once there, on precisely the same level in reference to pecuniary circumstances, yet, in the previous condition of those inmates there was as great a variety as there is in the condition of those you will meet in the public streets. Persons who once moved in the highest spheres of society are there, and so are individuals who occupied every intermediate station down to the lowest. As regards their past history, the inmates of the metropolitan workhouses are as promiscuous an assemblage as it were possible to get together. Adversity, says the adage, makes us acquainted with strange bed-fellows. Well may many of the inmates of workhouses say this. Those who were born in the splendid mansion are there reduced to the same level as those who first drew their breath in the most wretched hovel. He who rolled in wealth and luxury, is there on a footing of perfect equality with the poor wretch who had all his life long to struggle with the demon of poverty in its most repulsive aspect. I have often thought that the workhouse might, in one sense, be very fitly compared to the grim messenger whom all dread, and with whom all will sooner or later have to grapple. Like death, the workhouse is a fell [-226-] destroyer: it lays the axe at the root of all the conventional differences which exist in society. It is, in this respect, the prince of destructives: it levels all distinctions. The inmates of the workhouse are a republican community on a small scale. This is of necessity the case, from the very constitution of these places. But on this topic I need not make further observations at present, as many of my remarks and statements, in the course of the chapter, will incidentally if not directly afford a further illustration of it.
The changes consequent on the introduction of the New Poor Law Bill have been so great in the metropolis, that it is not in my power to present my readers with that fullness and accuracy of statistical information respecting the workhouses, which I could have wished to give. The workhouse system, owing to the New Poor Law Bill, may, indeed, still be said to be in a state of transition; and it will be so for some years to come. New unions of parishes are constantly being formed, and other changes taking place; so that the statistics of the workhouses for one month would not be the statistics of those places in the month following. I shall, however, be able to make some statements of a statistical kind which may be regarded as, at least, approximating to the truth. I shall be enabled to do this by availing myself of the accurate and copious information which was lately furnished me when on a visit to Marylebone Workhouse. I have also visited other workhouses, but prefer singling out that of the parish of Marylebone for my statements, because it is by far the largest, and, in every respect, the most important workhouse in London. It is a building of very great size: it is not only the largest in the metropolis, but the largest in the kingdom. It is capable of containing nearly 2000 inmates. No fewer than 1600 have been in it at one time. Of course, the number of inmates varies according to circumstances. Want of trade, a bad harvest, the high price of provisions, a long continuance of inclement weather, and other causes, compel paupers to seek refuge in the workhouse, who, but for those causes, would have struggled on with the ills of poverty out of doors. The average number of inmates in Marylebone Workhouse, for some months past, has been 1200. The number of adults in the workhouse, at the close of last year, was 808: of whom 272 were men; the remaining 536 were women. The number of children was 410; of whom 242 were boys, and 168 girls. Each pauper costs the parish 3s. 6d. per week: this applies to those who are in health. In the infirmary, each pauper costs within a fraction of 6s. 6d. per week, including wine and other expensive medicines. The entire weekly expenses of the Workhouse exceed 1000l.; making the yearly cost to the parish about [-227-] 55,000l. But it must be borne in mind, that the entire expenses of the establishment are not confined to within doors. The parish not being under the jurisdiction of the New Poor Law Commissioners, gives a great deal of out-door relief. On an average, the number of persons receiving out-door relief is about 2000. In times of great pressure, whether from the inclemency of the season, the want of employment, or had harvests, the number greatly increases: some years ago it was as high as 8000. So large a number of persons are never, however, likely to be again dependent on the compulsory support of the rate-payers. At the period to which I refer, there was a gross mismanagement of parochial affairs. In proof of this, I may on, at when an inquiry was instituted into the circumstances of the out-door pensioners on the parish bounty, a very large majority of them had no claim whatever to parochial relief, being all in the way of earning, or having it in their power to earn, a competent subsistence for themselves. One woman was found to have had four laundresses in her employ for several years, during which she had been regularly receiving a weekly allowance from the parish. In proof of the abuses that then obtained in the administration of the poor laws, I may here mention, that one of the guardians communicated to me a few weeks since, the singular fact, that out of fifty persons summoned, in one instance, to appear before the guardians to state on what grounds their claims to parochial relief rested, only one appeared m answer to the summons. The amount of out-door relief varies, according the circumstances of the parties, from one ‘shilling and a loaf per week, to three shillings and sixpence.
As might be expected, there is a vast consumption of bread in the workhouse. The average quantity is six hundred-weight per day. The paupers are allowed three meat dinners a week. The average quantity of butchers’ meat consumed per week is about 240 stone, or 3840 pounds.
The establishment is divided into two departments. The healthy department is called the workhouse: the department for the sick is called the infirmary. The lunatic paupers are not kept in the workhouse, but are farmed out. The following was the classification in the half year ending in last December
IN THE WORKHOUSE.
IN THE INFIRMARY.
[-228-] Total in the house - 1218
Casual out-door poor - 1258
Permanent ditto - 604
Illegitimate ditto - 51
Lunatics - 72
*Total average number retrieved weekly 3203 (* Shewing an increase of 113, as compared with the corresponding period of 1836.)
The number of paupers in Marylebone, including those receiving permanent out-door relief, is, to the entire population of the parish, as 1 to 50. Now, taking the population of London at 2,000,000, which is supposed to be the actual number, and assuming that the number of paupers in the metropolis bears the same proportion to the aggregate population as the paupers in Marylebone do to the entire inhabitants, that would give the number of paupers in London at 40,000. But, Marylebone is one of the wealthiest and most aristocratic parishes in the metropolis; the -number of paupers there is not so great in proportion to the aggregate population as in most of the other parishes, with perhaps one or two exceptions. I am confident that, to the above number of 40,000, we may safely add at least 15,000 more, making the entire number of paupers in the metropolis, dependent on parish support, 55,000. The total amount, therefore, assuming that the average cost of paupers is the same as in the Marylebone workhouse, which is annually expended in the compulsory maintenance of the pauper population of London, would be about 550,000l., or upwards of half a million.
Some of the parishes in the City, and in Southwark, “farm out” their paupers at so much per head per week. They are taken into the keeping of persons in the neighbourhood, who speculate in them just as some individuals do in providing black cattle and horses with “keep” for whatever period may be agreed on. The parties who engage to provide these paupers with food, clothing, and lodging, at the small sum—generally about four shillings per head a-week—agreed on, make, as a matter of course, the most they can of them, by causing those of them who can work, to do whatever they are most adapted for. Some of them make the workhouse clothes for the men and the boys; others make and mend shoes; others, again, prepare hair for upholstery articles; while the cooking, washing, cleaning, &c. of the workhouse, are all performed by paupers chosen for the purpose. The same principle of making all work who can, is, I believe, adopted in all the metropolitan workhouses. In Marylebone workhouse, the principle is practically carried into effect [-229-] in a manner which is pleasing to witness. In that establishment, indeed, everything appears to be conducted in a most judicious manner. And here I am constrained to say, that, of all the workhouses which I have seen, the arrangements in that of Marylebone seem to me to be better than in any other. While the strictest economy is practised the utmost attention is paid to the comforts of the inmates. They appear to me, taken altogether, to be the happiest inmates I have ever seen in a workhouse. Under any circumstances, the workhouse is a place of misery to a sensitive and high-principled mind; but the horrors of the place can be very materially lessened by kind and humane treatment.
In Marylebone workhouse, and in most other workhouses of any note, there is a chapel in which divine service is performed, agreeably to the forms. of the Church, every sabbath-day. In the former workhouse there is also an infant school, which is conducted by judicious teachers. It were highly desirable that a similar institution existed in every workhouse in the land. I regard the idea of infant schools as one of the happiest discoveries which have been made in modern times. Of nothing am I more thoroughly convinced than this, that if generally adopted, they would soon exercise a most salutary influence on the condition of mankind.
The horror with which a sensitive mind regards a workhouse, is a point which I shall afterwards have occasion to illustrate by a reference to particular cases. This sensibility is not confined to those who have been at one time in affluent or easy circumstances; though, as might be expected, it is most generally felt by them. It is gratifying to be able to state, that it obtains to a very considerable extent among the working classes; and that it causes them to submit to the greatest privations rather than submit themselves to the degradation of crossing the threshold of a workhouse. From circumstances which have come under my own personal observation, I am convinced that there are hundreds of our mechanics and working men who perish every year of absolute want, from their extreme horror of the workhouse. The feeling is one which reflects the highest honour on the artizans of the metropolis, though it is to be regretted that it should be pushed to such an extent as this.
It were impossible for a man of an observant anti reflective mind, to visit the different departments of a workhouse, without indulging in a train of serious thoughts. He could not help contrasting in his own mind the present with the past circumstances of a large proportion of the inmates. He sees numbers around him who, twenty or thirty years ago, surrendered themselves to the pleasing hope that, instead of closing their lives in [-230-] a workhouse, they would live and die in the possession of every earthly comfort, if not in splendour; and that, instead of being, in one sense, outcasts from society, without a single friend to console and soothe their minds with the whispers of sympathy, they would, in their declining years, be surrounded by near and dear relations. The lineaments of grief, disappointment, and self-humiliation, are visible on their faces: a solitary smile does not play on their countenances from the commencement to the close of the year. What revelations could some of the metropolitan workhouses make, of frustrated hopes, and of sudden and unhooked-for reverses! Who can tell the number of broken hearts in those places! Those only who have experienced the thing, can form any conception of the agony endured by those who formerly rolled in wealth and luxury, but who are now dependent on the compulsory contributions of a parish, when they look back on their more prosperous days. So far from wondering that the contemplation of what such persons were gives, in many cases, a shock to their minds which produces a settled melancholy, it is only a matter for surprise that it does not unhinge altogether the minds of a large proportion of them. In most other cases, the pleasing delusion of hope comes to the aid of persons suffering reverses of fortune; they flatter themselves with the hope that, amid life’s varied vicissitudes, they will be one day restored to the circumstances and to the station in society, in which they formerly were; and this sustains and cheers their minds. But few indeed, and far between, are the instances in which persons of the former class enter a workhouse with the hope of ever again quitting it. Nothing but the direst necessity has compelled them to take refuge in these places: it is only when all their friends—those, I mean, who in their better days were called by the name—have deserted them, and when they see absolute starvation staring them in the face, that such individuals have been induced to submit to the alternative of seeking an asylum in a workhouse. And once in, the idea of again coming out, until they are carried out in their coffins, never for a moment enters their mind. When they cross the gate of the workhouse, they look on themselves as having entered a great prison, from which death only will release them. The sentient creations of Dante’s fancy saw inscribed over the gate of a nameless place the horrific inscription,
“All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
In like manner, the imaginations of the class of persons to whom I allude, see an admonition in the very circumstance of crossing the threshold of a workhouse, that they are never again to return to the world. By many of the inmates, the workhouse is re-[-231-]garded as a sort of sepulchre in which they are entombed alive. It is assuredly the grave of all their earthly hopes. It is the grave, too, if there be propriety in the expression, of their hearts. Many a broken heart, as just hinted, is there. Could one but explore the minds of the inmates, he would be appalled at the discoveries he would make.
The difference which obtains in the constitutional temperaments of different individuals, is strikingly displayed in the cases of the inmates of workhouses. There are many of those who once were Fortune’s favourites, who, in being compelled to seek an asylum in one of these places, resign themselves to utter despair. They regard themselves as entirely out of the world, and as placed beyond the pale of society, as well as beyond the reach of sympathy. They see and hear their fellows in adversity, but they never bestow a thought on them. They are as much wrapt up in their own thoughts as if they were in the midst of the greatest solitude to be found on the face of the earth. They brood over their own misfortunes to the exclusion of everything else: their hard destiny preys incessantly on their minds, and you see their thoughts visibly impressed on their dark and desponding countenances. They associate with no one; they never speak, save when an unavoidable necessity is imposed upon them. Others, again, act on the principle of making a virtue of necessity; they labour to discipline their minds into submission to a fate which they cannot avert. They speak to those around them, and eagerly grasp at anything which is likely to divert their minds from unavailing regrets at their unhappy destiny. Of the latter description of inmates of workhouses, there are two classes. Besides those whose constitutional temperament is of that happy nature which leads them to extract sunshine from the darkest and gloomiest circumstances in which they can be placed, there are others whose spirits are sustained by the consolations of Christianity. They are reconciled to their condition from the pleasing conviction that it is to them a dispensation of Divine Providence, which is intended and calculated to promote their everlasting happiness in another and better world. The hopes of a happy state beyond the confines of this earth, which their religion inspires, support their minds under their accumulated adversities; and would support them, were those adversities ten times greater. I have often thought that there is not, perhaps, in the earth, a place in which the happy tendency of Christianity, even as relates to the present world, is more remarkably exhibited than in a workhouse. There, as before intimated, and as I shall afterwards have to show, all the inmates are on the same footing, as regards the present life; so that the comparative advantages of Christianity and Deism are [-232-] clearly shown. The nature of this work forbids my entering on this subject in a formal manner; but I may be permitted to say, that Deism can no more be compared to Christianity, in the tendencies of the respective systems, than darkness can be to light, as regards the emotions they inspire in the mind.
The feelings are different with which different persons enter the workhouse. They are so in the case of those who have, at some previous period of their lives, been in easy or affluent circumstances. Of the lower classes—those, I mean, who have been cradled in poverty, and been all their lives steeped to the very ears in it—it can scarcely be necessary to say that, speaking of them as a body, they are altogether callous as to the degradation of becoming a workhouse inhabitant. With them, their entrance, or their remaining without, is never a matter of moral feeling: it is altogether a question of animal comforts. But with those who, as the homely phrase has it, have seen better days, there is, in this respect, a marked difference. The long series of previous privations and degradations they have endured, do in some cases so blunt the feelings, that minds which but a few years before were so excessively sensitive, that they would a thousand times sooner have suffered martyrdom, are divested of all sense of shame on their entering the workhouse. In the cases of others, again, no amount of privations or hardships can deaden their more refined susceptibilities; and they enter the place with a reluctance and abhorrence which nothing but the direst necessity could overcome. They would prefer death, did it come to them in the usual course of things. The mental struggles which they have undergone, before they could bring themselves to submit to becoming inmates of these places, are matters of which those who have not experienced those struggles can form no Conception.
It were impossible to describe the feelings of a person, whose sensitiveness continued to the last, and who was once in affluent circumstances, and accustomed to the luxuries of life, on his first entrance into a workhouse. The observation applies in a special sense to a female, feminine minds being, in most cases, peculiarly sensitive in such matters. Not long since a woman, at the age of sixty, who had, about five years previously, kept her carriage, and otherwise lived in great splendour, was so reduced in circumstances as to be obliged to take refuge in a metropolitan workhouse; and gave, in a letter to a friend, a very vivid picture of what passed in her mind as she entered the place. The first reflection that overpowered her was, that she was now entirely dependent on the forced contributions of others for the means of subsistence. So long as she lived in a room by herself, miserable though the hovel was, the bounty of those who remem-[-233-]bered her in her altered circumstances was bestowed in that delicate manner which every generous mind would suggest as due to one who had but lately been so differently situated. The gifts, too, of the few friends that still stood true to her, were accompanied with expressions and proofs of sympathy with the unfortunate woman, which operated as a balm to her mind amidst all her wretchedness. But when she crossed the threshold of the workhouse-gate, she felt as if she were an outcast from the world: the heart-harrowing conviction took possession of her mind, that she must never again expect to hear the whisper of sympathy, nor see the hand of friendship extended to administer to her wants. She felt that she was now dependent on alms which were extorted by the law from the pockets of those who neither knew nor cared anything about her. To a sensitive mind, there is an infinite difference between the spontaneous benevolence of acquaintances, and the compulsory charity, if charity it may be called, of strangers. This unfortunate woman now felt degraded in her own estimation to an extent of which she had no conception before. Still she was so situated, that refuge in a workhouse was the only resource left her, if she would not literally perish from want of the necessaries of life. What also shocked her beyond expression, and made the poor creature almost literally sink under the weight of her misfortunes, was the sight of those miserable, and in many instances depraved beings, with whom she was destined to associate. The thought of the society in which she had been accustomed to move, took possession of her mind with a tenfold greater force than it had ever done before, as she beheld the poor wretches crawling about in all the abjectness and degradation of their situation. But what proved the crowning shock to her feelings, and sunk her to the lowest depths of self-degradation, was the circumstance of her being obliged to put on the workhouse-dress. On this she dwelt with a peculiar emphasis. Had she committed the most atrocious crime within the range of possibility, she could not have loathed or despised herself more thoroughly. From that moment she felt so utterly lost to the world, so ashamed of herself and her situation, that even had Fortune, in one of those caprices by which the disposal of her gifts is so often characterised, restored her, in point of pecuniary circumstances, to the condition in which she had been placed in her most affluent days, she would scarcely have been thankful for it. She felt that she could no longer, even had she been the wealthiest lady in the land, hold up her head in society; and that so far from associating with her former acquaintances, she could hardly look a stranger in the face. Milton represents his fallen angel as having sunk so deeply in the mire of depravity, that, apostro-[-234-]phising evil, he says, “Evil, be thou my good !“ It was the same with this unfortunate lady. She now felt as if in comparative love with her degraded condition. The gifts of fortune, had they been again bestowed upon her, she would have regarded as positive evils. In the workhouse she now wished to live; in the workhouse she now wished to die.
The workhouses of London abound with the romance of real life. I have often wondered that none of our novel writers have ever thought of singling out their heroes or heroines from among their inmates. There are persons of both sexes there, whose lives would afford incidents of the most striking nature for a work of fiction, and which, if skilfully managed, could not fall to make one of the most attractive works of the kind, of modern times. Innumerable cases would be found which prove that truth is not only strange, but stranger than fiction.
Many romantic cases of this kind have been communicated to me; but in a work of this nature there is no space for relating them with any effect. All I can do is merely to relate two or three of the more prominent features of a few of them. Not long since, in the workhouse of the parish in which I live, one of the most central parishes in London, there was a female whose life had been full of romantic incidents. She was well educated, was brought up as a lady, and possessed great personal attractions. Circumstances threw her in the way of a late Turkish ambassador. He first seduced her, and afterwards took her under his protection. For some years, she lived with him in the greatest splendour, in the West-end, being treated in every respect by him as if she had been his lawful wife. And so devotedly attached was he to the young lady, that he had formed the resolution of taking her with him into Turkey. He partially executed the resolution; he took her with him, on his way home, as far as Malta; but something there occurred to cause him to abandon his intention. I have heard it said, that it was an apprehension of serious inconveniences to himself from his countrymen seeing a European female living in his house. Be this as it may, he abruptly broke off all connection with his victim at Malta, and she returned to this country. For some time afterwards, she took to the pave; but circumstances soon compelled her to relinquish that mode of life. The next expedient to which she resorted, to obtain the means of subsistence, was betaking herself to the selling of apples and other fruit in the streets. For some time she was to be seen in the neighbourhood of Covent-garden, with a fruit-basket before her, where her beauty and appearance generally struck every one who passed her. That resource also failed her; and after several other ineffectual efforts to procure the means of subsistence, she threw herself on [-235-] the parish in which she had a right of settlement, and was taken into the workhouse, where she soon afterwards died. The vicissitudes in this young woman’s history were not only striking, but they followed each other with a rapidity seldom heard of, even in the pages of romance.
Some years ago, the workhouse in Shoreditch parish contained one inmate, whose history afforded a series of striking incidents in his descent from affluence to poverty. I do not now recollect his name, but the story is well known to many persons in the City-road and its neighbourhood. In addition to a moderate fortune which he inherited from his father, he had the singular luck to get two successive prizes of 30,000l. each, in the then government lotteries; which having been purchased at Bish’s “Lucky Corner,” were duly trumpeted forth by Mr. Bish in the public newspapers of the day. So long as he possessed only a competency, he conducted himself with great propriety, and carefully abstained from anything in the shape of speculation. The sudden accession of fortune, however, at once turned his head. Forthwith he started his carriage-and-four: in that, perhaps, there would not have been much harm, as the interest of his money would have enabled him to support the expense, if not addicted to extravagance in other departments of his domestic establishment. But contemporaneously with his determination to sport a splendid equipage, he was seized with the spirit of speculation. He purchased a large property in the City-road, and expended a vast sum in improving it. He entered into other foolish transactions, of a commercial nature; between which, and the general habits of extravagance he had contracted in his mode of living, he was in a few years reduced to beggary. I do not mean beggary in a figurative, but in a literal sense. And singularly enough, he chose as the scene of his mendicancy the immediate vicinity of the property in the City-road, on which he had expended so much money. There he was to be seen, day after day, for some years after, leaning against a wall, with his hat in hand, to receive the charitable contributions of the passers-by. For a time, the singularity of the circumstances which attended his appearance in the character of a beggar, procured him as much aid from the benevolent as was sufficient to support existence; but the growing infirmities of age, aggravated by a depression of spirits consequent on the sudden and extensive reverse which had taken place in his pecuniary circumstances, eventually rendered him physically incapable of appearing in the streets; and as the only resource against starvation from actual want, he was compelled to seek refuge in Shoreditch workhouse. There he brooded over the vicissitudes of the latter part of his life, for a year or two, and then died.
[-236-] The annals of the workhouses in the City abound with cases of sudden descents from princely affluence to utter destitution. There, such occurrences are not so much calculated to excite our surprise, or even our sympathy; because we look on it as being in the nature of things, that men engaged in extensive transactions should sometimes ruin themselves, as well as at other times make splendid fortunes. In one of the workhouses, not far from Guildhall, there was lately an inmate whose admission occurred under circumstances of unusual interest. His mind recoiled at the bare idea of being dependent on parish relief; but the necessities of his case were so great, that there was no alternative between his throwing himself on the parish and his dying of want. But the thing which drew attention in a particular manner to his case, was his appearance before the magistrates at an adjoining office, on a charge which I forget, but which very likely was that of being found sleeping in the streets, and his then showing their worships documents which proved beyond all doubt that some years before he was worth no less a sum than 500,000l. He had lost his money, and been reduced to beggary, under peculiar circumstances. He had been for many years a member of the Stock Exchange, and had, by a long series of successful speculations in the funds, amassed the above sum. He had previously formed a resolution, that if he should ever be worth half a million, he would purchase an estate, and retire from the City and its business. To a certain extent he adhered to his resolution. He adhered to it thus far, that he did formally quit the Stock Exchange, and entered into a negotiation for the purchase of an estate some miles from London, which, had the purchase been completed, would have doubtless caused him to settle down as a country gentleman for the remainder of his life. I do not recollect what was the sum asked for the estate, but it exceeded 150,000l., and he offered within 5000l. of the price put upon it. The seller would not accept the offer; probably he would have compromised the matter by taking half the difference, but the other refused to advance one shilling on the sum he had offered. The negotiation was accordingly broken off; another purchaser was soon found, who gave the price asked by the seller; and the person to whom I allude returned to the Stock Exchange with the view of doing, as he thought, a moderate and safe business, until some other eligible estate should be in the market. For a short time he did do a moderate and safe business; but an opportunity of doubling his fortune, as he supposed, having presented itself; he embarked the whole of his capital in a speculation, and before six months elapsed, he was without a shilling in the world.
The cases I have just given, relate only to individuals who had [-237-] to ascribe their reverses of fortune to their extravagant modes of living, to unsuccessful speculations, or to circumstances over which they had no control. Let me now glance at a case of a truly romantic nature; one ‘which, had the details of it appeared in a work of fiction, would be at once pronounced as an outrage on all probability. I forbear to mention names, because the principal party, so far as I am aware, is still alive. Of this I am certain, that many of her nearest relations—for I refer to a young lady—are not only still alive, but occupying a prominent place in the public eye. The lady, indeed, to whom I refer, belongs to a noble famlly: she is the niece of a peer of the realm. She not only received a first-rate education, but was brought up in every respect as became a member of the aristocracy. She had, however, no fortune, but was dependent on her relations— her father and mother being dead—for the station she occupied in society. She was not distinguished for her personal charms, but she possessed great accomplishments and agreeable manners. She was always remarkable, even in her more juvenile days, for a certain waywardness and caprice of disposition, which no admonition or discipline could correct. Some years ago, just as her thirtieth summer had passed over her head, accident introduced her to a gentleman possessed of the princely fortune of 150,000l. He had just arrived in England from abroad, and only intended to make a temporary stay in England. He was at once struck with what appeared to him the young lady’s charms, and being obliged to quit the country soon, had no time to go through the formalities of a protracted courtship. He accordingly embraced the earliest opportunity which presented itself of intimating to the relation in whose house the lady resided, and who was, in point of fact, though not in law, her guardian, the favourable impression she had made on him,—accompanying the intimation with a hint which could not he misunderstood, that if the proposition were likely to meet with her own and her relations’ concurrence, he should lose no time in formally proposing to her. His hopes of receiving her hand were encouraged by her relatives, and he was invited to meet her again on an early day at the house in which she resided. In the interim, what had passed between them and the opulent aspirant after her affections and her hand, was duly communicated to her. The circumstance of being united to a gentleman of so large a fortune, and thus having it in her power to make so splendid an appearance in society as the mistress of a house, was duly impressed on her. The lady appeared as if she were fully convinced of the advantages of the union, without any one pointing them out to her, or expatiating on them. She, in short, left her relatives no reason to doubt that she was as ready to accept the [-238-] proposals of her lover, as he was to make them. They were delighted at the thought; not only from friendship to her, but because it would be relieving themselves of a burden. The time for the appointed meeting arrived, and the parties were left together. The gentleman proposed; the lady blushed, and was silent. Silence in such matters is proverbially consent. The gentleman viewed it in this light; but, to make assurance doubly sure, pressed for a still more unequivocal affirmative answer. The lady blushed yet more deeply. He repeated his request; and the lady, as a positive proof that she acceded to it, courteously extended to him her hand. He was happy; so, to all appearance, putting out of view the tremor of the moment, was she. The day for the celebration of their nuptials arrived; and “the match” became the subject of conversation among all the lady’s acquaintances. Many an heiress of noble birth envied the good fortune of the portionless Miss —. They wished themselves in her place. The preparations for the marriage ceremony were made on a scale of the utmost splendour. A handsome sum was placed in the lady’s hands by her lover, to provide herself with the bridal robes. Everything went smoothly on: the more the lover saw of the young lady, the more was he delighted with her; and the more heartily did he congratulate himself on what he regarded as his good fortune. The marriage morn arrived; and there was not a happier man in Christendom. His love had by this time become a positive passion; and he was literally “dying,” as the phrase is in fashionable life, to clasp the object of his affections to his bosom in the character of his wife. Not less delighted was she, to all appearance, at the prospect of so soon exchanging the condition of a maid for that of a wife. The hour appointed for the performance of the marriage ceremony. arrived: several coaches-and-four appeared at the church door, while the white favours which floated on the horses’ and the servants’ heads told the passer-by of what was about to take place. The clergyman was in his place, and the bride and bridegroom stood before the altar. The reverend gentleman commenced the marriage ceremony, and everything proceeded in the usual way, until he came to that part of the service which requires the bride audibly to express her willingness to be the wife of the bridegroom. The question was put in the usual way: the lady returned no answer. Her silence was supposed to be the effect of overpowered feelings, in some measure natural to the situation in which she stood. The question was repeated: still no answer. It was put a third time, when, to the utter surprise and confusion of all present, the lady emphatically and distinctly answered, “No !” and then rushed out of the church, entered her carriage, and drove home, leaving the bridegroom and the friends of both [-239-] to their own reflections on the extraordinary occurrence which bad taken place. To describe their amazement were impossible. The affair so utterly confounded them, and appeared so inexplicable, that not one of them could even venture a conjecture as to the cause of so singular a proceeding. The lady’s friends, when somewhat recovered from the effects of so unexpected an event, begged her to make the amende by proceeding again forthwith to the hymeneal altar: the bridegroom would have been satisfied with this; but she peremptorily refused. She was then implored to see the bridegroom, in order that, if she had any valid reason for the extraordinary step she had taken, she might state it to him, for her own and her relations’ sake: she was inexorable. Last of all, she was asked to state to her relatives the causes which induced her to adopt so unheard-of a course: she declined to utter a word on the subject. In a short time thereafter the bridegroom quitted the country, inexpressibly mortified as well as disappointed at what had occurred. He, if I mistake not, died within three years of the “untoward event ;“ and she, being disowned by her relatives, in consequence of the improper course she had pursued, was, within the same period of time, an inmate in a west-end workhouse. There she continued for upwards of twelve months, when she was, at the expense of the parish, passed, at her own request, to Dublin, of which place she was a native. She never, so far as I have heard, has, up to this moment, assigned any reason for her singular refusal at the altar to become the wife of him who led her to that altar. The thing must have been the effect of caprice; it is a caprice for which she has suffered, and most probably is still suffering, a most severe punishment. A more rapid descent from the highest to the lowest station of life, or one which has happened under more romantic circumstances, has perhaps seldom occurred.
The annals of most of the workhouses in the West-end abound with the records of equally great and nearly as sudden reverses of fortune, though not, perhaps, attended with such romantic circumstances as the case I have just given. One of the guardians of the workhouse of Marylebone lately mentioned, in my hearing, at a vestry meeting, that some time previously there were no fewer than four individuals in that workhouse, all of whom, six or seven years before their entrance, kept their carriages. Of cases of this nature, in the workhouse in question, I
will only refer to one; the case, namely, of a man who a few years previous to his application for admission, was worth no less a sum than 100,000l. There was something peculiarly interest ing in his case. He was a gentleman of the highest moral principle: his strict integrity was the admiration of all who had any [-240-] transactions with him. His habits were not expensive : being unmarried, he had not to keep up a large establishment; neither had he any relations dependent on him for support. In what way, then, it will be asked, did he lose, and so speedily, so large a fortune? By the same way as many others, equally rich at one time, have eventually involved themselves in ruin. The spirit of speculation was the cause of all his reverses. His propensity that way was irresistible and uncontrollable. His mind was constantly erecting castles in the air: there was scarcely a day in which he did not devise some new scheme, or embark in schemes devised by others, by which he made sure of realising thousands. Foolish as all this may appear, it is nevertheless quite intelligible in the case of a man who is constitutionally of a sanguine
mental temperament. But what appears surprising is, that after finding that he was losing money by every successive project in which he engaged, he did not desist, and thus avert his entire ruin. No: the lessons of experience were lost upon him. His failure in half a dozen speculations was no reason why he should not succeed in the seventh. The event proves that his calculations are wrong in the seventh also: he admits the fact, for his pocket told him there was no denying it: but why, nevertheless, should not the eighth speculation prove sufficiently fortunate to do more than counterbalance all his losses on the previous seven unsuccessful ones? He soon finds that, instead of retrieving the portion of his fortune which he had lost, his last speculation proved the worst of all. The ninth time he makes a still deeper plunge; he risks nearly all that remains; and that all is lost.
In a word, he went on with one speculation after another, until he had speculated away the last shilling he had in the world,— just as gamblers at cards or the dice, become more venturesome and more eager for play, in proportion to the amount of their losses. Friends, for a time, felt, or affected to feel, for him; but their sympathy, if sympathy it really was, never extracted a shilling from their pockets to assist him. He made every effort to obtain such employment as he was adapted for: in that he failed. For months he struggled with. all the horrors of want: at last he found himself unequal to the conflict: he felt that if he attempted to standout much longer, he must perish in the effort. He capitulated: he submitted to a destiny which no resources of his own could control, and sought for an asylum from a world in which he had been so unfortunate, in the workhouse of Marylebone, where he died a very short time since.
The world is full of illustrations of the remark, that as one individual falls, another rises. Two persons may be next-door neighbours, or be frequently brought into close contact together, —the one is rolling in wealth, the other has difficulty in pro-[-241-]curing the necessaries of life: in twenty, fifteen, or even a dozen years, their pecuniary circumstances and position in society are completely reversed. The rich and influential individual is reduced to the very lowest depths of poverty, and of insignificance in the social scale, while the poor man is raised to affluence and importance among his fellow inch. Not many months since, a remarkable illustration of what I have stated occurred in a West-end workhouse, which for particular reasons I forbear to name. A gentleman, now one of the leading men—I should say, indeed, the leading man—in a large and aristocratic parish, had, about twenty years ago, though well educated, but slender means to live on, like many other intelligent men. He was acquainted with a lady residing in the same country town as himself, who was immensely rich, and was the most distinguished of her sex among the fashionables of the place. He quitted his native town for the metropolis, where, through his talents and perseverance, he eventually raised himself to an influential position in society, and at the same time acquired a handsome independency. He was chosen one of the guardians of the poor in the parish to which I refer. He had not been in his new office for any lengthened period, when, among the names of applicants for admission to the workhouse, he found one which, as it was a very peculiar name, attracted his attention. The only person bearing that name he had ever known, was the lady to whom I have alluded. His curiosity being excited, he desired to see the particular applicant. She was brought to him, and was none other than the lady whom, but twenty years previously, he had known living in all the splendour and luxury which the world could afford. She recognised him at once: the interview, as may well be supposed, was one of an affecting nature to both parties. The gentleman felt deeply for the reverse of fortune. which had befallen the lady; while her mind was overpowered at the thought of thus unexpectedly meeting with one whom she formerly knew when in circumstances so materially different. The emotions of surprise and confusion caused by the unexpected meeting, and under such peculiar circumstances, having in some degree subsided, the unfortunate lady entered into a statement of the way in which her reverses had been brought about. That statement was very brief: her tale of misfortune was soon told. Shortly after Mr. A. had left his native place, she came to town and took a large house in the West-end. Her income had been solely derived from West-India property: that property, some years since, became most seriously depreciated in value. She was obliged to borrow money on the security of her estate: the. money was only lent for a limited time: the property meanwhile daily diminished in value. At length, the period for which the [-242-] loan was granted, expired; and she being unable to repay the money, the estate was put up to the hammer, and brought little more than paid the loan and the expenses of the sale. In a year or two she was without a shilling in the world. Acquaintances did something for her for a time; but they, one after another, gradually deserted her. In two years more she was obliged to throw herself on the parish. She had been friendly to the gentleman in her better days, and when he was in indifferent circumstances. Now that he had been raised to an influential position in society, while she had been reduced to the lowest point in the social scale, he, equally from a sense of gratitude and a generous disposition, took advantage of the situation he held as one of the board of guardians, to render her as comfortable as possible.
Parties often meet in the workhouse under peculiar circumstances, though of a very different nature from those I have mentioned. There is no want of instances in which a high-bred and haughty lady, living at one time in the greatest luxury, has met in the workhouse, on a footing of the most perfect equality, the very mendicant of her own sex whom, in the hey-dey of her prosperity, she had desired her “pampered menial” to turn scornfully away from her door, where the poor creature had been supplicating a crust of bread for her famishing children. Little do the prosperous and affluent think in the day of their prosperity, to what complexion matters may come before they quit the world.
Perhaps there is no other place, speaking of assemblages of persons, in which the advantages of religion are so forcibly exhibited, as in the workhouse. I believe that every one acquainted with workhouses, be his individual opinions what they may, will bear me out when I say, that there is all the difference in the world, with regard to the manner in which they meet their reverses, between a person of genuine piety and one who has no proper sense of religion at all. The former is not insensible to, the circumstances in which he is placed, and was equally reluctant with the other to be placed in those circumstances; but you see that the one bears up under his reverses with far more fortitude and tranquillity of mind than the other. How could’ it be otherwise? The pious inmate is sustained and cheered by a firm persuasion—no matter, in so far as his present state of mind is concerned, even were that persuasion groundless—of a happy hereafter. The irreligious person has no hope beyond the present world: possibly he does not even extend his thoughts beyond the precincts of time. In that case, all must be dark and. gloomy enough; but far darker—much more gloomy still—must be the picture, if his views do extend to a future [-243-] state, and yet he have no hope that that state will be to him one of happiness.
A singularly striking proof of the power of religion in administering to the happiness of mankind even in this world, was afforded in the case of a woman who died within the last year in the workhouse of St. Pancras. She was one of those of whom I have been speaking, who had undergone very great reverses of fortune. She had lived at one time in great splendour, keeping her carriage, taking a prominent part in the gaieties of the day, and living in utter thoughtlessness of a world to come. By a succession of reverses which followed each other with a remarkable rapidity, she was reduced to absolute destitution, and applied as a last resource for admission into the workhouse. For some time after her admission, her countenance betrayed the troubled state of her mind. It was not only that she repined at the altered situation in which she was then placed, but she felt appalled at the retrospect of the thoughtless life she had hitherto lived. A variety of circumstances conspired to turn her mind to the consideration of religious matters. The pages of inspiration were daily perused by her; and, in a very short time, she became a decidedly pious woman. From that moment her countenance assumed a wonderful serenity of expression; and so far it faithfully indexed the state of her mind. She afterwards repeatedly declared to one of the officers of the workhouse, that, possessing as she then did the peace which the gospel inspires, she felt herself an incomparably happier woman in the workhouse, than ever she had done when in the zenith of her prosperity, and when living in all the splendour and dissipation of fashionable life.
Cases of a similar kind are of quite frequent occurrence; but anything of a theological nature being foreign to the objects of “Sketches in London,” I will not advert to any more of those cases in detail.
Among the class of inmates to be found in workhouses, who once moved in the more respectable spheres of society, the number of members of the learned professions is proportionably sma1l. You meet with few decayed medical gentlemen; perhaps fewer still of decayed lawyers; and certainly fewest of all of individuals who were brought up for the pulpit. I may here also remark, that improvident as the habits of literary men proverbially are, remarkably few of them seek an asylum in the workhouse. I know of no class of men among whom a greater number of cases of hardship and privation occur, than among those who devote themselves to literary pursuits. In another work,* (*The second series of The Great Metropolis) I have ad-[-244-]verted at considerable length to the deplorable circumstances of thousands in London, who make literature a profession. And yet, with very few exceptions indeed, the horror with which they regard the workhouse is so great, that nothing can overcome it. I believe innumerable instances might be adduced in which literary men have died from absolute want, rather than enter a workhouse. Their extreme sensitiveness on this point may be, in a great measure, accounted for from the refined and soul-elevating nature of their pursuits.
The best time for seeing a workhouse to advantage, is at meal-time; and of the three meals, that of dinner is to be preferred. In the larger workhouses, there is no apartment sufficiently commodious to accommodate a fourth part of the inmates, and consequently they take their meals in different places. The greatest number I have seen at dinner at once, was about 120. Nothing can exceed the avidity with which the paupers devour their meals. You would fancy that they lived for no other purpose than to eat. That certainly was the chief object they had in view in entering the workhouse; and they cling till the last to the idea, that eating is their principal business. The subject is one which would admit of some observations of a humorous nature; but I am restrained from any effort to excite a smile, by the consideration that the unfortunate inmates of a workhouse are not legitimate subjects for humour. I trust that, however much I may he disposed to relish anything of a humorous nature, I am not one of those who would indulge that taste at the expense of suffering humanity.
The guardians of the poor in most of the workhouses, have a fixed day, once a week, for the purpose of granting out-door relief. The scene on such occasions is usually one of a grotesque nature. Ragged mothers, with children in their arms, and children at their feet, are seen congregated together in vast numbers at the place of distribution; while old infirm men, and young men who are in destitute circumstances, are interspersed in very fair proportions. There is not only their ragged appearance, but their starved looks: you see, from their faces, that few and far between are their ample meals, even of the plain and homely fare to which they are accustomed. The scenes, however, of this kind which possess the greatest interest, are exhibited at those workhouses which are under the operation of the New Poor Law Act, and where, consequently, the applicants are uncertain whether they are to be successful in their supplications for bread or not. A few weeks since, I witnessed a scene of this kind, of a very touching nature. It was at the workhouse of a small parish, and the number of applicants who had besieged the office, whence the loaves are distributed, was under [-245-] one hundred. A more miserable group of human beings I have never seen; a more wretched assemblage, judging from their outward appearance, I should suppose, are but seldom to be witnessed in any civilised country. When one succeeded in getting a loaf, every eye was directed to it in a moment, with an eagerness and intensity of gaze which told much more forcibly than words could, the hunger which the poor creatures were enduring. The eyes of the children looked with a specially expressive gaze at the article of food. But what was most eloquent and affecting of all, as showing the agony which the poor young creatures were suffering from want of food, was the almost ferocious-like manner in which they seized the loaf, the moment their mothers got one, and the ravenous voracity with which they began to eat it. And to add to the wretchedness of their situation, caused by destitution and hunger, the parish functionaries, dressed in their little brief authority, treated the poor unhappy applicants as if they had been no better than so many reptiles crawling on the ground. As if the poor were not made sufficiently miserable by the hard destiny of their lot, these officials must needs add to their woes by their overbearing and outrageous manner towards them. Why cannot those entrusted with the distribution of relief to paupers, treat the poor wretches who are obliged to fawn on them and lick the very dust before them, with decency at least, if not with respect? In several instances this, let me say in justice, is done; why not in all? Do such persons forget that the poor are human beings as well as themselves; and that, though doomed to grapple with the evils of pauperism, they have their feelings and susceptibilities as well as others; Are we not all, including the humblest and most dependent of human creatures, descended from the same common parent? Are we not all influenced by the same motives and feelings? Are we not all members of the great community of man? Shall we not all, whatever may be the accidental distinctions which exist in our relative circumstances at present, be soon placed on a footing of the most perfect equality? Where will be the difference between us some years hence? Shall we not all be on the same level in the grave? Is it not true, though a reflection so mortifying is carefully excluded from the minds of many of those who have it at present in their power to tyrannize over and trample on the poor, that ere many years shall have passed away, no-one will be able to distinguish the bodies of these persons, from those whose feelings they have flagrantly outraged by their harsh and haughty manner, when doling out a miserable pittance to them, or when refusing to grant them a morsel of bread though famishing from want? There is one other consideration which may possibly have more weight than any of those to which I [-246-] have alluded. Let me remind the man who takes advantage of the situation in which he is placed, to insult and wound the feelings of the unhappy pauper whom destiny has placed in his power, that he himself may before he dies stand in the same situation as the wretched person whom he now treats with so much contumely and heartlessness. Such things have been; such things will be to the end of time. The records of workhouses contain many instances of persons, whose office it once was to dole out a scanty pittance to the poor, becoming themselves the recipients of parish bounty in precisely the same way.
Many paupers spend what is called “a little life” in the workhouse. I knew a Scottish peasant, who. died at the advanced age of eighty in the very cottage in which he was born, never having, during all that lengthened period, been one night absent from his home. The case of the man who had been upwards of forty years a prisoner in the Bastile, is known to most of my readers. The first was a singular length of time for an individual to live in one spot, and sleep in the same bed. Scarcely less wonderful is the circumstance of a person being upwards of forty years in prison; for one would suppose that it would be impossible to survive so lengthened an incarceration in a gloomy and unhealthy dungeon. I know of no instance of location in a workhouse for so many years; but I have heard of a pauper female who was an inmate of one of the most centrical of our metropolitan workhouses for upwards of thirty years. One cannot reflect on such a fact, without thinking of the many changes which took place in the world during her location in one spot. She first entered the place immediately previous to the commencement of the French Revolution: it was over for several years before she died. How many kings were dethroned and empires overthrown, while she remained in the same place! And how vast the changes which had occurred on the face of society while she remained there! How great, even, the changes which had taken place on the surface of a large portion of the physical world, during that lengthened period of time! Immense tracts of waste land had been brought under cultivation; marshes had been converted into dry and fruitful soil; plantations had grown into forests; the size of existing towns and villages had been vastly extended; and new villages and towns had started up in places in which were no human habitations when this pauper first threw herself on her parish. In London alone, what extensive changes had taken place ! What vast additions had been made to its dimensions and population! How few, comparatively, of those who were inhabitants of the metropolis when she entered the workhouse, were among its population immediately before she died! One race had passed away and another [-247-] taken its place in the interval. The appearance also of the town itself had undergone extensive changes: old streets were thrown down, and new ones built in their places. But even confining oneself to the changes which had occurred in the workhouse, under her own eye, how many and great must these have been! Not one of those who were the inmates of the place when she entered remained in it one-half of the time she did. How many entrances and exits must she have witnessed in her time! —the entrances all of one kind; the exits of two kinds: some going out in the hope of being able to earn a subsistence for themselves; others being carried, out to be consigned to the grave.
Such are some of the thoughts which would naturally arise in a reflective mind, on hearing of the circumstance of a person being an inmate of a workhouse for so long a period as thirty years. The train of thought might be followed out to a great length; but this is not the proper place for moralization.
It is a fact which is worthy of mention, that the best regulated workhouses are conducive to health rather than otherwise. I ascribe this, in a great measure, to the circumstance of the rules of these establishments being of such a nature as to ensure greater regularity of habits than the inmates were previously accustomed to. They are there regular in going to bed, regular in rising, and regular in their meals; and every one knows how great an influence regularity in such matters has on the health of mankind. A guardian of one of the workhouses in the centre of the metropolis, lately mentioned to me some singular cases of paupers having entered those establishments in a very bad state of health, brought on by irregularity of living, and of their complete restoration to health after being a short time there. The case of the female to whom I have already alluded, is having for thirty years been an inmate of a workhouse, was one of those he mentioned. When she applied for admission she was labouring under illness, brought on by irregularity, to such an extent, that no one who saw her supposed she would survive a month. The medical gentleman who had attended her pronounced her case to be hopeless; and yet the regularity of habits enforced by the rules of the workhouse, restored her in a few months to perfect health; and that health continued for the long period already mentioned.
In a chapter devoted to the Workhouses of London, it will be expected that, as the great majority of those workhouses are under the operation of the New Poor Law Amendment Act, I should express some opinion of that measure. That opinion, if I must express it, is. in decided opposition to it. No man can he more thoroughly impressed with the conviction than I am, that [-248-] the grossest abuses prevailed under the old system; and that a reform, or amendment of that system, was most imperatively called for. The great defect of that system, or of the way in which it was administered, was the encouragement it held out to idleness and fraud. A clever rogue of indolent disposition, could always contrive to make a very comfortable living of it, under the old system. A case was mentioned to me a few weeks ago, in which a woman was in the habit of receiving four shillings per week from the parish of St. Paul, Covent Garden, while carrying on business on a rather extensive scale, and renting an excellent shop, as a bonnet maker, in the Mile-end-road. In another case, a party receiving parish relief was followed to his home, and on his table there was found awaiting his arrival, and the arrival of some “jolly paupers” he had invited to partake of it, a piece of roast beef which was equally pleasant to the eye and grateful to the olfactory nerves. In the case of a third person, that person was dexterous enough in the arts of deception to impose on no fewer than four parishes at one time, in each of which she professed to have a right of settlement, and from all of which she continued for some years to receive three or four shillings, besides a certain quantity of bread, per week. Innumerable other instances might be adduced in which parties received relief who had not the slightest claim to it; and to support whom in vice and idleness, poor industrious rate-payers were ground down to the earth. But the great objection to the New Poor Law Amendment Act is, that it has leaped from one extreme to another. The errors in the administration of the law to which I have referred, might easily have been remedied without the interposition of the legislature at all. The Poor Law guardians of the parish of Marylebone have afforded practical proof of this. They have adopted a course equally humane and judicious: one which combines the strictest justice to the rate-payers, with the greatest attention to the claims of the poor. They have appointed a certain number of men whom they call inspectors, and in whose judgment and humanity they can repose confidence, to institute a careful inquiry into the circumstances of all who apply for parochial relief. The consequence is, that persons having no claims on parish aid, are refused such aid; while those who really are proper objects for parochial assistance, at once receive it. The same enlightened caution is observed in the administration of the. Poor Laws in the parish of St. Pancras; and the result has been, that in both these parishes the poor-rates have been reduced much more than one-half—nearly, I believe, two thirds—without in the slightest degree entrenching on the legitimate claims of the pauper portion of the population. And why, I should like to [-249-] ask, might not a similar system have been adopted throughout the country? Nothing, surely, could be more simple in theory, and nothing could be more easy in practice.
The clause in the New Poor Law Bill which refuses relief to those who will not accept that relief except in the character of inmates of the workhouse, is as unsound in policy as it is harsh and despotic in principle. Why not give them as much out of the workhouse as it requires to support them in it? Where would be the loss to the parish in this? Why say to the poor applicants that they must either perish of want, or break through all their strong and tender attachments to home? Why thus gratuitously tear asunder all the ties which bind one to his own abode, however humble it may be? “Home is home, however homely,” says the adage. Ay, and the humble hovel of the poor has its attractions and charms to them, as well as the splendid mansion has its attractions and charms to its wealthy possessor. To wrench the unhappy pauper from the lowly abode to which he clings with a tenacity of grasp which nothing but the horror of absolute starvation can induce him to relinquish, is a piece of cruelty at which every humane breast must revolt, and is a positive disgrace to a Christian country. Who would believe it, did not the fact stare us in the face, that in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the legislature of Great Britain should say to a pauper, unable to earn a subsistence that he must either submit to be torn from his home and his wife and children, or die of absolute want? There is not a breast in which there is an atom of humanity, that does not rise up in revolt against such legislation.
One most objectionable regulation of the workhouse system— a regulation enjoined by the New Poor Law Bill—is, the denial of the consolations of religion to those whose conscientious scruples will not allow them to .worship according to the forms of the established church. A more flagrant and uncalled-for outrage on all the higher and more hallowed feelings of one’s mind, could not be committed. A regulation more at variance with the spirit of Christianity, or more repugnant to that spirit of civil and religious liberty which is the glory of this country, could not be devised. It is one worthy of the worst days of religious intolerance. That a protestant legislature, in the thirty-eighth year of the nineteenth century, should have sanctioned such a clause, is one of those facts which would be pronounced incredible, if they did not unhappily stare us in the face. Why not let those who have been all their lives connected with Dissenters, and have heard from sabbath to sabbath the truths of the gospel preached by pastors in their own communion; why not let such persons, if able, attend on the sabbath the minister of their own choice? What [-250-] probability is there, that the preaching of one against whom the pauper Dissenters are prejudiced—if prejudiced must be the word—will be either pleasant or profitable? In order to a profitable hearing of the Word, it is necessary that a feeling of esteem, if not of affection, for the preacher, should be entertained. And this esteem or affection must be based on the circumstance of the preacher holding the same views on all important religious questions as the party who hears him. We all know how strong are the dislikes of many Episcopalians to the principles of Dissent. I know many members of the Church of England who would prefer absenting themselves from public worship altogether, to entering a Dissenting meeting-house. Not less strong are the antipathies of many Dissenters towards the established church. They could not worship with their Episcopalian brethren, without doing violence to all their most cherished feelings on the subject of religion. I think that there are many, both of Dissenters and Churchmen, who carry their dislike of each other’s mode of worship too far. But even where I think them in error, I would treat them with tenderness. There is nothing incompatible in disapproving of this prejudice, and yet respecting it so far as to extend the utmost indulgence to those who are its subjects. Let me not be here supposed to be arguing the matter on sectarian grounds: not less decidedly would I denounce the conduct of the Dissenter who would, if he had the power, compel the Churchman either to listen to the doctrines of the gospel from the lips of a Dissenting pastor, or not hear those doctrines at all. In everything appertaining to religion, there ought to be the most unbounded liberty—the most perfect toleration. The conscience ought to be utterly unfettered. There should be an unrestrained freedom of thought— the most entire liberty of action, so long as that action does not interfere with the rights and privileges of any other member of the community. The great truth cannot be too frequently repeated—it cannot be kept too prominently before the eyes of those invested with authority—that man is not responsible to his fellow men for his religious opinions; that he is responsible only to his Maker. He, therefore, who seeks to interpose between a man’s conscience and his Maker, on the most important of all questions, places himself in a position of moral peril of awful magnitude.
But, for the reasons before stated, I forbear to discuss the question in its theological bearings. Once for all, let me say, that the refusal to allow a Dissenter in the workhouse to attend, on the sabbath day, on the ministrations of a pastor of his own persuasion—one, it may be, from whose lips he had heard the living Word for a long series of years—is not only at mani-[-251-]fest and direct variance with the spirit of Christianity, but it is an act of inhumanity, a piece of heartless cruelty—and as gratuitous tls it is heartless—which may well, as Cowper says, cause us to
Hang our heads to think that we are men.
Then there is the separation regulation. It is difficult to speak of this regulation in measured language: it is a standing outrage on human nature; a foul stain on the national character; one of the blackest pages in England’s history. Posterity will ask, could there have been one particle of humanity, to say nothing of Christianity, in the composition of those who were parties to the framing and enforcing such a regulation? To me it has always appeared as the very quintessence of cruelty. It erects a Juggernaut in every workhouse in the land within the sphere of the New Poor Law Bill: and like the Juggernaut of the East, it can already boast of its numerous victims. Who can tell the number of hearts which it has already broken? Who can compute the number of human beings who are destined to be crushed by its moral pressure, should it unhappily be permitted for any length of time to stain the pages of our history? Let not this be mistaken for mere declamation; let it not be understood as only figures of speech. When I say that the separation regulation, in the administration of the New Poor Law Act, has its victims, I speak of facts which consist with my own personal knowledge. Ay, and strange as the statement may appear, it has its victims without as well as within the walls of the workhouse. Not long since, I heard from the lips of one of the most worthy ministers in the metropolis, one very affecting proof of the operation of this regulation. The anecdote, it may be proper to mention, was related from the pulpit, not for the purpose of condemning the New Poor Law Bill, but with the view of illustrating a religious topic. As I cannot give the anecdote in the minister’s words, I must give it in my own. Two persons, man and wife, of very advanced years, were at last, through the infirmities consequent on old age, rendered incapable of providing for themselves. Their friends were like theniselves, poor; but so long as they could, they afforded them all the assistance in their power. The infirmities of the aged couple became greater and greater; so, as a necessary consequence, did their wants. The guardians of the poor—their parish being under the operation of the new measure—refused to afford them the slightest relief. What was to be done? They had no alternative hut starvation or the workhouse. To have gone to the workhouse, even had they been permitted to live together, would have been pain-[-252-]ful enough to their feelings; but to go there to be separated from each other, was a thought at which their hearts sickened. They had been married for nearly half a century; ‘and during all that time had lived in the greatest harmony together. I am speaking the language of unexaggerated truth when I say, that their affection for each other increased, instead of suffering diminution, as they advanced in years. A purer or stronger attachment than theirs has never, perhaps, existed in a world in which there is so much of mutability as in ours. Many were the joys, and many the sorrows, which they had equally shared with each other. Their joys were increased, because participated in by both: their sorrows were lessened because of the consolations they assiduously administered to each other when the dispensations of Providence assumed a lowering aspect. The reverses they had experienced in the course of their long and eventful union, had only served to attach them the more strongly to each other, just as the tempestuous blast only serves to cause the oak to strike its roots more deeply in the earth. With minds originally constituted alike, and that constitution being based on a virtuous foundation, it was, indeed, to be expected that the lapse of years would only tend to strengthen their attachment. Nothing, in a word, could have exceeded the ardour of their sympathy with each other. The only happiness which this world could afford them was derived from the circumstance of being in each other’s company; and the one looked forward to the possibility of being left alone when the other was snatched away by death, with feelings of the deepest pain and apprehension. Their wish was, in subordination to the will of the Supreme Being, that as they had been so long united in life, so in death they might not be divided. Their wish was in one sense realized, though not in the sense they had desired. The pressure of want, aggravated by the increasing infirmities of the female, imposed on her the necessity of repairing to the workhouse. The husband would most willingly have followed, had they been permitted to live together when there, in the hope that they should, even in that miserable place, be able to assuage each other’s griefs, as they had so often done before. That was a permission, however, which was not to be granted to them. The husband therefore determined that he would live on a morsel of bread and a draught of cold water, where he was, rather than submit to the degradation of a workhouse in which he would be separated from her who had been the partner of his joys and griefs for upwards of half a century. The hour of parting came; and a sad and sorrowful hour it was to the aged couple. Who shall describe their feelings on the occasion? Who can even enter into those feelings? No one. They could [-253-] only be conceived by themselves. The process of separation was as full of anguish to their mental nature, as is the severance of a limb from the body to the physical constitution. And that separation was aggravated by the circumstance, that both felt a presentiment, so. strong as to have all the force of a thorough conviction, that their separation was to be final as regarded this world. What, then, must have been the agonies of the parting hour in the case of a couple whose mental powers were still unimpaired, and who had lived in the most perfect harmony for the protracted period of fifty years? They were, I repeat, not only such as admit of no description, but no one who has not been similarly circumstanced, can even form an idea of them. The downcast look—the tender glances they emitted to each other—the swimming eye—the moist cheek—the deep-drawn sigh—the choked utterance—the affectionate embrace; all told, in the language of resistless eloquence, of the anguish caused by their separation. The scene was afflicting in the extreme, even to the mere spectator. It was one which must have softened the hardest heart, as it drew tears from every eye which witnessed it; what, then, must the actual realization of it in all its power have been to the parties themselves? The separation did take place; the poor woman was wrenched from the almost death-like grasp of her husband. She was transferred to the workhouse; and he was left alone in the miserable hovel in which they had so long remained together. And what followed? —What followed! That may be soon told: it is a short history. The former pined away, and died in three weeks after the separation; and the husband only survived three weeks more. Their parting was thus but for a short time, though final as respected this world. Ere six weeks had elapsed they again met together;
“Met on that happy, happy shore.
Where friends do meet to part no more.”
Here, then, were two victims, under circumstances of a most affecting nature, to the separation regulation in the administration of the New Poor Law Bill. Have I overcharged the picture? I have fallen far short of the reality. Not even those who felt the agonies and anguish to which I have referred, could have portrayed it, even had they been gifted with the highest intellects. The thing was to be experienced, not described.
It is said by the advocates of the regulation, that paupers themselves have no objection to be separated from each other, because that, generally speaking, they have become old and unable to assist each other, before they throw themselves permanently on the parish. The man who makes such a representation libels the unhappy poor, and gives utterance to a calumny on [-254-] human nature itself. The feelings of attachment with which the poor regard each other, are as strong and tender as those which exist among the higher classes of society. What if they be even more strong and tender, because less alloyed by conventional considerations and circumstances? The imputation that a pauper husband and wife care not for one another, but are glad to be separated, when they are advanced in years, is a calumny of the most cruel kind; and one more destitute of even the shadow of a foundation, was never, I will venture to say, invented. Here I do not speak from conjecture: I have had many opportunities of making myself acquainted, from personal observation, with the principles, feelings, and habits of the poor; and justice to them requires that I should vindicate them in the mass, from so heartless and unfounded a charge. Those who have once been in affluent circumstances and wallowed among the luxuries of life, are far more likely to be insensible to the pains of separation than the poorer classes. The husbands and wives of the rich and the noble have various enjoyments apart from those arising from their attachment to each other, which naturally enough enables them to submit more readily to the dispensation which disunites them. No so the ill-fated poor: the only sweet in their cup of life, apart from the hopes of a happy hereafter, is the sympathy with which they regard each other. That sympathy supports them amid all their toils and trials; and having weathered the storms and tempests of life together, is it not monstrous to suppose, that in their declining years they should lose their mutual attachment to such an extent as not only to feel no pang at the prospect of separation, but even to delight in the idea? Cold-blooded, and revolting to all the better feelings of our nature, is the philosophy, if so it must be called, which presents us with so frightful a picture of our pauper population; a picture which, happily, is as unfaithful as it is unseemly to look at.
But why thus reason on abstract principles with those who seek to justify the separation of man and wife, on the assumption that the poor have no affection for, or attachment to, each other? Has not that assumption been already proved to be groundless, by the resistless logic of facts? Has not the calumny been sufficiently exposed by the reference I have made to a poor but virtuous and noble-minded husband and wife? Their case, be it remembered, is not the exception, but the rule. They were but the faithful representatives of their unfortunate class.
It is gratifying to perceive that a feeling of indignation against this unnatural and anti-christian regulation is spreading throughout the land with a rapidity, and is acquiring a force, which is [-255-] sure ere long to sweep it away for ever. Every friend of humanity ought to foster this feeling wherever he finds it, and to inspire it in those breasts in which it has not yet had an existence. Surely the miseries of the poor are sufficiently great already; surely the horrors of a workhouse are already formidable enough, without gratuitously adding to that misery, and deepening those horrors, by a regulation of this nature. It is clearly one of the purposes of the Deity, that those who in his providence have been united together in marriage, should not be separated but by himself; and, in accordance with this manifest design of the Creator, the minister of the gospel who pronounces them man and wife, solemnly says, as directed by the marriage ceremony, “Those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” The administrators of the New Poor Law Bill have set this solemn injunction at defiance; they have acted in direct opposition to it. The moral responsibility they have thus incurred, is of fearful magnitude.
Of the regulation which prohibits the visits to the workhouse of the friends of the inmates, I have hitherto said nothing. It is one which is of a piece with the general harshness of the administration of the law. In what way must the mind of the man be constituted, who first conceived the idea of refusing to the wretched pauper the meagre consolation of a visit of any remaining friend he had when he flung himself, as a last resource, into a workhouse? In his nature, there must, indeed, be little of the milk of human kindness. There exists not the shadow of a pretext for this heartless severity. Are we to be told, that if permission were conceded to the friends of paupers to visit them m the workhouse, the regulation would be attended with inconvenience? That has been said; but it has not, to use the mildest language the slightest foundation in fact. Alas! by the time a poor wretch has been compelled to seek a refuge in the workhouse, the number of his friends has been sadly reduced. Fortunate, indeed, may he consider himself, if there be a single individual among his former acquaintances, even where their name was legion, who feels for and sympathises with him to such a degree as to prompt that individual to pay him an occasional visit in the workhouse. Reverses have a wonderful effect in lessening the number of one’s friends. In how many instances does adversity scatter one’s friends to the four winds of heaven? In how many instances do they all vanish as suddenly as if they had, by some magical influence, been spirited up to some other planet? How many paupers are therein every workhouse, who, were the doors open at all times to the visits of friends, would never be inquired about by a single human being in the world? How miserable and groundless, then, the pretext [-256-] that inconvenience would result from admitting the few persons who might feel disposed to pay an occasional visit to those in the workhouse whom they had known in other and better days? Surely so poor and cheap a consolation, as the sight of one who commiserated them in their unhappy condition, might be allowed the inmates. But no: they must needs be shut up from every manifestation of the sympathy of their fellow-creatures, as if they had committed some atrocious crime, by which they had forfeited all claim to the kindly consideration of mankind. Not even when visited with sickness, unless there be some humane individual among the leading officers who interposes on their behalf, will a friend be permitted to see them. More horrible still: there are numerous instances on record, in which near relatives have been refused permission to see a dying pauper! Will it be believed that cases have occurred—and, it is to be feared they are not few or far between—in which a dying pauper, sensible that his end was approaching, has had his last request that a beloved daughter might be sent for, to see him close his eyes in death, and that he might give her his parting blessing,—haughtily refused him? An instance occurred a few months since in a workhouse in the suburbs of the metropolis, in which intelligence was accidentally conveyed to a daughter that her father was on his death-bed: she hurried that moment to the workhouse, but was refused admission. With tears in her eyes, and a heart that was ready to break, she pleaded the urgency of the case: the functionary was deaf to her entreaties: as soon might she have addressed them to the brick wall before her. His answer was, “ It is contrary to the regulations of the place: come again at a certain hour.” She applied to the medical gentleman who attended the workhouse, and through his exertions obtained admission. She flew to the ward in which her father was confined: he lay cold, motionless, and unconscious before her—his spirit was gone: he had breathed his last five minutes before. Well may we exclaim, when we hear of such things, “Do we live in a christian country? Is this a civilised land?"
[nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.]