Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Pauper, The Thief and the Convict, by Thomas Archer, 1865 - Chapter 1 - Introductory

[-back to main menu-]

[-1-]

I.

INTRODUCTORY

   In London, there is little of the picturesque in poverty, still less of the romantic in crime. The records of the one are but monotonous recitals of sordid misery and destitution, which soon fail to interest the sentimentalist, and before the appalling extent of which even philanthropy too often shrinks dismayed: the annals of the other disclose that the criminal has about him nothing that is heroic, and that his life is for the most part a wretched mistake, full of poor shifts and expedients, while he himself is either a slinking pilferer or a cowardly though desperate ruffian, to whom any poor honest calling would afford, on the whole, a better hope even of physical comfort than a career which, while it gives him the opportunity for an occasional debauch, often includes long periods of suffering and want, and is attended with a constantly haunting fear which only a repeated experience of the gaol can convert into a temporary bravado.
   Poverty and vice having been carefully tabulated, entered in statistical tables, analysed, totalled, and reported on with a scientific accuracy perfectly marvellous, [-2-] it would of course seem that nothing more remains to be done except by judicious tinkering to adapt our institutions, and particularly our laws, to the fresh discoveries of statisticians, and so ultimately to balance this folio of the National Ledger in a way which shall make things pleasant to all parties. Whether in spite of our wonderful mechanism of tabulation, and the reparative genius with which new pieces of social science cloth have been sewed into old garments of legislation, we have not occasionally broken down as to any very encouraging results, may be subject for sincere and earnest inquiry; but it is quite certain that there is another and more closely personal matter which demands very serious attention from English gentlemen and gentlewomen, who are God's stewards, whether they acknowledge the dignity of the office or not--and may be just or unjust in that capacity without being exonerated from its claims.
   During some years of literary journeywork, in the completion of which I have tried with what power there is in me to learn some of those mysteries of London which have very seldom been revealed in print, and certainly have never appeared in penny numbers, I have felt a growing conviction that the failure of our institutions for the relief of poverty, and the punishment and eventual reformation of the criminal, may be attributed to the impersonal manner of their application.
   While any attempt to concentrate governmental interference by giving authority to one ruling body, and dividing the cost of the administration equitably over the whole country--as would be the case, for instance, in equalisation of the poor-rates--is met with loud cries against centralisation as un-English and unconstitutional; the administration of the laws is too often left to incompetent [-3-] boards and committees, who do centralise their powers in a way almost inconceivably mischievous, and employ utterly unscrupulous agents to carry out their evasions of the laws by which they profess to be bound.
   This goes on, and the gentlemen of England who have shouted so bravely for our institutions continue to sit at home perfectly at ease, with the satisfactory reflection that they are not called upon to take part in that local government which, if it were conducted by the class who are best fitted by education and position to assert its claims, would have power to avert any danger which could arise from the centralisation so much dreaded.
   Whatever excuse there may be for the sneer and the shrug with which allusions to the Vestry and the Board of Guardians are so frequently accompanied, it is to the disgrace of men of birth, position, and education, that parochial and corporate authority is engrossed, as it too often is, by those belonging to the most ignorant and the least independent class in England. By the provisions of the Poor Law, it was enacted that the guardians of the poor should be "chosen and appointed out of the noblemen and gentlemen, inhabitants of each parish," and only in case there were no inhabitants who were entitled to be called noble or gentle did the law direct that "then the said guardians should be chosen out of the principal and most respectable inhabitants." Unless, indeed, the noblemen and gentlemen refused to serve, and unless they had good reason for refusing, the Act left them but little excuse for such a breach of duty, since it especially mentions that they were to be elected "in order the more effectually to guard against all dangerous consequences which may arise from false parsimony, negligence, inadvertency, or the annual change of parish officers." 
   [-4-]
 Would it be too much to say that, if the noblemen of gentlemen were to hold those offices which were originally assigned to them, we should hear a little less frequently of those cases which now greet us almost every day in the newspapers under the head of "shocking destitution," where whole families would rather suffer all the pangs of disease and famine than drag their failing limbs to the workhouse door, there to cower before officials too anxious to oblige the board, who are too anxious to oblige the ratepayers, to do more than offer as deterrent a front as possible to want and misery?
   Would it be too much to ask whether it is a less noble office to take a part in the administration of the law in its most beneficent, and therefore its best and highest meaning, than to seek for a place in the assembly where the laws are made? or whether, even if this be so, it can be other than a noble thing to do God's work-even though that work is the duty that lies nearest?
   But there is a duty for those who hold no recognised office whatever. If we really believe that we shall one day, in some way or other, be reminded of those who were hungry and thirsty, sick and in prison, shall we be able to excuse neglect on the ground that we did not think they were people of so much consequence-or that we thought it might be allowable to subscribe a trifle, and so leave somebody else to look after them?
   Bare, unpicturesque, and sordid as are the conditions of poverty, there are sights in London which everybody may and should see-sights which are sometimes touched upon in newspaper articles, or in the chapters of sensation stories, but whose dread meaning and fullest horror lie in that very blank routine of misery which most lacks interest. 
    [-5-]
 The ragged schools have done much, and the proposed visitation of ladies to the wards of unions may do much, especially if they are made judiciously; but incalculably more may be effected by every one recognising the work that lies next his hand, and visiting his or her own union now and then, with a silent tongue, but a keen eye for the master, and a few kind words and an encouraging look for the inmates. One great scandal has already been removed by the recent enactment, which provides that the casual poor shall no longer be permitted to stand or crouch starving at the workhouse doors; but much remains to be done, and the Metropolitan Board of Works, in whose hands is placed the duty of providing a night's lodging and a meal for the vagrant pauper, will have to concern itself not only with increased accommodation, but with some sort of dietary regulation which shall suffice to snatch fainting women and children from the jaws of death, - by better means than mere bread and water.
   In describing two workhouses that I have visited, I have chosen those conducted on a liberal interpretation of the Poor Laws. That there are others where the wretched inmates are neglected and reduced to the condition of mere animals, or almost to the level of the idiots whose companions they are, but who are perhaps less miserable than they, cannot well be doubted in the face of scores of facts which have from time to time been made known: that to keep out the starving wretches who seek admittance, and to abide by "regulations" which leave the poor to die, because they prescribe medical aid only on condition of fatal delay and difficulty, is the plan by which more than one set of union officials have become infamous with impunity, it is our shame to know, without also knowing that a wholesome indignation has swept away the reproach for ever. It [-6-] would, perhaps, be too much to expect that every one should visit the scenes some of which I have endeavoured to depict in the following pages. Indeed but few people could visit them without much difficulty and some danger, but we all have it in our power to reduce their number by forwarding education, and insisting on the reform of abuses whenever we can discover them. So intimately, indeed, are the paupers, the poor tenants of the "bad neighbourhoods," and the criminals associated, that the recognition of their duties by the gentlemen who should be guardians of the poor would do much to mitigate the incalculable evils brought about by foul dwellings and undrained hovels, where poverty weds crime, and brings forth fruit that ripens for the gallows. The repressor of the unwilling pauper is often the owner of those foul tenements which disgrace the parish, or is, at all events, so intimately acquainted with the parochial authorities that they are bound to "make things pleasant," even to the yearly sacrifice of a few score human lives, and the infection of an entire district. In the sore need of some scheme of national education every respectable inhabitant of a parish may do something towards rescuing at least one child from the brutish ignorance to which private selfishness and official negligence would often leave it, and may help to teach it something beside that which awaits it either in the workhouse or the gaol.
   How urgent is the need for some teaching apart from either may be gathered from some of those statistics of which the only satisfactory use is to point out where the remedy is needed, and what remedy shall be sufficient.
   From the "Criminal Returns" published by the authorities at Scotland Yard, and not including those of the City Police, it appears that there were taken into custody [-7-] during last year 64,760 persons (about twice as many males as females) of whom only a few, by comparison, were under fifteen years of age. Out of this number only 2760 could read or write well (only 173 of these being women), 46,533 could read only, or read and write imperfectly; while 9132 could do neither, and Only 86 were well taught. Of 32,676 summarily disposed of by the magistrates, or held to bail, 8024 could neither read nor write, 23,334 could do so but imperfectly, and 1277 could do both, while 41 had received superior instruction. Of 2906 tried and convicted, 607 could neither read nor write; 2,077 could read only, or read and write but imimperfectly, and only 217 could do both well; 5 only having received superior instruction.
   Regarding two of the subjects which are concerned in the foregoing remarks it may be necessary to say a word. Those who visit the poor would do well to abstain alike from authoritative interference and from indiscriminate almsgiving. Both are evils, and it would be difficult to say which is the worst, though they both aim at the independence of the poor, and reduce them against their better disposition to the level of degraded pauperism. Those who help them to help themselves are their truest benefactors; and the past Session of Parliament has been distinguished by the most conspicuous statesman of his time in his recognition of what is due to the working classes of this country by the introduction of the Government Annuities and Life Assurance Bill, the benefits of which would be incalculable if it only proved to the labourer--as it doesthat the Government cares for him; but the influences of which are indefinitely extended by the advantages of a secure investment for the savings of some of the more fortunate and the more frugal members of a class which has [-8-] so long needed examples of prudence within its own ranks. In order to extend the benefits of this provision, would it be difficult for gentlemen who are employers to help on their own people in this direction by advancing a year's premium, or the nucleus of a future provision, to a working man, as a reward of good and steady conduct?
   It may be noticed that, even within the limits of a single volume, I might have said something of "fences," or receivers of stolen goods; or have noticed more particularly some of the phases of juvenile depravity in the metropolis.
   With regard to the first it is only necessary to state that, wherever there is a thief colony, there are receivers-at marine store shops, at brokers' shops, in the cellars of lodging-houses, and elsewhere; and that the melting-pot is always on the fire for the making of golden or silver soup. The method in which thieves are kept and trained differs little from that which obtained when our great novelist wrote for us an account of the doings of Mr. Fagin, Charley Bates, and the Artful Dodger. But it so happens that Mr. Fagin now sometimes keeps a common lodging-house, and that--to appear respectable-he provides his pupils with pencils, oranges, memorandum-books, or some small wares for sale. He is still held in such awe by his satellites, that they would go to prison, to save him from the clutches of the law; and he passes amongst them by the endearing appellation of "Father." Of juvenile crime, the only way to reduce the amount is by an early transplantation of the youthful criminal to a better soil, and a strict and determined execution of some law which shall punish either the cadgers who hold a property in these infant thieves, or the parents who sacrifice them to their own selfish and unnatural profit. 

[nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.]