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A Note on Pauperism



By Florence Nightingale.

SEVEN MILLIONS of pounds are spent annually in this great London of ours, in relief, Poor Law and charitable.

And with what result?

To increase directly and indirectly the pauperism which it is meant to relieve. Pauperism in London has doubled in the last ten years.

The evil is become so pressing that Poor Law administrators, the charitable, the philanthropists, even the political economists are beginning to turn their attention to it, and no longer to spend or to sanction the spending, or to prevent the spending of money without looking where we are going.

And first as to charity:—the same tie unites us to God and to every one of our fellows. Therefore the ill-use or neglect (worst kind of ill-use) of every imbecile old woman or dirty child is a sort of treason against the Almighty. Love to God is synonymous with love to man. But the love which leads to pauperising man is neither one nor the other.

All paupers who can move arm or leg can more or less support themselves.

The first thing to do is:—to remove all the sick (incapable) out of workhouses and provide for their cure or care. This is, in a considerable measure, being done or about to be done.

The next is:—not to punish the hungry for being hungry, but to teach the hungry to feed themselves.

Statesmen fancy this is to be done by 'education,'—the three R's—teaching the laws of nature.

Now some of the very greatest rascals that ever lived are those who knew the laws of nature best.

In a country where local self-government has trenched largely on the fourth R—rascaldom—every body knows the three R's.

But the greatest sovereign the world ever saw, Charlemagne, organised the civil polity of Western Europe at a time when scarcely anybody could either read or write.

There have been those and are to this day, who applied themselves not only to teach the laws of nature but to teach men how to live.

The only way to teach paupers to support themselves is the way of the early Benedictines—of St. Bernard of Clairvaux—a way practised by some excellent Protestants at the present day.

The Benedictines set themselves down where everybody robbed his neighbour, and invited any to join them who would, not only obey, but work and get others to work.

Clairvaux was a colony, a colony for agriculture, carpenters, smiths' work, and many other things besides learning.

Early monasticism did this for all. And all learnt, but a residuum of pure paupers. These will always require to be taught how to feed themselves.

When a government delivers up its own responsibility into the charge of its subordinates who are permanent, it pays a staff to prevent human progress.

The best work the world has seen has been paid work. But for any one of us to deliver up his or her charity, his or her personal responsibility as to every imbecile old woman, as to every dirty child, into the hands of a paid staff, into the hands of any staff indeed, paid or unpaid, is to salve over the sore which we ought to heal.

As has been well said: 'Work is the strongest of our instincts, and the first of our necessities; and in work we either command or we obey.' And again: 'No doubt it is the first duty of man to take care of himself, but there certainly is a very large proportion of mankind who cannot do it with the least success.' 'All these people… will work, if they have the work to do, and the very circumstance that they have been accustomed to special places in large industrial organisations contributes to their helplessness when cast on their own invention and their own resources. They don't know what to do because they have always been told what to do, and they cannot work, because they have not masters.'

Who 'will collect and gather' these 'to order, industry and self-reliance?'

The answer is: it has been done in some cases, in many not known to fame, and which publish no reports.

Why cannot it be done in many more?

The Poor Law taxes the whole country to support (and to pauperise) those who are starving in the inevitable fluctuations of trade.

A testimony like that of Mr. Hill to the law of Elizabeth cannot be lightly passed over or disregarded. But the law of Elizabeth was for an age which lived by agriculture and land alone.

Is it impossible for a legislature, for a nation to apply it, to modify it, mutatis mutandis, so as to suit the present age?

The old political economists simply give the go-by to the whole question, saying, Let well alone, which being interpreted, means, Let bad alone.

And yet this 'bad' is now so alarming, so pressing, that even they say: Something must be done.

Consider the always recurring distress of every winter; e.g. that of the East End. It is no longer possible to shut our eyes to the facts. Free trade, from which so much was expected, although it may have provided for many willing workers, has left a vast number without work.

When shall we have a 'right to free course for trade in labour?'

The Poor Law has completely broken down; so far at least as diminishing the amount of pauperism, by increasing the number of willing workers who could find work.

Private charity has broken down—and worse: it has increased the evil.

The 'workhouse test' has completely broken down; the unproductive-labour test, the same. Not only are they punishing these pitiable paupers with unproductive labour at unremunerative prices; but the punishment test is of no avail. For the workhouses are overflowing and the people are starving. And the least harm of the overflowing workhouse is the burden on the rates. The greatest harm is, the withdrawing all these heads and hands from contact with the materials and means of production. The 'workhouse test' has saddled this country with pauperism, more perhaps than anything except the want of education—education not into the mystery of letters and figures, but of work. Consider the amount of real practical workable knowledge shown by the trades' unions in the answers given a winter or two ago, by the shipwrights, to the offer of employment on two ships. These men, knowing that ship-building is an irregular, a fluctuating employment, pitch their expenditure at the maximum rate of their wages; and then, will not take less.

As long as the legislature can find no legislative remedy against the tyranny of trades' unions, who decree work to be judged by quantity, not quality, who decree that superior quality of work shall not be paid for—the first element of freedom is wanting. For this is, not to steal from me the result of my power of production. 'Who steals my purse steals trash.' But who steals my power of production steals all I have.

As long as a man is liable to be deprived of his right to labour where and when and how he likes, he cannot be called a free man; our political liberties are a farce; and you have a machinery at hand for filling your workhouses.

Is it really possible to believe that our legislators could not, if they gave their minds to it, frame an Act by which the workman might make his own bargain as to wages with his employer, with an appeal to courts of justice or other authorities?

Is it possible to believe that, at least in exceptional times of distress, the State could not give productive work at remunerative prices as in Lancashire (not on the principle of 'Ateliers Nationaux')? The State, in one department, does give work, but it is unproductive work. Unproductive work seems as great a blunder as trades' unions ever made.

It is always cheaper to pay labour its full value. Labour underpaid is more expensive. This has been the opinion of the most experienced contractors, employers, and true economists. The great French contractor of the Suez Canal has, it is understood, given every man employed under him 'a direct pecuniary interest in the success of the work and its speedy completion.' Amongst these workmen are Dalmatians, Greeks, Egyptian fellahs, Nubians, &c.—not very promising students of political economy, but in a better way perhaps to learn it practically than our Englishmen with their 'rates in aid of wages.'

Day by day, and year by year, all kinds of reports of associations and advertisements in newspapers indicate that we cannot go on as we are, and that the whole subject of the unemployed poor, in other words, of the working faculty without the will or means of applying it productively, must be taken up by a special commission or committee which will go into the whole question without prejudice, and tell us what is to be done.

Who have risen up to do the real Poor Law work? Müller at Bristol, the Roman Catholic 'Little Sisters of the Poor,' both societies of foreigners, and doing their voluntary part of Poor Law work with more Christianity and more economy than the guardians themselves.

The Poor Law says, there shall not be a single orphan wandering about the streets.

In London, we know that there are 100,000 stray children.

In Bristol Müller collects them and the means to support them. He gets money enough, while half England is clamouring and complaining about the rates.

The unreason of it is unbearable.

Try voluntary effort in a single parish.

When Dr. Chalmers was minister of St. John's at Glasgow, he so managed the voluntary family assistance to the poor that no legal aid was necessary during his incumbency.

If we could suppose for a moment by way of hypothesis that the State could, by seizing and educating the 100,000 homeless children running about the streets of London (even though the education should be free), enable all these to earn their own maintenance honestly and well, without ever coming back as paupers or as thieves upon the rates and the country, even political economy would say, 'Well done'—even those who seem to think that unlimited liberty of the Briton must include that of stealing or of starving or of pauperising his family.

Yet this is not a wild hypothesis. It is an experiment which has been successfully tried. Especially has it been successfully tried in Scotland, where the pauper child has been placed out to board with a cottager at an expense, covering everything, of 9l. a year. Here it has been proved what family kindness, shown even by strangers, will do to depauperise.

It is well known that a pauper child must be removed from all his pauper associations, in order not to turn out a pauper. He must not even be apprenticed in the parish whence he comes, otherwise he and his children will turn out paupers for ever.

'Nearly one fifth return to the workhouse of those brought up in workhouse or district schools.'

On the other hand, 'it is a rare thing,' says the Edinburgh Inspector of Poor, 'for either a boy or a girl' put out to board with a cottager, as above described, 'to become chargeable to the parish in after life;' that is, if you remove children from their 'hereditary pauperism,' educate them, body and mind, you may make them good citizens.

Political economy requires farther expansion in order to include all the elements of this great social problem.

It is a true doctrine that demand and supply regulate the price of all things, labour included. But this doctrine presupposes that there is a possibility of the supply coming to the demand; e.g. whatever demand there was for cotton in Lancashire and whatever supply there was of it in America would matter little to the Lancashire manufacturers, if there were no ships or other agencies whereby the supply could encounter the demand. In the same way, whatever amount of labour may be available and whatever demand for labour there may be, this would matter little if there were no means of bringing them together. At the present time there is an agency which brings cotton and cotton mills, separated by half the globe, into immediate relation; but there is no agency whereby labour and the demand or means of labour can be brought together.

This is simply done by chance at present, and both labourer and employer suffer.

Political economy does not say, let madmen run about the streets and pick up their living as they can. But it does say—and it takes for granted in spite of every day's cruel experience—that all human beings having any producing power have also the power of finding work, if they choose.

Now no one can ever really have seen much among the poor, especially in workhouses, without seeing that the faculty of finding work is quite a peculiar one, or the result of education.

The great mass of workmen are perfectly incapable, if work fails them, of forming any reasonable scheme for going to find it elsewhere or in other wise; and starvation will not teach geography.

The industrious widow left with children, for instance, cannot go out to find work, and if work comes to her, it is a welcome accident.

A man may certainly go out to find work, but whether he gets it or not depends exclusively upon his previous training in the habit of obtaining work. And how is he to obtain the previous training? Our laws of settlement were actually devised upon the express principle of discouraging a man from changing his residence.

Also, instead of presenting work as the greatest blessing of man, it is proposed by the law as a punishment, a penalty, a grievance.

St. Paul's opinion, that a man must work to eat, is so clear that one would think it was also clear, for people who read the New Testament, that not giving money but helping men to work, to exercise their producing power, who have not the gift, natural or acquired, to do so unaided, is the charity which, above all, is preached there. When Christ says, 'The poor ye have always with you,' he cannot have meant that we were 'always' to be giving them money, but that we were 'always' to be 'doing good' to them. Now the only real 'good' is done by helping those to work who could not do it without our help.

But, instead of this, we say to those who can't find work, 'Go into the workhouse.' If indeed it were what its name implies, a house for work, an 'Adult Industrial Home,' there would be some sense in it.

But our national common sense has not yet arrived at this result: take out all the sick, infirm, those who have lost either for a time or for life all producing power, cure them or make them as comfortable as you can. And for the rest, those who have only half lost their producing power, or have not lost it, but, from want of education, want of knowledge of industrial and commercial matters, want of geography, in short, of faculty, know just as little as the madman whom our political economy does not leave to pick up his own living, how to utilise their producing power; say to these, Come and we will help you to find work.

The wage-producing power of the population is said to equal the consumption. This may be; but the Poor Law statistics show us exactly how much of the producing power is squandered on those who cannot produce, because we don't help them.

Now, as above said, the wages of a nation ought to cover the maintenance both of the producers and of the sick and infirm depending upon them.

Without falling in the least into the error of the French or Spanish 'Ateliers Nationaux,' surely it is possible for a Poor Law to help its poor to find work—where work is in one place and labour in another, to bring them together.

This restoring the balance betwixt the labourer and his work was one of the original objects of the reformed Poor Law. In the report of the Poor Law Commissioners for 1837 it is stated that not only was emigration encouraged but that 'the over-stocked labour market' in one county had been 'relieved of 2,000' profitless mouths sent to the manufacturing districts 'at a cost of 3,600l.' with the practical result of lowering their cost to the rates from 2,000l. to 65l.

So far as concerns the able-bodied and non-criminal poor, the real function of a Poor Law is neither to punish nor to feed, but to train them to self-dependence and industry, a branch of national education, which is in small sense helped by reading, writing and figures, or by any 'conscience clause' which can be framed.

There must be of course the natural premium of work, viz. pay, subject, of course, to the natural rise and fall of prices in the labour market.

Three not rich ladies have solved this insoluble problem for about twenty-five poor women, weak in intellect, weak in habits of temperance, in an 'adult industrial home.'[1] These are just the helpless class we find in workhouses, just the class with whom, says the Poor Law, we can do nothing. They were set to laundry and other work for which they were fit, and the earnings of these poor incompetents have amounted the last two years to between 800l. and 900l. a year. Each of the inmates has a share in the profits of the laundry. Here was a successful depauperising experiment. The Poor Law would have set them to pick oakum as a test of hunger, and have said, How can the impossible be done? The answer is: it has been done, and with the most unpromising materials.

The works for which adult paupers, under supervision and with the natural stimulus of pay, are fit, are numerous. But there are two for which they are unfit, attending to sick and attending to children. All grown-up paupers are paupers from defect—moral defect, intellectual defect, physical defect. It has been found by actual experiment that no training can make these grown-up ones such as we ought to put about sick or children. Take the next generation, if you please, and train them up to be nurses.

It is above all however towards devising new industrial occupations that our ingenuity might be directed—e.g. Lord Shaftesbury's Ragged Shoeblack Brigade: there a want, viz. to have one's shoes cleaned away from home, was supplied—or in filling new fields of industry which we have not to create, for God has created them for us somewhere or other in the boundless empire on which the sun never sets.

At Edinburgh the 'Industrial Brigade,' which began with shoeblacking, has gone on to finding remunerative situations for the boys. These boys could not have found places for themselves. The earnings of the boys in the Institution pay rent and food. This is one successful industrial experiment. Here is another: '1,750 persons have been rescued from pauperism at an expenditure of about 6,400l.' that is to say, at less than 4l. a piece (which in to-day's advertisements is offered for a lost dog). Where? how? who were these persons rescued? By emigration and migration, from the east-end of London. Of these, seventy families were in the lowest sink of pauperism, selected by the guardians themselves as those they wished to be rid of. And all have done well and are, except two, permanently settled. Therefore, for 4l. a head, you can provide permanently, with a little care, skill, and common sense, for starving people.

Even oakum-picking, out of the workhouse, and as an intermediary to finding more suitable work, can be put to some good use, when fairly paid for. It is cheaper than idleness in the workhouse, as the following Birmingham experience will show (quoted by the Times of February 8th), in the employment of able-bodied women in oakum-picking for out-relief. 'Each woman is required to pick 3 pounds of oakum per diem, for which she receives 4s. 6d. a week.' 'The total estimated saving on orders issued for work, as compared with the maintenance of the women as inmates of the workhouse, during the year, is calculated to have been 646l.'

There is good sense as well as good political economy in this, only the work should not be made a 'test.' It should be made to pay.

And surely oakum-picking is not the most profitable occupation to which women can be put.

Is there not needle-work?

It is true that needlework, although peculiarly fitted for women, must be taught. If the vast majority at present of needlewomen are not well paid, it is because their work is not worth the money. Those who can work well can command their own terms.

Only the shortest allusion can here be made to one of the most fruitful causes, if not the most fruitful, of pauperism in England, and this is, the state of the dwellings of the poor. Some of the best Poor Law authorities are of opinion that Poor Law medical officers, who now can only give a little useless or mischievous medicine to poor people, and who helplessly see disease growing up from its root, viz. the ill-drained, ill-built dwelling, should be endowed with the function of bringing the cause of disease immediately before the magistrate, as the inspector of nuisances must do, and compelling the removal of this cause of pauperism. Does not the wretched, degenerate, puny population of Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, and other parishes cry aloud for this?[2]

The English maxim, 'Every man for himself' means, Let every man have as much wages as will just keep soul and body together; and, when he can't get them, be taken care of by the community.

It was a kind of savage communism; meant to keep down wages.

Suppose for a moment a thoroughly prosperous and well ordered community. In such a one, as we have said, every man ought to be able to earn as much as he requires for his own sustenance and for that of his family, besides laying up sufficient for illness, temporary want of work, and old age. But as this state of things does not exist we act as follows:—The law takes it for granted that all employers of labour will get the labour done at as cheap a rate as possible. The law takes it for granted that this rate is not sufficient to do more than supply, and that barely, the present necessities of the worker. The law hence levies a tax on the whole community, whether employers of labour or not, for the purpose of supplementing the want of wages, want of foresight, or want of self-control, as the case may be.

It has now to be considered how the evil can be met.

Beginning with the political economy of the question: in all trade and great mercantile and manufacturing enterprise there is an element of uncertainty, an irregular element not existing to the same degree in land and agricultural enterprise. There are times when there is a great deal too much to do, and times when there is a great deal too little; in other words, times when there is too much labour for the market, and times when there is not enough.

There is a wicked element here, and this is:—that, whenever emigration of the surplus population—the population which the land, according to the law of Elizabeth, did find work for, and can no longer find work for, and which now overflows into the large towns—by a rush of blood as it were to the head—whenever, we say, emigration on any large scale has been proposed, the answer has been: No, we can't afford to part with our surplus population, because then we shall not be able to undersell every other country by having more hands than we can employ at all times.

As the Times says: 'There is an obvious convenience in the possession of a vast industrial army, ready for any work, and chargeable on the public when its work is no longer wanted.' While, on the other hand, the old political economists, the Poor Law administrators, consider that starvation is the proper stimulus to work (as if starvation were a quickener of the wits) and make no provision for finding work for those who don't know how to find it, but who would do it if they had it to do.

Private subscriptions and almsgiving then step in to supply the obvious defect in this mode of dealing with the poor, and the practical result is an increase of the evil.

A French 'administrateur' once said: 'We cannot understand your English laws—you have a Poor Law—you pay rates for your child-paupers to be educated—for your sick paupers to be housed and doctored in places called workhouses, &c. &c. And then you subscribe to private charities to take your paupers out of the power of the Poor Law. If you do the one, why do you do the other? Would it not be cheaper to see that the two work in the same direction? We cannot understand such a principle of administration.'

Has then the future Poor Law reform, which we are so anxiously hoping for, nothing to do but to economise?

It has to do this certainly, but only as a means to a higher economy.

The private enterprises, referred to above, showed a truer economy than that recommended theoretically by the greatest political economists.

Has then private charity nothing to do but to hold its hand?

If the word 'charity' is but named, political economists cry out that 'all charity is pauperising.'

The answer is: if it is pauperising, it is not charity.

In the Times of January 25, occurs as follows:

'It has been officially reported that the resident population of Great Britain is increased by 240,000 persons annually, and it is calculated that these new-comers would require for their subsistence in bread alone, the crops of 50,000 acres of land under skilful tillage.'

Now it is clear that these 240,000 people must be fed. It is also clear that an area of ground of about ten miles long by eight miles broad, must be put under cultivation, to feed them with bread alone. Is it not also clear that all of them who cannot be profitably employed on productive industry, for which other people cultivating ground would be content to exchange part of their surplus produce, ought to be put to cultivating for themselves?—or that, if this is not done, they must live on other people's labour? And this is really the only resource provided at present either by our legislature—or, except in mere driblets, by our private charity.

One would think a very obvious permanent arrangement in such a country as England, with such a limitless extent of colonial lands, would be to prepare areas for colonisation—to put up, at a cost to be repaid by the colonists, some kind of shelter—to select the colonists—and to brigade them and send them out to the land, seeing we cannot bring the land to them. But in England, we don't colonise—we only emigrate. And people left to themselves to learn how to emigrate successfully often die in the process. In the Roman sense of colonisation, or even in the French sense, we do nothing.

Do the ratepayers ever think that the seven millions of annual poor rate would in one single year place every recipient of Poor Law relief, old and young, man, woman and child, on the shores of America?—would pay all expenses, and leave them one or two pounds their pockets to begin the world with?

Suppose that to this sum were added the amount squandered on the same class, by private (so-called) charity in one single year, would it not in all probability be sufficient to pay the outfit of every one of these poor people on the land?

Of course it is not intended that aged, sick, and infirm should be dealt with in this way. But the fact ought to make us all think whether we cannot carry our rates and our charity to a better market than we have been in the habit of doing—to think, not that the remedy is to be sought in this exact way, but whether the annual rate is not to a large extent equivalent to an annual capital, which, once spent, would extinguish the rate altogether.

Supposing it were a more usual thing for younger sons to take their portion of the hereditary wealth and also the overflowing population of their fathers' estates to the colonies, as was formerly the case with the Spanish noble families who set out with some of each trade; in place of one America, we should have twenty Englands. And what an outlet for our produce! Here in England, unemployed poor are a negative quantity. They eat up what we raise. In Australia they are a positive quantity. They take our produce and pay for it.

Surely this matter of bringing the many lands in our colonies into direct relation with the multitude of strong arms, forcibly idle at home, must be one function of any good government administering a group of islands such as ours, while the population expands itself in so great a ratio, while there is no power of expansion in the soil.

This is the end of the whole matter: it is a fact that our population exceeds the means of labour, either because the material for labour does not exist, or because there are no means of bringing labour and material together.

It is a fact that our poor-rate is seven millions, and that seven millions are spent every year between charity and Poor Law relief in London alone, in the metropolis of the greatest empire the world has ever seen, and amongst the most practical people of the earth.

It is a fact that, notwithstanding all this transfer of the produce of industrious hardworking people to non-workers, distress and hunger are more clamorous than ever.

It is a fact that our trades' unions have increased the evil by interfering with the free course of the labour market, and have thereby driven away work to other countries.

It is a fact that the present amount of pauperism exists, notwithstanding free trade, trades' unions to raise the value of labour, poor law tests to compel people to find labour where there is little to be had, out-door relief to supplement low wages, and an unprecedented amount of private charity or almsgiving.

It is a fact that all this exists, notwithstanding an annual voluntary emigration.

It is a fact that, within the Queen's dominions, there are entire Europes waiting for settlement and ready to repay labour with such interest as no part of the old world can yield.

It is a fact that a very large proportion of our foreign commerce is made up of trade with the very people who, if they had never left England, would probably long ere this have converted it into a desert. A great many of our present population live by those who have formed a home beyond the seas.

These are the facts with which legislation has to deal, for which benevolent effort has to find a remedy. Is it not time that some attempt should be made to systematise and economise the rates and multifarious agencies, and almost imperial revenues with which private charity has failed to reach the evil?—nay, has increased it?

Legislation cannot do all. But it can do much of itself, and perhaps more by recognising and giving a proper direction to the never failing streams of private charity which at present end in a marsh.

The evils are as sorrowful as they are great. The evils no one denies. On the contrary, they are acknowledged to be the most pressing question of the day, a question which will not put itself off. But surely among us we can cope with it.

As Mr. Bright has said: a people which could dip its arm into the depths of the Atlantic and pick up the electric wire to bind two continents together, can surely do this thing.


The same problem applies to prisoners. It always appears the greatest non sequitur to give e.g. to a forger 'five years' penal servitude,' i.e. provision and lodging in prison. What has that to do with his crime? But, if you sentence him to repay (say) twice the amount he had stolen, his sustenance to be repaid meanwhile to the State out of his earnings, and let him go whenever he had done so, that would be something like a reformatory.

The object is: to teach a man that it is dearer to steal than to work. Hitherto the object of our laws seems to have been to teach that it is dearer to work than to steal, and not only this, but that it is dearer to work than to beg.

Labour should be made to pay better than thieving. At present, it pays worse. To gaol governors it is well known that certain 'excellent' prisoners, very good artisans who work well at their trade in prison, will leave it as soon as they are out, because they have a better trade 'to look to,' viz. professional thieving.

As for the common run of prisoners, we know what their educational imprisonments do for them. Take an example which appeared the other day. B, aged 8, entered the 'professional dishonesty' trade in 1856; during the next twelve years up to the present date, was in prison eleven times, some of these considerable terms, one for four years; in fact, he merely came out of prison to perform the forty or fifty successful thefts—the 'three months of safe and pleasant practice'—which is the average de rigueur before being re-caught; and to go in again. He is now 20. We ask ourselves why we are put to the expense of keeping him in prison. Is it merely to prevent him from stealing during that time? Had he been made to work out the value (or twice the value) of his theft, he would have learnt that it is dearer to steal than to work. It certainly costs a great deal more at present to give him this prison provision and home than it does to provide permanent maintenance for honest starving people.

And the remedy, we are told, for this increasing crime is to pay for more police, for more supervision of criminals out of prison, and we suppose for more imprisonments!

  1. Miss Hurry's, St. Stephen's Home, Shepherd's Bush, W.
  2. Alderman Waterlow, M.P., has shown that healthy dwellings for the poor can be built to pay 5 per cent. (actually 7 per cent., but the company have kept 2 per cent. in hand for extending their operations.)

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.