Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/Last week (January 5, 1861)


The Last Week of Last Year is at an end, and yet another bead has slipped through the fingers of Time. As far as this nation is concerned, the year 1860 has not been marked by any very noteworthy events; and happily so, for these are generally calamities. The notches which the historian cuts on his tally-sticks mean the Great Fire, the Great Panic, the Great Frost, the Great Plague, the Great War. His skill fails him when he is called upon to describe a period of peace and prosperity. Last year there has been no Indian mutiny, no foreign war worthy of the name, no domestic agitation, no scourge of sickness; no Crimea, no Reform riot, no Cawnpore, no cholera. As we look back to the chronicles of the weeks in which the pulsations of English life are recorded, it would seem as though the year 1860 might most aptly be described as the year of rain. The clouds were in our debt—indeed they were some five years in arrear, and as they were honest clouds, and not Directors of Joint-Stock concerns, they have met their liabilities to the last shower. Oh! that Colonel Waugh, and the pragmatic gentlemen who preside over banking concerns in Glasgow and Aberdeen, would take a lesson from these conscientious vapours, and descend in the form of refreshing Dividends upon the parched hearts of their shareholders! There was a time, however, during the last year, when the rain had well-nigh drowned our crops—the hay crop in particular was in imminent danger. In various parts of the country the younglings of the flocks perished in great numbers, and we were looking forward to the occurrence of a national calamity such as would have “adorned the pages” of the future historian. The sun peeped out at this critical moment, and the hearts of our farmers and our photographers were glad. Still, even as it is, the price of forage and fodder stands at a very inconvenient height. Corn, too, is sold at rates which might have given occasion to intestine broils in this country, when cold Julys and watery Augusts voted with the majority in the House of Commons. Human fatuity has ceased, in this country at least, to be an element in short crops. A few more words about the weather. Our meteorologists are in a state of astonishment at the intensity of the cold towards the conclusion of last year.

Mr. E. J. Lowe wrote on Christmas Day to the Editor of the “Times,” and forwarded to him the results of his observations. It appeared that on the previous day, December 24th, there was the most extraordinary cold ever known in England. On the morning of that day the temperature at four feet above the ground was 8 degrees below zero of Fahrenheit; and on the grass, 13.8 degrees below zero, or 45.8 of frost. The writer adds that the Trent was full of ice, and in a few hours would be fast frozen over. He mentions, as a whimsical illustration of the intensity of the frost, that he had just seen a horse passing with icicles at his nose three inches in length, and as thick as three fingers. Last Week the Thames was frozen as we have not seen it since the terrible winter of 1854-55. On Christmas morning there were floating crystals in the air. It stands on record that, during the retreat from Moscow, crystals such as these added severely to the sufferings of the struggling, perishing soldiers as they staggered gloomily onwards in the direction of their French homes which they were never to see again. Sir Robert Wilson makes very particular mention of this fact.

This is the season at which every one amongst us who has fire and candle, food, shelter, and clothing, should give a thought—and more than one—to the sufferings of the Poor. Is it not astonishing that, although by the law of England means are provided for affording shelter, and a certain rough sustenance to wholly destitute persons, and although private charity has also contributed so largely, and to so many institutions for the relief of suffering humanity, the poor of London have suffered such extremities of misery Last Week? Logic and sentiment, political economy, and a far diviner science have equally broken down; and the sufferings of the poor in London have been extreme. In many of the Unions the Workhouse test indiscriminately applied is more for the purpose of checking solicitation, than for the detection of imposture. “Come into the House, or starve!” The wretched creatures are so blind to the political necessities of the case, and so dogged in their misery, that they take the “Relieving Officers” at their word,—retire to their garrets or cellars, throw a ragged rug over their children who lie shivering on a heap of shavings, and in innumerable instances suffer everything short of death—in some cases death itself—rather than enter ‘the House.’

These facts are perfectly well known to those who have inquired into the true history of the back-lanes and blind-alleys of London. Are we therefore to give up the principle of the Poor Law, and to return to a system which would in the course of a few years have reduced the nation to beggary? Surely not. But, on the other hand, there are exceptional cases, in which great severity of weather is combined with great depression in particular trades, in which the sternness of the principle might be relaxed with advantage, until the pinch is passed. The consequence of our consistency is that in London persons of any degree of human feeling pay their poor rates twice over without any guarantee that the money disbursed for the second payment is distributed in a proper manner. Those memorable lists in the “Times,” which record the donations to this or that Refuge or Home, are the rider to the Poor Law. The thing is of course in practice an impossibility, but can any one doubt for a moment that if the enormous sums contributed annually to the support of charitable institutions were lumped in with the sums raised under the Poor Law, and judiciously and honestly disbursed amongst the poor, we need never more feel a chill come over us as we sit by our cheerful firesides, and think of our poor fellow-countrymen who are cheerless and cold. The endeavour to carry out such a theory in practice would of course be a mere delusion. It is only suggested to illustrate the working of the Poor Law when too sternly carried out. It may be added that if we could succeed in breaking down that feeling of self-respect and independence which induces the poor to keep out of the House at all hazards, the advantage would be a very questionable one in a national point of view.

What does become of those enormous sums which are annually contributed to charitable institutions? It is not too much to say that a very uneasy feeling is growing up on this subject;—with the exception, perhaps, of the cases of our great hospitals. Where the wisdom of parliament and the charity of individuals has made such ample provision for the poor and destitute of this metropolis, it is too bad that our feelings should be so constantly harrowed up by tales of distress; and still more by the consciousness that all we hear represents but a portion of the misery actually existing during seasons such as the present. He would do the country good service who would look carefully into the matter, and tell us how the expenditure of these charities is directed, controlled, and checked. Meanwhile, as above all things it is desirable to avoid vain declamation, and the idle cant of philanthropy, the best recommendation we can give to our readers is to be upon the watch for the misery which may fairly come under their notice, and to relieve it as best they may. He would not have spent his Christmas ill who had enabled two or three poor families to tide it over the starving time until employment is again forthcoming. It is much to be feared that the sufferings of the London poor have formed a gloomy back-ground to the Christmas merriment of Last Week.

The subject has been canvassed again and again by every British fire-side, but still we cannot pass over in absolute silence the Chinese intelligence which reached England in the last days of last year. Politically it is well enough. We may fairly hope to be rid for ever of those Chinese wars which seemed to be as completely a part of our institutions as November fogs, or a fight with the Kaffirs once every five years. The prestige of that old semi barbarian Court at Pekin is at an end. Henceforward the Emperor of China and his Privy Council are to us much the same as the former King of Oude, or the actual Sovereign of Nepaul. We are of a higher race, and of a higher civilisation, and the proof of the assertion is to be found in the results of the collision between China and Europe. The sacrifice of thousands of lives has been the consequence of our deference to the susceptibilities of our sentiment-mongers. Let us ask from the Chinese, and take from the Chinese, only what is just, and let us weigh this by an European, not by a Chinese measure of justice. We do not want their territory—we do not want to be their masters, as a planter of South Carolina is the master of his slaves—but we say that a section of the globe so important that it affords means of support to one-third of the human race, shall not be sealed up against the remaining two-thirds. The late Dr. Arnold was the first public writer of any note, who had the courage to blow to the four winds the old fallacy that a parcel of savages had the right to block out the civilised races of mankind from a fair and fertile island or continent, about which they were running naked and useless. Providence never intended that the fable of the Dog in the Manger should be the great parable for the instruction of the human race. It may be presumed that China—according to the cant phrase—is now opened, and it will be our own fault if it is ever closed again. The Chinese difficulty has turned out in practice to be even as one of those palaces inhabited by a wicked necromancer of which we read in Ariosto. It is apparently surrounded by moats and drawbridges—guarded by monstrous shapes which brandish the most terrific weapons, and by dragons which belch forth poisonous exhalations from their uncouth jaws. Who is to get in there? Nobody save the peerless knight who will not look behind him. Hundreds come and try the adventure, but they are not peerless knights, and they do look behind them, and are lost. At last a young straightforward gentleman in chain armour, who has only one idea in his head, and that one connected with a young lady who is a prisoner in the castle, puts his lance in rest, and charges full at dragons, giants, moats, portcullises, and all the necromantic arrangements, and hey, presto! they fade into empty air. Nothing remains but a beautiful damsel coyly eager to “crown the flame” of the enraptured young man. This has been just the history of our Chinese wars. We have been ever looking behind, when we should have ridden a course with single mind at the very stronghold of the Delusion. Let honour be given where honour is due. Where our statesmen and diplomatists failed, one private Englishman hit upon the true solution of the question, and in season and out of season hammered away at it, till he had fairly battered it into the minds of his countrymen.

The capture of Pekin is the practical illustration of Mr. Wingrove Cooke’s Chinese letters to the “Times.” Sic vos non vobis is an old motto where public affairs are in question. The goal is reached, but nobody now thinks of the man who was the first to point out the way. Would that the satisfaction had come to us without alloy! The thought of our murdered countrymen who are now sleeping their last sleep in the Russian cemetery at Pekin is so bitter that it even poisons our feeling of relief at being at last delivered from the old Chinese incubus. There must be something terribly true about such an emotion as this when it thrills throughout a nation. The murder at Hango Sound did more to embitter our feelings towards the Russians than the deaths of all our countrymen who fell in the open field and in honourable fight. It is so with this wretched Chinese story. Years must pass away before we think with common patience of these cruel, half-barbarous men who took the lives of our poor countrymen in so wanton and so stupid a way, after the infliction of torture which one shudders but to think of. The names of Anderson and De Norman, of Bowlby and Brabazon, will remain for years to come watchwords of hostility and irritation between ourselves and the Chinese. Meanwhile, some reparation has been exacted. The poor victims have been buried with military honours. The Chinese or Tartars have been compelled to attend at the ceremony as mourners—and amongst them ceremonies are more considered than in Europe. An indemnity of 100,000l. has been exacted for the families of the murdered gentlemen. The Emperor’s palace has been sacked and destroyed, and some thousands of the Tartars or Chinese have been killed in fight. Never was there a more treacherous and foul murder—never has a murder been more severely expiated. It is to be hoped that when the Emperor’s advisers see clearly the consequence of San-ko-lin-sin’s crime sharp punishment will fall on the original offender. What more can be done now? We must store away this sad thought with our recollections of Hango and Cawnpore, and endeavour as well as we can not to confound the guilty with the innocent.

Last Week brought no solution of the Italian difficulty. The fleet of the French Emperor still blocks the Sardinians out of Gaëta. The troops of the French Emperor are still in occupation of Rome, and intervene between the desire for Italian unity and its fulfilment. Shrewd guesses are made at the true meaning of the riddle propounded by the Sphinx at Paris. Let the guessers beware; for the fate of all who have hitherto presented themselves, and have failed in finding out the true solution of the Napoleonic riddle, has not been very promising! All we know is, that for the time being it is not the will of the most powerful Sovereign on the continent of Europe that Italian unity should become a fact. Had the fleet and army of Sardinia—in other words, of Italy—been permitted to act in concert before Gaëta, that stronghold would long since have been reduced. The prolongation of the siege tells with terrible effect upon the future destinies of the Italian Peninsula. Time is given to the agents of the young Bourbon to organise insurrectionary movements throughout the various provinces upon the terra firma lately subjected to his rule. The military power of the North of Italy is exhausted in these operations in the South: what if fresh hostilities should break out between the Italians and the Austrians during the coming spring? There is no colourable pretext for the French occupation of Rome: for the interference of the French Emperor before Gaëta there is not the shadow of justification. It seems to be admitted as matter of notoriety that the partial realisation of Italian unity hitherto achieved has been most unacceptable to Louis Napoleon, and that Gaëta is the answer to the various acts of annexation. This may be: it is also possible that he shrinks from finding himself face to face with the Roman difficulty. As long as Gaëta is besieged—but not captured—any extreme decision upon the Roman question may be adjourned.

We probably give the French Emperor credit for more forecast than he deserves. One of his especial qualities—and surely a king of men could scarcely have a higher one—is his faculty of deferring action, or even significant speech, until opportunity is his own. Thus it was he acted when he was President; thus he acted when the Pope refused to crown him Emperor; thus he acted to the Czar Nicholas, who turned the cold shoulder upon him as an Imperial parvenu; thus he acted with regard to the Austrian Court, which shrunk from a close alliance with him. If we look at his antecedents, we must consider him as the most expert fisher in troubled waters of our time; and now he is in a position when he can keep the waters troubled, and wait the event. It is much to be feared that, during the coming spring, we may receive intelligence of events in Italy which may give us all sufficient cause for anxiety. This Gaëta business has an ugly look. Not only has the assistance afforded by the French Emperor to Francis II. given time to his partisans to organise resistance, but it has also enabled Mazzini and his party to obtain such a hold over Lower Italy as may seriously affect the character of the next elections. Already it is rumoured that Count Cavour meditates a temporary retirement from power under the convenient pretext of illness. Taking matters at the best, it seems likely that Louis Napoleon is resolved that the Italian nation shall not receive independence from other hands than his own.

But it is not only in the Old World that the ancient land-marks are tampered with. Already from the other side of the Atlantic we have received strange reports of such excitement in the United States, that a dissolution of the Union is spoken of as a possible—almost as a probable event. Italy is seeking for unity—the North Americans for a rupture of the band by which the various states are held together. The work of George Washington, and of the original founders of that great Northern Confederation of the American States, which was one of the greatest political and social experiments ever tried upon the surface of the planet, appears for the moment to be in shrewd danger. It is scarcely credible that the thunder-cloud which is just now hanging over the heads of our transatlantic brethren should not disappear without inflicting the threatened mischief. Both sides have so much to lose by separation—so much to gain by union—that they will surely find some compromise which may reconcile their minor and adverse interests. The bone of contention is this wretched, and ever-recurring question of slavery, and the immediate pretext for the dispute is the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency of the Union. Were the States separated to-morrow into a Northern and a Southern Confederation—the Northern Section would be to the Southern, even as the Canadas are at the present moment to the entire and undivided Confederation. What would become of the Fugitive Slave Law when the slaves might make good their escape into the Northern States, even as they do at the present moment, through a thousand dangers, across the British frontier? If the Southerners would set this matter to rights in the only manner which they judge to be in accordance with their interests, they could only do so by open war, and actual conquest of the Northern States—upon the supposition that the Union is dissolved. Men now in middle life are well aware what the invariable termination of the American tornadoes has been, after an infinite amount of threatening and bluster. Great Britain has had Boundary disputes, Oregon disputes, Fishery disputes, and Right of Search disputes with the United States; and although hostilities from time to time appeared to be imminent, common sense in the long-run has ever obtained the mastery in the United States. The only wish of Englishmen must be for the prosperity and happiness of the great Confederation.