Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Liberty of private charity


Some future explorer of the chronicles of the old nineteenth century will stop to copy a part of a column of some London daily paper of March 5th, 1863, as a curious evidence of the backwardness of our generation in the morality of social management. There is in the newspapers of that date a report of a public meeting held the day before in St. James’s Hall, at which the chairman, and, as far as appears, all the speakers, avowed the most extraordinary views, and uttered the most presumptuous condemnation of their neighbours, in comparison with their own method of behaviour, that could be imagined at this time of day. The puzzling thing to readers of their own time is, whether these gentlemen can possibly be the representatives of the moral opinion amidst which they live, or whether they are a group of eccentric persons, exhibiting themselves in fortuitous concourse, for the misleading of a future generation. For my part, I had rather imagine any explanation than suppose these speakers to be the mouth-pieces of any considerable number of my fellow-citizens; for, if they are, our moral and social condition is less advanced than we have been accustomed to suppose.

The meeting was on behalf of the Systematic Beneficence Society. Of this society I know nothing—never having heard of it before. The chairman declared its aim to be to induce “every person to ask himself, not how much he must give, but how much he ought to keep back.” This is enough about the society, thus condemned out of the mouth of the chairman, who seems to be entirely unaware that the necessity and habit of almsgiving are a disgrace to any community in which it exists, and that the disgrace is heavy in proportion to the amount of that corrupting, depraving, and humiliating mode of spending money.

The other speakers supported the chairman in the most wonderful manner; first, by producing estimates of the income of the inhabitants of London or the kingdom, and speculating on how far the actual amount of almsgiving fell short of its proper proportion to the income; and next by telling, one after another, how much they have themselves given away out of an income of so much, and for so many years!

Can these clergymen and gentlemen really be unaware that the badness of the social condition, moral as well as physical, of any country is known by the amount of almsgiving in it? Have they yet to learn that to feed beggars at convent gates is to create hunger? The same consequence—a great augmentation of the evil—follows from every endeavour to provide a gratuitous remedy for evils which individuals should be enabled to deal with themselves. Have they never heard that when, half a century ago, the rural labourers throughout the country were fed, amidst their real and indisputable destitution, by charity—legal and private—the poverty spread so fearfully from rank to rank that the national fortunes were saved only by the most vigorous social effort on record? Have these gentlemen never heard how the burst of humanity on behalf of foundlings issued in London, in the last century? and how it operates in Paris now? The Empress talks of opening another Foundling Hospital; and, as I have said before, a Middlesex coroner has seriously proposed the same thing lately, with singular perverseness, as a remedy for infanticide: yet everybody, from empresses to relieving-officers, have the means of knowing the invariable result of such experiments. In the London case, the throwing open of the Foundling Hospital caused an increase of foundlings, in three years, of from 117 to nearly 15,000; and of those 15,000 only 4400 lived to be apprenticed. In Paris, 58 per cent. of illegitimate children are abandoned within the range of the Foundling charity; and wherever alms are forthcoming to support infants, baseborn or other, child-murder increases tremendously. The more institutions are opened as a refuge for them, the faster the need grows; and, as the need can never be overtaken, the infants are put out of the way in tenfold proportion. The early philanthropists of the Christian church, who were touched with compassion at the fate of the exposed infants in every neighbourhood of celibate houses, and who opened the first Christian foundling hospitals, became very wretched, and sorely perplexed, when they saw more and more infants’ bodies floating down rivers, and infesting every hole and corner into which they could be thrust. Our grandfathers wisely and humanely changed their course early in regard to English foundlings, restricting the charity within the narrowest limits that the foundation of the Hospital admitted. Our fathers did the same in the case of the rural labourers, by reforming the Poor-law, and reducing legal almsgiving to the lowest practicable point, and by pointing out a way to independence and comfort for the labourer which would in time place him above the need of private charity, except in cases of emergency. After all this experience, and more of the same kind in every direction in which almsgiving has been practised, we now see men standing up in the middle of London, announcing the average income of their neighbours, and denouncing those neighbours for not giving away such a proportion of their means as to these professors of “systematic beneficence” seems good!

The truth is, one of the most disheartening facts of our social state is its excessive almsgiving,—called “charity” by these gentlemen. Any citizen who is supposed to be in easy circumstances can tell what his experience is. His hand is never out of his pocket. Every day, and all day long, he hears of want and misery, of one kind or another, which he is summoned to help to alleviate. Some evidences reach me occasionally of the prevalent condition of almsgiving in which society is living. Letters come to me from persons I never heard of, begging money for cases which I cannot possibly know anything about; and the writers seem unaware both of the impertinence towards me, and of the folly of asking any person of common sense to give money at random in that way. It seems as if they must live among people who, like these gentlemen on the platform, have settled that they themselves, and everybody else, ought to give away a tenth part of their income at least. That amount being fixed, the first comers have the best chance of being liberally served, and begging goes on vigorously.

The mention of the platform reminds me that the speakers in St. James’s Hall include spiritual objects in their programme of duty. They want a vast increase of the fund for “religious” objects. One of the speakers declared that the people of London are responsible to God for the use they make of their 150,000,000l. per annum,—immediately proceeding to assume that almsgiving is the highest use to which money can be applied. There is something in this which reminds one of the praise once offered to an eminent man, and the way in which he received it. A great surgeon was congratulated on the skill with which he had performed a severe and critical operation; and his reply was that he could feel no complacency in such an application of his art, for that it was ever present to his mind that such operations (except in cases of accident) are “the opprobrium of the medical profession.” So, in like manner, is the necessity of almsgiving, except in cases of accident, the opprobrium of our civilisation: and those who desire the welfare of society,—spiritual and moral, as well as material,—will refuse to stimulate almsgiving, which aggravates the evils it professes to alleviate, and will apply all the means in their power to supersede the necessity of it. We can see for ourselves that men are most degraded and miserable where the spurious charity of almsgiving most abounds; and we can learn within ourselves that the highest and happiest conceivable state of society would be that in which all the members should be above the reach of want,—independent in their circumstances and their minds,—so that almsgiving would disappear altogether.

Before the people of London will recognise the justice of the rebuke offered them in St. James’s Hall, they will inquire into the results obtained by the sums actually contributed for “spiritual objects;” by, for instance, the million and a half of annual income dispensed by Exeter Hall. Perhaps some who are insulted for not contributing are aware that these “spiritual objects” include the maintenance of a large bureaucracy. Perhaps they know something of the extent of the “interest” thus created;—of the costliness of this paid staff of a rich social department; and they may prefer administering with their own hands what they think proper to give away. If they do this, or if they do better still,—applying the money, not in alms of any kind, but in the employment of industry, or the encouragement of beneficial plans of a self-supporting character, they will come under the condemnation of platform censors who have jumped to the conclusion that an income of so much, in anybody’s hands, ought to yield so much to their particular “objects.” So far from caring for such censure, some of our best and most beneficent citizens are anything but distressed to hear, from one of the speakers, that “there is scarcely one of the religious and charitable societies of London that is not in a condition of anxiety and perplexity, as to openings for further usefulness, for want of funds:” and that one great missionary society has remained nearly stationary in regard to income while the wealth of the country has nearly doubled. As it is undisputed that more money is spent for other than personal objects now than at any former time. the necessary inference is that the citizens prefer other applications of their money than that of pouring it into a treasury where they will never hear more of it, and whence they know that some of it will be drawn for the salaries of secretaries, clerks, collectors, and other officials, constituting a large body, to be supported by public alms at home in the first place, before anything can be done for the heathen,—at such a distance abroad. It is to be hoped that the incomes of all charities approaching to the inscrutable will remain thus stationary, or diminish, till the wisest of the citizens can declare themselves satisfied with the results produced; and that every charity will be in a wholesome “anxiety and perplexity” as long as the suffering it professes to treat grows upon its hands in proportion to the bounty dispensed. The object of real benevolence is to cure the evil; and while the evil increases, instead of disappearing, there is the best possible reason for “anxiety and perplexity,” on other grounds than “want of funds.”

As for the duties and methods of beneficence which deserves that name, as being a real “doing of good,”—the large and long experience that we have had as a settled community should preclude, generally speaking, both anxiety and perplexity. Nothing can be plainer than the distinction drawn before our eyes, between charity and almsgiving; and, again, between poverty and destitution in the classes whom we must help. Charity means effectual help to whomsoever needs it, and in whatever way it is needed. While almsgiving creates immeasurably more evil than it relieves, the best sort of charity works towards the extinction of almsgiving. Again, the duty we owe towards the poor is widely different from that which we owe to the destitute. The poor are those whose labour, or other means, provides only the necessaries of their life, from day to day. They may be as independent as their wealthiest neighbour, in ordinary times: but any accident may render our assistance necessary to save them from destitution. As for the destitute, they must be maintained by the charity of the community, unless they can be raised from destitution into the rank of the merely poor. These simple and clear distinctions make our duty plain enough in a general way.

After discharging our duty in our own households, and among our own friends, the claims of true charity will be sure to present themselves. We must do what we can to save the poor from sinking, and to enable the destitute to rise: and the way to do either is not usually almsgiving. In order to save the morality of those whom we help, there ought to be no ultimate sacrifice of money on our part, though there may be gain on theirs. In other words, our modes of assistance should be self-supporting, as far as possible. This does not mean that almsgiving can be entirely discontinued, under the present circumstances of society,—nor in any age or country as long as famines, or a succession of bad seasons occur, or epidemics break out, or death casts young orphans on the care of society, or a retribution of economical sins, like the cotton famine, falls upon a multitude of innocent persons. The aged poor who are childless; the children who are fatherless; many of the sick, and of those subject to accidents; the helpless, from infirmity of body or mind,—all these are the naturally destitute, who must be supported by society; and we have to see to it, each one for himself, that we do our share.

More thought and pains are required in dealing with the higher class of the poor, whose independence is their one inestimable treasure. They may be effectually helped,—rendered comfortable and happy,—without ever “seeing the colour of our money,” or of any money, but their own earnings; and the more certainly, the more thoroughly they understand that we lose nothing by them. For instance, one excellent method of charity—properly so called—is rendering the dwellings of labourers fit for them to live in, on a paying plan. Model lodging-houses are good things in their way; and the better when they pay a good dividend to shareholders, because then the freedom between the occupiers and the owners is complete. Greater good still may be done by each of us who may have the means, or by groups of us, in the humbler way which has answered admirably wherever the plan has been carried out in a sensible way;—by improving existing dwellings. Where rows of cottages, or courts full of small dwellings, have been properly drained, ventilated, repaired, cleaned, arranged, and fitted up, with an enlightened regard to the health, comfort, convenience, moral habits, and independent feelings of the tenant, the plan has always proved a self-supporting, if not a profitable one. The case is the same with the eating-houses which are now spreading from Glasgow into various parts of the kingdom. My readers can enlarge for themselves the list of good charities which have no taint of almsgiving in them; and it will strike them what an impertinence it is, in such a case, to reckon up the income of a citizen, or of a neighbourhood, and to pass a censure for irreligion or inhumanity because the amount of almsgiving is apparently below the lowest mark,—of ten per cent.

“I always gave away in religion and charity ten per cent.,” said one of the speakers in St. James’s Hall, “though thirty-five years ago my income was only £75 a-year.”

Any one of the censured neighbours of these supervisors of morals may have given away more or less than ten per cent. of his income;—if more, without any possibility of their knowing it; if less, with an excellent chance of having done almost as much real good as their most reckless subscribers have done harm;—which is saying a great deal.

I need say nothing here of schools; both because education never is, and never can be, regarded as on a level with charities which feed and clothe; and because it is generally admitted that schools in which the children pay are better, and answer better, than “charity-schools,” commonly so-called. But there is one sort of institution on which a new light seems to be suddenly thrown which has struck me very much. Just at the time when the gentlemen in St. James’s Hall were applying their united forces to obtain the utmost possible amount of alms from the public, for the benefit of charity in general, and as a good thing per se, a humble rural society was issuing a brief report, the effect of which is to show what great good may be done in every village in the kingdom, without any call for alms at all.

The most rigid purists in political economy have always, I believe, admitted hospitals and dispensaries to be proper objects of the charity of the community. While urging the duty of private charity, in the form of upholding the respectability of the independent labourer, in opposition to the public almsgiving by which funds are confided to irresponsible administrators, to the great damage of the spirit of society, the economists have always admitted that medical advice and surgical treatment should be provided by the public for the benefit of labourers disabled by accidents, or by illnesses for which they could not have been prepared, and for which their means will not command the requisite treatment. We have all acquiesced in this, and have helped to support the County Infirmary, or the City Hospital or Dispensary nearest to our place of residence. By a movement, not of the economists but the neighbours and friends of the poor in two or three villages, we now see even some hospitals taken out of the short list of unexceptionable or inevitable charities, and placed firmly on a self-supporting basis. This is probably owing to the strong natural demand for the new institution.

Those of my readers who have lived for a shorter or longer time in a rural neighbourhood, have probably seen something of the distress and difficulty caused by any bad accident to a labouring man, or by a long illness in a small cottage. A poor fellow is reported to have fallen from the top of a rick, or to have got stabbed with a pitchfork, or to have tumbled when asleep from the shafts of his master’s waggon, or to have been jammed against a gatepost, or to have received a slash from a scythe. A boy out bird-nesting has trusted to a rotten branch, and has been found lying groaning with a broken leg. A cottager’s wife has scalded her arm on washing-day; or the baby has pulled over a bowl of hot water. I once saw a child who had been ferociously bitten in the cheek by a horse; and the mother’s agitation about getting him to the Infirmary was a thing not to be forgotten. There is, at County Hospitals, a pretty regular and very large percentage of accidents by firearms. All over the kingdom, lovers or playmates are always saying, “I’ll shoot you,” believing the gun not to be loaded, but finding that it was loaded. The incessant repetition of this kind of accident is, like the mischief of riding upon the shaft of a waggon, something astonishing. Then, there is the bursting of bad guns, or a stray shot from an awkward sportsman. There are little explosions from blowing up wasps’ or ants’ nests. There are troubles from runaway horses, or angry bulls, and risks from bathing or sliding in or on deep ponds. Till now, the sufferers have had the alternative of being laid up in their own poor homes, where there is no room, nor convenience, nor quiet by day or night, or being carried to the County Hospital. In some parts of England there is a third plan for those who have, or fancy they have, broken a bone. These travel any number of miles, over hill and dale, over good roads or rough stony tracks, to “the bone-setter.” I need not describe the journey, nor the effects of it on the tortured and fevered patient. In the best case,—that of immediate removal to the County Hospital,—the evil of the transit is very great. No one who has stood at the gate of an Infirmary on receiving-days, or when a casualty case is brought in, can have any doubt of the mischief and misery caused by the journey. In cases of disease it is a trial which the sick are ill able to bear to be separated from family and friends, and laid down among strangers to endure the days of pain and the sleepless nights they have to go through. It is not wonderful that country doctors everywhere complain that there is no getting diseased or hurt people to go into hospital.

At last, the idea occurred to somebody, that every place large enough to have a resident doctor might have its own hospital; and within the last three or four years the experiment has been tried in several villages with such unmixed success and satisfaction to everybody, that there can be no rational doubt of the extension of the plan over the whole kingdom. The Report of the Cranley (Surrey) Village Hospital is before me, signed first by Mr. Bradshaw, the present Chairman of the London Farmers’ Club.

After reading this Report, we know enough to see how to set about such a plan in our respective neighbourhoods. A house is taken which has room for six beds at least, which is in a healthy situation, and in wholesome condition, and near the doctor’s abode. A woman is put into the house to keep it clean, and do the work of it. A trained nurse—one of Miss Nightingale’s band, if possible—has the charge of the patients; and when there are none, she attends the women of the village in their lying-in, or in illness, on the payment of a certain fee. The hospital-patient pays a weekly sum, fixed, according to his circumstances, by his employer and the managers; and it does not appear that any difficulty is made about this. Probably it is on the whole an evident saving to the poor man to have his home relieved of the burden, and to have the cure so much accelerated as it is by the advantages of the hospital. The doctors are well pleased to have their most anxious patients close at hand, and under the most favourable conditions. It is a great change to the humane surgeon from having to ride far and wide, only to give orders which cannot or will not be obeyed, and to see the patients suffering from the noise of children, the intrusions of neighbours, the heat of the living-room, or the closeness of the bed-room, and from the miserable cookery of the cottage where the whole family has to live on nine or ten shillings a-week. Instead of this, the kind-hearted doctor finds his patient lying in quiet and comfort, duly physicked and daintily fed, under the charge of a qualified nurse, and of trustees, of whom the clergyman is always one. There is wine in the cellar, there are good things in the larder, bundles of old linen come in, and comforts for the bedridden; and the beds and easy-chairs are adapted for the treatment of broken limbs and the ease of the feeble frame. Wife or child may come in for a gossip at fixed times, and the only restraint is that they may not bring in food or drink without the doctor’s leave. Kind ladies, with well-known faces, often look in: and all the news of the village, and some from London and Foreign parts, finds its way into the hospital. The place is far more cheerful and familiar than the great Infirmary, and far more comfortable than the home which has no accommodation for sickness. Is it not natural that such an institution should succeed? and will it not be strange if it does not spring up all over the country? At Cranley, there were 23 admissions the first year (1859), and as many the next: and the number increased to 30 in 1861, nearly the whole being cases which could not have been properly treated in the homes of the patients.

Here there is no almsgiving, unless it be in the first instance, to open the house. The affair would cut no figure at all on the platform in St. James’s Hall, where the speakers, who blow a trumpet before one another, would frown on such a trumpery amount of almsgiving; but to those whose care is for the welfare of their neighbour, the institution is valuable, for the very reason that the good it does is unconnected with almsgiving. The patients and their families are benefited without any danger to their independence, or any loss of self-respect.

This is a single illustration of the best principle and method of charity, as the St. James’s Hall speakers are of the worst. There is probably no place and no time in which every one may not find opportunity for true charity, while there is no place or time in which we ought to admit the intrusion of self-appointed censors on our duty to our neighbour. I trust there will be no response to any man or group of men who may lay down the law about how much of our incomes we ought to bestow in alms. I will only add, that at times when, as at present, we are compelled to give alms to an unusual amount, we should be doubly careful not to neglect the higher kinds of charity in which the expenditure is of something better than money.

From the Mountain.