The Gentleman's Magazine/1780/06/Letter from Dr Lettsom

Letter published in the June 1780 edition of The Gentleman's Magazine

Letter from Dr. Lettsom—Dr. Lettsom's Hints for assisting the Poor


June 10

Mr. Urban,

When an event has been communicated to the public, accompanied with such peculiar circumstances as to excite attention, or demand assistance, the public have a claim to every explanation respecting the help afforded, and the benefit produced; but where benevolence and humanity have information peculiarly interested, such information is indispensably requisite, in order to obviate any suspicion of deception, and thereby encourage the future exertions of public generosity. The case I would particularly allude to was inserted in your Magazine for January last, giving some account of a poor family in such extreme distress, that they must have perished, had not immediate succour been extended, which in justice to the community was speedily and abundantly applied.

The assurance that a happy change in the situation of this family has since taken place, I thought would convey pleasure to many of your readers, and exhibit a striking instance of the favourable estimation in which your Magazine is held by the public. I am persuaded also that the well-timed relief which this family has in consequence experienced, was not the only good effect produced. As the distress of many of the poor throughout the nation, and particularly in the metropolis, has encreased from various causes to extreme misery, a disposition to beneficence has been proportionally excited in those of superior situations; and where want has crept into the habitations of the poor, charity has been animated by a divine ardour to pursue and expel the unfriendly intruder.

When the present exigencies of the times are considered, it is not a matter of surprize, that a poor man, with a large family, from want of employment, or by the visitation of sickness, should be reduced to extreme indigence. This, however, is gradually incurred; the first step towards poverty, with only trivial aid applied in the instant, is easily reclaimed, and the progressive descent prevented; but as distress encreases, the difficulty of obviating it is augmented: it is, therefore, of the utmost importance to the community to close the wound, on the first application, with the oil and the honey, before it cankers; and becomes incurable. This was the conduct of the good Samaritan who without enquiring into the principles, or country of the traveller, generously administered immediate relief. It is this kind of attention to the first appearances of wants that enables a religious society to boast, that there is not one distressed person in their community unnoticed or unrelieved. I have often lamented that such a system of conduct, which has uniformly succeeded for upwards of a century, has not been adopted more generally in parishes. On the contrary, the poor supplicant, instead of finding pity and protection, is too often repulsed by those who hold the power of relief in their hands, with threats of a work-house if they renew their petitions and again urge their necessities.—There is a love of freedom in the human breast; it is the birthright and boast of an Englishman, who ill-brooks unmerited restraint.—A man with such feelings, when oppressed with unavoidable want, is apt to ascribe every instance of neglect to a contempt of his poverty; and thus chagrin of mind is added to his other miseries. It is therefore the duty of those in higher stations, to treat the poor with peculiar tenderness, even where they cannot grant their requests; and with respect to persons entrusted with the care and provision of the poor in parishes, the immediate extention of relief, when first required would not only render the distressed object happy, but eventually save accumulated expences to the community—it would enable him at an easy rate to stem the present torrent, encourage him to future exertions of industry, and thus preserve him from becoming a lasting burden to the parish, and a real loss to the public.

Though I have mentioned freedom as the birthright of an Englishman, I would be far from defending the least appearance of licentiousness among the labouring poor: but when we consider the immense importance of this class of people, their executive powers in manufactures, in commerce, in arts, and bodily labour, which are great national concerns, we cannot be too cautious of depressing this love of independence, the genuine fruits of which are virtue, industry, and public spirit.

Indeed our happiness requires us to make this part of our fellow creatures happy, as there is no possibility of intentionally rendering others happy without rendering ourselves so; neither is it possible to procure happiness for ourselves, without first procuring it for others—Happiness, therefore, is reciprocal, and is of all things the most easily purchased; for beneficence is the source of true happiness, and the occasions of exercising it are innumerable.

J. C. Lettsom.

P. S. In your Magazine for the last month, a writer, under the signature of "A Friend to Humanity," has very politely noticed my endeavours in favour of the late Captain Carver, and recommends a new edition of his Travels by subscription, for the relief of the widow and children——I approve the writer's scheme, and acquaint him that it has been in part executed.


This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.