HC Deb 30 March 1865 vol 178 cc533-40

Order for Second Reading read.


in moving the second reading of this Bill, said, that if his Motion met with any opposition he should not press it at that late hour. The object of the Bill was merely to continue another which had already expired. As many people were anxious to know whether the measure was to be continued, and as he understood that no opposition was to he offered, he hoped the House would allow the second reading to he carried, and any discussion to take place on the Motion for going into Committee on Monday next.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. G. P. Villiers.)


thought that a question of such great importance ought not to have been brought on at such a late hour, involving, as it did, the credit of the metropolis, as far as the poor were concerned. [Mr. C. P. VILLIERS: The discussion can be taken in Committee.] He might say, that if he met with any encouragement on the part of the House he should propose to add to the Bill what he regarded as a most important clause when it went into Committee. The right hon. Gentleman had latterly, as he knew, exerted himself very much with a view to amend the condition of the poor; but he did not think that matters were in quite so satisfactory a state as the right hon. Gentleman had led the House to suppose on a former occasion. A glance at the streets would show that they were never so crowded with vagrants as at the present time, and that professional mendicancy had never attained such a height. The newspapers had lately been full of clothes-tearing cases—charges against mendicants who had gone into the workhouses seemingly for the purpose of rending their garments and going out again. Although the right hon. Gentleman would, no doubt, say that these cases arose, for the most part, from the establishment of refuges by private charity, he must say that a great many of these vagrants found their way into the metropolitan refuges established by the right hon. Gentleman. What was it, however, which had necessitated the establishment of refuges by private charity? Nothing but the deficiency of the Poor Law. It was that very deficiency which induced people to think that it was better that a percentage of imposition should take advantage of these refuges than that numbers of people should starve nightly or weekly in the metropolis. By a Report laid upon the table of the House on the previous evening, but not yet printed, he perceived that these refuges could accommodate about 1,000 people nightly, and that the total number received during the month of January last amounted to 27,583. Now, there were two points to which he wished specially to direct the attention of the House. The first was the practical working of the Act as regarded cases of real distress, and the other its practical working as regarded professional mendicancy. In respect to the former point he might say that the alleged emptiness of the workhouse wards might easily be accounted for, because as long as the doors were kept shut empty houses must be the result. The workhouses nearest to that House—St. Margaret's and St. John's, Westminster—according to the Return, contained sixty-two beds. He was there himself some time ago. He found some twenty or twenty-two beds. Where, then, did the remaining forty persons go? They had to go to Kensington, a distance of three miles, and at the termination of their walk they received four ounces of bread. He did not know whether the right hon. Gentleman considered four ounces of bread was sufficient relief for a poor and destitute man, but he must say he should be sorry to see the right hon. Gentleman reduced to the condition of a casual pauper. If the right hon. Gentleman were so reduced, he should like to learn the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman as to the satisfactory working of his own Act when, after surmounting the difficulties connected with one workhouse, and after arriving at another, tired and weary from the effects of a three miles' walk, he received that amount of sustenance as the reward of his labour. [The hon. MEMBER here held up a packet containing a very small quantity of bread.] The relief given was capricious and unequal, as was usually the case in the administration of the Poor Law. The average, however, was about 5½oz., according to the Report. In every case some warm and nourishing drink ought to be given. In the workhouse of St. Olave's Union the amount of relief given was 5oz. of bread in the evening, and the same in the morning, with as much water as the pauper chose to drink. They had all heard of cafás abroad where pain á discrétion was supplied; but it was reserved for an English workhouse to boast of its liberality in cold water. Beyond that he had to complain of the insults that were too frequently cast upon unhappy applicants for relief. A few days since he accompanied a poor man, a casual pauper, to the workhouse of a rich parish where he had been refused admission. At his request the man was admitted, but the workhouse porter told the poor man to "come in" in about the same tone in which a surly gamekeeper would address a half-broke retriever. The first amenity the man met with when he went into the workhouse was that, in answer to a statement he made, he was told he was a liar. It appeared that the man really told the truth, and the workhouse porter, who was above the average of such officials in courtesy, probably meant nothing by his language, which was only the ordinary workhouse mode of addressing casual poor. The recipient of out-door relief met with the same insulting treatment. He was informed by a gentleman that at Lambeth workhouse he saw a poor woman waiting with an order for some meat, and when she told her object to the porter she was told she could wait until she got it. She did wait three-quarters of an hour, and then she got it—but it was flung across the hall to her as to a dog, and she caught it in her lap. That kind of treatment had the effect of excluding the deserving poor, but did not exclude the regular vagrant, who was accustomed to that kind of language and could return it. According to the Report, in the parish of St. George's, Hanover Square, there had been 558 men who were refused relief in the month of January on account of the fitting up of the wards. He could not understand such an excuse in the middle of winter, when the Act was passed in June or July last year. However, he was not surprised at such conduct in St. George's, Hanover Square, which was a rich but eccentric parish, for he remembered a placard which hung outside the workhouse in Mount Street to the effect that notice was thereby given that the tramp ward of that workhouse was closed; consequently, although not strictly in accordance with the law, the poor had to go away unrelieved. In the City of London Union, according to the Report, there had been 3,116 males, 542 females, and 191 children relieved as casual poor. He thought he might safely say that at least 90 per cent of the males were young and able-bodied men, who were often relieved three or four times a week. The numbers showed a great inequality between the numbers of males and females, the latter of whom were principally deserving poor. The fact was that the treatment of the vagrant was too good, while for the deserving poor it was not good enough. There had been twenty-one deaths from starvation between November and February. He had heard it gravely stated that some of those persons so died by their own choice, and that they were sometimes even in possession of property, real and personal. He asked hon. Gentlemen whether they had ever found such convenient and accommodating eccentricities among their wealthy relatives. The Act was really inefficient. He had a letter from a workhouse chaplain, who, seeing some people lying on the steps of the workhouse, asked the porter whether they had been there all night; to which the man replied that probably they had. It was true that such a practice was often resorted to by professional beggars, who found it profitable to extort money from the 'sympathetic passers-by; but he had a clause to propose which he thought would prevent that practice in future. His proposition was simply to make the police relieving officers in their various districts. The idea was not a new one. In 1846 a similar plan was adopted, and London was divided into six districts. An asylum was to be built in each. Two of those districts consented to build such asylums, but the other four refused, and so the scheme fell to the ground. It was not necessary now to build new asylums, for the present accommodation would be found sufficient, if properly applied. In St. Paul's, Covent Garden, and the Strand Union the system he advocated was in full force. The poor person received a ticket for relief from the police, who were better judges of real distress and better acquainted with regular vagrants than workhouse porters. The right hon. Gentleman might reply that such was practically the case at present—that when a policeman took a poor person to the workhouse he received relief. But it was not the duty of the police to do so, and he wanted to make it their duty, and to make it the duty of the workhouse officials to relieve the poor so brought to them. The casual poor should be taken to the police station and then taken to the workhouse. If the casual ward should be full, the relieving officer should be called upon to find lodgings for the applicant. That system was working well in one district, and why should it not work well in another? It appeared to him to be a practical mode of dealing with the question. Vagrancy would diminish, while the casual poor would receive effectual relief. The parochial authorities could not object; the Home Office and Sir Richard Mayne could not object to it. Sir Richard Mayne had been somewhat harsh towards the poor costermongers, who were honestly endeavouring to earn a living, and also towards those unhappy men called "human sandwiches," or boardmen. Their calling was not dignified, but it was honest, and produced to them the miserable pittance which preserved them from being driven to crime, as in some cases had happened in consequence of the stoppage of their employment. There could be no better occupation for the police than to relieve distress and to remove vagrants and impostors. Why should not magistrates convict vagrants and impostors? He was told that there was a difficulty, but he could not understand why such persons could not be dealt with as easily as the poor costermongers or the unhappy women who were brought before the magistrates in consequence of the insatiable morality of a Regent Street shopkeeper. He should propose that the right hon. Gentleman should introduce into the Bill, in Committee, a clause to the effect that from the passing of the Act every metropolitan police station should be constituted an office for the issue of orders of admission for destitute persons requiring the same into the casual wards of the workhouses of the district in which the said police station was situated. If this or some similar clause be added to the Act, I believe it will go far to remove the disgrace and stigma which constantly recurring deaths from starvation have fixed upon this metropolis, and upon the civilization, humanity, and Christianity of the 19th century.


said, he was sorry that the Bill had been brought forward in its present shape, for he believed it to be the fact that while the refuges were full the workhouse wards were quite empty. The terms on which relief was offered to the poor at the workhouses were such that they would not accept it, and it was a cruel thing to delude them with such a snare as the measure now before the House. Owing to the harsh system which was adopted starvation reigned in the heart of London, and that starvation had greatly increased within the last few years. Two or three years ago there were only two cases a week of persons dying from starvation, while this year the number was five or six; and that state of things could be attributed, he thought, to no other cause than the more strict enforcement of the workhouse test which now prevailed. The Committee which had been appointed on the subject was no doubt very satisfactory to the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Poor Law Board, for it had completely whitewashed him; but it should be borne in mind that he whose acts were to be tried as the chief criminal sat as judge in his own case, and that it was not unnatural that he should end by acquitting himself. When he was at the Poor Law Board, Bethnal Green was considered a pattern parish; but if the right hon. Gentleman held out London as a model of what he wished England to be in reference to the relief of the poor, he trusted the House in Committee would introduce into the present Bill a provision which would render it more acceptable to destitute persons in the metropolis.


said, he very much regretted that so important a discussion should have arisen at so late an hour, because it was impossible to enter into those details which the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Bromley) had with so much knowledge of the subject unfolded. He could not, however, allow the present opportunity to pass without saying that he did not believe the Bill of last Session had failed from any defect in its principle; it was rather because hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House had sedulously laboured to destroy its useful action by limiting its operation to a period of a few months. For his own part, he did not think it could be expected to effect the good which it was intended to accomplish unless it were made a permanent measure. But be that as it might, he must express his astonishment that any hon. Gentleman who had the slightest acquaintance with the working of our Poor Law system could have given utterance to observations so mischievous as those which had fallen from the hon. Gentleman who had just spoken. To contend that the Poor Law ought to be framed so as to be acceptable to the poor, appeared to him to be, to say the least of it, a doctrine of a most extravagant character; and if that theory were carried out in the metropolis the greatest possible injury would be inflicted on the in- dustrious classes of the community, who maintained themselves, and whose interests ought to he considered.


said, he did not at that hour of the night feel called upon to reply to puerile personalities, and he would shortly therefore proceed to state a few facts to show that the Bill was not open to the objections which had been urged against it. It was a measure founded on the unanimous Report of a Committee upstairs, and the only objection which had been taken to it last year was that it was proposed at too late a period of the Session. That circumstance, indeed, it was which had induced the House to limit its operation, while the cause of its enactment was that no adequate provision was made for the destitute wanderers in the streets of the metropolis, inasmuch as they did not belong to any particular parish. It was thought, and with some reason, that the property of the metropolis should provide for the maintenance of those people, and there was a Return stating what had been the result of the proposal. The House would learn from that Return that whereas before the passing of the Bill there was no certain provision made in the union for the wandering destitute poor, under its operation sleeping accommodation had been secured for them to the extent of 900 beds. It should be borne in mind, he might add, when the superior treatment which they received in the refuges was spoken of, that they were subjected to no test or no check on imposture; but the Return from these refuges had been sent to the Poor Law Board, and it would, he believed, be in the hands of Members tomorrow. As to the present measure, however, it might have fallen short of the expectations of some, it had not failed in its purpose, and there were under its operation thirty-nine or forty houses where there were persons up during the night to receive those who stood in need of shelter. The reason why the police were not at first authorized to take persons to the workhouses was that it was not certain that the guardians of all unions would adopt the Act. They had now done so, and had made adequate provision for the reception of these poor people; and he therefore intended to propose—and he had informed the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Bromley) of that intention—that the police should be empowered to take to these places any person whom they saw simulating misery or soliciting alms in the streets. Under these circumstances he hoped that the House would agree to the second reading of the Bill.

Motion agreed to.

Bill read 2°, and committed for Monday next.