HC Deb 06 August 1866 vol 184 cc2100-6

who had given notice of a question upon this subject, was anxious to preface it with a few observations, and if necessary he should conclude with a Motion. The state of things in the East End of London was very alarming, but he imputed no blame to the Government; on the contrary, he wished to acknowledge the earnest anxiety which the President of the Poor Law Board and the noble Duke the President of the Council (the Duke of Buckingham) had displayed when representations were made to them on the subject. The House was probably aware that under the existing law all the powers of interfering on occasions of this kind were lodged with vestries and local Boards of Works, forming districts under the Nuisances Prevention Act. No doubt at the East End of London, where cholera existed to so great an extent, and which he was sorry to say was rapidly increasing, the Boards of Works had done a great deal towards carrying out the Orders of the Privy Council; but still they had come far short of the necessity of the case; and the results of omissions on their part affected not only themselves and those whom they immediately represented, but the comfort and convenience of the community so largely that he ventured to think that, under the circumstances, Her Majesty's Government ought to take some responsibility on themselves in reference to what may exist during the time Parliament is not sitting. He believed the whole community would welcome the interposition of some absolute authority in so serious an emergency. He might be allowed to mention two or three facts which had come within his own notice, and which he thought were facts that would justify the suggestion he had ventured to address to Her Majesty's Government. He was present that morning in Bethnal Green, where there was a population of 140,000, in company with an inspector who had been sent to this district by the Duke of Buckingham for the purpose of ascertaining what the state of the case was, and he found that no special arrangements had been made for burial, the usual slow process prescribed by the Poor Law Board being still in force. In Parliament Street and Hare Street the bodies of persons who died on Thursday were, up to yesterday, lying unburied, the inhabitants of the houses in question being very anxious to get rid of them, but finding no way of obtaining their removal. No hospital was yet opened in that district for the reception of cholera patients, not a single nurse was employed, and no medical comforts were provided by the vestry, except a provision of medicines and disinfectants, the application of these being left to the sick and their friends, without any supervision by qualified persons. These were facts which spoke for themselves, and which appeared to him to call loudly for attention at the hands of Her Majesty's Government. With regard to the separation of the sick from the healthy, he was authorized by the inspector to state that in Poplar yesterday he saw on a first floor a youth suffering from cholera, a man asleep in the same bed, and within the house on the ground floor, just underneath the bed, stood a most offensive privy and waterbutt. No power existed to remove the sick or the healthy, or to remove or deodorize the cause of the offensive smell. These and other circumstances of a similar nature had induced him to take the liberty of making this statement to the House, the importance and urgency of which he felt most deeply. The hon. Gentleman, in proposing the adjournment of the House, concluded by asking the President of the Poor Law Board, Whether, viewing the extensive outburst of Cholera in the Eastern districts of the Metropolis, the Government are prepared to allow Parliament to separate without providing the means of summary interference in cases where the vestries may neglect the enforcement of sanitary precautions, or may omit or delay the necessary arrangements for the care of the sick, and the separation of the healthy from the dying and the dead?


wished, before the right hon. Gentleman answered the Question, to second the Motion for adjournment, and to thank his hon. Friend for having brought the subject under the consideration of the House. Had he taken that step himself his motives might have been liable to misconstruction. There had of late been a considerable disposition to put Questions in that House respecting the condition of the poorer classes in different parts of the metropolis, and outside the House a number of wealthy and influential persons had repeatedly directed attention to the subject. He thought, however, that they looked at the matter from one point of view only, and showed no disposition to consider the real source of the evils of which they complained. He endeavoured, some years ago, to bring about an investigation of that source by means of a Committee, but he was always thwarted by official obstructions, and it was only when the existence of the Poor Law Board was imperilled, that official personages would consent to the appointment of a Committee to investigate the operation of the Poor Law in the metropolis and other parts of the country. That inquiry abundantly confirmed the view which he had taken, and the Committee recommended, as the only method of eradicating the evils which existed, an enlargement of the area of administration, coupled with an enlargement of the area of charge. They further advised that a special measure should be framed to meet the exceptional condition of the metropolis. What action, however, had been taken on that Report? An Act was passed for the whole country, but the metropolis was put off with an infinitesimal measure for the relief of the casual poor, which he believed was only carried because of its insignificance, and because it did not give any practical effect to the principles enumerated by the Committee. Again and again had he pressed upon the Poor Law Board the necessity of acting on the Committee's recommendations, but nothing had been done, and until something was done there would be a frequent recurrence of the evils complained of. Appeals were now very properly being made to the benevolence of the community, and these appeals had been nobly responded to by many distinguished persons, by none more conspicuously than by a lady who had done so much for the welfare of the poorer classes in the metropolis — he meant Miss Burdett Coutts. He was informed, however, by a gentleman who had studied the subject, that all the contributions of the wealthier classes of the metropolis put together would not amount to more than ld. in the pound on their incomes. If that were so, it showed how inefficacious a substitute private benevolence was for great public duties, and how necessary it was that the law should interpose to compel all persons to bear their due share of public burdens, whether willing or not. If such a measure of justice was rendered to those poorer districts, no difficulty, he undertook to say, would arise in grappling with the emergency; but at present all the sources of action were weakened and all the fountains of benevolence were dried up by a burning sense of injustice, the local authorities feeling themselves overwhelmed with burdens, while the wealthier classes were almost exempt. If those authorities were not equal to the dicharge of their duty, why did not persons of rank and position come forward to take part in the administration of affairs, and why was there not a Board of Supervision to bring to bear all the wealth and strength of the more fortunate districts upon the accumulated misery and misfortune of the poorer localities? Every one must deplore the calamity which had visited the metropolis. He recollected, however, predicting some years ago that such visitations would occur, and that the dead would be exposed in a way enough to make the people revolt against authority, unless steps were taken to alleviate these difficulties—a prediction which was now unfortunately fulfilled. Plenty of activity was displayed in the beginning of the Session in order to afford relief to the sufferers by the cattle plague, but now, when the Angel of Death was hovering over the metropolis, and when the greatest distress prevailed among the people, no disposition was shown to meet the difficulty in the proper way by obliging the rich to contribute to the necessities of the poor. Short as the remainder of the Session was, it was long enough for the purpose, if the disposition existed, to grapple with the difficulty. He commended the question to the consideration of the Government, and he warned them that it was idle to issue mandates from this or that Department to local authorities already overwhelmed by excessive burdens, for, exhausted as their resources were, they could not be expected to impose new charges on already over - taxed communities. The water supply had, no doubt, been a great source of the evil, but districts saddled with enormous rates for other purposes could not be expected to incur a large expenditure for a due supply of water. He had warned the House a few days since that the shortness of the supply of water was not only an inconvenience but was a source of danger and misery to the poorer classes, and that, if necessary, funds should be raised in order to enable that supply to be increased. He hoped that the Government would strike at the root of the evil, and then they would not be troubled again with a question of this kind, which arose out of that injustice and oppression which he and others believed was endured by the humbler classes of his country.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. J. A. Smith.)


I think that the observations of the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ayrton) have gone far beyond the question which has been addressed to me by the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. J. A. Smith). While, however, forbearing to comment upon his remarks, I must explain that the present Ministry, during the short time it has been in office, has not found it easy to deal with the difficulties connected with this subject, which preceding Governments have been unable to overcome. As to the administration of the Poor Law in the metropolis, I have already given the subject my best attention; I will continue to give to it as much consideration as possible, and I trust that when Parliament again meets I shall have at least some proposition to offer, which I trust will be acceptable, and which I can assure the hon. Gentleman will be framed in a spirit of sympathy with the poor, whether they be ratepayers or those who receive relief from the rates. The question put to me by the hon. Member for Chichester is of a different character. According to the law relating to the metropolis the responsibility of dealing with emergencies of this nature does not rest with the guardians of the poor, but with the various local vestries. The power of dealing with the various matters connected with the public health was retained in the hands of the vestries at their desire, notwithstanding that elsewhere such power had been placed in the hands of the guardians and of the local Boards of health. The vestries are under the Privy Council Office, where they have medical men at their command. The hon. Gentleman must recollect that we have just passed a Public Health Bill, which still continues throughout the country the powers now possessed by local bodies, and those bodies must not forget that they are now upon their trial, which in all probability will be a severe one, and that in the event of their failing to properly discharge their duties the powers now conferred upon them will be placed in the hands of others. To do those bodies justice I may observe that in many cases they are now—they ought to have done so before undoubtedly—making every effort to remedy the evils that exist in the poorer districts, and I hope that they will be able to cope with the difficulties with which they have to contend. They will be placed in a better position by the Bill we have just passed, and which, I hope, will become law to-morrow.


thought the right hon. Gentleman had scarcely answered one part of the hon. Gentleman's question in a manner which would satisfy the public. A dreadful plague had fallen upon parts of this metropolis, and it was believed, justly or not he could not tell, that adequate measures had not been taken to prevent that disease from spreading. The hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets said, with some appearance of justice, that the consequent burdens had fallen most heavily upon the poorer parishes; and, possibly, the question would arise whether, if parties thus burdened fell short in the discharge of their duties, it would not be from want of means. Now, that was a part of the hon. Gentleman's question to which the right hon. Gentleman had not addressed himself. Considering how very serious the calamity might become, he should have been glad had the right hon. Gentleman given the House an intimation that the Government would by a short Act have obtained some means of supplying any pecuniary want of the kind if they found that the requirements of the poorer districts were such as their means would not enable them to meet. If money could not reasonably be obtained in poor districts, then, either by a rate on the metropolis, or in any other way they saw fit, they could provide for the emergency. A penny rate in the metropolis raised something like £50,000. [Several VOICES: £60,000.] Well, that sum would go a long way towards providing precautionary measures, or the administrations of summary relief. It should be recollected that the cholera was not a gentleman who would wait until next February. He would do his work while hon. Members were away, and therefore he should have been glad to have heard from the right hon. Gentleman that the Government saw their way to some such measure as he had suggested.


reminded the House that he had made a suggestion similar to that offered by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Oxfordshire three days since, and the answer he had then received from the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Poor Law Board was, that he was not prepared to introduce any measure such as he had proposed. He should, therefore, throw upon the Government the responsibility of any evils that might arise from their neglect of the public interest.


as a member of one of the bodies referred to, could state that they had great difficulties to contend with in the discharge of their duties. The greater number of those bodies were most anxious to do their duty, and were using every exertion to remove all nuisances and dangerous obstructions in the metropolis. Their inspectors, however, told them that the owners of property would not do what was required of them, and that the magistrates would not convict when cases of refusal to remove nuisances were brought before them. They had thus to coax and persuade the owners of property to effect the necessary improvements, instead of being able to compel them by law to do what was right.


as a member of one of the local boards, observed that their great difficulty was that, although they had power to appoint inspectors of nuisances, they had no power to compel the removal of the nuisances which the inspector might discover and point out.


It would be, I think, most unwise if, in a moment of alarm, and in a great hurry, the Government were to come forward and to ask for an Act which would change the principle upon which our system of local administration has been framed. I can only say that if a great emergency arises, Government will not shrink from the responsibility imposed by the new position of affairs.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.