HL Deb 06 July 1837 vol 38 cc1809-22
Earl Stanhope

presented a petition from a place in Yorkshire (the name of which did not reach us), praying for a revision of the new law, with the view to correct some of its enactments. He had similar petitions from Bradford and from Throckmorton. In looking over these petitions, he owned he was surprised that the parties who entertained such opinions as they expressed with respect to the Act should not arrive at the conclusion, that it ought to be repealed altogether. In his opinion, nothing could or ought to be satisfactory to the country, but the entire repeal of the Act. There was one point on which he wished to put a question to the noble and learned Lord (Brougham), as to an opinion which he was supposed to have given in the discussion the other evening, respecting the powers exercised by the Commissioners, for he could assure the noble and learned Lord, he should regret that any erroneous notion of what he said should go forth to the country on this subject, carrying with it, as it must do, the great weight of his authority. He would beg to recall the attention of the noble and learned Lord to what was stated on the discussion to which he referred. It was stated, that Dr. Kaye had said, that it was intended to make the workhouses as much disliked as possible. To that, the noble and learned Lord was represented to have said, that he did not believe the words were used by any Commissioner; but that, if he had used them, he was wrong. Now, he (Earl Stanhope) was able to show, if it were thought necessary, that the words had been used by the party to whom they had been attributed. He could not believe (unless the noble and learned Lord himself affirmed it) that he had expressed his approval of all the regulations made by the Commissioners for the government of those workhouses. He could not believe, that the noble and learned Lord would have described what he (Earl Stanhope) should call an imprisonment as a "trifling restraint," or "inconvenience."

Lord Brougham

said, as far as he recollected the occasion and what was said, it was this—that being asked whether the Commissioners had power to imprison men in the workhouse, he answered, that the Commissioners had no right to imprison in the workhouse or elsewhere,—that no man, whether Commissioner or any other person, had a right to imprison any man any where except by due course of law; and he added, that he did not believe that any thing which the Commissioners had done could be construed into imprisonment. But it was clear that the commissioners had the power of making certain regulations for the government of the workhouses, and to those regulations the inmates of the workhouses must conform as long as they chose to remain there. There was a great difference between the inmates of a workhouse and of a prison—the difference between voluntary and constrained residence. In the one case the man went voluntarily to reside, and could go away when he pleased; in the other he was taken against his will, and obliged to stay against his will. In the workhouse, when an inmate wished to leave, he was to give a notice of three hours. This could not be considered unreasonable, for he had to change his workhouse clothes for those which he had brought in with him, and to get what little property he might have, little undoubtedly it could be, but such as it was it was important to him, and the getting those things in a large establishment would take some time. If there were no such regulation, a pauper might come in at the dinner hour, and, having dined, might go away, and thus the workhouse, which was intended for a very different object, might be turned into a dining-house. The pauper having quitted the house might come in again; for it was a great misunderstanding of the Bill to say, that when once a pauper went forth by his own desire he was not to be permitted to come back. He might come back on the same three conditions on which he had first gone in. These were, by an order from the Commissioners, or from the guardians, or, in the case of urgent necessity, by the permission of the keeper of the house. A submission to such regulations as these he had termed "trifling restraints," but had never meant to apply those terms to imprisonment.

The Bishop of Exeter

felt obliged to break through that rule which for the convenience of their Lordships he had made, of not again occupying their attention on this subject in the present Session. He was in a condition to prove, beyond all contradiction, that there were many instances in which paupers had been prevented from leaving the workhouse on the Sundays in order to attend divine service in their own places of worship. When the rules and regulations of the Commissioners should come before their Lordships, it would be seen whether such as these were amongst them. Those rules, however, though the order was made for their production early in June, had not yet been produced, and their Lordships had agreed with him in the motion that the said Returns be made forthwith. He begged to express his entire concurrence in what had fallen from the noble and learned Lord (Brougham) who had stated, that neither Commissioner or any other person had a right to imprison in any workhouse or elsewhere, and that such imprisonment could take place only by due course of law. This was an important authority, coming from one who was the friend of liberty; but he could not concur with the noble and learned Lord in his view of the rules and regulations which had been laid down for the government of the workhouses. The noble and learned Lord had said, that a pauper might go from the workhouse on giving three hours' notice; but suppose he desired to go to Church on a Sunday, he must then give his three hours' notice of leaving; but when he returned what was his chance of being re-admitted? Why, it must be subjected to the three conditions—the consent of the Commissioners, or guardians, or "a case of urgent necessity." But who was to be the judge of that necessity? The keeper of the workhouse; and if he did not think the necessity existed, the man might starve, and his family starve too; for, according to the wording of the rule, if he were an able-bodied pauper he must, on giving the three hours' notice of going, take his family with him. It was said that the pauper could come and go when he liked—that there was no such thing as imprisonment. Now, let their Lordships look at the rule laid down for the conduct of door-keepers in those workhouses. They were directed not to allow any person to pass into or out of the workhouse, except the officers of the house, without the leave of the master or mistress of the house. What was this but in effect saying to the unfortunate individuals whom misery had driven to seek an asylum in any of those houses, that they may be kept immured in them during the pleasure of the master or mistress of the house or the other authorities of the establishment. This was a tyranny which ought not to be submitted to. Was it not a tyranny to the poor to enforce a regulation by which the old and infirm pauper should be prevented from enjoying those common blessings which the God of us all had intended should be enjoyed by all? He begged not to be understood here as speaking of the able-bodied labourers who sought a temporary asylum in the workhouse. He spoke of those who could not work, whom age or infirmity had rendered unable to contribute to their own support. These had claims on the community which the law of God himself had declared sacred and indefeasible. Were parties thus circumstanced — were those who were as dear in the eyes of the God of us all as the most elevated in society—were these to be imprisoned?—were they to be shut up from all intercourse with external society merely because of the already heavy infliction of poverty brought on by age or infirmity? Such a state ought not to be endured, and he had no doubt that when the country came to understand it in its true light, it would not endure it. He did hope, therefore, that the noble and learned Lord, when he reconsidered those regulations which were to be the guidance of the discipline of the workhouses, would not give them his sanction.

Lord Brougham

observed, that if the right rev. Prelate thought that he would sanction that a pauper able to work should be allowed to go out of the workhouse as liked, after being fed and clothed, and enter into competition as a labourer outside with the labourer who worked hard for his family, and who neither obtained nor sought relief,—if he thought that he (Lord Brougham) would assent to a regu- lation by which such a pauper should come and go as he pleased, the right rev. Prelate had greatly mistaken him.

The Earl of Chichester

felt it necessary to say a few words in reply to some remarks which had been made by the right rev. Prelate. From his own experience of the working of the new Poor-law—and it had not been very slight—he could state that where it was most known, and where there had been the greatest experience of its effects, it had been hailed with the greatest satisfaction. It had been complained of as a hardship on the able-bodied man, that he was prevented from going out to seek employment. Now, the fact was not so. At least it was not so in those districts with which he was best acquainted. The able-bodied man was allowed to go out and look for work; and it was a fact, that after being in the workhouse for a time, he found less difficulty in getting work than before, for his misfortune in being driven to the workhouse raised him up friends amongst those to whom he was known, and means of employment were soon found for him out of the workhouse. The same thing could be said of the single women, for whom opportunities of employment in husbandry were procured. As to the refusal of parties to go out on Sundays for divine worship in their parish churches, he could only say that in the unions with which he was acquainted there was a room set apart for divine service, and a chaplain attended on Sundays. On that day all the inmates who were not prevented by conscientious scruples from joining in the worship of the Church of England were obliged to attend; but in cases where the parish church afforded sufficient accommodation, the inmates of the workhouse who were members of the Church of England were allowed to attend under the superintendence of the master of the workhouse, but in many of the parishes, as their lordships well knew, there was not accommodation for such numbers as the workhouse of a union would contain, and therefore a local place of worship would be necessary. Indeed, in all cases where it could be procured, he would prefer a local chapel for the inmates of the workhouse. As to allowing the pauper to go on each Sunday to his own parish church, at whatever distance it might be, he would say that the practice, whenever it took place, had been productive of great irregularity, great mischief, and great im- morality. This he thought was fully shown in the mass of evidence which had been laid before their lordships on the subject. With respect to the allowing the old and infirm to have constant egress and ingress, the regulation would in most instances be useless. Many of these were bedridden, and many so old and infirm as not to be able to avail themselves of the indulgence, and some of that class were of such previously known habits and character, that the guardians could not think of extending the indulgence to them. With respect to the able-bodied paupers, they were, it was well known, for the most part, the least useful, and the least respectable of their class. With respect to the industrious and diligent labourers, he could state from his own observation, that their condition had been greatly improved by the operation of this act. This was proved by the fact, that from Sussex, where the act had been in operation, there had been no petitions against it, except from the city of Chichester, where a local poor act was found to be much more stringent than the enactments of the general law. The fact of the general satisfaction given by the act where its operation was best known was further proved by what took place last winter, which was one of unusual severity in the agricultural districts, not alone from the state of the weather, but from the high price of flour and other necessaries. Notwithstanding those difficulties, there was more contentment amongst the poor who had been greatly aided by charitable offices among their neighbours, than had been known for many years. He had felt it necessary to trespass on the indulgence of their Lordships with these remarks, which he thought were called for by the observations of the noble Earl, and he should be always ready, as far as his humble powers would enable him, whenever such petitions as those now before the House, and accompanied with remarks such as those of the noble Earl, to point out, from what had fallen within his own observation, the great advantage which had resulted from the new Act, and the improvement in the condition of the poor in every district in which he had seen it applied.

The Earl of Radnor

said, the Poor-law Commissioners had been blamed for not having made before the present time a return to their Lordships' order; but the noble Earl and the right rev. Prelate seemed altogether to overlook the vast mass of other business which the Commissioners had to dispose of. They had not less than 2,000 letters a week. That of itself would, one might think, be enough to occupy the attention of a much more numerously-constituted board. It had come within his own knowledge that three clerks had been employed for some weeks in making out the called-for returns; and that as far as they had yet gone, those returns occupied not less than from 500 to 600 pages. If the noble Earl persisted in making a further addition to their labours in this respect, he (the Earl of Radnor) would certainly oppose the motion. In one union workhouse with which he was more particularly acquainted, the master was a gentleman who, in address and appearance, was as respectable as any of their Lordships. He had been educated for the bar, and was in all respects a most fit person for the office he had undertaken of master, and also schoolmaster of the workhouse. As to the treatment of the paupers, he was willing to let the comparison between the new and the old system rest on the testimony of those inmates of the workhouse who had experience of both, and they would all say that they had never before been treated so well. In a word, the new system was found fault with only by those to whom its operation was not known, and who had had no opportunity of witnessing its effects.

Earl Stanhope

had conversed with a person who had had the honour to serve under the noble and gallant Duke (Wellington) in the Peninsula, and he had informed him that the treatment in a French prison was considerably better than that was which was experienced in the new workhouses, which were the refuge for the destitute, both those who were able and those who were unable to work. And here he begged to say that he dissented from the right Rev. Prelate who had that night spoken, when he said that he felt little compassion for the able-bodied in the workhouse, because they might seek for employment. Now, he did not know whether there had been any design to render these workhouses places of punishment, but the practical effect of the law was to make them so. The noble and learned Lord opposite seemed to consider the imprisonment in these new workhouses as a voluntary penance, but the able-bodied labourer had no choice. If, when he found his situation within the workhouse intolerable, he went out, and could obtain no work in his own district, having no longer a habitation or a place of refuge, he must resort to the workhouse for shelter. With respect to the observations made by the noble Earl opposite (Radnor), that no complaints had been made of the treatment experienced in the workhouses where the new system had come into operation, he could state, that many petitions to that effect had been sent to him last Session from Sussex, which his secession from the House had prevented him from presenting. The noble Earl was perhaps not acquainted with the degrading and disgraceful thraldom in which the agricultural labourers were kept. So long as the labourer resided in the workhouse he was not allowed to leave it; the door was kept locked, and he was therefore as long as he was kept there imprisoned. The noble Earl was very much mistaken in supposing that this new Poor-law had produced great satisfaction in every place where it had been tried. It could not be supposed, that if so much benefit had been derived from it as was imagined, that there would not have been, not exactly petitions to that House, but earnest exhortations on the part of those parishes where the law had not been put into operation, addressed to the three Commissioners, praying that they might be placed under their paternal government. He allowed that petitions expressing satisfaction with the working of the measure had been presented, but they came principally from boards of guardians. There might be some from Rate-payers, but generally the petitions expressing approbation of the measure came from the board of guardians, although he should find no difficulty whatever in establishing the proposition which he had laid down the other evening, that this new Poor-law was principally recommended to its authors by the effect it was expected to have in reducing the rates, and preventing the gradual absorption of the property of the country by the increase of those charges, and although he could support that proposition not only by what was said by the promoters of the measure in their Lordships' House, but also by quotations from speeches of the noble Lord who was at that time Chancellor of the Exchequer, he was rejoiced at being relieved from that necessity, by its being admitted that a saving in the expense of the rates was of the least importance, and that the merits or demerits of the measure were to be judged of by the effect it was likely to have on the labouring population. He was willing to try it by that test; but he must observe that when any of those persons who expressed an opinion that the Act, to use the ordinary phrase, worked well, was asked how it worked well, his answer had always been, "There is a great reduction of rates." No doubt there had been some reduction in the Poor-rates, but it was also true, that if this law had never been enacted a considerable reduction would still have taken place. This had been shown by the reductions which had been actually made under that head in those places where the new Poor-law had never come into operation. It was said the other evening by a noble Marquess (the Marquess of Tavistock) that there had been an enormous saving of rates in Bedfordshire, and that there was no want of employment there. Now, it must have occurred to the noble Marquess if he had taken the pains to reflect, that the reason of this enormous saving was the increase of employment, and if great works had not been undertaken, and other means of employment provided, they would have found it impracticable to carry the law into operation in any part of the country. It appeared to him that the expenses of the establishment in these unions were enormous. He would take the case of the Royston Union, in the county of Cambridge. There the expense of the establishment was returned to be 2,262l., and the whole amount of persons relieved was only sixty-two. He knew a person who resided within that union, who stated that the amount of Poor-rates in the parish in which he lived had been increased 100l. by the operation of this law, and what did the same Gentleman say as to the poor there? He declared that the labourers were selling piecemeal their little property to save themselves from going into the workhouse. He would now take from the return eleven unions: Hungerford and Wantage, in Berkshire; Royston, in Cambridgeshire; Bridge, Milton, and River, in Kent, Hendon, in Middlesex; Banbury, in Oxfordshire; Hoxne, in Suffolk; Midhurst and Rye, in Sussex. The total expense of these unions was returned to be 37,321l., and the number of persons relieved 1,615, so that the average expense of in-door relief for those individuals was 23l. 2s. 9d. a-year per head, making a charge of nearly 9s. a-week for each person. Thus, then, they actually imposed a greater expense on these parishes than they had to sustain before. Their Lordships need not be told that in Devon, and parts of Cambridge, the wages of the labourer were only 7s. a-week, and he might be employed out of the workhouse at that rate instead of costing the parish 9s. a-week within it. Even if he were unable to work, he would be happy to keep out of the workhouse for a third of the sum which it cost to keep him in. The total number of persons who had received in-door relief, according to the return, was 18,852, and the average expense for each was 15l. 6s. 10d. per annum, or 5s. 10d. per week, so that the expense of keeping these individuals in the workhouse was considerably greater. than they would cost at home. On the other hand, the average expense incurred for out-door relief was 4l. 7s, per annum for each individual, amounting to the very magnificent allowance of about 1s. 4d. per week. It was observable that in the first three quarters of the last year the heads of families only were put down as receiving relief, but taking the average of the last quarter of 1836 the average expense would be for each individual about 1s. 3d. so that in fact great sums of money were wasted, not for the comfort of the poorer population, but for their punishments. Their Lordships would find that the column in the return made by the Poor-law Commissioners containing the amount of Poor-rates showed a decreased percentage of forty-eight per cent. Now, the expenses under the head of "establishment" clearly did not include the expenses which had been incurred for sending agricultural labourers to Canada or to manufacturing districts. He had much satisfaction in reading an extract from a report on the Blything Union, in Suffolk, made on the 14th January, 1837, because the noble Earl on the cross bench (Stradbroke) would be able to correct him if any misstatements were made. The Report said, "In the spring of the year (1836) 173 men, 106 women, and 245 children, making a total of 524 individuals, were embarked for the British colonies at the charge of their respective parishes, from whom the most gratifying accounts have since been received, and 130 mi- grated to the manufacturing districts, where they are reaping the fruits of their industry and skill." Now here were 524 individuals exported from the country, which lost, therefore, so many consumers of produce, and so many payers of taxes, and exported at an expense to the country which could not on an average be less than 6l. per head. Now, let it be observed that in this Blything Union the reduction in the Poor-rates was stated not to be less than fifty per cent. He felt persuaded that if the expenses of migration and exportation had been added to the Poor-rates, a very different result would have been obtained, and there would have been an increased percentage under that head. He would now read an extract from a letter written by a Gentleman in Suffolk, in whose judgment and veracity he had the fullest reliance, bearing upon the same part of the subject:— "Six of the best labourers in England with their six wives and their forty-five children, are gone to America, from within five miles round me this month, and all declare that they are at heart utterly against going, but that they have been driven to volunteer from the hatred they have to separation and half-starvation within these prison-houses, and the dread and horror they have of almost certain starvation under the practice of the new Poor-law out of these prisons. It may be said, why do farmers and tenantry send away so many of the best labourers, the very heart's blood of the country? I answer, with the following case as an example:—A small agricultural parish met lately, and there was amongst the farmers an opposition to sending a score of persons to America. Five landlords, however, had thirty-three votes, and there were not twenty other votes in the parish, so it was of no use opposing them." [The Duke of Richmond inquired the name of the parish?] It was not stated. With respect, however, to the Blything union, their Lordships would observe, that in the spring of last year, no less than 654 persons migrated or emigrated from that union; the total population of the union being 25,000, and there being consolidated in it forty-nine parishes. It was stated in the Report, that the 130 persons who had migrated to the manufacturing districts, were reaping the fruits of their industry and skill. But what was the case with those people at present? The fact was, that from the present deficiency of employment and stagnation of trade, they had been hawked about from place to place, in the hopes of employment being found for them, but they had not returned to their own homes, because that would show the fallacy of the whole scheme, and expose the delusion by which they had been led away. The real truth was, that the agricultural labourer did not go to the manufacturing districts voluntarily, but under the hard pressure of necessity, and utterly ignorant of the nature of the work that would be exacted from him. Even if he were successful in his object, the employment of his children was not a permanent relief to him, because the moment they ceased to be children, their labour ceased to be valuable, and they were returned to their own homes, not, however, as they left them, but crippled and broken down. The noble Earl concluded, by moving for various returns.

The Duke of Richmond

observed, that his noble Friend had admitted his ignorance of the meaning of the expenses charged under the head "establishment." In every union, each parish was separately charged for the relief of its out-door poor, and the establishment expenses comprehended the payments made to the master of the workhouse, the chaplain, the medical man, the clerk, the relieving officers, and the cost of the building, of the furniture, and the repayment of money borrowed for the building. All these expenses came under the head of "establishment charges," and were defrayed by a quota from each parish. With regard to what the noble Earl had stated, as to a reduction in the poor-rates, he thought that no saving of expense could justify anything like oppression to the poor of this country. He contended, however, that the measure had been of very great benefit to the poor. The noble Earl, on the other hand, maintained that it was a great hardship to force a man who was earning 7s. or 8s. a-week—not to go and live in Germany—but to allow him to go into a manufacturing district, where he could earn 26s. or 27s. a-week. The noble Earl spoke about forcing the labourers of Sussex to do this. The noble Earl, however, showed that he knew very little of the labourers of Sussex, if he supposed that they could be forced to do anything. They would not do anything they did not like. They were too independent for that, and he was glad to say, that by the operation of the new Poor-law, they were becoming more and more independent. He had never heard the same complaints made in a higher station. If he had paid the expenses of a gentleman's passage to India, he should have been rather surprised if he had heard the gentleman pitied for being subjected to such a hardship. As to the migration of the labourers not being voluntary, he would cite an instance within his own knowledge, which would show what were the feelings of the labourers of Sussex upon that subject. When the new Poor-law Act first came into operation, an agricultural labourer, of good character, requested the board to allow him to migrate, to see if he could not better his condition. "Why," said the board of guardians, "we do not understand much of this migration system, but you shall go to Manchester for a fortnight at our expense, inquire how things are going on, make your own bargain, and tell us what you think of it." The man went, stayed the fortnight out, and on his return went to the board of guardians and said, "Gentlemen, I have one favour to ask of you, and that is, to allow me to go to Manchester immediately. But I have another favour to ask of you; I have a brother in the parish, and I hope you will allow him to go with me, together with his family." As to the increase of emigration, the noble Earl was mistaken. Emigration went on before the new Poor-law came into operation; but so far from being on the increase, it was rather on the decline. Again, the habits of the labourer were becoming more careful and saving. He now carried part of his earnings to a saving-bank. Formerly, they were afraid to do this, lest the overseer should find it out, and they should lose their share of the head-money which was then paid to every man who had three children.

The Earl of Stradbroke

said, that those persons who had been sent from Suffolk to Canada had every one of them expressed in the strongest terms their obligations to the Board of Guardians for so kindly contributing to their comfort and happiness; and, short as had been their stay there when the accounts were despatched, they had made considerable profits. With regard to those labourers who had migrated under the rules and regulations of the Commissioners to the manufacturing districts, the engagements which they made were for three years, and their master was obliged to find them employment, and to pay them their wages during that time. They were, therefore, still employed by their master, according to the terms of their engagement with him. The noble Earl had stated, that the poor were made uncomfortable in the new workhouses. He had himself made personal inquiries of them, whether they were as comfortable as they had been under the old system, or not, in the Blything union, and he had been assured by the paupers that they were infinitely more comfortable and happy in every respect than they had been under Gilbert's Act. He had felt a great interest in the measure, and had taken some pains to make himself master of its principles and details, and he felt bound to state, with respect to Suffolk, that in every district of that part of England the success of the measure had not only been most complete, but had given the greatest satisfaction to the upper and middle classes. He could also state, that without exception, wherever the new law had had a fair trial the labouring classes were fully impressed with the excellence of the measure.

Lord Ellenborough

said, that the returns which were desired could not be made, unless the Commissioners were sent again into the different unions. When sent, they would have to look into the quarterly accounts of the unions, which were 600 in number. They would, therefore, have to examine 2,400 accounts. They could only do so by great labour, and he doubted whether the result would be at all commensurate in value.

Earl Stanhope

could see no difficulty in making the returns; he would, however, with their Lordship's permission, withdraw his motion.