HL Deb 01 June 1837 vol 38 cc1138-49
The Bishop of Exeter

presented a petition from Maccles-field, praying either for the repeal of the Poor-law Act or for some very important alterations in that law. He would take that opportunity of addressing a few observations to their Lordships in relation to the motion of which he had given notice a few nights ago. He would preface what he had to say by stating, that he in submitting that motion to their Lordships meant nothing in the way of censure, or inculpation of any sort, of the Poor-law Commissioners. He had the happiness of knowing one of those Commissioners, and he was sure that neither that right hon. Gentleman, nor, he believed, any of his colleagues, was disposed to act in a harsh or unfeeling manner. He was well aware that no positive and general order had been issued by the Commissioners prohibiting permission from being given to paupers in workhouses to go out to attend divine worship in the parish churches on Sundays; but the fact was, that such a regulation was very generally carried into effect, and a return which had been made to their Lordships' House proved that it was in force in the union of Worcester. According to that return, one class of the inmates of the workhouse were permitted to attend divine service at chapels—namely, such paupers as might be members of Dissenting congregations, provided they returned in time to the workhouse. There was, however, established a prohibition with regard to persons not coming within that description. He felt bound, in justice to the Commissioners, to say, that the gentleman who had favoured him with this communication had received a letter from the board of guardians in Worcester, stating that they had not received any order from the Commissioners prohibiting paupers going out of the workhouse for the purpose of attending divine worship at the parish church on Sundays. But, though no precise rule had been issued by the Commissioners to that effect, yet it was clear that the whole course of their proceedings went to establish such a regu- lation. The union proposed certain rules for confirmation or rejection by the Commissioners; and if confirmed, they then became the regulations by which the proceedings of the board of guardians were conducted. It was plain, therefore, that the regulations of the Worcester union, prohibiting paupers who were members of the Church of England from attending divine service at the parish church, having been submitted to the Commissioners or sanctioned by them, was in point of fact virtually the act of the Commissioners. He spoke on authority well known to their Lordships—the second annual Report of the Poor-law Commissioners. It was stated in that report that "attempts have been made, in almost every form which ingenuity could suggest, to evade or subvert the rule which renders it necessary for a pauper who resorts to the workhouse for maintenance to continue altogether within its limits during the time he receives relief. The most powerful of the attempts to break down this essential rule have reached us in the form of applications that paupers should be permitted to go out on Sundays for the purpose of attending places of worship." This extract of itself showed what was the principle upon which the Poor-law Commissioners acted; they called the rule essential, and they said it would be impossible to maintain the rule if the important part relating to prohibition were not enforced. He must observe, that the conduct of the Worcester Union did not seem to accord very strictly with those precepts of the Commissioners. He rejoiced, however, that the guardians of the union had deviated from the principle; for if they had not, there would have been committed a most serious violation of the common lights of liberty belonging to the members of the Church of England, and to the Dissenting inmates of the workhouses, as well as a grievous infringement of the principle of toleration, inasmuch as the latter would have been prevented from attending their own places of worship, whilst they would have no opportunity of assisting in public worship within the walls of the poor-house. It was stated in a letter addressed to the Poor-law Commissioners by an Assistant Commissioner, Mr. E. C. Tuffnell, that, "in fact divine service performed in the workhouse only differs from that in parish churches by the room being smaller and less decorated, the absence of an organ, and the inferior pomp and circumstance of the celebration. These are points which may possibly be of importance in a religion of forms and ceremonies, but are assuredly worth little consideration to a Protestant population, who profess a religion of the heart, and who worship God in spirit and in truth." If that letter merely expressed the individual opinion of the writer, he would not have called their Lordships' attention to it; but the strongest approbation was bestowed on the writer's sentiments by the Commissioners in their report, so that the letter is announced as containing the views of all the Commissioners who were empowered to regulate all the unions within the realm. He would appeal to their Lordships whether the only difference between divine service performed in a workhouse and a church consisted in a less or greater degree of pomp and circumstance. Their Lordships were well aware that that constituted only the smallest part of the difference. Their Lordships knew that the great object why paupers should attend their parish churches was, that they might return thanks, with their superiors, to their common God and Father. It was then that the pauper's heart swelled, not only with gratitude to his Maker, but with contentment, and thanks for that dispensation which offers to him beyond the grave, it might be, a happier and better lot than would befall the greatest and proudest whom he saw around him. He need not attempt to describe the feelings which naturally arose in their Lordships' minds when joining in prayer with their humble fellow-countrymen in the House of God, in which all were equal; but he asked them, would they allow that the poor man should be prohibited from attending his parish church, and joining with them in common worship of their common God, and having his feelings of gratitude heightened by the consciousness that there, at least, he stood on an equality with the proudest in the land? But was such the case according to the regulations established under the Poor-law Act, and was the Protestant population of this country to be called on to sanction those regulations? He, for one, repudiated them. He must say, and he said it with shame and grief, that it was disgraceful to the reformed population of this land, that there did not prevail so strong an idea of equality of ranks in the House of God as did exist in Roman Catholic communities. Their Lordships' were aware that in Roman Catholic Churches the highest and greatest nobleman in the land kneeled in prayer by the side of the most destitute pauper. He grieved to think that it was owing to our system of pews that the same practice did not prevail to the same extent in the Protestant Churches. Whatever advantages the "pew system" might have, it was attended with this enormous disadvantage, that it led to a most grievous usurpation of the hest rights of the poor, because in many places it made it difficult, and in some places impossible, for the poor man to worship his Maker in common with his more wealthy neighbours. But was this a reason why another step should be taken in the wrong direction, and the poor be excluded, not only from pews, but from their parish churches, if they were so unfortunate as to require relief from the parish? He protested against the prohibition established under the Poor-law Act, and he was sure their Lordships would be of opinion that some mode must be devised by the Poor-law Commissioners for carrying their measures into effect which would not interfere with the rights of the poor. If what he had stated was not sufficient to convince their Lordships of the impropriety of the rule to which he had called their attention, he might appeal to the state of the law on the subject. Of course it was with diffidence he offered his opinion on a point of law; but, nevertheless, he felt it to be his duty frankly and fairly to declare what was his own strong conviction. He believed, then, that the prohibitory regulation of which he complained was contrary to the common law of England. Their Lordships needed not to be told by him that the canon law of England before the Reformation, in so far as it was not repealed by the statutes of Edward and Elizabeth, was, and is now, part of the common law of the land. Now, it was stated by one of the greatest authorities on ecclesiastical law, he meant Gibson, Bishop of London, that "by the common law or practice of the Church of England no person can be duly discharged from attending his own parish church, or warranted in resorting to another, unless he be first duly licensed by the ordinary by licence under seal, which licences are very common in our ecclesiastical records." It was not his intention to suggest that that law should be carried into effect. All he stated was, that such was the law; and that, consequently it could not be permitted that any regulations in defiance of the law should be made or sanctioned by the Poor-law Commissioners, however great their powers might be, and enormous and unparalleled they certainly were, except by the authority which was conferred on the Commission in the reign of Edward 2nd, enabling that body to govern the country with all the powers of royalty. But supposing he was wrong in his notion respecting the common law of the land, he certainly was not deceived with regard to the statute law. By the 1st of Elizabeth, chap. 2, by the 23rd Elizabeth, chap. 1, sec. 5, by the 3rd James, chap. 4, the duty of attending divine worship was strongly enforced, and very severe penalties were imposed for neglect by the statute of James. He might be told that that was a very old law, and he confessed that he should be unwilling to see those provisions imposing penalties carried into effect. But it had pleased the Legislature to keep that law on the statute book! it had not been retained by mere inattention, for a distinct enactment had been passed, the 31st George 3rd, chap. 32, sec. 9, declaring, that "all laws for frequenting divine service on Sundays are confirmed, unless such persons frequent a legal dissenting congregation." Such being the law, it is not within the competency of the Poor-law Commissioners to set it aside. Before he sat down he would take the liberty of reading another extract from the Report of the Poor-law Commissioners. They stated, that "It is necessary for us however, to add, that in workhouses in which no chaplain had been appointed, and in which no adequate accommodation exist, for the performance of divine service, the rule has been relaxed, and the inmates of the house have been, for a time, permitted, under certain regulations, to go out for the purpose of attending divine worship." It therefore appeared that the prohibition had been in some cases relaxed, and he should include in his motion a demand for a copy of the regulations which were now enforced when the rule was relaxed. He thought that he must have convinced their Lordships that a general prohibition to attend divine worship was established under the express sanction of the Poor-law Commissioners, and he had not therefore wasted their Lordships' time by calling their attention to an evil which had no existence. The right rev. Prelate concluded by moving "That there be laid before this House a copy of any rule or rules made by the Poor-law Commissioners, preventing the pauper inmates of workhouses from attending divine worship in their several parish churches on the Lord's-day. Also a copy of any regulations adopted by the board of guardians of any union or parish to the same effect which may have received the sanction of the Poor-law Commissioners. Also a copy of any regulations under which the pauper inmates of workhouses may have been permitted, under the sanction of the said Commissioners, to go out on Sundays to attend divine worship."

The Duke of Richmond

regretted that the right rev. Prelate in making this motion had not abstained from attacking the Commissioners, of one of whom he himself expressed himself in such high terms. If the right rev. Prelate had first ascertained the facts of his supposed case of the favour shown to Dissenters, he would hare found that it was a rule, adopted on the soundest principles, that the inmates of workhouses were not permitted to leave them without three hours' notice, and that then they were not permitted to return except by order of the relieving officers or board of guardians. The right rev. Prelate, in insisting on the importance of paupers attending their parish churches, seemed to be ignorant of the fact that, in many places, the size of the parish church would be quite inadequate to the reception of the pauper inmates of a union workhouse, in addition to the population of the parish. If paupers coming from a parish whose church was perhaps seven miles distant from the workhouse were allowed to go out for the purpose of repairing to their church, the extreme probability was, that the greater part of them would save themselves the walk by repairing to the nearest beer-shop. Indeed, in cases where paupers had been so let out, the fault in a great number of instances was, either that they had not gone to church at all, or that they had been turned out of the church in a state of drunkenness. The right rev. Prelate's proposition was more calculated to benefit the beer-shops than to promote religion. The church service was regularly read and sermons delivered on Sundays in the workhouses, by chaplains appointed, with good salaries, by the boards of guardians, and the ministers of other sects had unlimited access to Dissenters. It would be a mere encouragement to the idleness and debauchery which brought so many persons into the workhouses, if paupers were allowed to leave it when they pleased. He deeply regretted that the right rev. Prelate should have seized this opportunity to indulge in an attack against the principles of this measure, and the large powers necessarily given to the Commissioners. It was a measure which had already produced the most bene- ficial effects on the morals of the country, and it was peculiarly to be regretted that the right rev. Prelate should have made so strong a statement on the subject, at the present moment, when the principle was about to be carried into execution in so many parts of the country, in the manufacturing districts especially, where already so much clamour had been made on the subject. This proceeding of the right rev. Prelate tended to increase the undue prejudice against the working of the measure. If the right rev. Prelate's views were acceded to, it would be indispensable in their Lordships' House to recommend to the other House the bestowal of large grants for the building of new churches throughout the country. To say that old men of seventy or eighty should walk seven miles from the workhouse to the parish church was preposterous.

The Earl of Malmesbury

said, that however much he might be opposed to the Poor-law Act, no man was more disposed than he was to discuss its provisions in calm and temperate language, but he could not abstain from saying that the statement of the noble Duke fully justified his (the Earl of Malmesbury's) opposition to the formation of extensive unions. The noble Duke had very properly said, that it was not to be expected that the feeble and the aged could go to a church situated seven or eight miles from the workhouse; but why, he asked, should the pauper ever have been removed to that distance from his church? One objection to allowing the paupers to quit the workhouse was, the probability of some of them getting drunk; but if a few were guilty of that offence, surely that was no reason why the whole should be punished. It would be very easy to prohibit those who had once misconducted themselves from going out on a second occasion. The use of a chaplain in a workhouse was only to administer religious consolation to those who from their infirmities were unable to attend their parish church; but those who were able to do so certainly ought to attend their own churches. It was, he thought, a most unfortunate thing that an Act should have passed vesting such unlimited powers in the hands of the Commissioners. A moderate Act he would have supported, but to the recent Act he had at first objected, and still continued to object, and he would earnestly entreat those in whose hands was the power to revise the regulations complained of, which, in adding to the misfortune of the unfortunate, were both unfeeling and unjust. He felt sure that now that the attention of the Commissioners had been called to the subject, they would apply themselves to the question, so as to enable the well-behaved paupers to enjoy those religious advantages that should not depend upon rank or wealth, but should be equally open to all.

Earl Fitzwilliam

denied, that the new Poor-law Act treated poverty as a crime. It did say, indeed, that when a man called on others for relief these should be entitled to annex to the giving of such relief such conditions as they might think necessary to secure themselves against imposition; but this was not treating poverty as a crime. With respect to carrying out that common and statute law which the right rev. Prelate stated to exist in this country on the subject, he should wish to ask him, as the noble Duke had already asked him, whether he thought it possible, in a union of even moderate extent, for the persons belonging to all the parishes in the union to attend the different parish churches within it? The right rev. Prelate charged this against the Commissioners as a fatal error in their administration of the law, but it was a principle the strict adherence to which would greatly promote the success of the measure. As well might it be insisted that when the militia of Devon, for instance, were assembled in Exeter, each individual should repair on the Sunday to his parish church. It would be almost impossible for the inmates of a workhouse to go to their different parish churches on the Sunday. The right rev. Prelate must well know that there was nothing more important than to form the people into congregations; that it was most essential for the administration of religion that the person who administered religious service and the people to whom he administered should stand in defined relations to one another; that the minister should have his own congregation and the congregation its own minister. It followed that it was a wise regulation that a chaplain should be appointed for the inmates of each workhouse. Suppose, now, that the rule was the other way, that the inmates of workhouses were compelled to attend their respective parish churches on the Sunday, would this not be held up even by the right rev. Prelate as a grievance on the aged inmates of these workhouses, to say nothing of the younger men. He sincerely trusted that the effect of the right rev. Prelate's motion and speech would not be to excite still further that mistaken hostility to the measure which unfortunately prevailed in some of the northern parts of the country.

Viscount Melbourne

believed, from what the right rev. Prelate had stated in the course of his speech, that it was not on light grounds he had brought forward this motion; but the right rev. Prelate had taken a course which could only add to the excitement which already prevailed in the country in reference to this question. Nevertheless, not to give the right rev. Prelate credit for those feelings which he had declared had actuated him, would be derogatory not only to that right rev. Prelate himself, but equally so to the bench on which he sat; not to give the right rev. Prelate credit for the feelings he professed would be to suppose him capable of grossly abusing the privilege which he enjoyed of voting in their Lordships' House; it would be to suppose that he prostituted the dignity of his sacred calling; that he was not placing himself on a level with, but below the level of those worst of demagogues, who, through the agency of the press, or public meetings, were trying to excite public feeling against the operation of that law, which had been framed in a spirit most conciliatory to the poor, which had been framed on the soundest principles, and on principles which were best calculated to carry into effect the objects for which it was intended. He therefore gave full credit to the declaration of the right rev. Prelate as to the motives which had induced him to bring this matter forward. With respect to the case itself, of the Worcester union —that was a very ancient union, under an Act which was known as Newport's Act, and it had lately been brought under the control of the Poor-law Commissioners. There was a chaplain appointed to that union, and divine service was performed every Sunday within the walls of the workhouse. The order which had been made in respect to Dissenters was before their Lordships, and he had the authority of the Commissioners to say that it had never been submitted to them; and if it had been submitted to them it was not for him to say how it would have been dealt with, because it was in contradiction to the second report, and it was liable to this inconvenience— that it held out a temptation to those who wished to evade the orders of the workhouse, to go out of the house, to declare themselves members of any dissenting congregation; and, therefore, being contrary to the recommendation of the Poor-law Commissioners, it might probably have been objected to on that account; but still it had never been submitted to the acting Poor-law Commissioners. It was, therefore, not for him to say what might have been, or what might be, the decision on the matter, when it should come under their consideration. But the general rule which was recommended by the Poor-law Commissioners, and by the Board of Guardians, with respect to the regulation of poor houses, was to make it absolutely necessary to establish and adhere to the principle, not that no person should go out of a Sunday, but that no person should be permitted to leave the workhouse on a Sunday without the leave of those persons who might have the management of the workhouse. And this was not a new power exercised by the Poor-law Commissioners, it was no new power, because it existed before the Poor-law Amendment Act became the law of the land. It was a control which had been always exercised in the workhouses; nor could anything connected with this point depend upon the Poor-law Commissioners, or have anything to do with any power exercised by them. The object of the Act was to make general the system of management which had been introduced into particular parishes; and this was one of those rules and orders which were found to work most beneficially in those parishes in which an improved system had been adopted. This being the case, there was nothing to be charged against the Poor-law Commissioners on the present state of the law on the subject. He admitted it was a question which was deeply interesting to their Lordships— he admitted that it was deeply interesting to those who had a due regard for the morality and religion of the country. He admitted that if a person wished to go out of a Sunday to indulge in licentious practices, such proceedings should not be allowed; but, on the contrary, if a person wished to attend his parish church rather than the service performed in the workhouse, then they were to look on that side of the picture, and some relaxation of the regulation should be permitted. But it appeared to him that a very considerable discretion was vested in the Board of Guardians, and in those to whom the internal management of the workhouses was consigned, who must be supposed to act with reference to circumstances, as to the distance of the parish church from the workhouse, the possibility of attending it, the character of the person making the application, and the manner in which he generally deported himself. And these were the reasons why the Commissioners were vested with these powers. He apprehended that those who prevented the inmates of workhouses from going out on a Sunday to attend the parish church, could hardly be considered as acting contrary to law, because it happened to clash with that Act of Parliament which required every person to attend his parish church or chapel. With respect to the motion itself, he had no objection whatever to the order being made. He apprehended, however, that no return could be made to the two first clauses; but it must be satisfactory to the right rev. Prelate to have no return.

The Bishop of Exeter

said, the great size of the unions had been objected to as an argument against his view; that inordinate extent of the unions was one of the crying evils of which he greatly complained, and the noble Earl had referred to his argument as if he had spoken of compelling people of eighty years of age to attend their parish church. The noble Earl had stated, that under the provisions of the Bill those who were unable to work might receive out-door relief, but he must for one moment call the attention of the noble Earl and of the House to the real state of the case with respect to those un-happy people. By the provisions of the Act it was necessary that a magistrate should sign a declaration that of his own knowledge the pauper was unable to work. But how did the Act operate? Persons were put in the workhouse at a time when they were able to do a little; in the course of a few years their infirmity increased, so that they could do nothing, and they were thus brought within the provision of the Act; but after a confinement of perhaps seven, eight, or ten years, in which they had been immured in a workhouse, forgotten by their friends, they could hardly even wish to be turned loose; therefore, he would say that confinement, under such circumstances, was equivalent to a sen- tence of imprisonment for life; or, he would put the case of a person who in early life, whether from an accident or the impossibility of procuring employment, was unable to support himself. In that case, by the refusal of out-door relief, he was shut up in a workhouse without even the hope of being released. He was as little disposed as the noble Viscount to agitate the country, but he would assure the noble Viscount that the best way of avoiding agitation was, when a real grievance was pointed out, for Parliament immediately to apply itself to its redress, and it would be vain for the noble Viscount to talk of agitation so long as the grievance remained.

Motion agreed to.