Saturday 24 November 2012

How to Treat the Poor

Under whatever poor laws relief may be administered, whether the new poor-law or Hobhouse's, or any other act, their fatal consequences are the same; every effort is studiously made in the first instance to prevent the Poor from applying for relief and in the second instance to compel them to go within the interior of the workhouse or union, under the impression that the severity of its discipline and scantiness of the diet may speedily induce the inmates to quit the establishment, and save the rate-payers from the burden of their support. Boards of Guardians are unfortunately both by their language and conduct make it too apparent that they are prejudiced agains the characters generally of applicants for relief. They are viewed with feelings of no ordinary suspicion, whilst their miseries needing parochial succour are too frequently attributable to idleness and profligacy on the parts of the unhappy sufferers.
    With this fatal conviction or prepossession, the two parties, the one by applying for and the other administering relief, are constantly occupying a postion antagonistic towards each other. The guardians suspect the applicants of practising imposition, and the latter suspect the guardians of depriving them of their legal rights as well as straining the law in its interpretation to their serious prejudice. Unhappily all questions relating to the feelings of humanity or consideration as to the laws of Christianity are altogether lost sight of. The guardians, being unpaid, generally consider they are making personal sacrifices by the time gratuitously devoted in the performance of their duties, and have neither time, inclination nor experience to enable them to enter upon those calm and ample considerations so essential to ensure a just, wise and human dispensation of poor-law relief, From a want of proper information, and under the influence of prejudice, their chief calculations are direction to a reduction of the parish burdens by a reduction of the paupers; they delude themselves with the notion that the tales of suffering so constantly told them are mere fabrications, and that, if true, are brought about by improvidence, and therefore richly deserved - whilst they will oppose by every available means the granting of relief if there exist the shadow of a doubt as to the parish to which the applicant may belong, with the desire of throwing the burden of maintenance on some other parish at the same evincing a lamentable indifference as to the privations which may be endured during the period of a protracted, vexatious and expensive litigation. ...
     ... no policy is so bad or expenssive as the one which makes the poor familiar with the interior of workhouses. Their minds become debased - their spirits broken - their energies laid prostrate - indeed, every sense of manly feeling appears to vanish - and they finally look to the workhouse as their home, and never aspire to anything better. Guardians would do well to bear in mind that whilst dispensing relief to the poor, that they are only giving that to the poor which legitimately belongs to them. They must not confound this succour with charity, but recollect they are dispensing a fund to which the poor themselves have very largely contributed under a heavy and oppressive system of indirect taxation. ...
    ... Deal with the poor in the same manner as the merchant, the tradesman or professional man is treated under the bankrupt laws - all are therein thought innocent until found guilty. Poverty is treated as a misfortune not a crime; and the law intercedes on behalf of the bankrupt so as to facilitate his recovering his lost fortune and independence. Let the poor artizan and labouring man have fair play - treat him just as bankrupts are treated - believe him to be guiltless until you can prove him otherwise - have faith in his word unless you know him to be undeserving of your confidence; and by a kind, a liberal, and timely assistance give him every fair opportunity of recovering his property - his little home - his independence and sense of manly pride, and thereby rescue him from the misery and degradation of being immured within the soul-debasing precincts of a workhouse.

Charles Cochrane, Poor Man's Guardian, 1847


  1. A persuasive piece of writing, from a great champion of the poor. Equally if not more persuasive is Cochrane's description (printed in a later edition of the paper) of his tours around the casual wards of workhouses, and his visits to lodging-houses. And this is 40 years before Charles Booth!

  2. Yes, Cochrane is somewhat undeservedly forgotten; partly because he made such a nuisance of himself.