Homes of the London Poor/Relief

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Homes of the London Poor by Octavia Hill
Relief—Official and Volunteer Agencies in Administering
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RELIEF—OFFICIAL AND VOLUNTEER AGENCIES IN ADMINISTERING.

10th January, 1874.

Sir:

In accordance with your request, I beg to furnish an account of the system now in operation in a part of the parish of Marylebone, which aims at establishing a complete combination of official and volunteer agencies in dealing with Poor Law cases.

The attention of Poor-Law reformers has been much directed of late years to the administration of out-door relief in Elberfeld. The success of the system pursued there is no longer doubtful. It has been in operation for years; and the report presented to the Local Government Board by their inspector, after his visit, has proved how powerful it is in diminishing pauperism. In the first place, it is shown that the employment of numerous volunteer visitors has there formed a check on imposture, such as our relieving officers, owing to the size of their districts, cannot possibly supply; and secondly, that it has been found possible to adopt there much more radical measures for removing poverty than are here adopted. The poor are divided into groups, each group consisting of a few families, and each cluster of families is committed to the special care and supervision of an intelligent visitor, who goes in and out among them, making himself acquainted with their daily lives, their past history, their present resources and circumstances.

This being so, an account of an organization based on the same principles, and existing in our own country, gains an interest which it otherwise would not possess, and claims attention, though it covers a small area only, though it is tentative, and has not as yet been in operation more than one year. If the scheme succeeds and spreads, we may fairly hope much from it. It is as yet in its infancy, and no formal opinion as to its working has been pronounced by the Marylebone Board of Guardians; but individual members of that Board have expressed their warm approval, the clerk and the relieving officer appear much pleased with the plan, and at present there are no signs of failure, nor does any modification even appear necessary.

I proceed, therefore, to give an account of the system as at present in operation, and will show afterwards its resemblance to the Elberfeld plan, its chief difference from it, and the reason such marked difference is necessary here and now.

At the end of 1872 it came under the notice of the Guardians of St. Marylebone that there existed in a part of their parish—the division known as St. Mary's, Bryanston Square,—a body of district visitors differing in some measure from any to be found in other parts of London. Their special training was due to the fact that soon after the Charity Organization Society was founded, the rector of St. Mary's had determined to reform his system of distributing the funds entrusted to him for charitable purposes, whilst still using the district visitors as his agents. To this end he made over the whole of these funds to a small committee, the St. Mary's Relief Committee, composed of men of various classes, who had given special attention to the wise administration of aid to the poor. Every applicant for help throughout St. Mary's had henceforth to appear before this committee, who were guided in their decision as to his case both by a report from the Marylebone branch of the Charity Organization Society, and by one from the visitor in whose district he resided. Thus a thorough and efficient inquiry was secured. They also aimed at making relief more adequate than formerly; refusing small grants, which would only give temporary and illusory aid, and endeavoring, by means of employment, emigration, loans to enable people to start afresh in life, and so on, to give real and permanent assistance. This committee I was asked to join, as, having a seat on the Marylebone Charity Organization Society, I could form a personal link between the inquiring and the relieving bodies, in addition to the written link which the report on each case afforded. I was also asked to act as referee, that is, to communicate the decisions of the committee to the visitor, who was requested to dispense the aid voted or inform the applicant of the reason of its refusal. In this capacity of referee, I formed a sort of center for the district visitors; it became my duty to give advice when asked, and to instruct new or inexperienced visitors in the nature of their duties and the principles they were expected to adopt. Each visitor had to keep a book, in which the name of every applicant was entered, together with the information obtained about him through the local branch of the Charity Organization Society. An account of all money given to him by any charitable agency, and a short notice from month to month of the events in his family were also entered. Each book contained the facts relating to residents in one court or street only, and was always in the hands of the visitor of that court, temporary or permanent; an alphabetical index enabled her to turn at once to the account of any given family.

The result of this system was to train a body of visitors in judicious and organized modes of work. The light thrown upon cases of applicants by the Charity Organization Society, the advantages afforded by practical work under an experienced committee, and the power of watching individual cases of distress through a long period of their history (a power which small districts and written records materially increase), were all important elements in the education of these visitors.

When this system had been in operation two or three years, it became clear that these volunteer visitors might be valuable to the relieving officer, if they could be brought into communication with him, and that a mass of information had been collected in their district-books, which might be of service to the Guardians if it could be made available at the right moment. But the attempt to bring them into direct communication with any official would have been open to many objections. Confusions might arise when visitors were absent; new visitors would occasionally have to be appointed, and to have their work explained to them. No relieving officer would have time to undertake this duty, nor even to communicate with so large and fluctuating a body as that formed by these volunteers. The Guardians, therefore, resolved to recognize one of these volunteers as representing the whole body. The referee would be a connecting link between themselves and the visitors, and through her only, all communications would pass. I was asked to fill this position with relation to the Guardians, for one reason, because I was already a member both of the Relief Committee before mentioned, and the committee of the Charity Organization Society, and the recognized medium of communication between these two bodies.

After the combination of volunteer and official agency had thus been arranged, which was in the winter of 1872-3, the Guardians directed the relieving officer who is in charge of the St. Mary's Poor Law District, to send me daily a list containing the name of each applicant from that district, with his address, ages of family, and nature of application.[1] I send out the information at once to the visitor in whose court the applicant resides, with a blank form[2] on which she may report any facts bearing on the character and circumstances of the family, which appear to her to be such as the Poor Law authorities ought to know. She can report by giving a summary of the information contained in her district-book, and return the form at once, or she can re-visit the applicant and give later information in addition if she deems it necessary. She sends her report to me, and I forward it to the relieving officer, who uses it as he may see fit. In many instances it gives information which the relieving officer might not otherwise possess, as, for instance, that an applicant is in receipt of money paid by the visitor, or known by her to be paid by local charity. In other cases the report gives clues for further investigation by him, as where it mentions the existence of grown-up sons and daughters who may be able to give help.[3] After the weekly meeting of the board, I am informed of the decision arrived at in each case, by a list sent to me similar to that furnished to every Guardian. These particulars I send to the visitors of the courts where applicants reside, and they are entered in the several district-books. The average number of applicants in the Poor Law District of St. Mary's is forty-five weekly, and the number of visitors engaged in the work is thirty-five. The number of visitors has doubled during the last year, so that we have subdivided all the larger courts and streets. Additional clergymen are coming into active co-operation with us, and some few gentlemen have come forward to act as visitors. These may all be considered hopeful signs that the movement is gaining ground.

It will be seen from this outline, that in St. Mary's district there are four agencies employed in the endeavor to administer relief to the necessitous in the wisest and most really helpful way: the Guardians, with their relieving officer, the Charity Organization Society, the Relief Committee, and the District Visitors. These four agencies are connected and brought into efficient co-operation by the referee, who directs and superintends the visitors, attends the meetings of the Charity Organization Society, and of the Relief Committee, and is the medium through which the Board of Guardians acquire information otherwise inaccessible to them.

The immediate direct effect of the adoption of this system upon the Poor Law cases may be slight; it may be that the information supplied by the district visitors does not in many instances modify the decisions of the Board; but this is the least part of the work. If the visitors really learn their duties, and apprehend the spirit of the system they have undertaken to carry out, it is impossible to measure the effect which the work may have in diminishing pauperism and inducing more provident habits of life among our laboring classes; and thus, along with other advantages, reducing the heavy burden of the poor-rates. The connection with the Poor Law system is calculated to be of great advantage to the visitors. They will learn something of its working; they will be enabled to use with much greater effect and with much greater frequency the lever which distaste for the "House" puts into their hands; and knowing that while the workhouse exists even the idle and improvident and reckless need not starve, they will be encouraged to refuse to such persons the pauperizing doles of a merely impulsive charity, in the belief that such refusal will probably benefit the individual, and will certainly in the long run benefit the class.

The plan described resembles the one in operation at Elberfeld, inasmuch as it is based on the same principle; sub-division of work among a large number of volunteer visitors, grouped under recognized though unpaid leaders. As in Elberfeld, we have not sought to enlist visitors who can give their whole time to the work. We want those living in their own homes, surrounded by their own interests and connections, and who can bring individual sympathy and thought to bear on a very few families. A large number of visitors are needed, and we could not obtain them if those only were eligible who could give a large amount of time to the work. Even more intimate knowledge of individual families is secured in Marylebone than we have any evidence of in the case of Elberfeld, because here in their own small districts the visitors undertake duties for other bodies as well as for the Guardians. Our volunteers are constantly in the courts, on business connected with the local charities, with the Charity Organization Society, and also with the School Board: and though I must not here enlarge on the particular form of their work for these different bodies, I may point out that the entire truth is better elicited by those who come into communication with the poor in various ways: facts concealed from them in one capacity being revealed to them in another. For example, the desire on the part of parents to represent the ages of children to the Poor Law visitor as young enough to receive parochial relief, is counteracted by their desire to represent them to the school board visitor as old enough to exempt them from attendance at school.

The important difference between the Elberfeld and Marylebone systems is that, whereas in Elberfeld the volunteers themselves decide on the parochial relief, our volunteers have no such authority committed to them. It would be a fundamental change of the gravest nature to throw any share of such responsibility on the visitor, and would be a change not only disastrous, until the visitors have more experience, but in my opinion probably unadvisable even in the future. The large discretionary power exercised by Guardians under our English Poor Law (which contrasts with the very definite scale for out-door relief in use at Elberfeld) would make it an additional difficulty to place the decisions as to grants in the hands of visitors. In fact, in every case, so that only the evidence brought before him be sufficient, it is easier for a judge or arbitrator to deal in a uniform manner with cases which come before him when he is not brought into close communication with those whom his decision affects. So that the division of duty in Marylebone, where the visitor brings information and the Guardians vote relief, appears to be the right one. It is, moreover, a real help to the visitor in maintaining a satisfactory footing among the people under her charge, for them to know that, though she will listen to and represent their claims for relief, the absolute award of it does not rest with her.

I may perhaps here point out that there is one small addition to the system, which, though it would be of no direct advantage to the Poor Law authorities, would be of great service to those who are administering the local charities. I have already mentioned that the Guardians send to me as referee an official weekly report of the cases decided by them; but the grounds of their decision are not given, and often they may be such as would, if known to us, influence grants from the charities. If the Guardians saw no objection to allowing one or two representative volunteers to be present at their weekly meetings, this information would reach us fully and regularly. It would also afford guidance to the visitors if we could know to what extent the information furnished by them to the relieving officer is received and acted upon.

There is one further addition to the scheme which has been suggested. It has been said that it might be well to empower the volunteers to pay the regular out-door relief of the aged at their own homes, instead of compelling them, as at present, to gather at the workhouse door to receive it. As to the advantages of this plan I have as yet come to no decision. On the one hand, it is a gain that the poor should not be obliged to congregate for relief, which has a pauperizing effect upon them; and moreover the weekly visitation of the home would form a regular method of inspection. On the other hand, as I have stated above, the less the visitor is contemplated as an almoner, the more independent and satisfactory are her relations likely to be with her people,—and I fear the distinction between bringing and giving relief would not be very clear to recipients.

In conclusion, I may say that the system described above, would, when perfectly carried out, ensure that out-door relief should be confined to the deserving, and that drunken and idle people should be offered the workhouse only. Thus far our volunteer workers are fully aware of the objects for which they are associated together. But I am myself satisfied that the scheme is capable of a far deeper influence on the condition of the poor, when the volunteers shall rise to the perception that, in dealing with poverty, they must aim at prevention rather than at cure; at saving those under their influence from sinking to the Poor-law Level, rather than merely obtaining relief for them when they have reached that low point. Few of my fellow-workers have as yet grasped the idea that their best success would be to develop the resources of the poor themselves, instead of letting them come upon the rates, or continue upon them. I think they rarely set before themselves the desire to find some employment, at hand or far off, which may support the young widow and her children before she has tasted parish bread. I think they rarely press upon the old woman the duty of first trying if the successful son cannot support her, or the daughters in service unite to do so. They have not yet watched the poor closely enough to see that this would be in reality the truest kindness. They forget the dignity of self-maintenance, they forget the blessing of drawing the bonds of relationship closer, and dwell only upon the fact that the applicant is deserving—see only the comfort or relief which the parish allowance would secure.

How far they can raise the people by degrees above the degrading need of charitable or Poor Law relief, to be energetic, self-reliant, provident, and industrious, will depend upon the height of their own hope, the patience of their own labor, the moral courage which will teach them to prefer being helpful to being popular, and finally to the temper and spirit of their own homes and lives. For, say what we may, if our upper class were to become extravagant, improvident, and showy, it would be aped by those below it, even though as surely it would be despised. And if we desire to be the leaders of our poor into the ways of happy prosperity, we must order our homes in exactly the same spirit as theirs must be ordered, in simplicity, industry, and providence.

I have, etc. 
Octavia Hill.

To the Right Honorable
 James Stansfeld, M. P.


  1. A copy of the form is appended to this letter.
  2. A copy of this form filled in with a specimen report is also appended.
  3. To prevent serious consequences in urgent cases, the relieving officer is authorized to give relief without awating the visitor's report. He is also bound to verify any statements which appear to require it. His responsibility to the Board is thus not weakened, while the information upon which he acts is more complete. Even when the information does not reach him until after temporary relief has been administered, it is still valuable for his future guidance.