Our Common Land (and other short essays)/Chapter 3

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Our Common Land (and other short essays) by Octavia Hill
A Few Words To Volunteer Visitors Among The Poor

III.


A FEW WORDS TO VOLUNTEER VISITORS AMONG THE POOR[1]


You have asked me to speak to you to-day about work in this parish, and you know I have not the pleasure of knowing it or you. If anything I say is inapplicable you must forgive my ignorance; but if I am able to give you any hints which are of use it will not be strange, for one comes across the same kind of difficulties in many various districts of London just now. After the paper is read, if there are any special questions affecting your own district which any of you care to ask me about, I shall be delighted to answer them to the best of my power from this place, or we will have a little general conversation about them later.

Now I am going to say a great deal about hurtful gifts; but do not misunderstand me, and jump to a conclusion that because I speak of these I have lost sight of the great and good gifts we are each of us bound to make. The needs of the poor we must consider our special charge, and each of us give what we can that is real help—not only time, and heart, and spirit, and thought, but money too; only we must see that it is really helpful, which needs thought and experience, and if we haven't experience we must seek it. There are gifts of money to be made; there are hard workers recovering from illness to be sent to convalescent homes; there are orphans to be supported and well educated; there are pensions to feeble old people who have worked hard, to be given to meet their own savings or compensate for lost savings; there are children to be placed in industrial schools; girls to be fitted out for service; travelling expenses to be paid for people going to better fields of work; but the decision about even these safer forms of gift requires experience. Give, by all means, abundantly, liberally, regularly, individually, with all enthusiasm, by all manner of means, but oh, give wisely too.

Now to secure this wise relief, I am convinced you will require good investigation, co-operation on the part of your donors, thought and time given by your wisest men. All these are essential, but I am not going to dwell on them just now; the part of your work I am naturally most interested in is your district visiting. I wonder whether you have among you instances of the solitary, inexperienced district visitor, and can feel for her difficulties? Do you know what I mean? A lady, well born, highly cultivated, well nurtured, becomes convinced that she has duties to the poor. Perhaps some great personal pain drives her to seek refuge from it in Christian service of the poor; perhaps some family loss darkens her whole horizon, and opens her eyes to other forms of sorrow; perhaps some stirring sermon startles her in the midst of triumphant pleasure, making her feel that she ought to give some slight offering of time to the poor; perhaps weariness of all superficial glitter of amusement makes her seek for deeper interests in life. Be it what it may—desire to do good, or the urgent request of a friend, or desire to escape pain, she determines to volunteer as a district visitor. She is welcomed by the clergy, and requested to take such and such a district—I really think she has often little more preparation or instruction than that. She does not start with the desire of knowing the poor, but of helping them; help being in her mind synonymous in such cases with temporal help. She does not think of them primarily as people, but as poor people. But though her ideas naturally therefore turn to questions of relief as if these were her main concerns, she has never studied what has been found to be the effect of different ways of alms-giving, she knows little about the earnings of the poor, little of their habits and expenses, little about poor-law relief, little about the thousand and one societies for granting various kinds of help, little about the individual donors at work in the neighbourhood, little about distant fields of labour and demands for workers in them. Now just pause and think of the effect of her actions when she begins—as begin she must by the very fact of her view of her duty—to deal practically with questions of relief; questions which, to say the least, are so difficult to deal with wisely that our most earnest, experienced, and thoughtful men pause in awe before them, advance slowly to practical conclusions, and speak humbly about them after years of study. Ladies would pause before they went in and offered to help a house-surgeon at a hospital by undertaking a few patients for him, yet are they not doing something like it when they don't seek advice in district visiting? Gradually, after weeks, months, perhaps years of worse than wasted labour, those who persevere begin to realise the disastrous effect of their action; hundreds who do not steadily persevere never even catch a glimpse of it, and go on blindly scattering gifts to the destruction of the recipients. For just pause and think what these gifts do to them. You or I go into a wretched room; we see children dirty and without shoes, a forlorn woman tells us a story of extreme poverty, how her husband can find no work. We think it can do no harm to give the children boots to go to school; we give them, and hear no more. Perhaps we go to Scotland the following week, and flatter ourselves if we remember the children that that gift of boots at least was useful. Yet just think what harm that may have done. Perhaps the woman was a drunkard, and pawned the boots at once and drank the money; or perhaps the man was a drunkard neglecting his home, and the needs of it, which should have been the means of recalling him to his duties, he finds partially met by you and me and others; or perhaps the clergy have seen that the poor woman cannot support the children and her husband, who is much too ill to find work, and have felt that if she and they are not to die of starvation they must go into the workhouse, for it is the only means of getting enough for them; charity, not being organised in the district, cannot undertake to do all that is wanted for them, and so had better do nothing. For gifts so given may raise false hopes which you and I, now pleasantly enjoying ourselves, never think of. Because we went in and gave those boots, because others like us gave coal-tickets and soup-tickets last winter, what may not turn up? the poor woman asks herself. That gambling, desperate spirit enters into her heart, the stake being freedom and home. She plays high: she wins, or loses. We charitable people first of all never investigated the case to learn what it really was, what the character of the people was, whether the home was worth keeping together, whether with or without club-money it would cost more than we were ready or able to give; we raised hopes which it is a chance whether we fulfil; we met the want before us without thought; we forgot to consider the influence of that action on the life. Such gifts are uncertain, insufficient, based on no knowledge. Let us imagine that in another case we give to a man whose income is small; what is the effect on his character of these irregular doles? Do they not lead him to trust to them, to spend up to the last penny what he earns, and hope for help when work slackens or altogether fails? Does he try, cost what it may, to provide for sickness, for times when trade is dull and employment scarce? Yet though we have by our gifts encouraged him in not making the effort to do this, arc we quite sure to be at hand when the need comes? Are we not most likely to be away? Trade is slack when London is empty and district visitors away. Every man's riches depend on his providence; they do so tenfold more markedly the nearer poverty he is, yet we have undermined his providence by uncertain action. Do not our doles encourage him to keep his big daughter at home, earning a few pence in the street, where she has what she calls "freedom," instead of training her for decent service? I believe our irregular alms to the occupant of the miserable room, to the shoeless flower-seller, are tending to keep a whole class on the very brink of pauperism who might be taught self-control and foresight if we would let them learn it. I believe too that our blanket charities, soup-kitchens, free dormitories, old endowed charities distributing inadequate doles, have a great tendency to keep down the rate of wages of the very lowest class, partly because they come in like a rate in aid of wages, not so regular as that of the old poor-law, yet still appreciable—partly because they tempt large numbers who might raise themselves to hang on to low callings, and make competition fiercer in them and the chance of absolute want greater. The street-sellers and low class desultory workers usually remain what they are by choice; a little self-control would raise them into the ranks of those who are really wanted, and who have made their way from the brink of pauperism to a securer place, and one where they are under better influences. Above all is this true of the children. A little self-control would enable the daughters of most of these people to rise into the class of domestic servants; and their sons, instead of remaining street-sellers, would soon learn a trade or go to sea if they cared to do regular work. We are largely helping, by our foolish gifts, to, keep them herded together in crowded, dirty, badly-built rooms, among scenes of pauperism, crime, and vice. And we each of us think it is only the two shillings and sixpence, only the shilling for this or that perfectly justifiable object we have given. I have sometimes wanted to move some widow and her children to the North, where the children would learn a trade and support themselves well, where the woman would find much more work at washing and charring, and where the family would have a cottage healthy and spacious, instead of the one close room. The widow has been a little fearful of making so important a step. If the guardians, if the clergy, if, above all, the visitors, have let the need of work teach its own natural lesson, that family has removed and has been happy and independent. I have now several such well established in the North. But if the various donors have broken in with their miserable pittances of fixed or desultory relief, the family, in poverty and uncertainty of income, have dragged on here in London. In nearly every case requiring help there is some such step of self-help which ought to be taken by the family itself, or some member of it; some girl ought to go to service, some boy to get a place, some member of the family to begin learning a trade, some cheaper lodging to be found. Depend on it, you cannot wisely help a family, you cannot tell whether help at all is needed, till the circumstances and character of each member has been well investigated. Lay this to heart as a fact—I am certain of it. Let it be with any of you who desire to do good a strict rule to yourselves to have the case of every family you want to help thoroughly scrutinised. If you can make up your mind not to give anything pending the receipt of a report, so much the better. But if you can't (I think you soon will), at any rate never give a sixpence without sending for a report on the case; it will guide your future action in that and other instances. It is not much I ask of you. The Charity Organisation Society in every district in London will do the work for you free of charge. I am afraid I cannot yet promise you that it will always advise you as to efficient treatment; some of the committees could, and all that could would. But it is even more difficult to advise as to suitable treatment than to investigate a case, and it is not easy to find members for thirty-eight committees yet who know very much of the subject. But every Charity Organisation Committee will know far more than inexperienced visitors, and I should strongly advise all visitors to consult the Committee about families in their district apparently needing relief.

I hope you will notice that I have dwelt on the need of restraining yourselves from almsgiving on the sole ground that such restraint is the only true mercy to the poor themselves. I have no desire to protect the purses of the rich, no hard feeling to the poor. I am thinking continually and only of what is really kindest to them—kindest in the long run, certainly, but still kindest. I think small doles unkind to them, though they bring a momentary smile to their faces. First of all, I think they make them really poorer. Then I think they degrade them and make them less independent. Thirdly, I think they destroy the possibility of really good relations between you and them. Surely when you go among them you have better things to do for them than to give them half-crowns. You want to know them, to enter into their lives, their thoughts, to let them enter into some of your brightness, to make their lives a little fuller, a little gladder. You who know so much more than they might help them so much at important crises of their lives; you might gladden their homes by bringing them flowers, or, better still, by teaching them to grow plants; you might meet them face to face as friends; you might teach them; you might collect their savings; you might sing for and with them; you might take them into the parks, or out for quiet days in the country in small companies, or to your own or your friends' grounds, or to exhibitions or picture galleries; you might teach and refine and make them cleaner by merely going among them. What they would do for you I will not dwell on, for if the work is begun in the right spirit you will not be thinking of that; but I do believe the poor have lessons to teach us of patience, vigour, and content, which are of great value to us. We shall learn them instinctively if we are among them as we ought to be as friends. It is this side of your relation to them, that of being their friends, which has given all the value to your work as district visitors; it has been because you have been friends, in as far as you have been friends, that the relation between you has been happy and good. The gift has often darkened this view of you, and prevented the best among the poor from wishing to know you; when it has absolutely been the expression of friendship, its evil has been reduced to a great extent. But the gift you have to make to the poor, depend upon it, is the greatest of all gifts you can make—that of yourselves, following in your great Master's steps, whose life is the foundation of all charity. The form of it may change with the ages, the great law remains, "Give to him that asketh of thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away;" but see that thou give him bread, not a stone—bread, the nourishing thing, that which wise thought teaches you will be to him helpful, not what will ruin him body and soul; else, while obeying the letter of the command, you will be false to its deep everlasting meaning. My friends, I have lived face to face with the poor for now some years, and I have not learned to think gifts of necessaries, such as a man usually provides for his own family, helpful to them. I have abstained from such, and expect those who love the poor and know them individually will do so more and more in the time to come. I have sometimes been asked by rich acquaintances when I have said this whether I do not remember the words, "Never turn your face from any poor man." Oh, my friends, what strange perversion of words this seems to me. I may deserve reproach; I may have forgotten many a poor man, and done as careless a thing as anyone, but I cannot help thinking that to give oneself rather than one's money to the poor is not exactly turning one's face from him. If I, caring for him and striving for him, do in my inmost heart believe that my money, spent in providing what he might by effort provide for himself, is harmful to him, surely he and I may be friends all the same. Surely I am bound to give him only what I believe to be best. He may not always understand it at the moment, but he will feel it in God's own good time.

  1. Read at Westminster, June 23rd, 1876.