Our Common Land (and other short essays)/Chapter 4

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IV.


A MORE EXCELLENT WAY OF CHARITY[1]


You have asked me to speak to you to-night, though I am a stranger to your parish, and know nothing of its special needs or special advantages. Why, then, am I here? I suppose I may safely assume that it is mainly because I represent those who have deep care for the poor, and also strong conviction that organisation and mature thought are necessary to any action which shall be really beneficial to them. I fancy your parish, like many another—like most others that have not passed through the stage and answered the problem is just now questioning itself as to whether investigation, organisation, deliberate and experienced decision, which it feels to be essential if wise relief is to be secured, are, or are not, compatible with gentle and kindly relief; whether charity can be fully of the heart, if it is also of the head. If so, how are you to get the full strength of head and heart. If this is impossible, what in the world you are to do, for you cannot give up either. You ask practically, I fancy, when you invite me here, what I think on these points.

I answer, then, emphatically and decidedly, that my experience confirms me entirely in the belief that charity loses nothing of its lovingness by being entirely wise. Now it cannot be wise without full knowledge of the circumstances of those to be dealt with—hence the necessity of investigation; it cannot come to satisfactory conclusions on those facts unless it employs the help of experienced men hence the need of a committee for decision; it will not be gracious and gentle, nor fully enter into individual needs, unless it secures the assistance of a good body of visitors. I do not wish to draw your attention to any special form of organisation, but I believe you will find, the more you think of it, that some form is needed, and that whatever it be, it will have to secure those three as essentials—good investigation, decision by a wise committee, and the help of a staff of visitors.

I shall say nothing further on the first head, Investigation, except that I consider it is done best by a good paid officer. A great deal of the preliminary work is quickly and well done by an experienced person, which it would be difficult for a volunteer to do; neither is it a sort of work which it is worth while for a volunteer to undertake. I refer to verifying statements as to residence, earnings, employment, visiting references, and employers. The finishing touches of investigation, the little personal facts, the desires and hopes, and to a certain extent the capacities of the applicant, no doubt a volunteer visitor would learn more thoroughly, but that can always be done separately from the preliminary and more formal inquiry.

And now to turn to the consideration of the visitors—those who must be the living links binding your committee with the poor, the interpreters of their decision, the bearers of their alms, the perpetual guardians to prevent renewed falling into want. I have spoken in so many other places of the extreme value of such a body working in concert with a wise committee, and of the mistakes they are likely to make where undirected, that I am unwilling to dwell on either point in much detail here. I will only briefly reiterate that I think no committee can do its work with real individual care unless it contains those who will watch over each family with continuous interest, interpret its decisions intelligently and kindly, and learn all personal detail which may assist the committee in judging rightly. Unhappily, visitors have very seldom any special training for their work, nor is the need of it pointed out to them. I earnestly wish we could get this recognised; not that any should be deterred from working from want of training, but that in every district some plans for advising and helping the inexperienced visitors, and binding all visitors more together, should be adopted. I have, in a paper read elsewhere, given a sketch of a practical scheme for securing this end. But even without the help there spoken of, visitors might try to look a little farther into the result of their action. They think of the immediate effect, and very little of the future one. Now in all things we must beware of hasty action. It is not well, in the desire to alleviate an immediate want, to produce worse want in the future. I do not know the poor of your district: there may be many more of them, and they may be poorer, than I suppose; but in really populous poor parishes I have found, and surely you should find here, that an immense deal more might be done by the people for themselves than has been done hitherto. Whatever may be the difficulties of finding work for them, aim at that first. Try to get them to bring up their children to callings requiring skill, and which will raise them to the higher ranks of labour; help them to save; encourage them to join clubs; lend them books; teach them to cultivate and care for flowers. These and other like influences will indirectly help them far more even as to outward comforts, than any gifts of necessaries. But do not, when a family wants help, hesitate to give largely, if adequate help will secure permanent good. Remember, if you establish people in life so that they can be self-supporting, it is well worth while to do it, cost what it may.

I know little of your parish. But if it be, as I fancy, one in which the rich are many and the poor few compared to other places, I should like to add a word or two to such residents as are in good health and working here, urging them to consider the needs of more desolate districts, and pause to think whether or not they could transfer some of their time to them. I know it is a difficult question, and one to be judged in each case on its merits. I know well what may be urged on the ground of individual friendships formed with dwellers in your neighbourhood, on the score of want of strength and time, and the claims of your own parish. Weigh these by all means, but think of the other side too, if by chance you can realise it. Friendship with poor old women in your district! Respect its claims; but are there no times when it may be worth while to make a change in work, even if it cause one to see less of friends? Have you ever seen the ward of an East End workhouse, where from year's end to year's end the old women live without any younger life round them, no sons or daughters whose strength may make their feebleness more bearable, no little grandchildren to be cared for, and make the old which is passing forget itself in the young which is coming into vigour! Is your bright young presence not asked for by the gray, monotonous, slowly-ebbing life of those wards? If your strength does not allow you to visit in remote districts, I grant that an unanswerable argument; for strength is meant to be temperately used and not thrown away. Time! Well, it takes time to go backwards and forwards; but isn't one hour where the need is great and the workers very few worth more than many hours in a more favoured district?

Have you ever realised what those acres and acres of crowded, heated, badly-built houses, over which you pass so quickly by train when you go in and out of London, mean? What kind of homes they make? What sort of human beings live and die there? Have you asked yourselves whether your presence, your companionship, is needed there? Whether the little children want your teaching? Whether your gentleness, your refinement, your gaiety, your beauty, are wanted there? Neighbourhood! Oh yes, it has strong claims—some of the best possible; but then we must take care that we let our neighbours come round us naturally, rich and poor. I only know this neighbourhood as I see it from the station, and it is possible it is otherwise inside, for I know quarters where the poor lodge often escape the eye of a casual observer; but I do know districts which are very like what yours looks, where the villas cover all the ground, and there is no place for the poor man's cottage. Where the idea of building for him would be mentioned with awed abhorrence by the comfortable residents, and they would talk about the unpleasantness of the poor living so near, chances of infection, &c. &c. Where the few persons required to serve the needs of the residents live, in a somewhat pampered and very respectful dependence, in small districts decently withdrawn from view, visited and over-visited by ladies who haven't far to go—where the poor say there isn't a house to be had, and the rich say they get everything from a distance.

While you are determined to have the rich neighbourhoods, you must have the poor ones elsewhere. When you have gathered the poor round you, built for them, taught them, purified their houses and habits by your near presence, by all means talk about the claims of neighbourhood. But till then you must, I believe, take a wider outlook, and think of the neighbourhoods you have left, where moreover those who indirectly serve you earn their bread. You who are merchants' wives and daughters, nay, even those of you who buy the merchants' goods, have the dock-labourers no claims upon you? If the question, Who is my neighbour? is asked by you, how do you think God answers it from heaven when He looks down and sees the vast multitudes of undisciplined poor by whose labour you live, and the few heroic workers whose lives are being spent for those poor almost forsaken by you?

And if some of you went there to give what little of leisure, what little of strength, you have to spare, would your own neighbourhood suffer? I fancy not. For it seems as if usually where there are few poor and many rich living near together, the former become dependent in fat unenergetic comfort on the latter; and if this be such a neighbourhood, a few finding a call for their sympathy and help elsewhere might do good to all. It might be a real blessing to the place where you live to transfer to other and needier districts some of the superfluous wealth and unneeded care which from its very abundance may be spoiling and pampering your native poor. What a good thing it might be if each of your congregation here would undertake to help with money and with workers some poor district where wise principles were being strenuously and faithfully worked out. Only remember, though you may send your money, and send it to those who use it wisely, the gift is a very poor one compared with that of yourselves. It is you who are wanted there, your love, your knowledge, your sympathy, your resolution—above all, your knowledge; for if you saw, you could not leave things as they are. For instance, on a summer evening sultry as this, there are thousands of families who have no place to sit in but one close room, in which the whole family has eaten, slept, washed, cooked. It is stifling. They go to the doorstep; their neighbours are at their steps. It gets hotter, the children swarm in the narrow court; the dust flies everywhere; the heat, the thirst is insufferable, the noise deafening, the crowd bewildering; they go to the public-house: do you wonder? It may be there are a few spaces unbuilt over close by, but who will open the gates for them, plant a few flowers, put a few seats? The garden of Lincoln's Inn Fields is certainly kept very lovely; but how few eyes are allowed to see it; Red Lion Square is a howling ugliness; the Board School playgrounds are closed on Saturday;[2] the little graveyard in Drury Lane[3]—half the graveyards in London—are close locked and barred, and left in ugliness too; the Quakers are actually deciding to sell for building purposes their ancient burial-ground near Bunhill Fields.[4] Can they not afford to let the place allotted to their dead be consecrated to the poor and become a place of rest to the weary living before their pilgrimage is over? Money, money, money, to spend where we see its effect in parks, or villas, or cosy suburban houses, and not a glimpse of what we might do with it in the districts where the poor live and die.

Of course this is only one side of the truth, and no one knows the converse better than I. I know how people are coming forward year by year to do and to feel more and more of their duty to the poor. The interest deepens and spreads, and that rapidly. Haven't I myself such a body of fellow-workers as makes me hardly know how to be thankful enough? And doubtless many of you here are doing exactly what I urge, or better things than I have thought of. But forgive me if the sight of all that is needed sometimes makes me a little impatient, and urge the point with some implied reproach towards those who delay to come and do what it looks as if they might. I daresay they may many of them have better reasons than I know for holding aloof: all have not the same duties; but sure I am that the need is urgent, and that to many such work would add new and deeper interests to life. I only say, "Look for yourselves what the need is, consider what your duty may be, and when seen do it resolutely, quietly, hopefully."

And now, leaving the subject of visitors, let us consider, in conclusion, the third point essential to wise dealing with the poor—the decisions of your committee after the facts are gathered for it by investigating agent and volunteer visitor. Now, to secure right decision, one must have a distinct object in view. What is to be the ultimate object of your decisions respecting relief? Let us at once distinctly clear the way by assuming that it must be the good of the people themselves. We have nothing to do with saving the money of the rich. It is possible—nay, probable—that in our first attempts to put charity on a right footing, we may have to spend more than we did before, and make larger demands on the purses of the wealthy. A few substantial gifts, wisely bestowed, may easily make up a larger sum than a multitude of petty careless doles. A weekly pension, a grant of a few pounds to help a family to migrate, is more than the money-equivalent of many a random shilling. But if, on reflection, we decide to withhold gifts of any kind whatsoever, it is only to be done for the sake of the people themselves. If doles, or bread-tickets, or coal-tickets, are proved to help the people, we are bound to give them to the extent of our power. If they are proved to injure them, we are bound not to give them, however pleasant it may be, however easy, however it may seem to pave the way for other influences. Do we want to make the poor depend on relief, which is ready at a moment's notice, instead of having the fortitude to save a little to meet a sudden emergency? If so, we shall be always treating cases as urgent, and relieving pending investigation, and assuming that discretionary power of granting instant help must be vested somewhere besides in the relieving-officer. I know parishes where benevolent people plead that starvation or great need may arise if they have a weekly committee and no officer empowered to deal with urgent cases. Suppose we ourselves had lost the pride of independence which does still exist in the middle and upper classes, though the tendency to look for extraneous help is, I sometimes fear, eating gradually upwards; but suppose we had no hesitation on the score of pride in asking our richer neighbour for a meal, or new clothes or boots, or additional blankets, or a ton of coal, would it be better for us to use just the amount of providence necessary for us to go to him a week beforehand and say, "Please we shall want our dinner next Sunday," or would it be better for us to be led to expect that if we called on Saturday to tell him the fact, and he was out at a garden-party, when he came home he would say: "Dear me, perhaps they have no dinner, and Sunday too. I dare not wait to see why they are in want; whether there is any member of the family who might be helped to a place where he can earn more. I'd better send some roast meat. I don't like to be enjoying myself at garden-parties with my wife and daughter and not consider my poorer neighbours"? Do you think that, be our earnings much or little, that kind of help would be likely to be helpful? The smaller the earnings the more need of providence; and there is no man so poor but he might, by effort, at least have a few shillings in hand for emergency, if he really felt it important. Literally, that is all that is wanted to do away with this clamour about urgency. That every man should at some time of his life put aside five or ten shillings which should be ready for need, and apply for help directly he saw need to draw upon that, instead of when he hadn't a crust in the house. I don't know whether you are troubled with this great bugbear of "urgency" here; it frightens many districts, but always disappears when approached. Depend upon it, starvation cases are more likely to arise where we have trained our poor to look for instantaneous help, than where they rely on their own forethought at least to the extent I have mentioned; for if they trust to sudden aid, and any accident prevents their receiving it, then they have no money, and are in need indeed. Depend on it, the poor-law, which the poor do not turn to readily, which has, moreover, a strong permanent machinery in every parish in England, is the only right source of relief for urgent cases. No respectable family but has friends, neighbours, or savings to fall back on just while you look well into their cases. Those who are not respectable want, and, in my estimation, should have, help; but they cannot be helped easily with grants in urgent haste; they need thought, and influence, and much power. If, then, we decide that urgent cases can be left to the poor-law, your committees will have those only left to deal with whose circumstances they can thoroughly know and deliberately decide upon. And these, I believe they will find, class themselves into cases in which temporary help will raise the applicants into permanently self-supporting positions, and chronic cases. The first, no doubt, they will try to help liberally, carefully, and kindly. The second they will probably help only if they can do so adequately, which I should fancy here you might easily do, if you all heartily and thoughtfully co-operated, and knew each what the other was doing, so that no work was done twice over. Such organisation of alms-giving would be, I should think, the limit of your aim at present.

Perhaps you will also add to these relieved persons a very large number of sick, whom I should be glad to see after, say, a year's notice, forced into some independent form of sick-club.

For I do not myself believe that we from above can help the people so thoroughly and well in any other way as by helping them to help themselves. This I think they are meant to do—this I believe they can do by association and by forethought. When they do provide necessaries for their own families, I think it leaves our relation to them far better, and enables us to help them more fully in better ways. After all, what are the gifts of these outside things compared to the great gifts of friendship, of teaching, of companionship, of advice, of spiritual help? I know some people think the half-crown, or packet of tea, the best introduction to these. I cannot say I have seen it so. I do not remember a single example in any age or country in which a class in receipt of small occasional doles was in a position of honourable healthy friendship with the givers of such, or fit to receive from them any intelligent teaching. Of course the receipt of alms produces curtsies and respectful welcomes, and perhaps attendances at church or chapel from those who care more for the gifts than for the quiet dignity of independence which is found in many humble people; more for the good tea than for any sermon or service. But how do the better ones feel it? Haven't your gifts absolutely tended to alienate them from churches and chapels? Do they not scorn them, and desire to be seen to benefit nothing by them? The application for help is nearly always made by the wife, and the respectable husband would no more make it than you or I would, in nine cases out of ten. Only notice what happens whenever the rule is that the man must come up to ask for help; they hardly ever come, but simply earn the needed amount. And among the women, too, the better ones hold aloof from anything that looks like bribery to come to a place of worship. I would ask any clergyman whether he does not think that the mixing of temporal gifts with spiritual teaching has not a direct tendency to lower the value of the teaching in the eyes of the recipient? Of old, when apostles preached, they treated the Gospel as good news which the people would care to receive for itself; they honoured it in treating it as if it were a blessing. Of course it is difficult to distinguish between the actions which come from the radiant outpouring of every species of good gift in mere wealth of joyful human love springing from vivid sense of Divine love, which we see in earnest preachers of all ages, from the gift which is meant to be, and felt to be, a bribe. In many cases, probably, the gifts comprise a mixture of love and a purpose to attract, which it would be impossible to separate. But religious teaching, I have no manner of doubt whatever, has suffered of late years incomparably more than it has gained by this confusion. Let the gift, then, stand or fall by its own intrinsic value; if it be helpful in itself, cultivating such right qualities as will make the recipient richer in such outside things as itself, let it be made. If not, withhold it. And for God's sake let His truth stand on its own merits. If it be a real need of His children, trust Him in His own good time to make this plain to them. Preach it by word, by deed, by patient abiding; but do not use bribes, or even what look like bribes, to make men take it in. Depend on it, it cannot be taken so. It has been accepted in this and other ages by men ready to meet poverty, toil, scorn, death, rather than be false to it; it has been accepted with acclaim by multitudes who felt in it the answer to their difficulties, the great good news for their lives. The lowest natures, when they have received it, have done so through the noble feelings which are latent in the worst of us. It is only through appeal to these—their fortitude, their reverence—that it can come home to them. I cannot believe that God's truth has ever entered one human heart wrapped up in a bribe. Let it speak quietly for itself; it is very strong. Shall we doubt it? Our special form of it, or application of it, may not commend itself to our neighbours. Do not let this disappoint us; let us with single-minded zeal try to get those neighbours to be and to do what they see to be right, and then will be revealed to them, gradually, whatever form of truth they can comprehend and apply. They will help to form God's Church, which is of many members; and if

Our little systems have their day,
They have their day and cease to be,


we must remember that the words go on:


They are but broken lights of Thee,
And Thou, O Lord, art more than they.

  1. Read at a meeting held in a suburban district in July, 1876.
  2. Eighteen of these are now to be opened.
  3. Now open to the public, and planted as a garden.
  4. Since sold for building.