Our Common Land (and other short essays)/Chapter 5

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Our Common Land (and other short essays) by Octavia Hill
A Word On Good Citizenship

V.


A WORD ON GOOD CITIZENSHIP.


I have often, on previous occasions, felt bound to urge, not only the evils of indiscriminate alms-giving, but the duty of withholding all such gifts as the rich have been accustomed to give to the poor. At the same time I have realised so fully how tremendous the responsibility of abstaining from such gifts is considered by the donors, that I have not thought they could act on my advice without themselves seeing that it would be merciful as well as wise to withhold such gifts. I have, therefore, usually said: “Look for yourself, but look with the sound of my words ringing in your ears.” And those words have been distinctly to proclaim that I myself have no belief whatever in the poor being one atom richer or better for the alms that reach them, that they are very distinctly worse, that I give literally no such alms myself, and should have no fear for the poor whatever if any number of people resolved to abstain from such alms. But, on the other hand, I have long felt, and feel increasingly, that it is most important to dwell on the converse of the truth.

The old forms in which charity expressed itself are past or passing away. With these forms are we to let charity itself pass? Are there no eternal laws binding us to charitable spirit and deed? Are we, who have become convinced that doles of soup, and loans of blankets, and scrubbing-brushes sold at less than cost-price, have failed to enrich any class—have helped to eat out their energy and self-reliance—thereon to tighten our purse-strings, devise new amusements for ourselves, expend more in luxurious houses and expensive dinners, cultivate our own intellects, indulge elegant tastes, and float down the stream of Time in happy satisfaction that the poor cannot be bettered by our gifts—in fact, must learn self-help—we meantime going to flower-shows, or picture galleries, or studying systems of political economy? Are the old words, “Bear ye one another’s burdens,” to pass away with the day of coal-tickets? Have the words, “Ye are members one of another,” ceased to be true because our tract and dole distribution has broken down? Are there no voices still speaking in our hearts the old commandment, “Love one another?” Is that love to be limited henceforward to the pleasant acquaintances who call upon us, and like the same poets, and can talk about Rome and the last clever book? Or is it, as of old, to go forth and gather in the feeble, the out-of-the-way, the poor? Is humanity, is nationality, is citizenship too large for our modern love or charity to embrace, and shall it in the future be limited to our family, our successful equals, or our superiors? Are we going to look out and up, but never down? The love of our Master Christ, the love of St. Francis, the love of Howard, the love of John Brown, the burning love of all who have desired to serve others, has been a mighty, all-embracing one, and specially tender, specially pitiful. All modern forms of alms-giving may pass and change, but this love must endure while the world lasts. And if it endure, it must find expression. Charity such as this does find expression. It finds expression, when healthiest and most vigorous, not in weak words, but in strong acts. If we would not be mere butterflies and perish with our empty, fleeting, self-contained lives; if we would not be fiends of intellectual self-satisfaction living a cold and desolate life; if we would not leave the hungry, the forlorn, the feeble, to perish from before us, or to rise and rend us; we must secure such love as that which lighted and intensified the lives of heroes and of missionaries, and struggle to see what scope there is for acts which shall embody that love.

The mistake the old-fashioned donors make is not in their benevolence—that cannot be too strong—but they forget to watch whether the influence of their deeds is beneficent. I should not at all wonder if even thirty years ago doles were more beneficent than now. If the poor had at that time not learned to trust to them, if they came straight from the loving hands of those who cared to step aside from beaten tracks to know and serve the poor they must have had very different results from any they have now, when people have learned to depend on them, when they are almost the fashion, and often the relief for the consciences of those who don’t feel quite easy, if they give no time, no heart, no trouble, nor any money to the poor. I have no manner of doubt, that just now gifts of necessaries are injurious. What form, then, shall our charity take in the immediate future?

Take that question home to yourselves, each of you who has not answered it already; ask it of yourselves, not as if you were asked to take the position of hero, or martyr, or professed philanthropist, but as if I had said to you, “What do you, as a man or woman, feel bound to do beyond the circle of your family for those who are fellow-men, fellow-citizens, many of them sunk into deep ruts of desolation, poverty, and sin?” Find some answer, live up to it, so shall your own life, your own city, your own age be better.

I will tell you what kind of answer I think may come to you. First, as to money, which is perhaps the most difficult thing to give without doing harm. Don’t sit down under the conviction that therefore you are to buy or spend it all for yourself. If you like to earn rather less, to pause in middle life, and give full thought to spending what you have, or, better still, to give time which might have made money, I shall certainly not complain of you. But do not think there is no scope for beneficent gifts of money because soup-kitchens and free dormitories are not beneficent. There is abundant scope for large gifts, large enough to please the proudest of you. Are there no great gifts of open spaces to be made for the rich and poor to share alike in the time to come—spaces which shall be to the child no more corrupting than the mountain to the Highlander, or the long sea horizon to the fisherman’s lad? They will come to him as an inheritance he possesses as a Londoner or an English child; most likely being taken, like light and air, straight from God, and not in any way tending to remind him of men’s gifts, still less to pauperise him. But if a memory of you as a donor comes to him as youth ripens into manhood, long after you are in your grave, the thought is more likely to incite him to make some great, abidingly useful gift to his town, than in any way to paralyse his energies or weaken his self-respect. Are there no places to plant with trees, no buildings to erect, no libraries to found, no scholarships to endow? Are there, moreover, none of those many works to achieve, which a nation, a municipality, a vestry, first needs to see done, to learn the use of by using, though finally such a community may prize them more by making an effort to establish similar ones? For instance, no one would dwell more urgently than I on the need of making healthy houses for the poor remunerative; and now the problem of doing so has been in a great measure solved. But do we not owe this to the efforts of a body of men in earlier time who were content to lose money in experiments and example? Pioneers must risk, if not give, largely, that we may travel smoothly over the road which they made with such difficulty. Are we in turn never to be pioneers? Are there no improved public-houses, no improved theatres, no better machinery for collecting savings, which we may establish and give our money to? The same kind of far-sighted policy might be adopted with all smaller gifts, making them either radically beneficial in themselves, as when they train an orphan for service-work in life, or give rest to an invalid whose savings are exhausted; or they may be gifts of things which no one is bound to provide for himself, but which give joy—as if you helped to put coloured decoration outside our schools or houses in dingy streets, or invited a company of poor people whom you know to tea in your garden during the fair June weather, or even sent some shells from your home by the sea to small children in one of our few London playgrounds.

But to leave the question of money and come to the greater gift of time. Here especially I would beg you to consider whether you have each of you done your utmost. A poor district in London is inhabited by a number of persons, ill-educated, dirty, quarrelsome, drunken, improvident, unrefined, possibly dishonest, possibly vicious. I will assume that we, too, have each of us a good many faults—perhaps we are selfish, perhaps we are indolent. I am sure all the virtue is not among the rich; but certain advantages they surely have which the poor have not—education, power of thinking out the result of certain courses of action, more extended knowledge of facts or means of acquiring it, habits of self-control, habits of cleanliness, habits of temperance, rather more providence usually, much more refinement, nearly always a higher standard, perhaps a high standard, of honesty. Have we not a most distinct place among the poor, if this be so? Is not our very presence a help to them? I have known courts nearly purified from very gross forms of evil merely by the constant presence of those who abhorred them. I know, you probably all know, that dirt disappears gradually in places that cleanly people go in and out of frequently. Mere intercourse between rich and poor, if we can secure it without corrupting gifts, would civilise the poor more than anything. See, then, that you do not put your lives so far from those great companies of the poor which stretch for acres in the south and east of London, that you fail to hear each other speak. See that you do not count your work among them by tangible result, but believe that healthy human intercourse with them will be helpful to you and them. Seek to visit and help in parishes in which this is recognised as an end in itself.

Again, we have got our population into a state of semi-pauperism, from which individuals and societies cannot raise them merely by abstaining from gifts by guardians or withdrawing out-relief. We have accustomed them to trust to external help, and only by most patient individual care shall we raise them. Neither can we persuade donors, unaccustomed to study the future results of their acts, to abstain from distinctly unwise charity unless we are among them, unless we are ready, too, to consider with them about each human soul, which is to them and to us inexpressibly precious, what is at the moment the wise thing to do. Have most gentlemen any idea how much this work needs doing in the poor districts of London? The Charity Organisation Society came forward now some years ago to try to get the donors of London to meet and consider this question in detail in every district in London. It undertook to look carefully into all cases brought to its offices, and to report the results of its inquiries. It did not undertake to make additional gifts except where they might secure enduring benefit, but it said to the donors, “Associate yourselves, relieve after due thought, after investigation, and in conjunction one with another.” That Society has made great way; it has established offices in every district, and has provided an investigating machinery of inexpressible value, of which every Londoner may avail himself. But, I ask, where are the donors? Where are the representatives of the various relieving agencies? The clergy? The district visitors? There are of course a certain number who have co-operated heartily, but, as a rule, I am forced to reply very mournfully, after all these years they are for the most part going on with their ill-considered relief very much the same, not using the machinery, and reproaching the Charity Organisation Society that it is not relieving largely, and that it is not composed of themselves! Now, till these relieving agencies come in and take their share, and give their gentler tone to the somewhat dry machinery, are these offices to be places where mere routine business is done by an agent who cannot have much individual care for the applicants? Or is there to be anyone to watch over each applicant with real charity, questioning him gently, thinking for him sympathetically, seeking for him such help as will be really helpful? In some offices in the poor districts we have found honorary secretaries to do this, and splendid work it has been. Wherever such help has been forthcoming the poor have been well served, and the old-fashioned donors have been in some measure won to wiser courses of action. But many more such honorary secretaries are needed, and that imperatively and immediately. Are there no men of leisure, with intellect and heart, who will come forward? I have known no such urgent need as this in the many years I have spent face to face with the poor since I came to London—the need of advice, of sympathy, of thoughtful decision for poor man after poor man, as he comes up to our offices at a crisis in his life.

One more instance of the way help can be given, and I have done; for I will not dwell now on the good that might be done by the purchase and management of the houses of the poor, by teaching, by entertainments for them, by oratorios, by excursions, by the gift of beautiful things. I will only point out now that as guardians or vestrymen the most influential sphere of work presents itself. If you try to get into Parliament, many men of equal education, high principles, and refinement probably contest the place with you; if you succeed they fail; if you try to make a name among the fashionable or wealthy circles, you may or may not succeed; but if you fail no one misses you much. But if, instead of trying to get high up, you were to try to get down low, what a position of usefulness you would have! You would learn much from vigorous colleagues, much I fancy which would make you ashamed; but what might not they gain, what might not the locality gain, if the administration of its affairs were carried on under the influence of men of education! As guardians, how you might see to the poor, leading them back to independence in most thoughtful ways, watching over them individually that no wrong was done! As vestrymen, how you might be on the side of far-sighted expenditure or the suppression of corruption! When I see people all struggling to get up higher, they seem to me like people in a siege, who should all rush to defend the breach for the glory and renown of it, and trample one another to death, and leave little doors unwatched all round the town; and I can’t help wondering sometimes why more of them don’t pray Marion Erie’s prayer when she leaves the wedding-dress unfinished to go and nurse the fever-stricken patient, “Let others miss me, never miss me, God.”

I don’t the least mean that the works I have suggested are the only ones, or the best, or even that always that kind of work may be best. The form that charity takes in this age or in that must be decided by the requirements of the time, and these I describe may be as transient as others. Only never let us excuse ourselves from seeking the best form in the indolent belief that no good form is possible, and things are better left alone; nor, on the other hand, weakly plead that what we do is benevolent. We must ascertain that it is really beneficent too.