Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Private economy

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One of the many results of the strange misfortunes of the departing year has been a disclosure of personal pecuniary affairs, or of notions about such private affairs, unparalleled since, at least, the “crash” of 1825-6. The prostration of our chief industrial interest, the sudden overthrow of hundreds of thousands of our proudest and most independent class of people, and the necessity that the nation at large should undertake the support of that class till the mills should open again,—this singular crash has broken up our personal and social reserve, and laid open our circumstances, and notions, and ways of living in a manner sufficiently astonishing to persons who have always supposed the subject of income and expenditure to be one of those doubtful, delicate, sacred topics which could be approached only in an abstract way.

It has been all very well, we have been wont to say, that the proper expenditure of 300l. or 400l. a-year should be treated in an abstract way in letters to the “Times” about dinners, and servants, and inn-charges. Everybody reads such things, even while heartily despising them. The subject is an interesting one to almost everybody; but surely nobody ever expected that we should discuss our incomes and expenditure so freely, and feel again so like a young and frank people, sounding its way in life, as we do at the end of the memorable year 1862. As it has so happened, I shall use the opportunity of commenting on some things in this line which I have observed, and perhaps of saying something of what I think on the really important subject of what means one has, and how one uses them.

Some years ago, I read in “Chambers’ Journal” the remark that it is the rarest thing in the world for anybody to have 5l. to do what he or she likes with. This declaration probably astonished some of the humbler readers of that publication not a little; but it must have struck many as very true. The vulgar notion of wealth is that the rich man has a closet full of gold, or desks and pockets bursting with banknotes; and that the owner is always looking about him to see how he can spend most. On the contrary, says the writer in the “Journal,” the income of the wealthiest man is always pre-engaged to certain objects; and as it is generally the case that the calls exceed the estimate, the proprietor finds himself bare,— with not even a 5l. note left over, to do what he likes with. No doubt, in many cases, the laying by a certain amount is one of the objects; but when a man has resolved to lay by a certain amount, he is not free (or does not think himself so) to take 5l. out of his savings, and say, “I may spend this as I please.”

Within this universal limit—of no one having anything over and above his needs—there is an immense variety of ideas, principles and feelings about spending. People’s notions and impressions are almost as various as their temperaments; and there are very few indeed whose plans are approved by their neighbours and friends. Not a little of this immense diversity has been either avowed or betrayed under the peculiar circumstances of the last few months.

Early in this century, the political economists considered themselves to be the proper guides in this particular field of morals. I well remember the earnestness with which some of the leaders preached, in season and out of season, the bounden duty of everybody to lay by something. Seeing in the labour-market of that day the normal labour-market of modern civilisation, they conceived that the great need of human society was more capital, in order to employ more labour. It is true they preached also the corresponding duty of restricting the supply of labour; but this did not interfere with the duty of augmenting capital from day to day. Before we condemn or deride this zeal, and the maxim which grew out of it—“Parsimony is a virtue”—we must remember the state of the labouring classes (and indeed of all classes) in England at that time. In fact, the morals and manners, the health, the comfort, and even the life of multitudes then depended on an increase of the means of employing labour; and the “hard” political economists were the very persons who insisted most strongly that, to do anything with men, women, or children, you must first make them comfortable. It might therefore be neither so sordid nor so absurd as some people thought, to insist that everybody should make it a point of conscience to lay by something every year; and that, in view of that end, parsimony was a virtue.

Times and the face of affairs changed, however, as free trade acted upon our national industry; and especially after the repeal of the corn laws had released us from the worst perils of material adversity. Natural inducements to save succeeded to the preachments of moralists, and it became more a matter of choice to moralists themselves whether to save or spend. For my part, I think that times have so changed, that while it is still, and ever must be, right that the total capital of the nation should increase without intermission, it is also right that certain individuals should spend their whole income. Parents, and all men and women who have, or may have, dependents, are bound to take care, as far as they can, that their young charges shall start fair in their career of industry, whatever it may be; and that old or poor relations, or near friends, shall not suffer needlessly by their death. The wealth of commercial magnates grows of course, and does duty, in regard to the employment of industry for the savings of hundreds and thousands of little men. But when all the commercial firms are cared for, and all the sons and daughters, and all the poor relatives and dependents, there may still be a good many incomes left which may harmlessly or beneficially be spent without reserve. In our day, the work of “doing good” is much overdone, no doubt; and a vast deal of mischief is bred as a set-off against the good actually wrought: but still there are so many excellent projects and institutions requiring support; so many neighbours everywhere needing help; so many ways of employing industry to the gain of public or private comfort, instruction and pleasure, that I own I hear with satisfaction an avowal, here and there, from some thoughtful and independent person, that he spends his whole income, because he sees every year more reason for spending than for laying by. I am glad when elderly spinsters say so; and when widowers and widows, whose children are settled in life, say so. And I am sorry in proportion when those of my own generation, who heard the praises of accumulation and of parsimony in their youth, are still trammeled by bonds which they should have broken through long ago, and abstain from doing good and pleasant things now, for the chance of somebody unknown doing something of the sort hereafter. Being Protestants, and charitable bequests being happily out of fashion and discredited, these contemporaries of mine are not disposing of their money in that way. When nobody depends on them, nobody expects anything from them, and nobody of kin or kindness needs anything, it does seem absurd and shocking to go on laying by part of a safe and ample income,—even in such a year as that of the potato rot, or that of the cotton famine: yet these rich people would feel disturbed in mind if they did not lay by the usual amount, or rather more, from year to year. I have seen them trying to the last moment to disbelieve the distress; complaining of the local rates, opining that it was the duty of Irish landlords, or of Lancashire proprietors, to take charge of the sufferers, and at last subscribing their 5l. or 10l., lest they should lay by only 450l. instead of 500l., and by giving much be led on to give more.

It was often said, last autumn, that people who usually tithed their income for charity were, on such an occasion, giving one-fifth; that those who had an income of thousands were giving hundreds, and those who had an income of hundreds were giving tens: and they thought that excellent; but they could not do it: it would trench upon their well-considered plan of conduct, and compel them to sacrifice a fixed object to a transitory one. Again,—they heard of a set of very poor people, living in a very poor cluster of cottages, who, at the beginning of this winter, amidst the bitter frost of November, engaged to supply 22s. monthly for Lancashire, as long as the distress should last: and these rich solitaries, who had no growing boys and girls to feed, and no babes to warm with difficulty, and no old clothes to mend and patch to make them last the winter, thought this creditable to the poor people, certainly, but quite natural, seeing that they might any day be in need of the same assistance. So these opulent solitaries, who probably will never want pecuniary aid from any quarter, have seen no incitement to give to Lancashire what would correspond to the contributions of those poor labourers, but stick to their 5l. or 10l., as what they are “justified in giving.” The spell which is upon all others, making them frank and careless about the disclosure of their affairs, does not act upon these rigid moralists and economists. It is curious to see them denying themselves in a way, because everybody else is economical just now, but to no purpose as regards anybody but posterity. One will do without new gravelling his garden-walks for the present, and another will put off buying her intended silk dress this winter, as everybody is going shabby in one way or other for the sake of Lancashire; but it is too plain that the saving will be invested for the benefit of some other party than Lancashire, leaving a certain sense of complacency behind,—probably because it used to be said that “Parsimony is a virtue.”

It is this effort to help Lancashire which has so singularly broken up the ordinary reserve about incomes. All over the kingdom the “workies,” men and women, are subscribing weekly or monthly amounts out of their pay; and, for the example’s sake, the fact gets abroad. It is natural for salaried clerks, poor gentry, and clergy to consult together, and inquire what others are doing; and thus to communicate their affairs in a way they would not otherwise think of. In country places, and even in some streets of towns, the same kind of council is held. Preachers of all denominations bring the case and the appeal upon it home very plainly to their hearers; and the hearers’ hearts are opened, and they are frank and hearty, and give as one family. We learn now how people with very small means give by sacrificing the accustomed ale, or the cigar, or the annual autumn pic-nic, or the dance at Christmas. And, as the end of the year approached, we found that the ordinary strictness of strict people about living so far within their income had for once completely given way.

“Never mind!” some of our best citizens have said, in their various ways; “this is such a year as we may hope never to see again; and our little family and personal plans must give way. It would really be wrong to refuse to give in order that we may lay by. We will send every shilling we can muster; and we will see whether there is anything besides money that we can spare.” And then appear the packages of clothing and blankets, of which so many reach Manchester from all parts. In such a season, people do not care who knows their circumstances, if consultation among neighbours can help the collection of funds: and thus, to observant persons, ways of living are disclosed very instructively, and not a few individuals, and some clasess may learn how other classes live.

As far as I have ever been able to learn, the closest economy of all is practised by gentry of small means. The little fixed income is parcelled out with minute care; and a margin is left for accidents, or for laying by something, however trifling. These are the houses in which two fires, in the kitchen and the parlour, must suffice in mid-winter, and the coals be skilfully put on, so as to burn to most advantage. The tea-caddy is filled at certain intervals, and the supply must be made to last. If a dish is by chance spoiled in the cooking, that dish is subtracted from the dinner. The charity purse is sacred. One-tenth of the little income goes into it; and the income is reckoned as that much short of what it is. This winter, the beer at dinner, or the sugar at breakfast and tea is given up that there may be something for Lancashire; and the old shawl or cloak is made to serve one more season, because Lancashire must be helped, and it would be wrong to go to the charity-purse for this extra call. The difficulty in this class of homes has been greater than usual for the last few years,—greater than many heads of households knew how to deal with,—from the increased costliness of female dress. I will not enlarge on this now; and I refer to it only for the effect it produces in stinting the hitherto frugal table, and lowering the before scanty fire. If the daughters could dress as they did twenty years ago, the grey-headed parents might have their glass of wine after dinner, and a fire in their bed-room on bitter winter nights, and a little sociability in the evenings, without thinking twice whether they can afford tea, toast, and cake, to an old acquaintance. From such abodes as these help is somehow spared for Lancashire at this moment.

On the other hand, the most profuse ways of living are supposed to be in great folks’ mansions and in farm-houses. The old-fashioned farm-house is, indeed, the very type of plenty.

As to great London houses, there is generally speaking a profusion of comfort and luxury, and therefore of expenditure—but this depends much on the management. A multitude of Englishmen have no doubt wished within the last few weeks that the surplus food in the great mansions of the aristocracy could be transported to Lancashire; and there must be, on the whole, a good deal of waste, both in the process of cookery and in the quantity provided, according to the quondam ways of such houses. But it is not always so. There are great houses, both in town and country, where an astonishing economy prevails. The servants have board wages; and every scrap in the larder is eaten up by the family. In country houses this has a more remarkable appearance, because old associations lead one to expect plenty there. But, whether it is that gentlemen have become their own farmers, and ladies their own dairy keepers, or whether a new generation of housekeepers has come into office, more stingy than the old, I cannot say; but the life of the country house is sometimes very unlike the old notion of it. The Groby Park luncheon in “Orley Farm” may easily have been taken from the life; and one may spend a month in such a mansion at midsummer without seeing a proper old-fashioned dessert of strawberries and cream; or at Christmas without ever having one’s fill of custard or syllabub.

In the true provincial farm-house, meantime, the genuine rural profusion still exists,—only a little modified by regard to modern ways. One may not be compelled to sit down to a loaded table every two or three hours; but when one does sit down (which is still four or five times a day), the table is a bountiful one. The hostess is not thinking, as the great lady or her housekeeper may be, of the dairy sales of the week. The farmer’s wife first supplies her own house without stint, and then sells the rest. There is no gardener there to diminish the dessert by slow degrees that he may have the more fruit to sell; but the farm-gardens and orchard overflow all the year round, and no cockney guests, with the London frenzy for fruit, could make much impression on the supply. All through the house, the plenty is the same. There are roaring wood-fires in every room; a pile of blankets on every bed; wine always in view; ale always at call; horses for any number of riders, and amusement and hospitality overflowing in every corner of the house and land. From such abodes there might be a good deal spared for Lancashire; and I believe there is. Of the gifts of game and other eatables received at Manchester, it is probable that the bulk arrives from farm-houses, where it is natural for people to give what they have, and what they see their friends enjoy. Nothing is more likely than that the farmer and his sons, when they come home with a full game-bag, say that it is a pity those poor Lancashire people, in their pinch, have not some of these good things; and hence perhaps the perplexity of the Relief Committes about what to do with pheasants and hares, if game may not be sold without a licence.

There is yet another class which could spare no little food to the hungry, with clear benefit to themselves; and that is the order of workpeople, who are habitually extravagant in regard to their table. My readers must be aware, I should think, that there is no more lavish expenditure on food in this country than among the particular artisan class, which, in our great manufacturing towns, buys up, before anybody else, the delicacies of the season. It is supposed to be a sort of class vanity,—a way of asserting the position of the purchaser of green geese and early peas, the first sucking-pigs, grouse, woodcocks, costly hams, and foreign fruits. I am not of the opinion of some of my acquaintance,—the expressed opinion of some public writers,—that it is our habit as a people to eat too much. I believe that a very large proportion of my countrymen of all ranks, and yet more of my countrywomen, do not eat enough of the best kinds of food; but an exception must certainly be made in regard to that part of our middle-class population which the doctors know well as “the over-eating class.” Their charity would be doubly blessed if they gave their surplus food, or the price of it, to the needy. It is probable that very many have done so, as the impulse to self-denial seems to be universal throughout the kingdom, except among the scattered unfortunates who are too strictly moral in their attention to their maxim that “Parsimony is a virtue.”

There had been a general impression till a month ago that these Lancashire operatives had themselves been of the luxurious class of “workies:” and here again is one of the disclosures which the cotton famine has induced. We now know how wisely a large proportion of them have laid by money in their prosperous days. Their accounts in the Savings’ Banks, in Building Societies, and above all in those noble Cooperative Institutions at Rochdale, have vindicated their character as a class, in regard to the duty of accumulating savings, and creating capital. Good as it is for us, as a people, that our reserve as to our morals and habits of expenditure should have been broken through, it is especially a great benefit that the ways and views and characters of our chief company of operatives should have been laid open in so favourable a way. When affairs resume their natural course, we shall all know one another better, make more allowance perhaps for one another’s ways, feel less sensitive or respectful towards the merely rich, and more ready and eager to show the labouring classes how to make the best of their means. It will have been good for us to see how, while certain rich people have exercised their ingenuity in contriving how to give least with the least discredit, a great many more poor men and women have exercised their ingenuity in an opposite direction,—in contriving to cut off some personal expenditure hitherto considered necessary, in order to give something more necessary still to an impoverished brother labourer. It is good for us to find that, generally speaking, among the orderly people of all ranks, it is the rule and practice to lay by something for somebody, and thus to satisfy the claims of the next generation: but it is also good for us to be for once shaken out of our routine, and impelled to spend whatever we can muster out of our income (whatever it may be), and able to do so with a frank satisfaction, worth more to us and our neighbours than any pleasure that money can buy.

January 1, 1863.

From the Mountain.