Our Common Land (and other short essays)/Chapter 2

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Our Common Land (and other short essays) by Octavia Hill
District Visiting

II.


DISTRICT VISITING[1]


I have assumed throughout this paper that most district visitors feel a certain dissatisfaction both with district visiting and with systems of relief as they exist, even where such systems are best organised. Some may think that there is too much relief given, some that there is too little, others that what is given is of the wrong kind. I believe, also, some visitors feel that their spiritual influence is interfered with in different ways by the unsatisfactory character of the temporal relief. To some of them it seems incongruous to carry tracts in one hand and coal-tickets in another; to others, that carrying either, still more carrying both, as a matter of course, shuts them off from true intercourse with the best kind of working men and women; others, again, feel that carrying tracts without coal-tickets when the grate is empty seems a little like want of sympathy; and others that carrying coal-tickets without tracts is treating the poor as if they were only concerned with the outside things of life.

However earnestly our clergy have desired to solve this problem of how to deal wisely with the temporal condition of their flocks, it remains a problem still. However tenderly our visitors have mourned over it, as it affects hundreds of individuals, it remains mournful still. What prospect is there of its being vigorously studied with a view to solution, or even to radical improvement, by those who have power to effect improvement? Busy, overworked clergymen, with services and sermons, and churches and schools, and thousands of souls to see to, have inherited systems of relief in their parishes which they hardly have time to reform, and the gigantic pressure of daily duty perpetuates many unwise plans, though many, I am well aware, are being abolished. How far the best still falls below what they would like to see let the clergy themselves say. I believe most of them, if asked, would reply: "I have tried honestly to make my system of relief as satisfactory as I could, but it is far from my ideal." And this is so from another cause. You can never make a system of relief good without perfect administration, far-sighted watchfulness in each individual case; and this is specially true in an age in which bad systems of relief have trained the people to improvidence. Given your entirely enlightened clergyman, he cannot in a large London parish do much more than see to his people when the crisis of distress has come. He cannot watch over them before it comes, yet it is then that distress is preventable. On whom does the continuous watchfulness devolve at best? Visitors, young, inexperienced, untaught, undertake districts; they find themselves part of a system, and follow in its lines; they meet individual cases of want, improvidence, disease, and though they know little themselves how to deal with such, they hesitate to make calls upon the time of a too busy clergyman, kind as he is in helping, gladly as he would reply to a practical question about the individual; they cannot talk out with him radical means of dealing with the roots of such evils. What can they do? They give or withhold the soup-ticket or the shilling. Has the clergyman usually time, has the visitor often knowledge to do much more than deal with the individual question of relief or no relief at the moment in the special case?

And yet the problem has become appalling, gigantic: viewed in its entirety, it might make us almost tremble?

Statesmen, philanthropists, political economists, try their hands at it, or rather their heads. Do they succeed better than the clergy and the visitors? Do they not often succeed worse? For the clergy and the visitors at least bear witness to the poor of sympathy with them, and deal with the wants round them practically; while the theorists, let their theories be ever so excellent, somehow stand so far off that they bring little practically into operation. Who does not know of good laws passed which are nearly inoperative because not enforced by brave persons face to face with the evils which should be removed by them? Who does not know of sound principles of political economy clearly enunciated to those unconcerned by them, which never reach the ears of those whose lives they deeply affect, still less are brought before them by those whom they would trust?

Now these two classes, the studious, more leisurely, generalising thinkers, and the loving, individualising doers, need to be brought into communication; and that is what in this paper I wish most emphatically to enforce. Each has knowledge the other requires; separated, they are powerless; combined, they may do much. For I have drawn miserable pictures of the weakness of both, but see on the other hand what each has of strength. The clergy have all that is pitiful, all that is generous in the hearts of their richer parishioners on their side the power of calling out workers from among them, the power of directing a large part of their alms, the distribution of money, the leadership of the men. Besides these they have the enormous accumulated knowledge of the poor, gathered in long years of intimate observation of them in their homes a mass of information over which they may not have much time to brood, and from which they may not be in the habit of generalising, yet what might not the theorists learn from it?

And the visitors. I have called them inexperienced, and I might have added that their work is less valuable in many ways, because it is intermittent; but pause to think what these visitors are and might be. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of gentle, earnest, duty-doing souls, well born, well nurtured, well provided for, possibly well educated, turning aside out of the bright paths which they could pursue continuously, to bring a little joy, a little help, to those who are out of the way. A voluntary gift this, if a very solemn duty. I have heard persons who give their whole time to the poor speak a little disparagingly of these fleeting visits, and young girls themselves, fevered with desire to do more, talk rather enviously of those who can give their time wholly to such work; but have they ever thought how much is lost by such entire dedication?—or, rather, how much is gained by her who is not only a visitor of the poor, but a member of a family with other duties? It is the families, the homes of the poor, that need to be influenced. Is not she most sympathetic, most powerful, who nursed her own mother through her long illness, and knew how to go quietly about the darkened room; who entered so heartily into the sister's love and marriage; who obeyed so perfectly the father's command when it was hardest? Better still if she be wife and mother herself, and can enter into the responsibilities of a head of a household, understands her joys and cares, knows what heroic patience it needs to keep gentle when the nerves are unhinged and the children noisy. Depend upon it, if we thought of the poor primarily as husbands, wives, sons, and daughters, members of households, as we are ourselves, instead of contemplating them as a different class, we should recognise better how the house training and high ideal of home duty was our best preparation for work among them. Nay, to come down to much smaller matters than these family duties, to the gladness of party, ball, and flower-show, I believe these, too, in innocent and happy amount, when they brighten the eyes and bring the ready smile to the face, and make the step free and joyous, prepare us to bring a gleam of sunlight into many a monotonous life among the poor. What, in comparison with these gains, is the regularity of work of the weary worker, whose life tends to make her deal with people en masse, who gains little fresh spring from other thoughts and scenes? For what is it that we look forward to as our people gradually improve? Not surely to dealing with them as a class at all, any more than we should tell ourselves off to labour for the middle class, or aristocratic class, or shop-keeping class. Our ideal must be to promote the happy natural intercourse of neighbours—mutual knowledge, mutual help, of a kind, certainly, but not this professed devotion of a life; and it will be better from the beginning to mould our system so that it shall bear witness of what it ought to become. If we establish a system of professed workers, amateur or paid, we shall quickly begin to hug our system, and perhaps to want to perpetuate it even to the extent of making work for it. Well, here we have then our wonderful company of visitors full of real care for the people, with time and intelligence to apply the wisest principles, did they but know them, with fullest thought, to individual cases; capable of inspiring confidence, of winning allegiance; of getting those whom they visit to understand what is best for their future, and to make up their minds to do it. Is not this precisely what is needed—the individual thought which can apply the wise principles, the love which can influence the wills which should be brought into harmony with those principles? Then turn to consider how these principles are now being thought out, with what painstaking devotion, what science, what accuracy some of our greatest men are studying them. What a mass of information they have accumulated! How day by day they are learning to explain better the meaning of it all! Think of the doctors, the legislators, the poor-law reformers, the advocates of co-operation, the members of the Charity Organisation Society, how they examine, study, and expound. Once duty to the poor was supposed to consist in giving large alms; once, self-sacrifice and devotion were thought sufficient qualifications for a worker among the poor; now it is seen that to these must be added the farthest sight, the wisest thought, the most self-restraining resolution to make a useful worker.

These two classes, gentle doers and wise thinkers, stand far apart, yet, if they could be brought into close communication, both would gain much; the people for whom they are both labouring would gain much more. In what follows I have tried to show how such a communication might be made a practical reality. The scheme described is not based wholly on theory, but has substantially been in operation in a district of Marylebone for some years, and has been lately adopted by two other districts.

To effect a union, to establish communication with so numerous a body as the district visitors of London, would be in itself difficult. The difficulty is increased by the fact that they are not only a very numerous, but very changeful body; not only does death, marriage, or migration take them wholly away, but they are often interrupted by temporary absence from home, household duties, illness, and this far more than would be the case with paid workers, their district work being only a secondary, though a very real, duty. These incessant changes could never, without enormous labour and much likelihood of confusion, be registered at one centre; and this necessitates that the visitors must be dealt with by certain selected persons, who may be local leaders or centres. Large numbers of them are already gathered in district groups, round various churches and chapels. My first very natural thought was to ask the ministers of those churches and chapels to accept new duties towards their visitors, to bring before them whatever it might seem to the theorists ought to come under their notice, and to transmit to the theorists any individual problems quite too hard for solution in the locality, and to be ready to furnish other information to visitors on questions affecting the temporal condition of their people. But it was obviously impossible to ask hard-worked London clergymen and ministers to undertake additional work, especially such a work as this. For its whole value should depend on the constant, living, detailed interchange of information. And, besides, though the district visitors attached to churches and chapels are by far the most numerous bodies to be enrolled, there are other groups which it is important to secure, and there are also individual visitors to be enlisted who might be ready to help with tangible work, and not prepared to take spiritual work. And this is another reason for not asking the clergy to take up the task. On the whole, then, it appears to me best to suggest leaving the question of all spiritual and moral work exactly where it is—where it almost must be, gathering round the clergy and ministers, everything affecting it being referred to them, and of course all funds and charities now in their hands being as hitherto managed and distributed wholly under their direction; but at the same time to ask them to consider whether they could single out someone from each ecclesiastical district, or from any given group of visitors, who should be a secretary to the others—a means of communication between them and the people dealing as officials or theorists with questions affecting large bodies of the poor.

I will describe what I think such a secretary should be and do.

She need at first have no special knowledge of laws affecting the poor, institutions established for them, or the principles of action which those who have thought most on the subject unite in thinking best; ladies furnished with such knowledge would not be found in many districts, and though such information would doubtless be of immense value, it would not be essential to secure it at first, as a great deal would be rapidly acquired by anyone holding the post of which I speak. She ought to have a good deal of time for writing, and seeing her fellow-workers. She need not have time for visiting the poor. In fact I should advise selecting someone who had experience in visiting them, but was content to resign that work, as I think her full available power should be devoted to her secretarial duties. She should be able, however, to attend regularly at least one meeting weekly of the Charity Organisation Committee of her district. If she has a house of her own, or so much control over one as would enable her to see the visitors often there, it would be a great advantage; in fact, some way of seeing them frequently and individually appears to me essential. She should be one who, for the greater part of the year, is resident in town; for though of course a temporary successor could be appointed, or her post left vacant, absences, especially if frequent, would be a drawback to her usefulness. She ought to have tact, gentleness, and firmness. She must be a careful, conscientious woman of business, with clear head, or very methodical ways; for next to ready sympathy, method will be of all things most necessary to her. Such a secretary should, in that capacity, busy herself only with matters relating to the temporal condition of the poor. She would have relations to her own group of visitors, to the locality in which she lived, and to the metropolis generally. Those to her own fellow-workers would be different probably in different cases; but I suppose she would help and advise new visitors, tell them of the local chanties, consult with them about special cases, register their temporary absence, getting the clergy to fill in such gaps if possible, show them how to keep written records of families under their charge in given form, so as to be of use to succeeding visitors, whether temporary or permanent, and communicate to visitors, new and old, all facts within her knowledge which might be of value to them. With regard to the local organisation, I will not stay to describe in detail the ways in which she might be valuable to the School Board officer, to the relieving officer, to the inspector of nuisances, who might learn to look to her for more radical means of help than are at their command, both material and moral, and for information as to details such as rarely reaches officials, and yet might enable them to bring beneficent laws more powerfully to bear on special cases. The secretary should not only avail herself of the investigating machinery of the Charity Organisation Society, but she should, as I said, attend the committee meetings. There she will learn an immense deal about wise principles of relief, new and important facts of law affecting the people, and the working of various institutions; in short, she ought to get there nearly all the instruction she requires. She would also be invaluable to the committee. She would be well acquainted with the principles on which relief is given by those whom she represents, could tell whether they would be likely to make a grant in a certain case, and, approximately, how large such grant would be. She would know, too, how to enlist that individual gentle help which is so often needed in cases coming before the Charity Organisation Society after the preliminary investigation is made, and which the paid agent has neither time nor capacity to give. In fact, for applicants from every street, and court, and lane, in which a visitor was at work, she would know to whom to turn for the personal attention which the Charity Organisation Committee feel they so urgently need. Nor would her services end there. Not only would she obtain the aid of the visitors she represented at such times of crisis in the history of a poor family as those in which they usually apply to the Charity Organisation Society, not only would she be able to supply a detailed report of the past life of the applicant on points which might bear on the committee's decision, but afterwards, when the decision was made and relief granted or withheld, through succeeding years she would get the people watched over with that continuous care without which right decisions at any particular crisis of life lose half their efficacy; indeed, she might often avert such a crisis altogether. For instance, she might get the visitors to induce the man to join a provident dispensary or club; which would be more satisfactory, though not perhaps more necessary, than refusing him aid when he has not done so. Sometimes, when I think of those Charity Organisation Committees so much misunderstood by many, because they have so resolutely determined to give no fresh unsatisfactory relief, some of them tenderly pitiful of the poor, some of them a little far off from them, but all trying to help them in thoughtfully considered ways, and of the great current of careless, inconsiderate relief going on unchecked and uncontrolled by them, I feel as if a union between you and them would do more than almost anything else to help the poor. There they are all ready for you in every district of London, asking you to co-operate, asking you to study with them what is best, and you leave them in too many cases to be mere repressors of the grossest forms of mendicity, and by no means organisers of charity. If the plan I suggest were adopted by only a few visiting societies, I delight to think what might be gained by furnishing the committees with a few gentle workers representing many more, and associated with the charities of the neighbourhood.

But I pass on to consider the relations of these secretaries to the metropolis. They ought to be supplied with information about the laws affecting the poor, Sanitary Laws, Poor Laws, Education Acts, &c.; they ought to get notice of important meetings about medical charities; of new suggestions and arrangements as to the best methods of collecting and storing the earnings of the poor. And how is this to be done? Much of it might even now be done through the Charity Organisation Society. All of it, I hope, will be done through the Society in the future; but the committees are too busy, too occupied with their daily labour, to deal with this new matter with the fulness of detail which at first it will require; and perhaps they do not everywhere nor always command the full sympathy and confidence of their district. Added to which, I have noticed that people, curiously enough, are more willing to invite information from private persons than from official bodies. Something must be done to meet the wants of a time of transition, and I trust I am not overbold in offering, while the plan is new, to do what I can to fill the gap; but in the future we ought to endeavour to secure that the visitors should be so organised that they themselves can compare notes, and each communicate to each how practical difficulties have been met in particular localities—so organised that facts bearing on their work should reach them swiftly and certainly, and that their experience should be accessible for legislators and reformers.

I have set before you nothing great, nothing grand, no new society, no fresh light even on the problems respecting wiser systems of relief, or their applications to individuals, which you are desiring so much to solve, each in your own parish or court. I do believe those problems to be capable of solution. I do believe that our almsgiving has been cruel in its kindness. It is for the sake of the people themselves that I would see it decreased, yes, even put down altogether; I believe they would be richer, as well as happier, for it. For the sake of the energy of the poor, the loss of which is so fatal to them, for the sake of that intercourse with them, happy, friendly, human intercourse, which dependence renders impossible, seek to your utmost for better ways of helping them. We can give you no general rules which will obviate necessity of thought, singly must your difficulties be met, singly conquered; but see that you throw upon them all available light from the experience of others, the thoughts of the thoughtful. No new society, no great scheme, have I to urge, only if here or there any one or two of the groups of visitors care to select one among them to be their secretary, and send me her name and address, I will tell her what I can which I think may be helpful to her or them. We might meet, too, we secretaries, now and again, to talk over important questions and strengthen one another; and though I could not possibly find time to deal with difficulties in detail, I might show, or get shown, what plans have been found useful in places which I know. I might help, too, a little about finding employment. I hear of a good many situations of an exceptional kind, and difficult to fill up suitably, and notice of such vacancies I might send on to secretaries, who could find among their visitors someone who would care to spend thought and time in fitting into an exceptional place the person best adapted for it. The large demands for labour are, I believe, best dealt with by advertisement or registry; but there is not any more valuable way of helping individuals than by fitting them in where they are wanted, in ways that are not possible except to those who have personal knowledge of candidates. Mere routine notices might thus meet great human needs.

I have spoken throughout this paper of outward means and appliances; I have referred very little to improvement of the lives and spirits of men. This is not because I do not care for those lives and spirits. They are reached, we must remember, in many different ways. A great deal of life is necessarily spent in getting its surroundings into order, and in London here, this machinery of ours, all the tangible things round us, need a great deal done to them; it tests us better than any words can do. It is very difficult—impossible, I believe—to make the things of this world fair and orderly, to arrange them justly, to govern them rightly, without living very nobly. The right use of money, the laws affecting houses and lands, involve principles which test the sincerity of a man or a nation; they test it, I say, as words cannot test it. I think our poor see this very clearly, and that, strange as it may seem, the messages about God's nature, and about His relation to them, come in a subtle way through our acts. More perhaps than through our words. This is emphatically so just now. They have heard a great many words, and have been puzzled because our actions have often seemed to them at variance with those words. I know how hopelessly we must fail in any attempt to live up to the unspeakable majesty of God's tenderness, and the boundless wisdom of His righteousness; but even our failure, after sincere trial, brings a message of what He is to His children. Our actions are speaking to them. For this reason I have never felt the execution of the most minute duty with regard to tangible things beneath my notice, and I do not feel that in urging any of you to consider the right settlement of questions of temporal relief, I am asking you to devote yourselves to a task which is otherwise than holy. On the contrary, I have felt that it can be only rightly dealt with by those who are content to carry it on in silent allegiance to One who will judge with farther sight than feeble men, who will know what deeper mercy there may be in the act which looks to men harsh at the moment Indeed, I dare not trust the difficult things there may be to do in refusal of immediate help to any mere reasonable political economist. The generals who can direct the sad retracing of our foolish steps should be those who care for the people because their Father cares, and so desire to make them what He would have them to be; and the only ones who will have fortitude to bear the misunderstanding this may cause will be those who feel tenderest pity for the people.

Not a small thing, even in itself, is the dealing with the tangible and soulless things of earth. We may be very proud, justly proud, of the well-ordered spot of earth, the well-spent income, the self-restrained providence, whether they are our own, or whether we have helped another so to regulate the talents entrusted to him; but the glad pride breaks away, and a deep thankfulness overpowers us, if ever by word or deed we seem to have helped anyone to catch even a little glimpse of that mighty Love which enwraps his spirit, uniting it in solemn harmony with all that is contained, as well as all that cannot be contained, in this wonderful, visible world.

  1. Read on the 4th of May, 1876, to a meeting of district visitors and clergy at the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol’s house in London.