Our Common Land (and other short essays)/Chapter 7

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Tender pity for the poor has been a growing characteristic of this age; a better sign of it still is the increased sense of duty to them, not only as poor men, but as men. There needs, however, it appears to me, something still before our charity shall be effectual for good. The feeling is there, the conscience is there, but there is wanting the wise thought and the resolute, because educated, will.

Our charity, if by the word we mean our loving-kindness, has been good in itself, but if we mean by the word, alms-giving, can we flatter ourselves that it has been productive of a satisfactory state of things? We have taught our poor to live in uncertainty as to their resources, which is producing among them a reckless want of forethought, which is quite appalling. The most ordinary occurrences of their lives—the regular winter frost which stops the work of some men year by year; the changes in the labour market, caused by the London season; the expenses attending illness; the gradual approach of old age—are not dwelt on now usually among the poor as reasons for trying to provide a fund to meet them. Thus there are hundreds of our people living on the extremest brink of pauperism or starvation, learning more and more to be dependent on the chance coal-ticket, or half-crown, or blanket; and if it does not happen to be given at the moment when it is wanted, how forlorn is the position of the improvident man? But look also on the even more important question of their spirit, and of their relation to those above them in class. Can there be energy, independence, vigour, healthy activity among them? Can there be between them and the donors any of that happy manly interchange of thought, by which the possessors of education, refinement, leisure, might help, or be helped by, the active, self-reliant working-man, with his large capacity for fresh vigorous joy, and his store of power accumulated during a long period of endurance and patient effort? If different classes, like different people, have separate characters which are meant to act and react one, on the other, are we not, by allowing the help to be one of a dole of money, destroying the possibility of the better help that might have been?

And is our money doing any good? Did you ever see the district—the family—the individual that was richer for this repeated alms-giving? Has it ever been powerful, even for outside good, to be recipients? Is the bed better covered in the long run for the lent blankets, or the children better fed for the free distribution of soup? Or is it consistent with our ideal that there should be this body of people dependent for the most ordinary necessities of life on the gifts of another class? Rely upon it, if we foster this state of things it will continue to increase.

Here we are, however, in the midst of this alms-giving, aimless, thoughtless, ineffectual to achieve any object its donors had in view. It is a gigantic system, or rather no system, which has grown up around us. What is our duty with regard to it? Specially what is the duty of those of us who are, in any sense of the word, trustees of charitable funds?

There is a society which you all know well enough by name—the Charity Organisation Society—which has set itself to help distributors of alms in two important ways. First, it has offered to examine, free of all charge, carefully, for anyone who wants to learn about them, the circumstances and character of applicants for relief. Donors cannot decide what help it is wise to give until they know all about an applicant; the Society can learn such facts in a far more complete way than donors possibly can. Clearly then, to my mind, donors or distributors of gifts ought to accept this proffered help.

But the Society offers a second advantage; it will give an opinion on the case of an applicant. When the facts respecting his condition and character are ascertained, the problem is simply this. How can he be so helped that the help may soon be needed no longer; how placed speedily out of the reach of want, in an honourable useful place where he can help himself? Or if his need be necessarily chronic, how can he be provided for adequately and regularly—so regularly that he shall be tempted neither to begging nor extravagance? It is very difficult to set a man up again in the world; and the main hope of doing it is to pause deliberately over his case, to bring to bear upon it all the collected information, all the practised experience, and intelligent thought of men and women accustomed to think out such problems, and to watch the results of many attempts to solve them. The ordinary district visitor has no qualifications for forming an opinion on the best way of meeting the difficulties of the case, nor usually has the busy clergyman much more. The visitor has very rarely even a glimmering notion that there is such a way of dealing with the poverty she pities, she hardly dreams that it is possible to attack it at its roots, and so she gives the ticket or the shilling. The clergyman usually feels that this is an unsatisfactory way of treating the matter; but he knows probably no more than the visitor, in what part of the country there may be an opening for work for the man whose trade is slack in London; nor what training would enable the invalid girl who can only use her hands, and lies bedridden and helpless, to contribute something to the common income; nor what institution would receive, and how the guardians might pay for, the cripple who is made an excuse for begging for the whole family, and how he might learn a trade, and in the future honourably support himself. It is only a body accustomed to deal with many such cases, to devote attention to practical questions mainly, that acquires the knowledge of what measures can be taken under different circumstances, and knows the latest news as to the labour market, and the opportunities open to the needy.

I am far from saying that the Charity Organisation Society has, as yet, in each of the thirty-eight divisions of London, a committee capable of giving a valuable opinion on a case; nor even that in every district the committee has realised that to give such an opinion is its real end and aim. But I do say that this is the intention of the Society, and that on the committee, if anywhere, you will in each neighbourhood find the men and women most alive to the importance of fulfilling this duty; for more and more of the district committees are finding members who set before themselves the necessity of learning to execute it.

I know little of your own Charity Organisation Committee, but I would ask you to remember that it is not a separate society coming from afar and settling down among you. It is what you workers among the poor make it; it is you who ought to form it. And that which I said above you separately were not able to do, collectively you, and none but you, can do—decide what help it is wise to give to every poor man or woman who comes before you at a crisis in life. A representative from every local charity, a few men conversant with the work of every great metropolitan charity, two or three active guardians, the clergy and ministers of all denominations, or some leading member of their staff or congregations, these should form your district committee. After careful investigation by a skilled paid officer, the case of an applicant for charity, when it comes before such a committee as that, has a fair chance of really effectual treatment. Either someone present will know of work that needs to be done; or, if the applicant's wants can only be met by distinct gift, then, all the givers or their representatives being present, the gift can after due deliberation be made without chance of overlapping, with certainty that it is sufficient and its object well thought out.

District visitors will find it valuable to study with the district committee many questions respecting relief. The work of visitors is one in which I have long taken the deepest interest; their gentle influence in their informal visits is just what is wanted to bridge over the great chasm which lies open between classes. Rich and poor should know one another simply and naturally as friends, and the more visitors can enter into such real friendship the better. When, however, they attempt to deal with cases of relief, I feel that they possess few of the qualifications requisite for doing it wisely, and I would most seriously urge them, either to leave this branch of help entirely to others, or with deliberate purpose to set themselves to learn all that it is essential to them to know before they can do it well. For there is more at stake, a great deal more, than the wasting of their own or their friends' money: that would matter comparatively little if the effect of mistake in its use were not positively disastrous to the poor. But it is disastrous. We go into the house of a young working-man; we meet with ready gift the first need as it arises; we do not pause to remember how the effort to meet that need was a duty for the young husband and father. We discourage the quiet confidence, the careful forethought which would have made a man of him; we diminish his sense of responsibility; the way he spends his earnings begins to appear to him a matter of smaller moment—he dissipates them in the public-house; he gets into the habit of doing so; we, or succeeding visitors, feel the hopelessness of help increase; not only does the drag upon our purse become heavier and heavier, but it becomes clearer to us that the money we give does not adequately feed the wife and children, while it does lead the husband to hope that if he yields to the strongly increased temptation to drink, some lady will help, some charity interpose, the children won't quite starve. We have weakened the natural ties, broken the appointed order, and the neat, tidy little home has sunk into the drunkard's desolate room.

Or we take up the case of a widow, and instead of once for all considering how much she can do for her own and her children's support, and deliberately uniting our forces to relieve her once for all of that part of the cost which she cannot meet, we let her come up to our house whenever she cannot fulfil her engagements, and we give her, when her story or tears move us, a few shillings. We ease our own feelings by doing this, but what besides have we done. We have not fortified her for the battle of life; we have not cultivated in her the habit of deliberate arrangement as to the best expenditure of her scanty means. We have done something to teach her how easy it is, if she gets into debt and the brokers are put in, to go round to one house after another and get a few shillings from each, and having met the difficulty for the moment to begin involving herself in another. Look at her a few years later. The sincere grief of the widowed mother has been degraded into a means of begging; the ready tears come, or appear to come, at call; the sacred grief is for everyone to see in hopes someone may alleviate it with half-a-crown. The sense of a right to be helped has grown, the sense of her own duty has diminished. Work has not paid so well that it has been steadily persevered in. The easily begged money has been easily spent; the powers of endurance, the habits of industry are gone; grief is her stock-in-trade; its frequent use has diminished the power of feeling strongly and sincerely. Perhaps she has discovered that professions of piety are rewarded with half-crowns, and expressions, once sincere, have become cant phrases. We are shocked at her; we say we were glad enough to help her when she was working, and was feeling simply and strongly, but now it is different. My friends, who made it different? God gave her the sacred sorrow and the difficulties of her life to soften and to train her. It might have been well that we should like true friends have stood by her, and so far diminished her difficulty as to make it just within her power to meet it; it might have been well for us to support one child, to pay school-fees, or to help in some other way by some one distinct payment, so regular as to become very natural to her, but in some way we ought to have left her responsibilities to have been met by her own energies. Then we should have been able to take and keep the position of friends; she would not have learned to watch our faces to see what expression on her part extorted pity or shillings best, but would have come to us when the memories of the past were too heavy to bear alone, and the words of hope in God's mercy and wisdom would have been spoken from the heart to the heart.

Let visitors be friends, and nothing else, leaving money help to others; or else study seriously all wise effectual ways of help, that they may not be driven to miserable doles of half-crowns and bread-tickets, which are surely destructive of vigorous life in the poor, and of natural healthy relation between friends. I could, you could yourselves, multiply instances of this a hundredfold. It will be more profitable to study how in the future they may be avoided.

A marked advantage of district committees is that, while doing nothing to weaken local action, they present a larger area to the sympathy of their members. When parishes were first constituted, each parish must in general have had its own rich and poor. But this has ceased to be so in many cases, owing to the large population dwelling in a small area. The tendency of late has been to subdivide ecclesiastical districts. The rich are not anxious to have the poor living in very close proximity to them, and every class is more and more driven into quarters appropriated exclusively to itself. The consequence of this is—and increasingly—that if a rich man says, "I will help in my own parish," there are vast numbers of poor living perhaps near to him, probably within what in the country would be considered easy walking distance, and certainly in the same town, whose lives he does not touch. I cannot tell you how terrible to me appear these vast spaces of ground covered with houses Inhabited by persons at one dead level of poverty; sometimes the tracts appropriated to the houses of the wealthy seem to me in another way more terrible. All good gifts, for which we are bound to lift our hearts in praise to God, seem to retain their sanctity only when they are shared; and it seems to me often as if the luxury, the ease, the splendour, yes, even the fair spaces of lawn and terrace were almost ghastly when they are enjoyed by those who never consider the poor, in whom no spirit of self-sacrifice leads to resolute appropriation of some large share of the good things to those who are out of the way. There are few who do not recognise the duty of giving or sharing in some measure; but the subdivision of districts, leaving one poor and another rich, the ever-extending size of London making the poor farther and farther off from the rich, has a tendency to shut out many poor from this sympathy.

The Charity Organisation Society has done something to mitigate this evil, to make you feel that you are parts of a larger whole than your ecclesiastical parish. The poor-law has compulsorily made you feel it. When it became clear that it was intolerably unjust to throw the burden of the largest number of paupers on the poorest ratepayers, poor-law areas were enlarged so as to unite rich and poor neighbourhoods; also, certain expenditure was charged to a metropolitan rate. That poor-law arrangement, however, never touched your hearts. It is doubtful whether the dwellers in Fitzroy Park feel more united with those in Somer's Town because they are both in St. Pancras parish, nor much added tenderness for the sick man in Poplar, because if he has small-pox he is carried to a hospital supported by a metropolitan rate. The alteration has done good because it has equalised burdens, and enforced the fulfilment of a duty. But the Charity Organisation Society does more—it asks you to accept this duty as a privilege, and voluntarily and gladly to help, remembering the less favoured districts which are near you, or which, though farther off, still belong to the same city. It has taken the poor-law boundary to mark its area; it has asked all charitable people within that area to meet and consult about their charities; it has arranged that the working expenses of office and agent shall be shared by a large district, it has formed a meeting-place, where workers for the poor shall be able to learn each what the other is doing, even at the farther extremes of a long parish like this. You will certainly enlarge your sympathies if thus you meet; for when there come before you the stories of living men and women wanting help in districts where funds are not abundant, when you learn to know the clergy and others labouring in poorer places, you will begin to interpret the word "neighbour" in a large and liberal sense.

Do you realise how limited is our notion of it now, and what it has brought us to? Have you any picture before you of the parts of London where for acres and acres the ground is covered with the dwellings of the poor alone, where no landlord can afford many feet of space unbuilt over at the back of his house; where the clergyman toils on almost single-handed, for unrefreshed year after unrefreshed year; where curates will hardly go and work; where no gay life enlivens the monotony of toil, which is interrupted only by the wild unholy carousal of a Bank holiday; where the clergyman's wife can hardly sleep because of the wild mirth of the surrounding streets? We talk of the claims of parish and neighbourhood, and they should be seriously remembered; but are they not sometimes urged rather from a lazy desire not to take the trouble to go farther, or from the easy agreeable wish to oblige the neighbouring minister, who calls to ask a new resident for help in the Sunday school or district? If, indeed, the decision is a deliberate choice of a near duty distinctly seen, rather than of a far off one less realised, one may respect it. But we must remember there are other claims than those arising out of proximity, and that it may be our duty to realise what is not brought under our eyes. We live upon the labours of the poor in districts far from our homes. Our fathers and brothers may have chambers, factories, offices right down among them. We are content to draw our wealth from these. Does this imply no duty? Is the whole duty fulfilled when the head of a firm draws a cheque for donations to the local charity, and are the gentle ministrations of the ladies of the family to be confined to the few pampered poor near their house? It is our withdrawal from the less pleasant neighbourhood to build for ourselves substantial villas with pleasant gardens, which has left these tracts what they are. Even when there is nothing sensationally terrible in the wickedness or destitution of a place, when it is covered with little houses of laundresses or small shopkeepers, are we who have advantages of education or refinement not needed there? Have we no bright flowers to take to the people, no books to lend, no sweet sympathy and young brightness to carry among them? Ought we not to be accumulating those memories which will give us a place near them as real friends if the time of loss and trial comes?

I would urge you all who are inhabitants of a large parish, markedly divided into poor and rich districts, as citizens of a city fearfully so divided, to weigh well your duties; and, never forgetting the near ones to home and neighbourhood, to remember also that when Europe is sacrificed to England, England to your own town, your own town to your parish, your parish to your family, the step is easy to sacrifice your family to yourself. Whereas if you try to accept the duty as our Lord showed it, and to carry with you joyfully in such acceptance those who are nearest and dearest to you, you will find that a large and true imagination will show you the place which every duty should hold in your lives; you will not find any human being so away but that your sympathy will reach, and your desire to help will tell in due degree if the need of help comes. Your life, be it shadowed ever so much by individual loss or pain, will be full and blessed; for all God's children will be dear to you, and His earth sacred; you will have no real conflict of duties, nor long doubt about their relative importance; no pain shall overwhelm, nor doubt confound you; for the blessing of guidance shall be yours, and you will assuredly learn what those words mean, "When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee, and through the rivers they shall not overflow thee." "Though the Lord give thee the bread of adversity, and the water of affliction, yet shall not thy teachers be removed into a corner any more; but thine eyes shall see thy teachers, and thine ears shall hear a word saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand or when ye turn to the left."

  1. Paper read at a meeting of the Charity Organisation Society, at Highgate, June 18th, 1877.