The Slippery Slope/Some Early History of Poor Relief in Paris

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A book has just appeared containing an account of the evolution of poor relief in Paris, which is of great interest to students. It is only brought up to 1850. "Later events are still too near to us to be judged impartially."

The history of poor relief in a city which has in a hundred years passed through four revolutions and has thrice been occupied by a foreign army, is necessarily somewhat abnormal. Still we can trace in it many features which are common to the question in almost all countries at all ages. We see economic laws, set at defiance, again asserting themselves and then again gradually losing their force. We see a constant struggle between antagonistic theories of poor relief and repeated attempts to carry out the creed of the droits de l'homme. We see these attempts as often defeated by the logic of circumstances and a return to the principle of voluntarism, which has in fact remained the underlying principle of French poor relief. The difficulties of the position have been intensified again and again by the misery caused by revolutions, sieges, and occupations, and consequent paralysis of trade and commerce. The study of the question has been complicated by gaps in the records caused by internal disorders such as the pillage of the Archeveche in 1830, and the burning of State papers during the Commune of 1871.

The history divides itself roughly into two periods—that prior to the great revolution and that subsequent to it. Both are of the greatest interest to modern students.

In France, as in England, in early days the relief of the poor was in the hands of the Church. The earliest foundation was that of the Hôtel Dieu, whose duty it was "ouvrir ses bras comme ceux de la Providence à quiconque frappait a sa porte." But soon the struggle began between clergy and laity; as far back as 1559 there were loud complaints of the mauvais traitements que font les religieuses, prieures et sous-prieures, aux pauvres malades y affluant tellement qua raison de ce (sic) plusieurs malades ne veulent pas aller au dit Hotel Dieu, ce qui est un grand scandale," and a petition to the King and Parliament prayed for a reduction of the "great and excessive expense of the institution," and complained of the "presence in the halls of pretended convalescents, irregular officials who are a useless expense to the house, and for whom are reserved the wines and delicacies which ought to go to those who are most grievously ill." Moreover, the duties of the hospital nun do not consist in "endless services and reunions of the community," but should be "at the pillow of the sick poor and not in the chapel and refectory." The constant feasting of those charged with these duties became a byword, and earned for them the name of the "Confrérie des goulous"—of so early a date is the association of poor relief with feasting! In one direction at least the community appear to have been successful—though they received all without distinction of faith, "no Jew or heretic ever died there without abjuring his errors. Thus visibly does Heaven bless so holy a house."

In 1566 the Grand Bureau des Pauvres was formed at the Council of Paris. Under it the infirm poor were placed at the charge of their parish, and in 1616 we find the indigents of the Grand Bureau wearing a red and yellow cross on their shoulder, as later in England in the reign of William III. The Grand Bureau distributed "pain d'aumône "on Sunday after mass. In 1640, however, we hear of "prodigious disorders," and some "private individuals of great virtue were touched at the deplorable state of the souls of these poor unhappy Christians: as for their bodies, however afflicted they appeared, they were not real objects of compassion, as they found in the alms of the people more than was sufficient for their wants and even for their debauches; but their souls, plunged in total ignorance of religion and in extreme corruption of morals, gave the utmost grief to persons animated with zeal for their salvation." These conditions led to the foundation of the Hôpital Général by Louis XIV., composed of the Pitié, Bicêtre, Scipion, the Salpêtrière, and others. The edict under which it was founded, after reciting the "libertinage" of the beggars of the city, forbids begging under the severest penalties, and orders the "renfermement" of the poor unable to support themselves. It was announced from the pulpit, in all the parishes, that the Hôpital Général would be open on 7th May 1657, for the poor who wished to enter it of their own will, and the magistrates, by public crier, forbade people to ask for alms in Paris. On the 14th "l'enfermement des pauvres fut accompli sans aucune emotion." As the result "all Paris on that day changed its face: the greater part of the beggars withdrew to the provinces, the wiser began to think of earning their living without begging, and the more infirm entered the institutions of their own accord," a result which recalls the effects of the workhouse test under the new Poor Law.

From quite early times there were various institutions for children, but the orphanages were small and in the main reserved for legitimate children. It fell to St Vincent de Paul, Cure of Clichy de Varenne, to establish the work of the enfants trouvés through the churches. The scallop shells still to be seen at the doors of many churches, now used as holy water holders, were originally intended for the reception of children abandoned by their parents. No questions were asked—"enquêtes préalables qui poussaient à l'infanticide." There was only one requirement—"la misère et l'abandon." In 1641 there were 220 of these deserted children, in 1772 there were 7680. Then came a temporary reaction. At that time, "l'hospice vit arriver à sa porte dans les coches d'eau et dans les coches de terre un grand nombre d'enfants de la banlieue et de la province qui denués d'allaitement souvent depuis plus d'une journée mouraient sans reprendre de forces." Accordingly, there were repeated decrees forbidding coachmen and wagoners from bringing new-born children into the town. The well-known "tour" or turning-box, from 1826 to 1859, was a later development of the work of the enfants trouvés. The maximum number received by it was 3200 in 1838. Since then, the system of admission "a bureau ouvert," under which the mother reveals her identity and "secours pour prévenir l'abandon" is granted, has been the ordinary method of dealing with the question. The number of deserted children in Paris is still enormous. The usual method of dealing with them has been, from quite early times, to board them out in the country. Here, again, it is interesting to see that many of the difficulties which beset boarding out in this country have manifested themselves abroad. The character of those who took these children were often more than doubtful—"many of the children died, and those who survived went out to beg with their foster-parents as soon as they could walk." The problem of restoring to the country a town-bred population has, says M. Mauger, met with a "succès très relatif."

Some of the children were maintained in orphanages inside Paris, and of them we read that they were frequently "hired out to attend funerals."

The organisation of the hospitals in the pre-revolutionary period, and even later, was extremely defective. In the old Hôtel Dieu, as many as sixteen patients slept in a bed, the bed itself being an enormous wooden structure, frequently a "two-decker." All sorts of diseases were mixed together: sanitation was a minus quantity. Even in these days, however, there were some which showed signs of better things. The Hôpital de Charité, for instance, was infinitely better than the Hôtel Dieu. But, generally speaking, the conditions were indescribably bad. Treatment was in some cases disciplinary. Those whose diseases were due to their own misconduct were subjected to treatment of which "le premier soin était le supplice humiliant de flagellation." Our infirmaries and public hospitals at the present time are full of patients whose diseases are due to drink and other forms of vice, and perhaps disciplinary treatment of some kind might be desirable in such cases, though possibly not in the form of "flagellation." The grievance of the ratepayers is a serious one.

We now come to the second period—the period of the Revolution and after. The Convention formed a Comité de Mendicite which had but a brief existence. "Its ideas, its reports, were directed to a project for the organisation of national relief prescribed by the 'Rights of Man,' one which was never realised … its extravagant aims were in the past, and still remain, the greatest obstacle to practical solutions."

At the time of the Revolution there were forty-eight hospitals and hospices in Paris. The National Assembly declared them all public property in 1793 and took over their administration. An Administrative Commission of seven members was formed in the same year. In the following three years the personnel was changed twenty-two times. The rapid succession of events rendered their work barren. Depression of paper money, stoppage of trade, deprivation of property, and loss of confidence, the consequence of compulsory alienation, rendered direct administration impossible, and finally the work was handed over to "greedy contractors."

The first administrators under the Revolution directed their attention to the centralisation and consolidation of the various foundations. M. Mauger emphatically approves this part of their work. The only grave fault, he says, that we can ascribe to them is the "revival of the 'ateliers de charité' which, created in the reigns of Francis I. and Henry II., had produced detestable results." After a few months, public beneficence had to support "43,000 individuals always discontented with their lot, always ready to disturb the public peace. After having made them carry out all the work possible in Paris—the demolition of the Bastille, repair of the roads, cleaning of the Seine and its banks, digging of the St Martin Canal, etc.—they were obliged to look out for other work for them. … They thought of the digging of canals, the cultivation of certain barren cantons of the centre and the west, but the workmen left the yards and the terror in Paris only increased." The experience gained at that time, however, did not prevent the formation of the "ateliers nationaux" in 1848. And we in England are passing through a similar crisis. At the end of the great Revolution, the only remaining public forms of "assistance par travail" were the "filature des indigents" for women and the Maison de Scipion for the making of bread—both upon a very small scale and of doubtful efficiency.

The Convention proclaimed the abolition of private charity and individual almsgiving, but having done so they had nothing to give in its place. "Solidarité humaine" proved a sorry substitute. The Government itself was almost bankrupt owing to the destruction of public confidence.

Meanwhile "the benevolent were robbed of the dream of their life," that, namely, of helping their fellow-creatures. "The poor lost their resource in time of trouble, and men of sensibility the means of satisfying their moral consciousness."

The creation of the Central Commission of "Bienfaisance" was the one work of these early administrators destined to last, and was the foundation of the present system of outdoor relief in Paris. The struggle between the theory of State v. voluntary charity reappears in the word "bienfaisance," which was substituted for the older "charité," a word odious to the disciples of Rousseau. The swing of the pendulum came in 18 16 when the " bureaux de bienfaisance" became once more "bureaux de charité" for a brief period. In 1 801 the Conseil-Géneral des Hospices was founded at the instance of the then Préfet of the Seine; its first members were men of great distinction, and the reorganisation of the various institutions was for the first time placed upon a firm basis.

M. Duquesnoy, a member of the Conseil, furnishes a valuable report upon "secours à domicile." The needs of the indigent class, he says, are, "first and foremost, education, primary, moral, religious, and technical; secondly, work; thirdly, relief … but mendicity must be repressed, and even if that is not the duty of 'bienfaisance,' it has a corresponding duty not to encourage the evil by refusing relief; but to multiply relief without discrimination is to increase the class of the poor. Almsgiving is rarely beneficial, for whoever has two arms and does not work, does not give back to society that which he receives from her, and is guilty if he has not put forth all his efforts to avoid the necessity for begging. One must force the professional beggar to work and help others to get situations; one must encourage those who earn more than their needs to lay by for old age, and he pleads with all earnestness for the creation of a 'Caisse d'Epargne et de Prévoyance.'" We find that at that time there were already trades unions in Paris with sick benefit, the germ of the modern French friendly societies. The pauperism of Paris, however, appears to have been enormous. Statistics taken at the time of the report of Duquesnoy (1793) show a mean number of 116,000 paupers in a population of 547,000. The means of diminishing the excessive number of the indigent population would be, he considered, to turn the Mont de Piete into a savings bank. To show under one direction the advantages of saving and the heavy charges which overwhelm those who have not known how to economise would be for the working class a means of moral education of certain effect.

M. Pastoret's report of a little later date, cited by M. Mauger, deals seriatim with the public institutions of Paris, showing the enormous reforms that were made immediately after the Revolution. He ends his report upon the Salpêtrière, the principal lunatic asylum, with a curious though irrelevant observation. "The great majority of the cases of madness are due to neurotic causes, and the violent cerebral excitement which followed the Revolution has had opposite effects in the different sexes. While the men were haunted with aristocratic ideas, the women showed exaggerated aspirations towards democracy and absolute equality." There was, according to the same report, a remarkable decline in the income of charitable foundations between 1807 and 1813. "At that time the recollection was still bitter of the measures by which the Revolution, making no distinction between the foundations, had applied them to purposes different from those strictly laid down by the founders. … The law of 3rd May 1803, submitting all donations to the approbation of the Government, had not calmed this uneasiness, and the decree of November 1813 had confirmed charitable donors in their mistrust."

The next report cited is that of M. Camet de la Bonnardière, who deals with the period following the retreat from Moscow and the occupation of Paris. He draws a hideous picture of the sufferings of the troops during the retreat on the capital, and of the unpreparedness of the military administration. Once again, private charity came to the rescue, whilst the Government remained powerless. "Les caisses étaient vides et l'administration ne jouissait d'aucun crédit." The voluntary generosity of private citizens provided 6000 hospital beds shared alike by French soldiers and wounded prisoners of the enemy. Then followed the invasion and occupation of Paris and the requisitions of the allies. The population of the extemporised hospitals was 31,000. The administration entirely broke down, and "les besoins qui se manifestaient chaque jour n'auraient pas été satisfaits sans l'inépuisable bienfaisance des habitants." Next came the "Hundred Days" and the second invasion. "Blucher, carried away by blind hatred, pursued without mercy the wreck of the Grande Armée, forgetting that an act of energy by a body of 60,000 men collected at Laon might have turned his victory into disaster, whilst Wellington, prudent and methodical, advanced by short marches and invested Paris ten days after the defeat of Waterloo."

After that we hear of the requisitions for the troops sternly enforced by the English commander-in-chief in spite of the protests of the Municipal Council. "The Duke of Wellington, cold and authoritative by nature, admitted no obstacle, permitted no objection. The long resistance that he had met with at Torres Vedras and the wonderful retreat of the army of Spain, far from inspiring him. with sentiments of respect and pity for an unhappy adversary, had developed in him, on the contrary, a spirit of narrow nationality which takes pleasure in crushing a defenceless foe."

M. Mauger writes with admirable precision and clearness, and his researches must have involved enormous labour. The book is professedly historical, and M. Mauger disclaims repeatedly the intention of discussing opposing theories. Still, in places, he indicates very clearly his own opinions of the revolutionary theory which would abolish private charity—he says: "Nous n'en avons pas à discuter, nous n'avons que l'exposer." Nationalisation of charitable enterprises "leur enlève leur dernier espoir." He evidently has a leaning towards "assistance par travail." He points out the failure of all endeavours in that direction in Paris, but attributes the failure to "trop grande extension." He holds up for imitation what has been done in England and Germany "under colder skies by more methodical wits." But M. Mauger can hardly have informed himself sufficiently of the real conditions in either of these countries.

The foregoing is only a meagre sketch of the contents of a volume of some 400 pages. Those who wish to go further into the matter are recommended to read it themselves. It is full of lessons which are as cogent to-day as they ever were.

  1. "Simples notes sur l'organisation des secours publics à Paris," par Albert Mauger, ancien archiviste de l'assistance publique. Paris:H. Didier.