John Hopkins's Notions on Political Economy

Marcet, Jane Haldimand
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First Pub. Date
London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longman
Pub. Date
1st edition. Some essays published earlier as pamphlets

Essay 4



"FATHER," said Tom the next morning to Hopkins, "I can't, for the life of me, make out why we are so poor in old England: for the real giants work much more for us here than they did for the folks in the desert island. What is a single water-mill, and a single wind-mill, and such a bit of a factory as they set up, compared to all those we have here? And yet they lived in plenty, whilst we are often half-starved.


Their island was but a nut-shell to ours," cried Hopkins; "and there were but a few of them in it; and so the single water-mill, and wind-mill, and bit of a factory, as you call it, did all the work they wanted; whilst here, we are too many by half for all the mills and factories in the kingdom."


"Well, then we have nothing to do but to build more; there's no want of hands with us."


"Ay, but you must have wherewithal to pay the builders; and money runs short among so many."


"It can't run shorter than it did in the island," replied Tom; "for they had but one purseful that I heard of, and that they made no use of. So why cannot you build without money here, as well as they did there? you need only feed the workmen instead of paying them wages."—"That's all one," said Hopkins; "feed and clothe the workmen, or pay them wages, comes to the same thing: and if food and clothing run short, the factory cannot be built, nor worked if it were built. The fault lies in there being more people here than there is food to maintain, clothes to cover, or houses to lodge them. There's your mother there has had sixteen children; and God knows we have never had wherewithal to bring up half that number. But you are too young for these matters, Tom, so be off to your work, and don't stand idling here."


When Tom was gone, his mother said,—"Ay, its very hard that I, who have brought sixteen children into the world, and worked, as one may say, day and night, should not be able to give them clothes to their backs, nor a hearty meal of wholesome food; no, nor a bit of learning to lift them on in the world. You know what a hard matter we have had to place out Dick and Nance; and now that I am looking out for Jenny, there is nothing to be had. I sent her after Farmer Wilkin's place, but there were no less than six girls about it already; so they underbid each other, and one of them got it, who offered to go for nothing more than her board and a pair of shoes a year."


"That is because there are more girls than places for them," said John.


"Well, and what is to be done with them at home is more than I can tell! Why, there is Jenny gets such an appetite now-a-day, there is no satisfying her. She would be willing enough to earn the bread she eats, if she knew but how; but they won't take her in at the mills, and there is no want of hands at the factory."—"That is because there are more hands to work than work to be done," replied her husband.—"Don't be telling me of your 'cause this, and 'cause t'other," cried the impatient wife; "but tell me, what is much more to the purpose, how am I to get bread to put into my children's mouths?" But John said, with a sigh, that was more than he could tell.


"But I suppose you can tell the cause?" retorted his discontented wife.—"Yes, that is easy enough," replied John; "there are more mouths to be fed than there is bread to feed them."—"Well, and where is the remedy?"—"That is a harder matter, wife. Now we have the children, we must make the best of it we can, and divide what we have among them; but if you had not had such a swarm of brats, we should all have fared better. Look at neighbour Fairburn's; why, they never want for any thing!"—"Ay, that is true enough," replied his wife; "there was his Sukey at church last Sunday in as neat a cotton gown as I would wish to set eyes on: and, God forgive me! I could not but cast a look of envy on it, when I compared it with our own poor girls' patched rags. Well, I remember the time, when Patty there was but a little one, she had as good a gown to her back as Sukey Fairburn; but times are sadly changed now!"—"As for that matter, dame," cried John, "cotton gowns are a great deal cheaper now than they were then; but you have had thirteen children since Patty; so it is no wonder you can't give them a new gown so often, even though you may buy the cotton at half price. When we had only three children, why, it was natural we should do as well as Fairburn does with his three, for both he and I get the same wages; but when you come to divide among three, or among sixteen, there is a wide difference."—"Nay, but you know, John, we never had sixteen alive at once, nor near," cried the wife,—"That is true," said he; "but so many dying, is but a proof we had more than we could rear. If you and I had not married till the time of life Fairburn and his wife did, we should not have been troubled with such a monstrous family." The good dame, who could not bear any reflection being cast on the number of her children, and yet was at a loss for an argument in its favour, said coaxingly to her husband—"Well, but, John, you know the proverb says, 'The more the merrier.'"—"Ay, but you forget what follows, wife,—'The fewer the better cheer.'"


John then went on to show that if the labourers took care to have small families, they would gain another and a still greater advantage; not only would they have fewer children to clothe and feed, and therefore their money would go farther, but also their wages would necessarily be higher. The rich, instead of having too many workmen, would have too few. His wife thought that this would not mend matters, for that the fewer the labourers, the more work would each have to do. But John replied very properly, "Nay, nay, we are not slaves, and cannot be forced to work more than we are willing. Now," continued he, "if we were fewer in number, the rich would be looking out for workmen, instead of workmen looking out for employers, as is the case now. And if there was a want of hands instead of a want of work, those who wanted work to be done would be ready enough to pay higher wages. We might say to our employers, 'If you do not choose to give us a better price for our labour, we will go elsewhere to others who will.' But if any of us were to say that now, when there are so many all wanting employment, we should starve in idleness, for others would consent to work at the low prices which we had refused."


"I can't think the rich would ever allow us to fix our own price," said the wife; "for they are wiser by far than we are, and they are mighty clever at having things their own way. They would get a law made to forbid the raising of wages mayhap! It is true, as you say, they can't oblige us to work, but they may oblige us by law to take low wages if we do work, and you know well enough we cannot live without it."—"There's no doubt of that," replied John; "and it reminds me, that when I went to pay the last quarter's schooling, I found the master musing over an old book, and he bade me stop to hear what it said; for that it was a curious thing, and concerned the labouring people; and moreover that it was true. Well, as far as I can recollect, he read that once upon a time there was a mortal disease fell upon the people of England, called the plague, and that as many as half of them died of it."—"Poor creatures!" exclaimed the wife, in a tone of compassion, "how shocking!" Then, after a little thought, she added, "Labourers must have been scarce enough then, God knows!"—"Well," continued John, "the book went on to say, that those who survived took advantage of their numbers being reduced, to ask higher wages."—"Ay, but there is one thing I can't understand," said the wife; "why should there be a call for more labourers? for if there were fewer poor folks to labour, there were fewer rich folks to labour for; for the plague is no respecter of persons, and falls on the rich as well as the poor, as we read in the Bible it did in the time of Pharaoh."—"Sure enough," replied John; "but then the rich can pay for doctor's stuff, and all manner of things to help them through it; so more of them are likely to recover than of the poor, who are pent up in their small cottages, and have no money to pay nurses or doctors. However, there is no doubt but that many of the rich died too. But look ye, wife, when they go down to the grave, their riches are not buried with them; no, no, that remains above ground, and goes to their friends and relations; so you see the plague did not take the money, and there was not less of that in the land, though there were fewer people. Now mind ye, wife, it is wealth that sets the people to work. So if half the rich folk had died, others would have come in for their wealth; and these, becoming so much richer than they were before, would have wanted more people to work for them."


"They might want and welcome," said the wife; "but how could they get them if they were dead?"—"And it is just because they cannot get those who died, that those they can get (I mean those who survived) are sure to get higher wages; for, as I said before, when labourers are scarce, the rich are ready enough to pay them high wages. But the book went on to say, that when the King who reigned in those times heard that his subjects would not work without higher wages, he fell into a rage, and made a law such as you were thinking of, wife, to forbid, under severe pains and penalties, that the poor should take higher wages than they had before the plague."—"Why, then, I think he was no better than a tyrant, to hinder the poor from getting what they fairly could: he must have been quite another sort of man from our good King William."—"That he was," said John; "but it would not do; and after a hard struggle, the King was obliged to give in, and the people got the wages they asked."


"Well, but I do not know how it is," said his wife, after a pause, "my mind sadly misgives me about high wages ever since the Fairy's wand brought on such a train of ill luck, that we so little looked for."—"That was because the high wages then was not the natural rate of wages, as one might say. The Fairy forced wages up, and had no better success than the King's law to force wages down; but you see, wife, that the nature of things is stronger than Kings' laws or Fairies' wands; and that when the number of labourers was so much lessened by the plague, it was quite natural that the wages should be high, and so they were, without any ill luck coming of it."


"Well, for my part, I can't see the difference," said the good dame. "Why should not the manufacturers send away half their workmen when wages rise after the plague, just as they did when the Fairy's wand did the business."


"Mercy on me," cried John, "how thick-headed you are, wife! Don't you see that half of them are sent away already by the plague into their coffins? so, instead of discharging any more, they must pay high wages if they wish to keep those that remain; for when labourers are scarce, and there is a great demand for them, they won't work without good pay."


"Then," said his wife, returning to her favourite subject, "when the labouring people were so well off, they might marry young, for they could afford to provide for a large family if they chanced to have one." John readily agreed to this, observing, at the same time, "that people must take care, however, not to overshoot the mark; for that if they increased and multiplied so much, that in the end the market were again overstocked with labourers, wages would naturally lower again, and then the poor would be in no better plight than they were before the plague. And that is the plight we are in now," continued John. "But God forbid that a plague should ever come to thin our ranks!"—"Heaven preserve us from it!" cried his wife; "for though those that outlive it may fare the better, who knows, John, that you and I should escape with our lives; and I'll promise you," added she, with a look of affright, "it would snatch away some of the children that are still left to us."


"Ay, I trust the plague will never return; but we may learn a lesson from that which is past, though it be so many years back. For we may be sure that if we have but small, or at least moderate sized families, in the course of a few years it will bring about the same good to the working people."


"To be sure," said his wife, "if there had been only one or two girls after Farmer Wilkin's place, Jenny would have stood a much better chance of getting it, and perhaps have had two or three guineas wages; for if girls were scarce, they would not be so simple as to be satisfied with their board and a pair of shoes."


"Well, dame, the country is like our family, there are too many of them for every one to get a livelihood."—"God help the country!" cried the wife; "it is more than we can do to help ourselves."—"Why, what is a country made up of, but of families like ours?" said John.—"And if every family had taken care of themselves, there would have been no distress in the country. When God has given us hands to labour with, and heads with common sense to teach us what we ought to do, we have no reason to complain, and it is our own fault if we do not guard against poverty by prudence and saving. We ought not to have married so young, and then we should not have been troubled with so large a family. But what is done can't be undone, only it should serve as a warning against another time."


"We are little likely to marry again, either of us," said his wife; "and if we did, sure enough it would not be over young."


"I was not thinking of you and me, wife, but of the young ones. There is our boy, George, who is but two and twenty, hankering after Betsy Bloomfield, and she is but nineteen. Now, George has not a farthing more than the labour of his hands to support her and the dozen of children they are likely to have at those years. I say, I will not hear of it. George must work hard, and lay up something before he marries the girl. And let her go to service, and get something to lay by too; and then, when they have a little money in hand, and a few more years over their heads, they may come together without harm."


"Mercy on us! what will they say to that? it will be a hard thing upon them, John."


"But it would be harder still upon their children, if we let them marry so young. They would be half starved, and rickety, and breed all sorts of distempers, and so they would die off, and be an affliction instead of blessing to their parents."


"Ah!" said the good woman, heaving a sigh, "like our poor babes." Then, after a pause of painful remembrance, she added,—"But one of them, you know, John, was carried off by the measles, and that is not bred by lack of good food, but comes of the will of God."


"Yes," returned John; "but if it had not been a poor weakly thing, it might have got through the measles as well as the rest of them. Why, to be sure, none of them died of starvation; but who knows but that they might all have lived, had they been reared in plenty?"


"Alack!" said the poor woman, drawing the back of her hand across her eyes; "it was not so much their deaths I minded, for I knew they would want for nothing in a better world; but it was their puling and crying when they were alive, as if they had not a moment's peace, poor babes! They were a sore trouble to me; and the more I loved them, the harder it was to bear. One while," continued the poor woman, "we lost our children by the small-pox; and when the cow-pox was found out, I thought they would be safe; but they went off the same, one by one sickness, another by another; so I can't but think, husband, that it is the will of God that poor babes should drop off, as the blossom drops from the trees; for it never all comes to fruit."


"It is the will of God," answered John, "that children should die if their parents do not provide for them so that they may live. And when there is no small-pox, why, the sickly ones are carried off by the measles or hooping-cough; nay, even a cold will do the work; for die some of them must, when there is not food to rear them all."


"Nay, John, I can't bear to hear you talk after that fashion. It seems for all the world as if you thought their dying a good riddance."


"No; but I think it a sin and a shame to bring children into the world just to suffer, and send them out of it. First a cradle, and then a coffin; and little else between than fretting. But, at least, let us have no grandchildren born to die off in that way: we must live and learn, or we shall live to little purpose. So get Betsy Bloomfield a service as soon as you can."


"Well," said Dame Hopkins, after a little thought, "there is the Squire's lady was here last week, in want of a girl for her nursery. I begged hard for our Jenny; it would have been the making of her; but it was lost labour, for the lady would have it she was too young. She cast an eye upon Patty, there," added she, in a half whisper; "but I told the lady she had other thoughts in her head. Now this place would just suit Betsy, who is a nice tidy body, and has reared up her brothers and sisters, and is fit for a nursery."


John turned towards his daughter Patty, who was sitting by the casement window, sewing. When she saw that her father observed her, a blush came over her face; for she could not conceal the tears that were trickling down her cheeks. "Hey-day, what is to do, now?" cried he; "have you and Tom Barton had a lovers' quarrel? Never fear, girl, you will soon make it up again."—"Oh no," cried Patty, "he never gives me so much as a cross word; but I have heard all you have been saying, and I am no older, you know, than Betsy; nay, even younger by three months; so I suppose," added she, sobbing, "I must give up the wedding, and think of going out to service as well as Betsy."


"Hey, never take on so, child," cried the father; "that is quite another thing: Barton is able to support you; ay, and as many brats as you may chance to have. He has neither kith nor kin; and his father has left him the shop, and all the stock in trade, and a good lot of money beside; so there is no harm can come of your marrying him. Quite the reverse, you see, deary, for you are a burthen upon us, who have so many of your brothers and sisters to maintain." Patty cast up her tearful eyes, which seemed to complain that she should be thought a burthen. The mother, who understood her looks, said, "Your father does not mean that we shall be glad to be rid of you, Patty: nay, nay, child; but we shall be glad to see you happy, and to have your share of the meals to give to your brothers and sisters."


Patty brightened up at these words; but a cloud again passed over her brow as she thought of poor Betsy.

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