Poor Law Commissioners' Report of 1834

Prepared by: Senior, Nassau
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First Pub. Date
London: H.M. Stationery Office
Pub. Date
Additional preparers include Edwin Chadwick. Includes testimony by Richard Whately.
10 of 17

[Part I, Section 5]


Having given this outline of the mal-administration of the laws for the relief of the poor, and of the causes which have induced large classes of persons to be favourable to that mal-administration, we will now consider how far the character of the persons by whom relief is awarded and distributed is likely to be favourable or unfavourable to its due administration.


The persons by whom relief is actually distributed are the overseers.


The persons by whom it is awarded are the overseers, the vestry, either general or select, and the magistrates.


We will examine, separately. the motives likely to affect the conduct of each of these classes of functionaries.


1. Annual


As the law now stands, the overseers are to make, assess, collect, and distribute the fund for the relief of the poor. They are to decide, in the first instance, what amount of money is wanted, what persons are to pay it, and in what proportions; they are to enforce payment of it from those persons, and they are to dole it out to those whom they think proper objects of relief, so as to satisfy what they think the necessities of those objects. Where a Select Vestry exists, they are desired, by the 59th Geo. III. c. 12, to conform to the directions of that vestry; but as the Act does not put an end to their responsibility, or enact any penalty for their non-conformance, this clause, though productive of important results in practice, appears to want legal sanction.


The office is annual, and sometimes lasts only six or four, or even three months, it being in some places the practice to appoint two or three, or even four every year, each of whom serves for only half a year or four months, or only three. The persons appointed are in general farmers in country places, and shopkeepers or manufacturers in towns.


If they refuse or neglect to serve, they may be indicted or fined, but they receive no remuneration for serving.


Such agents must often be prevented, by their other avocations, from giving the time necessary to the vigilant and effectual performance of their duties; neither diligence nor zeal are to be expected from persons on whom a disagreeable and unpaid office has been forced, and whose functions cease by the time that they have begun to acquire a knowledge of them; and even when zealous and diligent, they must often fail from want of experience and skill. To these sources of mal-administration may be added the danger of the parochial fund being misapplied either in the way of actual embezzlement, or, what is more frequent, through jobbing or partiality and favouritism, or through the desire of general popularity, or through the fear of general unpopularity, or of the hostility of particular individuals.


The only checks, then, on their profusion or partiality, or fraud, are the share which they bear as ratepayers in the burthen, and the necessity of annually submitting their accounts to the vestry, and having them allowed by the magistrates.


With respect to the former check, it is to be observed, first, that the increase or diminution of the rates of the whole parish, which one overseer can effect during his year, or half year, or three months of office, is in general so small, and his own individual share of that increase or diminution so trifling as to be an insufficient motive for making any real sacrifice or encountering any real danger; and secondly, that if, as an immediate employer of labour, he is interested in keeping down its price, he may gain, or think that he gains, more by the reduction of wages than he loses by the rise of rates. With respect to the latter check—that arising from the necessity of having the accounts passed—it is to be observed, that no form is prescribed for keeping these accounts, that sometimes they are merely entered on loose paper, and that in most cases they consist of a mere day-book of receipt and expenditure without any statement of the grounds on which relief has been afforded, and often without stating even the names of the persons relieved. Such accounts afford clues by which a person devoting himself to their investigation might in time ascertain the mode in which the fund had been administered, but on a cursory examination, they tell nothing; and we shall see that they do receive only a cursory examination from the vestry of which the overseers themselves form a part, and are then passed, as a matter of course by the justices.


On the other hand, if the overseers refuse relief, or grant less than the applicant thinks himself entitled to, they may be summoned before the justices to defend themselves against the charge of inhumanity and oppression; and if they do not comply with the magistrates' order, they are punishable by indictment or fine; and, unhappily, the applicant who has been refused relief has frequently recourse to a much more summary remedy than the interference of the magistrates. The tribunal which enforces it sits, not at the petty sessions, but at the beer-shop;—it compels obedience, not by summons and distress, but by violence and conflagration. The most painful and the most formidable portion of our evidence consists of the proof, that in many districts the principal obstacle to improvement is the well-founded dread of these atrocities.


The following extracts from the evidence will, perhaps, be more convincing than our general statement of its result:—

"As a body, I found annual overseers wholly incompetent to discharge the duties of their office, either from the interference of private occupations, or from a want of experience and skill; but most frequently from both these causes. Their object is to get through the year with as little unpopularity and trouble as possible: their successors, therefore, have frequently to complain of demands left unsettled, and rates uncollected, either from carelessness or a desire to gain the trifling popularity of having called for fewer assessments than usual. In rural districts the overseers are farmers; in towns generally shopkeepers; and in villages usually one of each of those classes. The superiority of salaried assistant-overseers is admitted wherever they exist, and in nearly all the instances where a select vestry has fallen into desuetude, the assistant-overseer has been retained. In short, so bad is the annual system considered, that an enactment was frequently proposed for compelling all parishes to appoint and remunerate permanent overseers, to be removable in case of unfitness or misconduct."*64


Population ... 740 Expenditure ... £1706.

"The above large sum of money is expended principally in orders on the village shops for flour, clothes, butter, cheese, &c.; the tradesmen serve the office of overseer by turns; the two last could neither read nor write."*65


"With the exception of two or three instances in great towns, the overseers are tradesmen, shopkeepers, and farmers, who complained universally of the vexatious demands on their time."

"The circumstances which were admitted to render the annual overseer inefficient were, change, difference of opinion in a successor or a colleague, and the appointment of persons who supply the poor with goods, and thus have a direct interest in giving them money from the poor-rate. The relief that should be afforded to the industrious classes, by exonerating them from the heavy burden of the duties of the compulsory overseer, is worthy of consideration. I met with one instance of a respectable farmer who had been overseer ten times in sixteen years, because there was only one other person in the hamlet qualified to serve: and I cannot convey an idea of the dismay of another who, in the midst of harvest, when occupied in carrying wheat, and watching every cloud that passed, was called away by some parochial duty."*66


"There are six overseers annually appointed; and it has been the practice—a very injurious one, in my belief—that each overseer should take the duty of relieving the poor for one month by turns: the consequence is, that all the evils which attach to the ordinary cases of overseers acting for a year—namely, their necessary ignorance of the parties with whom they have to deal, and their inability to give up sufficient time to become acquainted with them—are aggravated in a six-fold degree. When I state to the Commissioners what occurred to myself last month, the second month I took the duty, it will be seen how impossible it is that an overseer should know all that he ought to know about the parties whom he relieves.

"In that month I relieved, with sums under 2s. 6d. each, 472 persons, whose families amounted in the aggregate to 1,097; this relief amounted to 101l. 13s. In sums of above 2s. 6d. each I distributed 67l. 13s. 10½d. within the same period. This money was issued entirely at my own discretion; the parties were very nearly all the same persons that I relieved in the first month of my duty, when I saw them for the first time in my life; most of these parties were therefore relieved by me on the first occasion, upon evidence little better than that afforded by their own statements; and this must be the case with all other overseers annually appointed. It is a general complaint among overseers, at least among those who accept the office with the object of duly applying the parish funds, that it is impossible for them to do the duties assigned to them effectually.

"Besides the casual relief issued as above-mentioned, upon my sole responsibility, and without control, there were paid in the same month of December 361l. 12s. 6d. in weekly pensions, and 122l. 1s. 6d. for bastards."*67


"We have no checks upon the payments made by our overseers either to the weekly casuals, or to the mere casual poor. In the course of my long experience I have known many overseers, men in trade or otherwise, who have been obliged to leave the management of the parochial fund, so far at least as regards the payments made to the casual poor, to their wives, children, or shopmen. It is a very common remark with overseers. 'Well you have imposed a very unpleasant duty on me, and I shall endeavour to get through it with as much comfort to myself as possible.' Another objection is, that they are sometimes taken from poor neighbourhoods, in which case it commonly occurs that some of their customers are among the paupers who apply to them for relief."*68


"I am one of the three annual overseers, who each take four months of duty. I am a tradesman, and I cannot give much time to inquiry; besides, as I am only employed four months, I cannot learn anything of the habits and characters of the people."*69


"I would take from the annual overseers the administration of relief; first, because they are appointed for a year, and in many instances divide their time with their brother overseers, so as to restrict their periods of active service even to two or three months; and it is therefore quite impossible that they should acquire any adequate knowledge of the paupers with whom they have to do, and by whom they are in consequence imposed upon to a lamentable extent; next, because they are honorary officers who are generally dependent on other employments for their support, and whose whole time and attention cannot be given to the performance of their duties, even for those short periods during which they undertake to transact them; they therefore either neglect them, devolve them upon others, or perform them unwillingly; and lastly, because they are members of the parochial boards by which their conduct and accounts are, for the most part, to be canvassed and passed, and there is therefore only a very imperfect appeal as to their proceedings, either as regards the parish or the paupers."*70


"I consider a great portion of the evils now found to exist in the operation of the Poor Laws may be ascribed to the discretionary power placed in individual irresponsible hands, and that the present laws might be rendered tolerable, and in some degrees beneficial, if such power was taken from the hands of individuals and vested in a public board. My reasons for such an opinion are—

"1st. That as the office of churchwarden or overseer is generally filled by a tradesman (in the metropolitan parishes at least), frequently a retail tradesman, who is perhaps entirely dependent on the neighbourhood immediately around him for success in his business, it would be matter of wonderment in the mind of any man conversant at all with the world and human nature, if, in some cases at least, the funds which such persons have the right of disposing of with impunity are not dispensed at the dictation of other motives than the desire of relieving the distressed; if partiality towards particular individuals is not frequently found directing the hand which holds the parish purse; and if the funds are not often bestowed from motives of self-interest, on most improper and undeserving objects belonging to the same religious society. I look upon the tradesman that fills the office of overseer as holding a place of temptation to serve his own interests, to show partiality to his own circle of favourites; and I am sure no man ever filled the office that was more just, upright, and impartial than the discretionary powers appended to the office would lead men acquainted with mankind and social life to suppose or expect him to be. I say this much from personal proofs of its operation on a tradesman, being myself a tradesman. When I served the office of overseer I was incessantly importuned by persons that I knew had no need of it for assistance, or a 'trifle,' as they would say, or a pair of shoes, or some article of clothing, with this universally used argument in favour of their claim, 'I have dealt with you a many years, never lay out a farthing any where else, and I never did have anything from the parish; I know you can do it if you like, and it is nothing out of your pocket;' and they give pretty broad hints that if you do not comply with their requests, they will never lay out another farthing with you. I lost many customers by my noncompliance with their importunities, and I am certain that every overseer similarly situated must feel the same inconvenience which I felt. Sometimes persons on whom you are in some way dependent apply to you in behalf of some of their favourites, and you are placed in a very awkward predicament as to how to act. You do not wish to offend your friend, and you do not wish to do wrongfully with the parish money. Here stands the balance of the matter; which of the two impressions kick the beam? By adopting one plan, you wrong the parish, and are an unworthy steward; by adopting the other, you perhaps sacrifice your best prospects in life, and injure your family."*71


"Lewes is divided into seven parishes. There are twenty-one overseers of all the different trades, and five poor-houses. The overseers are chosen from so low a class of petty tradesmen, that it is notorious that they use the balance of parish money in their hands to carry on their own businesses; being little removed above the paupers, they are not able to resist them, and there is the constant temptation to lavish relief supplied on the articles in which they deal. Jobbing of all sorts seems to prevail. Mechanics threaten to assault the officers if their demands are not acceded to. A select vestry has been tried in one parish; it was upset by the journeymen mechanics, who assembled in an overwhelming number; the same party objects to assistant overseers."*72


"In Portsmouth there is no paid assistant. The overseers collect the rates. The situation, though of no emolument, is generally canvassed for by the tradesmen."*73


"The present and late overseers of Great Grimsby stated that they were aware of the bad state of the parish, but offered, as an excuse, that they were all retail tradesmen, and dependent on the lower orders for the principal part of their custom; and that, as they were totally unsupported by the authorities or the respectable part of the community, it might prove their ruin if they acted so as to acquire a character for harshness in the administration of the Poor Laws."*74


"Population ... 1,046 Rental ... £2,035 Expenditure ... £2,606

"The overseer savs, that most of the relief is altogether unnecessary, but he is convinced that, if an abatement were attempted, his life would not be safe; he looks to the farmers for support, which they dare not give, considering their lives and property would be in danger."*75


"The tone assumed by the paupers towards those who dispense relief is generally very insolent, and often assumes even a more fearful character. At Great Gransden, the overseer's wife told me that, two days before my visit there, two paupers came to her husband demanding an increase of allowance; he refused them, showing at the same time that they had the full allowance sanctioned by the magistrates' scale; they swore, and threatened he should repent of it; and such was their violence that she called them back, and prevailed on her husband to make them further allowance. Mr. Faircloth, by a stricter system of relief, and affording more employment, reduced the rates at Croydon; he became unpopular among the labourers, and, after the harvest, they gathered in a riotous body about his thrashing machine, and broke it to pieces. At Guilden Morden, in the same neighbourhood, a burning took place of Mr. Butterfield's stacks, to the amount of 1,500l. damage. Mr. Butterfield was overseer, and the magistrates have committed, on strong circumstantial evidence, a man to whom he had denied relief, because he refused to work for it. I have found, and it is not to be wondered at, that the apprehension of this dreadful and easily-perpetrated mischief has very generally affected the minds of the rural parish officers, making the power of the paupers over the funds provided for their relief almost absolute, as regards any discretion on the part of the overseer."*76


"The overseers are chiefly farmers, and continue in office only during the time prescribed by law, being desirous of getting rid, as speedily as possible, of an office in which they are exposed to unceasing importunity, and live in constant terror of having the threats of violence, which are uttered against them by the discontented, carried into execution. The destruction of property by fire has now become so common, that where men want resolution to be the ministers of their own vengeance, wretches are to be found who, for a trifling reward, will execute it for them. The insurance offices have been obliged to use extreme caution in insuring the property of any one who has once suffered from fire, as it is evident that he must, in some way, have made himself obnoxious. Cases are to be met with, where a farmer has been unable to renew his insurance. In consequence of this melancholy state of society in those parts of the country where fires have been frequent, instead of the well-stocked farm-yard, the farmer is obliged, in prudence, to place his stacks at a sufficient distance to prevent the fire from communicating, in order to diminish the loss to which every one is exposed."*77


Further evidence can scarcely be wanted; but, if it is required, it will be found in abundance in our Appendix. But if there were no such evidence, if the results of the experiment were not known, what could have been expected from functionaries almost always reluctant, unless indeed when their object is fraud; who neither come to their office with knowledge, nor retain it long enough to acquire knowledge; who have little time, and still less motive, for attention to its duties; on whom every temptation to misconduct has been accumulated; who have to give or to refuse public money to their own workmen, dependants, customers, debtors, relations, friends, and neighbours; who are exposed to every form of solicitation and threat; who are rewarded for profusion by ease and popularity, and punished for economy by labour. odium, and danger to their properties, and even their persons?

2. Assistant Overseers.


The 59 Geo. III. c. 12, authorized the appointment of paid and permanent overseers to act as the assistants of the annual overseers. It appears by the returns of 1831, that they were then employed by not less than 3,249 parishes. And the reports of the Assistant Commissioners are unanimous as to their general utility.


"I perceive no difference," says Mr. Okeden, "in the management of the poor in towns and villages, except that where there is an assistant overseer the management is the best."*78


"Considerable saving," says Mr. Maclean, "has been effected in those parishes which have adopted the plan of paying and retaining permanently, though subject to annual re-election, an assistant overseer. I have invariably found these persons very intelligent, zealous, and, when properly encouraged and looked after, useful and economical to a parish."*79


Captain Chapman states that, in the district investigated by him (Cornwall, Devonshire, and parts of Somersetshire and Wiltshire,)

"Assistant overseers had been appointed in most of the larger parishes, and were found so much superior to the annual overseer as to be much on the increase. I only met with one instance in which the assistant overseer had been discontinued, viz., at Ashburton, where there had been great want of unanimity among the rate-payers; and the select vestry had also been discontinued, after having been adopted many years. The result was stated to be, great difficulty in finding persons qualified to act as overseers, and an immediate increase in the poor-rate.

"Two instances came under my notice in large towns, where the assistant overseers had been suspected of embezzlement, and removed; but they had been replaced by others, and thus gave proof of the conviction of the parishioners of the superiority of the paid over the annual overseer.

"Some instances occurred, in which the assistant overseers had received the thanks of the vestry for their exertions; and a few, in which they had received a gratuity, in addition to their salaries.

"The assistant overseers were invariably intelligent, attentive, zealous, possessing great knowledge of the laws, and thus preventing litigation and saving expense. I found them frequently made the referee and oracle by ordinary overseers of the surrounding parishes. In St. Austell and Exeter, this was strikingly brought before me; on market-days the overseers apply in every difficulty to the assistant overseer at St. Austell, and in the same manner to the assistant treasurer in Exeter. Their efficiency, activity, and intelligence, when compared with those of the annual overseer, were so superior as to lead one to consider the introduction of the paid overseer the greatest improvement in the management of the poor, and that its universal adoption is one of the first steps towards any important amendment."*80


A similar opinion, as to the necessity of appointing a paid overseer, is expressed by Mr. Codd,*81 by Messrs. Cameron and Wrottesley,*82 Mr. Majendie,*83 Mr. Power,*84 Mr. Moylan,*85 Captain Pringle,*86 Mr. Stuart,*87 Mr. Richardson, *88 Mr. Tweedy,*89 Mr. Everett,*90 Mr. Lewis,*91 Mr. Walcott.*92

It is to be observed, however, that under the statute, the adoption, the nomination, the continuance, and the salary of an assistant overseer depend on the vestry, and that the vestry, not the law, is "to determine and specify the duties to be by him executed and performed." A more perfect state of subserviency can scarcely exist. Whatever may be the vigilance and impartiality of an officer so appointed and paid, he cannot prevent the grossest extravagance or jobbing on the part of those who are in fact his masters, the vestry and the annual overseers; he may refuse his aid, but cannot interpose the slightest resistance. No refusal on his part can indeed be expected; it must be made at the risk of his place, and for the purpose of diminishing rates to which his contribution, if he contribute at all, must be trifling; nor could a profuse or corrupt vestry find any difficulty in selecting a willing instrument for their purposes. The testimonies which we have cited in favour of the assistant overseers, prove, however, that this is seldom the case; and it probably may be accounted for by the circumstance, that in the worst parishes an assistant overseer is not appointed. The adoption of such an officer may generally be considered a symptom of a desire, on the part of the rate-payers, for improvement. It follows, indeed, that those parishes in which the services of a strict and uncorrupt officer are most wanted, are precisely those in which such an officer is the least likely to be appointed or continued. This is the necessary imperfection of the permissive legislation of the 59th Geo. III., a statute which appears, from all our inquiries, to have been so useful where it has been adopted, that we cannot but regret that its adoption should depend on the will of a body so constituted as a vestry.


VESTRIES are either open, composed of all the rate-payers who choose to attend; or representative, appointed by virtue of a local Act, or under the 59 Geo. III. c. 12; or self-appointed, either by prescription or a local Act.

1. Open Vestries.


THE legal powers of an open Vestry are subject to the doubt and obscurity which seem to be peculiarly attendant on our Poor-law legislation. The 43 of Elizabeth vests the whole power, and imposes the whole responsibility on the overseers; and though the 3 & 4 Will. & Mary, c. 11, s. 11, by directing the parishioners to meet yearly in vestry, in order to make a list of the persons whom they shall allow to receive collection, and the 9 Geo. I. c. 7, s. 1, by forbidding a justice to order relief until oath has been made by the pauper that he has applied to the parishioners, assembled in vestry, or to two of the overseers, and has been refused, appear to imply in the vestry an authority as to giving and refusing relief, equal or even superior to that of the overseer; yet, as these Statutes do not sanction the overseers in giving the relief which has been ordered by the vestry, or indemnify them for refusing what the vestry will not allow, and as they give to the vestry no power either to raise or to distribute the parochial funds, it is very difficult to say what is the legal authority as to matters of relief of an open vestry, or whether such a body has now in fact, on such matters, any legal authority at all. It appears, however, both from the Reports of the Assistant Commissioners and from the Answers to numbers 33, 34, and 35*93 of the printed Queries, that almost everywhere the practical influence of the vestry is very great; that it forms, in fact, the ruling authority of the parish, a sort of council of government, of which the overseers are members, and generally the most influential members, but voting among the others, and submitting to be controlled by the majority.


The vestry consists exclusively of the rate-payers, that is, of the actual occupiers of lands and houses; the owner, unless an occupier, not having, except in the few cases in which he is rated under the 59 Geo. III. c. 12, a right even to be present. If we were now framing a system of Poor Laws, and it were proposed that a great part of the principal contributors to the fund for the relief of the poor should be excluded from all share in its management, and even from all power of objecting to its administration, and that the control should vest in an irresponsible body, many of whom should have little interest on its permanent diminution, what jobbing profusion and malversation would be anticipated from such an arrangement! But such is the existing system. We have seen how slight, in ordinary cases, is the interest of the majority of the rate-payers in the permanent reduction of rates. And yet this check, such as it is, is the only one to which vestries are subject. In every other respect they form the most irresponsible bodies that ever were entrusted with the performance of public duties, or the distribution of public money. They render no account; no record need be kept of the names of the persons present, or of their speeches or their votes; they are not amenable, whatever be the profusion or malversation which they have sanctioned, or ordered, or turned to their own advantage. On the other hand, they have all the motives for mal-administration which we have ascribed to the overseers. Each vestryman, so far as he is an immediate employer of labour, is interested in keeping down the rate of wages, and in throwing part of their payment on others, and, above all, on the principal object of parochial fraud, the tithe-owner; if he is the owner of cottages, he endeavours to get their rent paid by the parish; if he keeps a shop, he struggles to get allowance for his customers or debtors; if he deals in articles used in the workhouse, he tries to increase the workhouse consumption; if he is in humble circumstances, his own relations or friends may be among the applicants; and, since the unhappy events of 1830, he feels that any attempt to reduce the parochial expenditure may endanger his property and person.


We shall proceed to illustrate these views by some passages from the Evidence contained in the Appendix. Mr. Majendie states generally, in the outset of his Report from East Sussex, East Surrey, Kent, and Essex, that the bad constitution of parish vestries, particularly when in the hands of small farmers, where there is no resident proprietor, and where the clergyman takes no part, seems to be the cause of the bad condition of the worst parishes which he visited.*94 Among the parishes, the state of which confirms this remark, are—


Lindfield, in which the

"Jobbing in the supply of the workhouse was once carried to the fullest extent. The farmers sent in all the different articles, corn, pork, fuel, &c., and charged their own price; they sent favourite labourers for relief, which was paid to them in produce; they hired cottages with their farms, and underlet them to their labourers at 6l. and 7l., which was paid out of the parish purse; thus some farmers—what with rents and the supply of the workhouse—paid all their rates, and had money besides to receive from the parish; high rates furnished an irresistible argument against the rents of the proprietor, who, if absent himself, and not represented by an agent, his own tenant acting in collusion against him, found his property wasted away by a conspiracy which he had no means of detecting. A gentleman of considerable estate, with the assistance of an occupier, who was a man of education and intelligence, determined to put a stop to this: they attended every vestry; they cleared off the debts, and reduced the rates from 15s. to 6s. 6d. in the pound."*95


——Marden, formerly one of the most prosperous parishes in Kent, in which the rates are now more than 2l. per head on the whole population, being about four times the average expenditure throughout England, in consequence of the opposition to tithes on the part of the farmers, and their determination to throw on the lessee of the great tithes part of the payment of wages;*96 and Great Hawkesley, in which, while a dispute concerning tithes continued, the rates amounted to 1800l. a year, a principal farmer hired the tithes, and made an arrangement with the occupiers, and they then fell to 1000l.*97


"Sometimes," says Mr. Power, "we shall find the lessee of a term, or the small capitalist, ground to the earth by the immediate pressure of the rates, and bearing, perhaps, more than his share of the parochial ruin, complaining, but helpless; and sometimes we shall find the substantial farmer, though paying enormous sums yearly in the support of a stagnant labouring population around him, apparently indifferent (particularly when a yearly tenant) to that circumstance, and seeming, in fact, to feel that he finds his account in the Poor Laws and their mischievous operation. He views the poor-rates in the light of a deduction from his rent, and usually he has good grounds for that consideration; and in estimating the amount of that deduction, it is seldom taken into account by a considerate landlord, that a supply of cheap labour, expeditious harvests, excellent roads, and other advantages are derived by the farmer from the very source in respect of which he claims his deduction. Accordingly, we hear this class of persons constantly complaining, not of the poor-rates, but of the insufficient price of corn; they would pay their poor-rates with pleasure, they say, and their rent too, could they only get a fair price for their wheat; and I believe them. But little interest or exertion in reduction of the rates can be expected from such a class of persons when administering relief."*98


Captain Pringle states, that

"The persons who sway the vestries would, from what I have observed in many instances, be averse to any measures that would render the labourer independent of parish assistance, which, by keeping him to its confines, retains him always at their command when wanted for urgent work.

"In nearly all the agricultural parishes, it will be found that by indirect modes the householders pay a portion of the wages of farm labourers; clothes, shoes, payment of rents, allowances for children, are, when such subjects are brought forward in vestries, not allowed to be a payment of wages; and I have heard it observed, Why should the farmers keep their labourers all the year, to save the gentlemen and householders from poor-rates?"*99


Mr. Stuart states, that

"The small size of the parishes in Suffolk renders the administration of the poor fund by the parochial authorities liable to many abuses, and to much individual hardship. The administration being vested, almost exclusively, in those who are the sole employers of labour, offers temptations to them to pervert it to their own advantage, by making it an instrument for reducing wages, or throwing part of that charge off their own shoulders on others. As each parish forms a small and separate society, the paupers are able to urge their demands with more frequency and violence on their immediate neighbours, which subjects the parish officers to the influence of fear or favouritism. When a farmer is about to quit his occupation, he gives the least possible cultivation to the land, which throws the men usually employed on the farm on the parish for support, to the loss of those who are to remain. When any individual chooses to quarrel with the parson, he gratifies his spite by having the tithes rated, and then pays off all his labourers who have settlements in the parish, and hires men from other parishes, for the purpose of being revenged by the heavy contribution which will fall on the parson, although it is to his own hurt and that of all his neighbours. I visited a parish in which one or two farmers conspired together in this way, in order to force the clergyman to abate his tithes, although his demand was considered reasonable by the majority of the occupiers. The dispute was accommodated within six months by the mediation of the principal landlord, but it cost the parish an extra 2s. 6d. rate, which the clergyman paid for those who did not enter into the conspiracy. In another parish, where a similar state of things had existed for a series of years, (owing to the spite of the principal farmer,) after the parties had nearly ruined each other, they came to terms, and the expenditure fell from a fluctuating amount of from 700l. to 1000l. a year, to from 350l. to 400l."*100


And he adds, on the other hand,

"That in the large parishes it is seldom that a sufficient unanimity exists in the vestry meetings to enable them to form any plan which may promote the general welfare of the parish. There are so many petty and conflicting interests to be accommodated, that these meetings are scenes of angry contention and violent debate, which end in nothing, and disgust the respectable portion of the inhabitants, who resign themselves to endure the evils which they cannot cure. The occupier being the direct payer of the rates, he imagines that they ought to be entirely under his dominion, and views with jealousy the interference of any other party; as, however, they ultimately fall on the proprietor and are often used as an argument for a reduction of rent, it seems but just that the landlord should be admitted to some control over them. In my attempts to ascertain the causes of the difference of expenditure in one part of the country, as compared with another, it has frequently been assigned to me as one reason, that many of the occupiers of land being proprietors as well, it was quite contrary to their interests to allow the corruption which prevailed where the tenant has an unlimited control. I have been told that meetings of vestry have been held when the rates have been diminishing, for the purpose of considering whether they were not getting too low."*101


"The members of vestries," says Captain Chapman, "in the rural parishes generally, consisted of farmers and tradesmen, on whom, in consequence of the diminished number of resident gentry, the administration of the Poor Laws devolves more and more, in proportion as the Continent and cities absorb the more educated classes. A great proportion of the rate-payers, and those who take an active part in the vestry, are persons who have only a temporary interest in the parish, and who are thus naturally averse to incur any extra expense from which they might not receive benefit, although productive of great ultimate good. In most parishes there are also a proportion to whom the poor-rate is a convenience who employ the smallest possible number of steady labourers, and depend upon the parish to supply the additional demand which they require periodically."*102


"Where everybody," says Mr. Everett, "complains of the amount and burthen of the poor-rates, it might be expected that any plan which promised with any chance of success to diminish the burthen, only require to be known to be adopted. In practice, however, it is found to be otherwise; and those parishes which are the most heavily burthened, are generally the least ready to listen to any suggestions for improving their condition, or to adopt any different system of management from the one they have been accustomed to. It cannot fail to be remarked, however, that in those parishes in which the poor-rates have been reduced under an improved system of management, the new system has originated either with the clergyman or some resident proprietor of the parish, and not with the tenants or principal rate-payers, who are frequently the greatest opponents of any change of management. In most agricultural parishes the entire management of the poor is entrusted to those of the farmers who are the principal occupiers of the land, and whose interest in the parish, and consequently in the poor-rates, is limited by the probable duration of their tenancy, and who, though the largest immediate payers of the rates, are no more the ultimate payers of these imposts than they are of tithes. It cannot be wondered at that measures for reducing the amount of the poor-rates, which have been tried with success in particular parishes, and which in all probability would be attended with the desired effect in other parishes similarly situated, are not more frequently adopted, if it is a fact, that the persons who have the control of the expenditure of the poor-rates have not only not the greatest, but no material interests in the reduction."*103


"I shall not here attempt," says Mr. Day, "to investigate how far the magistrates have merited the censures that have been bestowed upon them: but I will take upon myself to say, that whatever blame attaches (and much somewhere, I fear, there is) is to be visited in at least equal degrees on parish officers and parish vestries. I was present at a vestry where a material alteration in the management of the parish was proposed. It met, as I had anticipated, with opposition, and an extended discussion ensued. In the course of it a friend of mine, a magistrate of considerable experience, and also a practical farmer, said to one of the principal renting occupiers in the parish, 'Why, Mr. Spencer, you know perfectly well, as a man of business, if you will have the candour to avow it, that the tenantry are interested in high nominal expenditure.' To my surprise he did avow it, and replied, 'I admit, sir, that is perfectly true.' In short, both from my own experience, and from what I have known in other instances, I am satisfied, in the long run that however an individual may succeed in stemming pauperism for a time, he will generally ultimately be beaten. There are few who will long endure the bear-garden of a parish vestry. And to point out one amongst many of the motives that influence these meetings, I shall mention only two parishes in this county, Hurstmonceux and Pulborough, where the whole labour has been thrown upon the rates, for the avowed purpose of fighting the parson."*104


The whole subject is explained, with the clearness and force which are to be found only when a witness is detailing the results of his own experience, in the following evidence:—

"EXAMINATION of Mr. John Mann, of Eastbourne.

"How long have you been a parishioner of this parish?—I have lived in this parish 35 years, and I have been a member of the select vestry 14 years.

"Have you been a frequent attendant at the vestry?—I very seldom miss attending.

"How long have you farmed land in the parish?—About 20 years.

"Of whom do you hold your land?—The land which I farm is my own.

"Of what class are the majority of persons attending the vestry?—Chiefly the smaller farmers. A few tradesmen do attend occasionally.

"Do any of the landowners or of the gentry attend?—No. Now and then a steward will attend.

"Would the attendance of the proprietors be liked by the small farmers?—No; I am convinced that it would not be liked by the farmers.

"Are you, from your habits of intercourse with the farmers of this district, well acquainted with their sentiments?—Yes, I am.

"To what do you ascribe the fact, if fact it be, that the attempts to procure additional labour for the paupers in this parish, and to obtain a more efficient management and a considerable reduction of the poor's rates, have been generally coldly received or thwarted, or openly opposed and defeated. Take time to consider your answer?—I know that the farmers would sooner have high rates and low rents, than high rents and low rates; that, I believe, is the general feeling. The farmers like that their men should be paid from the poor-book.

"If the farmers had the option of paying 75 per cent. in poor's rates, and 25 per cent. in rent, or 75 per cent. in rent and 25 per cent in poor's rates, which do you believe they would prefer?—The low rents and the high rates, undoubtedly.

"Have you ever heard them state this sentiment openly?—Yes, openly in the vestry.

"Have you heard them declare this since 1830?—Yes, and before that time too.

"How low do you think the farmers would be willing to have the rates reduced?—I do not believe they would be willing or care much to have them reduced much more than they have been; the great farmers in particular I do not think want them reduced. Whilst the rates are as they are, they can always get what hands they want extra, and as soon as it rains they can turn them all on to the parish again; and besides that, they can make the shopkeepers, the lodging-house keepers, and other persons pay a proportion of the wages of the men they turn off. Sometimes they have taken men off the parish for half a day, and have made the parish pay for the other half of the day.

"Do the farmers consider that they have a permanent interest in the land?—No: there they have not; they hold mostly from year to year, and hardly consider themselves as more than birds of passage.

"Do they not see, as a result of this system, the total pauperization of the whole of the labouring population, and the total destruction of all property, unless some strong measures be taken to save it?—They feel no danger; as soon as they find that they are losing money, they can go. I have no doubt this is their feeling. Their whole course of conduct shows it, though they do not express as much."*105

2. Representative Vestries.


The 59 George III. c. 12, s. 1, authorizes the inhabitants of any parish, in vestry assembled, to elect not more than twenty or less than five substantial householders, who, together with the minister, churchwardens, and overseers, after having been appointed by a magistrate, are to form the select vestry of the parish; they are directed to meet every fourteen days, or oftener, and to inquire into and determine the proper objects of relief, and the nature and amount of the relief to be given. The overseers are desired to conform to their directions; and where such a vestry exists, the magistrates are forbidden to order relief until it has been proved to the satisfaction of two justices, that the applicant is in want, and has been refused adequate relief by the select vestry, or that the select vestry has not assembled as directed by the Act. "Provided always," adds the Act, in its usual spirit of qualification, "that it shall be lawful for any justice to make an order for relief in any case of urgent necessity to be specified in such order." A subsequent clause directs them to keep minutes of their proceedings, which are to be laid before all the inhabitants in general vestry assembled, twice in every year.


The Act seems to be deficient in not defining the relative powers of the select vestry and the overseers. Though the overseers are directed to conform to the directions of the vestry, yet if they refuse, as is sometimes the case, the vestry appears to have no power of compelling their obedience. The attendance of the different members is purely voluntary, and the Act does not expressly require it to be recorded; and there appears reason to suspect that the frequency of the meetings directed by the Act (once every fourteen days or oftener) is in some places injurious. The return from Shenley, Herts, to question 33 of the Rural Queries, states that

"The select vestry, being bound to meet too often, has been abolished. It worked well for some years; then attendance grew remiss, except by a very few. It was a call to paupers from an ale-house for relief. The monthly vestry suffices."*106


"It was a very general opinion," says Captain Chapman, "that frequent meetings of the vestry only tended to encourage applications, and to increase dependence on the poor-rate. In St. Thomas the Apostle, which is under Gilbert's Act, the vestry meets only monthly; and the experiment has been tried of occasionally omitting to do so, and was found to diminish the number of applicants."*107


"In South Petherwin the select vestry meets every fortnight; but it was thought there would be less pauperism if it met once a month, as a number of idle and worthless people always attend, whether they want anything or not, on the chance of getting something. In proof of this, it had been found that the demand for clothing, which was issued every fortnight, was materially on the increase; the vestry limited such applications to a quarterly meeting; the demand diminished; and there was a saving of full 50l. per annum, or one-third of the expenditure. The vestry meets at two o'clock, which was considered a very important arrangement, not only as regards the poor, but the members of the vestry. When they met at five o'clock in the evening, it was a scene of noise and confusion; those within, noisy and quarrelsome, those without, rebellious and insubordinate."*108


Notwithstanding these defects, we feel bound by the general result of our evidence to express our concurrence in the third Resolution of the House of Commons' Committee on Vestries, "That the Acts under which the rate-payers are empowered to elect a committee for the management of their parochial concerns, have proved highly beneficial." But after admitting the superiority of select over open vestries, we are inclined to believe that that superiority arises principally from their comparative freedom from magisterial interference, the presence of the clergyman, and the regular minutes kept of their proceedings. They are selected from the same persons who form the open vestry, and are subject, therefore, to the same corrupting influences. They are equally free from responsibility for the abuses which they may have permitted or continued, or even introduced. The Act gives no remedy against them, and it would be absurd to suppose that they could be checked by the fear of not being re-elected to a gratuitous, troublesome, and invidious office. In fact, when we consider the constituency by which they are elected, it appears probable that a profuse or mischievously-directed administration must often be what that constituency would approve, and that attempts to prevent the payment of wages out of rates, to rate cottages, or even to prevent the parish from being surety to the cottage landlord, to reduce the allowances of the customers to the village shop or the beer-house, to diminish the profit arising from the workhouse expenditure, or to incur any present expenditure for future purposes, must in many places expose a select vestryman to immediate unpopularity, and ultimately prevent his reelection. In places where a constituency, actuated by such motive, predominates, a select vestry, though it may be an improvement, is not likely to be a great improvement over an open one.


Mr. Wilson*109 has furnished a list of the select vestry of Morpeth in 1832. Out of the twenty persons composing it, one is a brewer, two are brewers' clerks, five are publicans, two beer-shop keepers, and one a porter-seller; so that eleven, or the majority of the whole number, are interested in the sale of beer; and the mother of one, the wife of another, and the uncle, aunt, and cousins of a third are paupers. We cannot wonder to find it stated that the better class of vestrymen retired in disgust [from][Editors note: The word in the original is reversed] the interested clamour of their colleagues. It appears from Mr. Power's Report,*110 that a similarly constituted body was elected at St. Andrew-the-less, Cambridge, where the small rate-payers assembled in great numbers, called a low mechanic to the chair, and nominated persons whose appointment the magistrates refused to sign. More frequently, however, where the small rate-payers form the majority in value, the open vestry refuses to appoint a representative body. Such has been the case at Knaresborough,*111 at Lewes,*112 and in other places mentioned in the Reports. On the other hand, where the majority in value is composed of any class having a peculiar interest, they have the power of forming themselves into a select vestry for the purpose of favouring that interest. Mr. Majendie states, that at Eastbourne, to the condition of which we have had so often to refer, the farmers constitute the select vestry, and are often tenants-at-will.


The following extract from Mr. Maclean's Report from Surrey and Sussex gives a general view of the difficulties which in that district oppose the introduction or continuance, and diminish the utility, of the representative vestries.

"In many parishes the system of a select vestry has, after an experiment of a year or two, or sometimes of a few months, been abandoned; and the cause of their being so is not to be ascribed so much to any defect in themselves, or in the Act under which they are established, as to the remissness of the members in their attendance. Many were abandoned at the time of the riotous proceedings in the winter of 1830-31, when the lawless and outrageous meetings of the agricultural labourers, and in some instances their attacks upon the vestry, produced an intimidation and fear of consequences which paralysed the exertions of some, and disinclined other members to incur the odium, or expose themselves to the vengeance openly threatened against the persons or property of those whom the rioters chose to consider active in the administration of the parochial funds.

"The unpopularity of an extra rate, or of any unavoidable expense, is visited upon the heads of the members of the select vestry; and as these increase with the distresses of the parish, the accumulated odium disgusts and drives from their offices, and generally from an interference in parochial matters, those who, from situation, time, or intelligence, are best calculated to inquire into the condition and relieve the wants of the poor.

"In other places select vestries became unpopular, as their establishment, and their being in the hands of the higher class of rate-payers, cut off from many those opportunities for jobbing and favouritism which had been considered in some degree a return for the amount paid by them in rate, and had been justified by usage.

"After the determination of a select, and a return to an open vestry, I invariably found the latter state of the parish which had made the exchange, worse than the former. The causes of the discontinuance of a select vestry being as stated above, the consequence is obvious, i.e., a withdrawal on the part of all the respectable rate-payers of their time and attention from the concerns of the parish, and a triumphant recurrence to the old and pernicious system, which has been abandoned on account of its glaring abuses, and inadequacy to do justice between those who pay, and those who receive the rates.

"In the parish of Epsom, a select vestry was established in 1823, which has continued down to the present year; and very material advantage has arisen to the inhabitants, both from the reduction which was effected in the scale of expenditure, the number of applications to the parish, and the general conduct of the town-class of parishioners. This year, however, in their Report, the select vestry express, as their 'decided opinion, which every year's experience has strengthened, that the select vestry system is the best possible mode of conducting the management of the poor and the poor-rates; but, at the same time, they consider, that from want of support from their parishioners, an efficient select vestry cannot be formed.'"*113


We regret to add, that the general result of these causes has been to diminish the number of select vestries, and that in an increasing ratio. The number for the last six years stands thus:—

In the year 1827 ... ... ... ... 2,868
  1828 ... ... ... ... 2,823
  1829 ... ... ... ... 2,736
  1830 ... ... ... ... 2,725
  1831 ... ... ... ... 2,535
  1832 ... ... ... ... 2,391

3. Self-Appointed Vestries.


THE worst constituted vestries appear, as might be expected, to be those which are self-elected. Some of them are exposed to all the temptations to misconduct which affect either open or representative vestries, and all are free from the control, such as it is, of a constituency; their mal-administration also, whether arising from error or corruption, is more likely to become permanent. The system of an open or a representative vestry is always liable to exposure and interruption from new members, whose interests, or opinions, or principles prevent their sanctioning the existing abuses: but in a self-elected body, abuses are apt to become settled traditionary rules; all candidates who are supposed to be opposed to them being carefully rejected. It is a great misfortune that the same name, that of Select Vestries, has been applied both to representative and to self-constituted vestries, and that the adoption of the former is often prevented by the odium which not unjustly adheres to the latter. Both are, in fact, select vestries; but the difference in the modes of selection occasions representative vestries to be beneficial, and self-elected vestries to be mischievous.



WE have seen that the early statutes of Elizabeth gave extensive powers to the justices. The 5 Elizabeth enabled them to tax an obstinate person according to their good discretion. The 14th directed them to select the objects of relief, to tax all the inhabitants in their divisions, and to appoint collectors to make delivery of the contributions according to the discretion of the justices. This discretionary power, however, did not long continue. The 39 Eliz. c. 3, and the 43 Eliz. c. 2, which in this respect, as in most others, merely repeats the 39 Elizabeth, after having directed the justices to appoint overseers, impose on the overseers the whole business of raising and distributing relief, and give to the justices no further authority than that which is implied by the direction that the overseers, in certain parts of their duty, shall act "by and with the consent of two or more justices:" a direction which appears to give to the justices only a negative authority—an authority to forbid, but not to command. Nearly a century elapsed before their power was enlarged; and it may be a question whether the 3 and 4 Will. and Mary, c. 11, which is the foundation of their present power to order relief, was intended to produce any such result. The object of that statute was to check parochial profusion. It recites, in words which we might now adopt as a part of this Report,—

"That many inconveniences do daily arise by reason of the unlimited power of the overseers, who do frequently, upon frivolous pretences, but chiefly for their own private ends, give relief to what persons and number they think fit; which persons being entered on the collection bill, become a great charge on the parish, notwithstanding the occasion or pretence of their receiving collection often ceases, by which means the rates are daily increased, contrary to the true intent of the Statute made in the 43d year of the reign of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, intituled 'An Act for the Relief of the Poor.'" For remedy of which, and for preventing like abuses in future, it enacts, "That books be kept in every parish wherein the names of all such persons as receive collection shall be registered, with the day when they were first admitted to have relief, and the occasion which brought them under that necessity; and that yearly, in Easter week, the parishioners shall meet in vestry, before whom the book shall be produced; and all persons receiving collection called over, and the reasons for their taking relief examined; and a new list made of such persons as they shall think fit to allow to receive collection; and that no other person shall receive collection, but by authority under the hand of one justice of peace residing within such parish, or if none be there dwelling, in the parts near or next adjoining, or by order of the justices in quarter sessions, except in cases of pestilential disease."


If the framers of the Act had intended to make in the law the enormous change which these few words "but by the authority under the hand of one justice" effected, if they had intended to vest in a single justice not necessarily resident within the parish, or acquainted with its concerns, the power to order the overseer to distribute, as the justice might think fit, the property of the rate-payers, it can scarcely be supposed that they would have introduced an enactment of such importance by way of exception at the end of a clause, or prefixed to it so irrelevant a preamble. The real meaning of these words seems to have been the same as that of the similar words in the 43d of Elizabeth (the statute to which the 3d William and Mary had previously referred), "by and with the consent of two justices." The overseers were not to relieve any but those whom the vestry had thought fit to allow to receive collection, except under the authority of a justice, that is, when authorized by him. The Act gives a single justice no power to do more than to sanction the conduct of the overseer; to protect him in acting, but not, according even to the words, and much less according to the spirit, to order him to act. The power to order is given to the justices in quarter-sessions, and to them alone. This construction appears to us to be supported by the 8 and 9 Will. c. 30; that Act,—

"To the end that the money raised only for the relief of such as are as well impotent as poor, may not be misapplied and consumed by the idle, sturdy, and disorderly beggars," enacts, that "every person, who, after the 1st September, 1697, shall be upon the collection, and receive relief of any parish, and the wife and children of any such person cohabiting in the same house, (such child only excepted as shall be by the churchwardens and overseers of the poor permitted to live at home, in order to have the care of and attend an impotent and helpless parent,) shall wear on the shoulder a large roman P, together with the first letter of the name of the parish whereof such person is an inhabitant; and if such person neglect or refuse, it shall be lawful for any justice of the county, city, or liberty where such offence shall be committed, to punish such offender by ordering his or her relief, or usual allowance, or the collection, to be abridged, suspended, or withdrawn."


It will be observed that the Act considers the question whether the child of a pauper shall or shall not be permitted to live at home, as a question to be decided by the overseers, and that the power which it gives to the justice is to order not that relief shall be given, but that it shall be abridged, suspended, or with-drawn. But though this seems to be the natural interpretation of the 3 Will. and Mary, c. 11, a different construction was applied to it. This appears from the preamble of the next Act on the subject, the 9 Geo. I. c. 7; that Act recites,—

"That under colour of the proviso in the 3 and 4 Will. and Mary, many persons have applied to some justices of peace, without the knowledge of any officers of the parish, and thereby upon untrue suggestions, and sometimes upon false or frivolous pretences, have obtained relief which hath greatly contributed to the increase of the parish rates." For remedy whereof it enacts, "That no justice of the peace shall order relief to any poor person until oath be made before such justice of some matter, which he shall judge to be a reasonable cause or ground for having such relief, and that the same person had, by himself or some other, applied for relief to the parishioners of the parish, at some vestry or other public meeting of the said parishioners, or to two of the overseers of the poor of such parish, and was by them refused to be relieved, and until such justice hath summoned two of the overseers of the poor to show cause why such relief should not be given, and the person so summoned hath been heard or made default to appear before such justice." And, further, "that the person whom any such justice of peace shall think fit to order to be relieved, shall be entered in such book or books so to be kept by the parish, as one of those who is to receive collection, as long as the cause for such relief continues, and no longer."


The History of the Poor Laws abounds with instances of a legislation which has been worse than unsuccessful, which has not merely failed in effecting its purposes, but has been active in producing effects which were directly opposed to them, has created whatever it was intended to prevent, and fostered whatever it was intended to discourage. Thus the 3 and 4 Will. and Mary, which was passed to check the profusion of overseers, to enable the parishioners to decide whom they should think fit and allow to receive relief, was construed as authorizing the justices to order relief to those who applied to them without the knowledge of the parish officers; and the Act which was passed to remedy this abuse enabled the justice, on the pauper's statement of some matter which the justice should judge to be a reasonable cause or ground for relief, to summon the overseers to show cause why relief should not be given, and to order such relief as he should think fit. An order against which there is no appeal.


One clause in the 9 Geo. I. was, however, efficient in promoting the objects of the Act,—that which enabled parishes to purchase or hire, or unite in purchasing or hiring, a workhouse, and to contract for the maintenance there of their poor, and enacted that any persons who should refuse to be lodged in such houses should not be entitled to receive collection or relief. An enactment which, while it was in operation, appears to have checked the increase of pauperism, and in many instances to have occasioned its positive diminution.


But towards the end of the last century, a period arrived when the accidents of the seasons and other causes occasioned a rise in the price of the necessaries of life. If things had been left to take their course, the consequences in England would have been what they were in Scotland, and what they were with us in those occupations which, from their requiring skill, raise the workman above the region of parish relief. Wages would have risen to meet the depreciation of money, and the labourer would have earned the same or nearly the same amount of raw produce, and a larger amount of manufactured commodities.


But things were not left to take their own course. Unhappily no knowledge is so rare as the knowledge when to do nothing. It requires an acquaintance with general principles, a confidence in their truth, and a patience of the gradual process by which obstacles are steadily but slowly surmounted, which are among the last acquisitions of political science and experience. Under the 3 and 4 Will. and Mary, and 9 Geo. I., or under the 5 Eliz. c. 4, empowering the justices to fix the rate of wages, it appeared that the existing difficulties might be instantly got rid of. The latter statute appeared to enable a forced rise of wages, the former statutes appeared to enable relief to be ordered if wages should remain insufficient. Each plan was proposed. Sir Frederic Eden's account of the mode in which the latter plan was adopted is so instructive, that we will venture to quote it.*114

"Instead of an advance in wages, proportioned to the increased demand for labour, the labourer has received a considerable part of that portion of his employer's capital which was destined for his maintenance, in the form of poor's rate (the very worst that it could assume), instead of being paid it as the fair, well earned recompense of equivalent labour. This is a deplorable evil, which has fallen heavier on the poor than on the rich; and it has been considerably aggravated by the very injudicious steps which have been adopted for administering relief to those whom the pressure of the late scarcity had incapacitated from supporting themselves and families in the way to which they had been accustomed. Many instances might be adduced of the ill effects of the indiscriminating charity of individuals, and of the no less ill effects of the discriminating interference of magistrates and parish officers; but, that I may not swell this work to too great a length, I shall content myself with offering a short statement (which was obligingly communicated to me by a gentleman who himself served the office of overseer in his own parish) of the proceedings which took place in a single county, for the relief of the poor last year.

"The very great price of the necessaries of life, but more particularly of bread-corn, during the whole of last year, produced numberless extraordinary demands for parochial assistance. In many parishes in the county of Berks, relief from the poor's rates was granted, not only to the infirm and impotent, but to the able bodied and industrious, who had very few of them ever applied to the parish for relief, and then only during temporary illness or disability. There was no doubt but that the circumstances of the times required an increase in the income of the labourers in husbandry, who, in this country at least, compose the most numerous body of those liable to want assistance from the parish. But there existed a difference of opinion respecting the mode of making such increase. In order to apply some adequate remedy to the evil, a meeting of the magistrates for the county was held about Easter, 1795, when the following plans were submitted to their consideration:—

"1st. That the magistrates should fix the lowest price to be given for labour, as they were empowered to do by 5 Eliz. c. 4; and, 2ndly, that they should act with uniformity in the relief of the impotent and infirm poor, by a table of universal practice, corresponding with the supposed necessities of each family. The first plan was rejected, by a considerable majority. but the second was adopted, and the following Table was published as the rule for the information of magistrates and overseers:—

Table. Click to enlarge in new window.

"Had political regulations not interfered, the demand for labour would have raised its price, not only in a ratio merely adequate to the wants of the labourer, but even beyond it; and that price would have been advanced by the individual who employed him, instead of being a general tax on those who are liable to be rated, and who are not all employers of labourers. The capital which employs labour has increased; the demand of labour would consequently increase; it did increase, for the situation of the labouring poor in Berks was never better than during the last hard winter; but they received these advanced wages in the way most prejudicial to their moral interests; they received it as charity, as the extorted charity of others, and not as the result of their own well-exerted industry; and it was paid them, not by their immediate employers, but by those who were, in many instances, not the employers of any labour."*115


We directed our Assistant Commissioners to inquire in every parish in which they found the relief of the able-bodied existing, at what period, and from what causes, it was supposed to have arisen. We insert the following extracts from Mr. Maclean's Report from Sussex, and Mr. Villier's from Warwickshire and Worcestershire, which confirm Sir Frederic Eden's Narrative:—

"I found," says Mr. Maclean*116, "great difficulty in ascertaining accurately the period at which the system of relieving able-bodied men, on account of their families, originated; but this difficulty, as relates to the western part of the county of Sussex, was removed by the kindness of Mr. Woods, who stated to me, that as well as he could recollect after so distant a time, the system of parochial relief, on account of the dearness of bread, commenced after the high prices of 1795. It was then only occasional till the still higher prices of 1800 and 1801, when the magistrates of the bench of Chichester recommended (instead of advancing wages in proportion to the times) the various parishes to make certain allowances, in consideration of the higher prices of corn. This mode was very generally acted upon; but being attended with some difficulties, a paper was drawn up and calculated by one of the influential magistrates of the day, and having been approved of by others, was circulated and recommended to the parish officers for their guidance.

"1804-5.—The annexed Table is intended to show the exact difference which the advance in the price of flour makes to the poor, when it exceeds 1s. 4d. per gallon, and what sum is required for their relief, so as to enable them to have it at all times at that price.

Table. Click to enlarge in new window.

"From the following calculation, viz., a man, his wife, and two children are supposed to consume three gallons of flour per week, which. when flour is at

  s. d.
2s. per gallon, would cost them 6 0
Three gallons of flour, at 1s. 4d. is 4 0
The difference of cost in this case would be 2 0

which in a family of four persons, as above-mentioned, would make 6d. per head per week, or 2s. per head per month, and the same difference, be the number in family what it may.


"In obedience," says Mr. Villiers, "to the Instructions, I made inquiry into the origin, in these counties, of the system of applying the parish rates in aid of wages; and I found the period usually referred to was during the years of scarcity towards the close of the last century. In Warwickshire, the year 1797 was mentioned as the date of its commencement in that county, and the scales of relief giving it authority were published in each of these counties previously to the year 1800. It was apprehended by many at that time, that either the wages of labour would rise to a height from which it would be difficult to reduce them when the cause for it had ceased, or that during the high prices the labourers might have had to undergo privations to which it would be unsafe to expose them. To meet the emergency of the time, various schemes are said to have been adopted, such as weekly distributions of flour, providing families with clothes, or maintaining entirely a portion of their families, until at length the practice became general, and a right distinctly admitted by the magistrates was claimed by the labourer to parish relief, on the ground of inadequate wages and number in family. I was informed that the consequences of the system were not wholly unforeseen at the time, as affording a probable inducement to early marriages and large families; but at this period there was but little apprehension on that ground. A prevalent opinion, supported by high authority, that population was in itself a source of wealth, precluded all alarm. The demands for the public service were thought to ensure a sufficent draught for any surplus people; and it was deemed wise by many persons at this time to present the Poor Laws to the lower classes, as an institution for their advantage, peculiar to this country; and to encourage an opinion among them, that by this means their own share in the property of the kingdom was recognized; and to these notions, which were prevalent at that time, must be ascribed the spirit in which the Poor Laws have been administered for thirty years past. The Rev. Mr. Broomfield, of Napton, in Warwickshire, stated to me, that he remembered that in the year 1797, when a meeting was called in that parish, to take into consideration the best means of supporting the labourers during the high prices, and that a regular distribution of flour by the parish, in aid of wages, had been agreed upon, his father, who was then the incumbent of the same living, warned the meeting of the system they were introducing, reminding them of the feeling which then existed among the poor with regard to being supported by the parish, and the probable result of confounding in their mind all distinction between alms and wages, saying, that if their pride upon this subject was once destroyed, the Poor Laws would become a most formidable engine directed against the morals and the property of the country; a prediction, the fulfilment of which, Mr. Broomfield lamented to say, he had long since survived."*117


The following extract from the evidence delivered by Mr. Lacoast, of Chertsey, before the House of Commons' Poor Law Committee, in 1817, shows the introduction of the system into a parish at a somewhat later period:—

"The magistrates have been rather more liberal to our poor than in the neighbouring parishes, and that has brought people into the parish; they have endeavoured and obtained settlements. We have had several instances where a man has refused a house at 8l. a year, and taken one at 10l. not so good, for the purpose of making himself a parishioner.

"Do any of the labourers who are earning the wages you have stated, (from 12s. to 15s. a week) procure relief in money from the overseers?—Yes.

"On what ground do they obtain such relief?—We had a scale sent by the magistrates to the overseers and the committee, desiring that we would allow every man, woman, and child that there were in family, to make up their wages equal to two quartern loaves per head per week, all at 3s. a week as nearly as possible. We thought that the poor people, many of them, were allowed too much money, and the committee conceived that there was not a destinction made between the labourers who worked from day-light to dark, and the men who worked for 12s. a week only, for seven or eight hours a day, and we made an alteration according as we thought they deserved it: to some we gave more than the magistrates ordered, and some less; and we received an order the next morning, that the money should be made up immediately to those who received less.

"When was the scale by which the paupers are paid, first fixed?—I should think about four months since.

"Can you state at all the effect that it had?—I know an instance myself where a man was at work and earned 18s. a week, and another man who lived next door to him was at work and had 12s.; and after the scale was settled by the magistrates, the (first) man did not go to work in the usual way, but worked easier, and the money was made up by the parish.

"Has there not been a committee appointed to carry those orders of the magistrates into execution?—It is an open committee of the whole parish; no select committee.

"There was a wish expressed by the magistrates, that some of the most respectable of the inhabitants should form a committee?—Yes; and I went down with some of the larger renters of the parish, and made an alteration, and reduced some and added to others; but the magistrates ordered that they should have so much per head, whether they worked or not.

"Is the scale you speak of used in other parishes besides yours?—I believe not.

"Framed for your parish specially?—I believe the magistrates framed it for the whole hundred, but the other parishes refused to comply with it, and have not done it. Some of the magistrates that attend our bench did not agree with the scale, but were overruled by the majority; therefore when the overseer of Thorp applied to the magistrate there, he did not compel them to give that sum, but left it to the discretion of the overseer. The men in our parish are impudent, and will not work, and they tell us so."*118


It is probable that the allowance system was encouraged, and perhaps suggested, by the 33rd Geo. III. c. 8, which ordered that if a militia-man, when called out and ordered to march, should leave a family unable to support themselves, the overseers of the poor of the parish where such family should dwell, should, by order of the justice of the peace, out of the rates for the relief of the poor of such parish, pay to such family a weekly allowance according to the usual price of labour in husbandry, in the place, by the following rate:—a sum not exceeding one day's labour, nor less than 1s. for the wife, and a similar sum for each child under ten years old; and it must have been facilitated by the 33rd Geo. III. c. 55, which enabled the justices at petty sessions to fine the overseers for disobedience to the orders of any justice or justices.


The clause of the 9th Geo. I. c. 7, prohibiting relief to those who refused to enter the workhouse, was, however, an obstacle; to remove it, the 36th Geo. III. c. 23. was passed. That Act, after reciting the clause in question, proceeds thus:—

"And whereas the said provisions contained in the Act abovementioned has been found to have been, and to be, inconvenient and oppressive, inasmuch as it often prevents an industrious poor person from receiving such occasional relief as is best suited to the peculiar case of such poor persons; and inasmuch as in certain cases it holds out conditions of relief, injurious to the comfort, and domestic situation, and happiness of such poor persons."


And then repeals the clause, forbidding relief to those who should refuse to enter the workhouse, and proceeds more directly to its object by the following provision:—

"And be it further enacted, that it shall be lawful for any of his Majesty's justice or justices of the peace for any county, city, town, or place, usually acting in and for the district wherein the same shall be situated, at his or their just and proper discretion, to direct and order collection and relief to any industrious poor person; and he should be entitled to ask and receive such relief at his home or house, in any parish, town, township, or place, notwithstanding any contract shall have been, or shall be made, for lodging, keeping, maintaining, and employing poor persons in a house for such purpose hired or purchased; and the overseers for such parish, town, township, or place, are required and directed to obey and perform such order for relief given by any justice or justices as aforesaid."


Those who are irritated by the pressure of the evils which allowance to the able-bodied has produced, and by the apprehension of the still greater evils which it may be expected to produce, are sometimes inclined to attribute the most childish folly, or the most profligate dishonesty, to those who could aid in establishing such a system. But we must not judge them according to the knowledge which we have acquired in the dear-bought experience of forty years. It is clear, that when the magistrates assembled at Speenhamland, in 1795, "to settle the weekly income of the industrious poor," public opinion sanctioned their attempt. This is shown by the 36th Geo. III. c. 23, which was passed a few months after, and may be considered the great and fatal deviation from our previous policy. The 43rd Elizabeth never contemplated, as objects of relief, industrious persons. It made no promises of comfort or happiness; it directed that those having no means, and using no daily trade of life to get their living by, should be set to work, and that the impotent should receive necessary relief. These were unalluring offers—they held out nothing but work and necessary relief, and those only to the impotent, and to persons who must always form a small minority in any tolerably regulated society—that is, persons having no property, and using no daily trade. The able-bodied industrious labourer was carefully excluded, and relief, therefore, as Mr. Pitt (in the speech introducing his Poor Bill in 1796) complained, became a ground for opprobrium and contempt. They were precise offers;—the question whether a person using no trade had been set to work, or one unable to work had received necessary relief, were matters of fact. The engagements of the 43rd Elizabeth, were, perhaps, dangerous engagements; but they were engagements which, for 100 years, were performed apparently without substantial injury to the morals and industry of the labourers, or to the general prosperity of the country. And whatever may be the objections in principle to the power given to the magistrates, or assumed by them under the 3rd and 4th Will. and Mary, and 9th Geo. I. it does not seem to have produced much practical evil, while the 9th Geo. I. was in force. Parochial relief appears to have been given chiefly through the workhouses, and not to have been extended to many besides the impotent. The duty of the magistrate was tolerably plain: if the applicant fell within the classes pointed out by the 43rd Elizabeth, as objects of relief, that is, if he had no property, used no ordinary and daily trade to get his living by, or was lame, impotent, old, blind, or otherwise not able to work, he could direct him to be admitted into the workhouse, and if he was included in the first class, set to work by the parish officers; or, if included in the second class, supplied with necessary relief. Relief was considered a burthen to the payers, and a degradation to the receivers (and to be marked as such by a badge), a remedy for unexpected calamity, and a mitigation of the punishment inflicted by nature on extravagance and improvidence, but no part of the ordinary fund for the support of labour. Public opinion sanctioned the magistrate in a sparing exercise of his power, and he had, in fact, no motive for undue interference. The paupers were a small disreputable minority, whose resentment was not to be feared, and whose favour was of no value; all other classes were anxious to diminish the number of applicants, and to reduce the expense of their maintenance.


The 36th Geo. III. removed all these fences; it recognized, as objects of relief, industrious persons, and enabled the magistrate, at his just and proper discretion, to order it to be given in a way which should not be injurious to their comfort, domestic situation and happiness. Mr. Pitt's Bill went still further; it admitted, within the pale of pauperism, not only the industrious labourer. but the person with property, and enabled him, when possessed of land, not only to retain it while an applicant for relief, but to be supplied, at the expense of the parish, with a cow. It is true, that this Bill was dropped, but as it was not an individual, but a government measure, it may be cited as evidence of the general feeling on the subject.


When allowance to the able-bodied, in aid of their wages, had once been introduced, when it had been found to be an expedient by which the expenditure in wages could be reduced, and profits and rents could be raised, when the paupers became numerous in most districts, and in some places formed the majority and even the large majority of the peasantry; when their clamours for allowance were favoured by the farmers, and apparently justified by the rise in the price of the necessaries of life, who can be surprised if the magistrates were led, in some places, to connive at, in others to sanction, and, in still more, to promote, a practice, the evil of which had not then been experienced, which seemed so plausible in itself, and which so many persons combined to favour? Who can wonder that, thus urged and encouraged, they should have fancied themselves entitled to settle the weekly income of the labourers; and who can wonder at any amount of evil that has followed so preposterous an attempt?


We have seen, that one of the first effects of the power thus assumed by the magistrates, was the publication of scales of relief—a practice which still continues. The publication of these scales has been much complained of, but we think rather unreasonably. It is true that the evils of the system recommended or enforced by the scales, cannot be exaggerated; and it is true that the publication of a scale is an acknowledgment of the system, which shows how little those who publish it are aware of the consequences of their conduct. But the evil resides in the practice, not in the scale, which is its almost inevitable consequence. When a magistrate takes on himself "to regulate the incomes of the industrious poor" within his jurisdiction, he of course frames to himself some standard by which to regulate them: if he does not, all must be favour or caprice; of course also the magistrates of the district or the division must be anxious to make their individual standards correspond, or, in other words, to agree on a scale. It need not, indeed, be published, but no one can doubt that though unpublished, the paupers soon find it out, and the only difference is, that it is traditionary instead of written—the common law of the district instead of a code.


The following answer by the Rev. John Oldham, rector of Stondon Massey, in the county of Essex, to question 39 of our queries, for rural districts, is an instructive account of the enactment and repeal of a scale:—

"An order issued from the poor bench at Epping, in 1801, directing allowances to be made in proportion to the number in family (borrowed, probably, from Pitt's Poor Bill of 1797). Not then acting as magistrate, but from a wish to facilitate the execution of the order, I formed a scale of allowances according to it, beginning with one up to ten in family, and taking the quartern loaf from 6d. up to 2s.; showing the amount of money to be made up between such extremes. I had it printed, and sent one or more copies to each parish of the division. I was thanked for the trouble I had taken, and the scale was adopted and acted upon, not merely in our division, but probably in different parts of the country. It was, however, soon discovered that the paupers and labourers, having got to the knowledge of it, availed themselves of the opportunity of claiming under it what they were willing to consider a regular pension. The evil was felt very sensibly, and a meeting called of all the magistrates in the division, which I attended; this, I think, was in 1806, and the meeting determined unanimously to call in, as far as possible, all copies of the scale, and to make no further use of it; it was, in fact, suppressed, and no longer referred to. In consequence, many applicants expressed great disappointment and ill-humour, but the magistrates were firm, and nothing is said of it."


The evils of the scale system are so generally admitted, that we think it sufficient to quote the following statement of them by Mr. Okeden,*119 himself a magistrate of great experience, contained in his Report from that part of Oxfordshire, which lies west of the great canal.

"About twenty-four years ago the payment of head-money, by a scale, was introduced into all these divisions, and continues in full operation, with all its varieties of roundsmen, billet system, &c. &c. The magistrates decide on the sum which is, in their opinion, necessary for the support of a man and his wife and children, and, by a scale-order the overseers to make up the man's low wages to that sum from the parish. This scale system is so complete, that the history of one of the parishes is, in fact, the history of all. I will, therefore, lay before you a general statement of the working of this scale process throughout the western divisions of the county of Oxford.

"There is a trifling variation of the scale in some districts, but so small as hardly to deserve notice. One system, therefore, pervades all the districts, and all the parishes are governed precisely in the same form, only varying at times from the better or worse management of the overseers. The results of this system (of its illegality I need not speak) are now become apparent. The first and most prominent is, that, from neglect of single men, and the lower place to which they have been and are forced in the scale, a series of early marriages has ensued, for the avowed purpose of increasing income, until a generation of superfluous labourers has risen up, all demanding work or pay from the scale. If this system continues, in ten years more another generation will be hastening on. The present race, which this illegal perversion of the Poor Laws has created, are playing the game of cunning with the magistrates and overseers; give them ten years, and they will convert it into the dreadful game of force. My humble opinion is, that if some measure be not adopted to arrest the progress of the evil, a fearful and bloody contest must ensue.

"But besides the first result of this scale system, namely, the creation of a generation of superfluous labourers, two others accompany it: one is the equalization of industry and idleness, the other that of honesty and dishonesty. I asked every overseer of the 104 parishes, the condition of which I investigated, whether the due regard was paid to character and industry in the granting of relief. Every one openly and shamelessly avowed that no attention was paid to either, but that all were relieved according to the scale. I put the strongest possible case, that of a man who, by repeated thefts and rogueries, had actually flung himself out of employ, so that no farmer would permit him to enter his premises; the answer was still the same, 'We should relieve him and his family from the scale.' The odium of this part of the scale process the overseers seem inclined to fling on the magistrates, and, I believe, with reason.

"So much for the placing honesty and knavery on a level. With regard to the equalization of industry and idleness, when the honest, industrious labourer sees by his side, on the road, or in the field, a notoriously lazy fellow dawdling over his work, what must be the consequence? He reasons the case over in his mind, finds that his idle companion, with the deduction of only twopence per day, receives as much as himself, and, of course, he relaxes in his work; and indifference and laziness succeed to vigour and industry; the industry of the labourers is everywhere decidedly diminished; agricultural capital is on the wane; the poor regard the allowance as a right, and it is called sometimes 'the county allowance,' sometimes 'the Government allowance,' sometimes 'the Act of Parliament allowance,' and always 'our income.' "


But though the scale is the worst form in which the influence of magistrates can be exerted, great evils arise from their interference even when less systematically exercised. In the first place, the very mode in which their jurisdiction is enforced seems intended to destroy all vigilance and economy on the part of those who administer relief, and all sense of degradation or shame on the part of those who receive it. The overseer is summoned, perhaps, six or seven miles from his business, or his farm, to defend himself before the tribunal of his immediate superiors against a charge of avarice or cruelty. He seldom has any opportunity to support his defence by evidence; the pleadings generally consist of the pauper's assertions on the one side, and the overseer's on the other. The magistrate may admit or reject the evidence of either party at his pleasure; may humiliate the overseer in the pauper's presence, with whatever reproof he may think that his frugality deserves, and finally pronounces a decree, against which, however unsupported by the facts of the case or mischievous in principle, there is no appeal. It must be remembered, too, that the pauper has often the choice of his tribunal. The clause of the 3 and 4 William and Mary, c. 11, which confined the jurisdiction to a justice of the peace residing within the parish, or, if none be there dwelling, in the parts near or next adjoining, was disregarded at the unfortunate period to which we have referred. The 36 George III. c. 23, gives its discretionary powers to any of his Majesty's justice or justices of the peace for any county, city, town, or place, usually acting in or for the district wherein the same shall be situated. And though the 59 George III. c. 12, s. 5, has required the concurrence of two justices to an order for relief, yet this restriction, as is the case with many other wisely intended clauses in the Act, is neutralized by a proviso enabling one justice to make an order in case of emergency; an emergency of which he is the judge. All the overseers of a district are therefore at the mercy of any two magistrates, and to a considerable degree at the mercy of any one. The pauper may select those magistrates whom misdirected benevolence, or desire of popularity, or timidity, leads to be profuse distributors of other people's property and bring forward his charges against the overseer, secure of obtaining a verdict. He appears in the character of an injured man dragging his oppressor to justice. If he fails he loses nothing if he succeeds he obtains triumph and reward. And yet we find persons expressing grave regret that the parochial fund is wasted, that relief is claimed as a right, and that pauperism has ceased to be disgraceful. The subject of regret is, either that the existing system is suffered to continue, or that such is the constitution of human nature, that a vigilant administration of public money is not to be expected from those on whom we have heaped every motive to extravagance and every obstacle against economy; that what the magistrate awards is considered a right, and that the exercise of an acknowledged right is not felt a degradation.


Most of our preceding remarks apply not to the magistrates personally, but to the jurisdiction exercised by them respecting relief, and would be applicable to any tribunal invested with similar powers; to any tribunal, in short, which should be empowered to enforce charity and liberality by summons and fine. But supposing that such a power ought to exist, there are strong grounds for thinking that the present magistrates are not the best persons to be intrusted with it. In the first place, they are men of fortune, unacquainted with the domestic economy of the applicants for relief, and as unfit from their own associations "to settle what ought to be the weekly incomes of the industrious poor," as the industrious poor would be to regulate the weekly expenditure of the magistrates.


The following passages from Mr. Chadwick's and Mr. Villier's Reports, and which are corroborated by all our evidence, show how loosely and imperfectly the means of the independent labourers has usually been inquired into, and how little is really known of their wants by those who order relief.

"I have endeavoured," says Mr. Chadwick, "to ascertain from several of the magistrates who are advocates for the allowance system, or for the regulation of wages, in what way the labouring man within their districts expends for his maintenance the sum which they have declared to be the minimum expenditure, to sustain life? Some of these gentlemen admitted that they did not know; others stated that they laid it down as a general rule, that a labouring man must have bread and meat; but whether three or four loaves of bread, whether a pound or a pound and a half of meat, constituted the least quantity requisite as food for a given period, none of them could state. Several promised to make inquiries on the subject, when I asked them how they could safely set aside the decisions of the parish officers, or determine with due precision what was the minimum allowance of money for the labouring man's subsistence, unless they knew how many commodities were absolute necessaries for him, and the exact quantity and the price of each.

"Whilst complaining of the effects of the beer-shops established under Mr. Goulburn's Act, the same magistrates frequently stated that habits of drunkenness prevailed with the whole of the labourers within their districts, and that these labourers were accustomed to carouse, during one or two days in the week, gambling and indulging in the most vicious habits. Having previously received evidence that so large a proportion of the agricultural poor-rate is expended in aid of wages, I have been startled by the declarations that the habits of dissipation have become so prevalent. In answer to further inquiries, I received assurances that the habit is general; that there are few, if any, exceptions. I again asked, whether the exceptions are formed of those who received parochial relief, and I was assured (and satisfactory evidence was adduced to me to prove the fact), that the agricultural labourers receiving poor's rates in aid of wages, are to be found at the beer-shops as frequently, at least, as the independent labourers. The questions which appeared to me naturally to follow are—Do you consider beer or gin a necessary of life to the paupers?—if it be admitted that beer is a necessary of life to the independent labourers, at all events the quantity required for intoxication can hardly be necessary. Ought you not, then, to ascertain and deduct the amount of money spent in drunken revelry? As it must be presumed that a man pays for the beer he drinks at the beer-shops, (which beer is not deemed absolutely necessary for his subsistence,) is it not clear that you have not arrived at the minimum allowance? If, for example, you order wages to be made up to a man to the amount of 9s. a week, and you find that he gets drunk one or two days in the week, and that his excess of drink costs him 2s. a week, since he actually lives on 7s. a week, does he not prove, by so living, that 7s. is all that he really requires?

"It was observed by Colonel Page, one of his Majesty's deputy lieutenants for Berks, in his communications with me, that the magistrates, from their ignorance of the habits of the labouring classes, are extremely unfit judges as to the amount of relief to be administered. 'To a gentleman,' said he, 'a shilling appears an extremely small sum, but it often procures two, or even three days' subsistence to a labouring man; and hence the most benevolent men commonly make the most profuse and injurious allowances.'

"The witnesses, who have had much experience in maintaining considerable numbers, attest the correctness of the rule—that by adding rent and 20 per cent. as the retailers profit on commodities, an estimate may be made of the expense at which a single person may live, in the same manner that a number are kept in a workhouse, or in a community of any sort, where the commodities are purchased at wholesale prices. Thus, if at any place, as at Gosport workhouse, the able-bodied paupers are clothed and fed better than most labouring men, at an expense of 2s. 6d. per head, allowing 6d. for the retailers profit, and 1s. for rent, the allowance to enable an out-door pauper to live in the same manner would be 4s. per week. If the allowances in aid of wages are tried by this rule, it will be found that a large proportion of them are in error, to the extent of 100 per cent. I have found none that were in error less than about 20 per cent."*120


"In the parish of Hanley Castle, in the Pershore hundred of Worcestershire, and in the neighbourhood," says Mr. Villiers, "having heard much complaint of the magisterial interference, I visited the gentleman who was said to be the senior magistrate of the district, and inquired of him, upon what principle he ordered relief to be granted to the able-bodied labourers. He informed me that he considered that every labourer wasen-titled to claim a certain sum per week for every child born after the third. Upon further asking him, if he considered that to be the proper and legitimate construction of the statute of Elizabeth, he stated that he did so entirely, and that he thought that when a man had four children, he might fairly be considered within the meaning of the Act as 'impotent,' which he further explained by saying, 'that he considered it impossible for any labouring man to support four children. Having been previously informed of the fact, I inquired of him if he was not aware that a man living in his own parish was at that time maintaining his wife and five children, independently of all relief. He said that he was not aware of any such case, and should think it extraordinary if there was. He then referred to a farmer residing in his parish to ascertain the truth. The farmer assured him that the fact was as I had stated it; that the man referred to was a regular labourer, peculiarly industrious, but that he was not earning more than the average wages of the division, which was considered about 10s. a week for the man, paid by the day, or 12s. or 14s. by the piece."*121


In answer to our question, whether a labouring family can save, a great majority of the respondents state positively that they cannot. About half the respondents from Devonshire made no answer to the query. W. J. Coppard, the minister of Plympton, St. Mary's, says, "A few have trifling sums in the savings bank. The other respondents either express a strong doubt whether anything could be saved by a labouring man, or declare positively that he could lay by nothing; yet we find, from the returns of the deposits in the Exeter savings' bank, upwards of 70,000l. saved, under all obstacles, by 2000 labourers, or by one out of every ten heads of agricultural labourers' families in the same county."*122


The following are the statements of some of the respondents (clergymen and gentlemen serving parochial offices in the metropolis) to Queries 35, 36, 37, 38—What can a family earn, and whether they can live on these earnings, and lay by anything?

"The answer from Chiswick states, that a family might earn 49l. per annum, on which they might live, but could not save. From St. Anne and Agnes, and St. Leonard, Foster-Lane, family might earn 60l.; could not live on it. From St. Botolph-without Aldersgate, family might earn 63l. 18s., on which they might subsist, but could save nothing. From Mile End, New Town, and St. Mary Somerset, city of London, family might earn 65l., on which they might live, but could not save anything. From St. Leonard, Eastcheap, family might earn 78l.; could not save, and cannot ascertain whether they could live upon it. From St. James's, Westminster, man might earn 78l., besides material assistance from his wife and children; might live on wholesome food, but cannot attempt to say whether they could save. From Holy Trinity the Less, family might earn 93l.; might live on spare diet; could not save anything. Mr. Baker, the coroner and vestry clerk of St. Anne's, Limehouse, states that a family might earn 100l., on which they could live, but not save. The return from Hammersmith declares that a family might earn 49l. 8s., which would give them wholesome food, and that they might and DO save."*123


The variations in the several Returns above quoted exhibit the uncertainty and the wide variations of the impressions on which relief is administered, and the utter want of any standard of reference. Each gentleman, from the one who at Chiswick declares that forty-nine pounds is the sum on which a family could only live, to the gentleman who pronounces that one hundred pounds per annum only suffices for the bare subsistence of a labouring man's family, which is higher than the actual incomes of hundreds of families of professional men, would doubtless in his respective district fix the condition of the pauper agreeably to his impression of the means of subsistence required. This variation is not greater than the actual variations of the nature and amount of relief administered to the same classes within the same district. It is a remarkable and important fact, that it is found that at the boards of guardians, or other parochial boards for the administration of relief, those members who are distinguished for the greatest strictness, which others decry as harshness, in the administration of relief, are commonly persons who have themselves risen from the ranks of labouring men. This strictness, which is usually exhibited where there is no connexion or acquaintanceship to bias them, appears to arise from the better knowledge which they possess of the real wants of the applicants, and of the nature of the means of satisfying them.


Secondly. The magistrate, even if he have a general knowledge of the subject, seldom has and seldom can acquire a knowledge of the individual facts on which he has to decide. A pauper claims 3s. on the ground that his family consists of five persons, and that he has earned during the last week only 7s. The overseers believe that he has, in fact, earned more, or that he might have earned more if he had thought fit to exert himself, or that the lowness of his acknowledged earnings is the result of a collusion between him and his employer, in order to throw part of his wages on the parish. The vestry agrees in opinion with the overseer, and the pauper appeals to the magistrate. If questions like these, so difficult of proof, and the two latter matters of opinion not of perception, are to be decided, it must be by a tribunal acquainted with the habits and character of the applicant and of his employers, capable of collecting and weighing many minute indicia of evidence, and ready to undergo so tedious and unsatisfactory a task. Can it be expected that it will be performed, or even undertaken by the magistrates, who give a few hours a week to the affairs of twenty parishes, who live at a distance from the scene of the dispute, and know little more than the names of the parties to it, and perhaps not even so much? In fact, the appeal is made from those who are acquainted with the general nature of the subject to be inquired into, to those who are ignorant of it; from those who either know the facts, or have the power to ascertain them, so far as they are capable of being ascertained, to those who have no previous knowledge of the matter, no interest in diligent investigation, and no means to render that investigation successful.


We have selected from the vast body of evidence contained in the Appendix respecting the prevalence and effects of magisterial interference, the following passages, not as peculiarly striking, but because they illustrate most of the remarks which we have made.


Mr. Majendie states, that in his district,—

"The opinion of many of the most experienced magistrates themselves coincides with that expressed by occupiers and overseers, that the over liberality of magistrates in granting relief has been a principal cause of the high rates, and of the dependence of labourers on the parish. In many instances they have adopted a dictatorial tone to the parish overseers, which has induced men of respectability to avoid the office, and when harsh observations have been made in presence of the pauper, the authority of the officer is destroyed. Though the mischief of this proceeding has been apparent, and a more cautious plan has been adopted, still there are many complaints of magisterial interference, particularly in those districts where a scale of allowance is adopted; overseers represent that they give relief to a greater extent than they think requisite, from a conviction derived from experience, that such relief would be ordered on application to the bench. In some districts where the magistrates represent that they have discontinued a fixed scale, and decide each case according to its merits, the overseers still act under the impression that such a scale exists. A magistrate, whose opinion is looked up to with much respect, expressed to me his feeling, that deciding in cases of applications for relief was the most unsatisfactory and painful of his duties; on the one hand, injudicious liberality might be a great injustice to the rate-payers; on the other, the denial of relief might be an act of cruelty to the applicant, who, in periods when the low wages of farmers and bad state of agriculture cause many to be out of work, might be reduced to severe distress. Great part of the mischief has been effected by the magistrate acting singly in his own house. A gentleman of property first starting in that office, without experience in the employment of labour. or the character of labourers, is easily imposed upon by their false representations; and should he obtain the character of the poor man's friend, he becomes in fact their greatest enemy, and may throw a spell over the industry of a whole district. Both in Kent and Sussex I have heard that paupers threaten application to some individual magistrate."*124


"At Over," says Mr. Power, "a village not far from Cottenham, I found a person of great judgment and experience in Mr. Robinson, the principal farmer in that place. He is now serving the office of overseer for the fourth time. At present there are 40 men and more upon the parish; the average during eight months is 25. Part of this arises from farmers living at Willingham and Swavesey, occupying about one-fifth of Over parish; these persons employ none but Willingham and Swavesey labourers; it arises also in part from the growing indifference to private employment generated by the system of parish relief. A man with a wife and four children is entitled to 10s. and more from the parish for doing nothing; by working hard in private employ he could only earn 12s., and the difference probably he would require in additional sustenance for himself; consequently all motive to seek work vanishes. Coming into office this year, Mr. Robinson found 12 married men on the box, some of the best men in the parish; he knew they could get work if they chose at that time; he set them to work digging a piece of land of his own at 3d. a rod; they earned that week only about 7s. 6d. each, though they might have earned 12s.; and the next week they disappeared to a man. He complains bitterly of the obstruction given to these exertions by the decisions of the magistrates; they are always against him, and he regrets some unpleasant words spoken to him very lately by one of the bench. On one occasion he had refused payment of their money to some men who would not keep their proper hours of work upon the road; they complained to the bench at Cambridge, and beat him as usual, and returned to Over, wearing favours in their hats and button-holes; and in the evening a body of them collected in front of his house, and shouted in triumph.

"Mr. Robinson's evidence having brought me once more to the subject of the magistracy, I will take the opportunity of saying, that one disastrous effect of the general mal-administration is to prevent many gentlemen, the most eligible in respect of understanding and ability, from joining the body, or from acting with them in the general business of the petty sessions. I could mention, were it not perhaps invidious, the names of several persons whom I know to have been so influenced, and whose services have been lost to the side of good sense and propriety. Another cause of monopoly of the parochial business in the most objectionable hands is, the power which the paupers have of choosing their own tribunal. It was said by a farmer the other day, of a most excellent and benevolent gentleman in this county, 'We,' (meaning the parish) 'could afford to give him 100l. a year, sir, if he would consent not to act.' Another anecdote communicated to me at Gamlingay is also pretty much to the point. The overseer there told me, that a few days ago he had a difference with several of the paupers about their parish pay, when they summoned him before a magistrate who lives about six miles off. On the day of their attendance there, something prevented the case being heard, and they all returned to Gamlingay together. In passing the house of another magistrate, about two miles from home, the overseer said, 'Now, my lads, here we are close by; I'll give you a pint of beer each if you'll come and have it settled at once, without giving me any more trouble about it.' The proposal was rejected without hesitation. I merely mention this to show that paupers have their preferences, and that they consider it important to abide by them.

"I shall only make one more observation on this subject. It is in vain for the magistrate to represent the difficulty of his situation, in cases where he sees the pauper does not deserve relief, but where it is also clear that he is in destitute circumstances. 'True,' say they, 'the man is a bad character, and he ought to have saved his money; but then you know, overseer, he must not starve.' There is no difficulty in the situation whatever; the overseer requires neither magistrate nor ghost to tell him that the man must not starve; he has human feelings like the magistrate, and he is also liable to be indicted for cruelty in the discharge of his office; therefore why not let him use his discretion, and abide the consequences? particularly when, after all and in spite of the order of relief, he may still misuse the man at the peril only of the like punishment. It remains, however, to be observed, that were parish officers left to their own discretion, there would probably be found very few who, like Mr. Robinson, would apply themselves with zeal and vigilance to the reduction of the parish expenses; the greater part have seemed to me but too happy to waive the trouble of a strict administration, and to shift from themselves to the magistracy the heavy responsibility of the parochial extravagance and ruin. Resistance to the demands of the bold and turbulent is seldom attempted, on the plea that the magistrates cannot be depended on for their support in such cases; while, on the other hand, the true objects of the charity, the helpless and impotent, are sometimes so harshly treated, as to justify that interference by the magistrate in their behalf, which makes the overseer's excuse in the former cases. By the joint operation of these two ill-assorted functions, mischief is progressing with a fearful rapidity."*125


"In the case of appeals to individual magistrates," says Captain Chapman, "I found that the usual course of proceeding was to send the applicant back with a note to the overseer, desiring that the matter might be inquired into, and, if not satisfactorily arranged, that both parties would attend at the house of the magistrate at a time named.

"This, the most mild mode of exercising the power vested in the magistrates, was open to the objections of being influenced by the peculiar views of each individual, of reducing the inquiry into a statement on the part of the pauper, and a counter statement on the part of the overseer, and of thus tending to render the decision of the vestry of no avail. The result of this course was generally conclusive, so that instances of summonses were very rare.

"In the cases which were brought before the petty sessions which I attended, great pains were taken by the magistrates to get at the truth; but here again the question degenerated into a statement and counter statement, unsupported by any evidence or document, so that the bench, with every desire to do justice, had not the power to do so. The leaning in the spectators was decidedly in favour of the pauper; the magistrates considered themselves as the protectors of the poor, and whatever were the demerits or merits of the case, that they were equally bound to prevent the parties from starving; the overseers were looked upon as almost devoid of the feelings of humanity, and the tendency was still more decidedly to render the decisions of the vestry of no avail. Every appeal gained by the pauper was looked upon as a triumph over the overseers and vestry, and this feeling, in some cases, was participated in by the labouring classes in general. At St. Petherton, near Taunton, for instance, I was informed that on a recent occasion a pauper, who had gained his point, returned throwing his hat into the air, hurraing and cheering, and that he was joined by many others, who conducted him in triumph to his home; but cases in which this feeling was so decidedly expressed are, I believe, of rare occurrence, although its existence was universally complained of by the overseers.

"The effect upon the vestries, I was led to believe, was, to cause many respectable persons to refrain from attending, and to have even caused many select vestries to have been given up; the members leaving the overseers to 'fight it out with the pauper and magistrates.'

"The duty which has been thus imposed upon the magistracy appeared to place them in a situation of peculiar difficulty. In almost every parish a proportion of idle and worthless are to be found, who are a constant source of trouble and of complaints; whatever may be their character, the magistrate has no power to punish unless a regular complaint is made by the overseers for the special purpose, and whatever may have been their previous earnings, he must prevent the pauper from starving. In the rural districts, where there are no workhouses, there are no means of control, and the only resource is work, or, where the family is numerous, pecuniary assistance, in addition. If the industrious, by any chance beyond their control, are reduced to the necessity of applying for relief, the only means of marking a distinction in character is by making a difference in the amount of relief; this leads to all the inconveniences of difference in opinion, and places the magistrates not only in collision with the vestry, but in an invidious and false position as regards each other.

"In most cases a sum, considered as a minimum on which a person can live (1s. 6d. per week), is the guide in ordering relief; but although a bench may have agreed upon this, they have no security that each individual member will adhere to it; so that the efforts of the experienced and the decision of the bench may be frustrated by the views of a mistaken, weak, or a designing man. This was frequently complained of, and thus forcibly expressed by a magistrate of long standing and experience:—

" 'Great difficulties in the administration of the Poor Laws arise out of the power which one magistrate has of ordering relief arbitrarily; and one good effect of the Select Vestry Act is, that it limits the application for relief and the complaint of the pauper to two justices; for let a man's intentions be ever so good, he is subject to passions, and often errs when he acts alone; but where a second magistrate is present, his conduct and judgment will be more cautious and deliberate. The effect of this I have remarked even in men of the best intentions; but in the case of unprincipled or popularity-hunting magistrates, or of a weak and over-liberal dispenser of his neighbour's money, the evil of intrusting the power of giving relief at all to one magistrate is most apparent.

" 'If two or ten magistrates of a division agree to act in unison or with vigour on the subject of relief to the poor, more especially the idle and dissolute poor, and one black sheep in that division, one popularityhunter, chooses, he may thwart and destroy the effect of their endeavours, and perhaps they may get their stacks burnt about them for their hard-heartedness, or rather, I should say, integrity and principle.

" 'I have often been threatened by paupers, to whom I have refused relief, that they would go to a neighbouring justice who was always kind to the poor; and I have had occasion to write to that justice on the subject, and to endeavour to stop his interference after I had refused relief. This is one of the crying evils of the Poor Laws.'"*126


"The greatest evil of which I am aware, is the facility with which every plan of the vestry or overseer is brought into question on the complaint of the pauper, who selects a kind and often inconsiderately liberal magistrate as his patron."*127


These extracts apply to country parishes. In towns, and above all, in the metropolis, the number of cases which require investigation, and the difficulty of obtaining information where everybody is lost in the general crowd, renders the jurisdiction of the magistrates with respect to relief still more objectionable. The evidence, of which the following is an extract, was collected by Mr. Chadwick, respecting the district within the jurisdiction of the Worship-street office; and its value is much increased by its having been subsequently read over to Mr. Benett, the magistrate principally complained of, and his replies and comments being inserted.

"EVIDENCE of Mr. Heritage, Chief Clerk of the Magistrates at Worship-street.

"With regard to applications for summonses against parish officers for refusing to grant relief, I may state, that summonses are granted indiscriminately upon application at our office. When the parish officers attend upon the summonses, relief is ordered almost as indiscriminately. We have constantly fine, hale, hearty-looking young men applying for relief.

"I have known an officer sent with as many as twenty paupers in a day, with an order to see them relieved. It was not sufficient that the officer left the paupers with the overseer; he was enjoined by Mr. Benett to see them relieved, and if there was no overseer to be found, he was directed to relieve them out of his own pocket, the magistrate promising that he would undertake that the overseer should reimburse him the next day. This has been a practice for several years; it has occurred most frequently on Saturdays. Now the parish officers frequently attend, to render these steps unnecessary.

"Mr. Benett.—This is generally on the Saturday night, when the overseer has neglected to attend; of course, it would not be done when the overseer is present.

"To-day three hearty young women, from eighteen to twenty years of age, applied for relief; summonses were granted them without any inquiry. I mentioned this case to Mr. Twyford, but he seemed to think we had no discretion.

"The Act now allows only one magistrate to interfere in cases of 'urgent necessity;' but they deem all cases to be of urgent necessity, for the summonses are uniformly ordered by one magistrate."


"EXAMINATION of Mr. John Othen, Office-keeper at the Public Office, Worship street.
[Has been in office eighteen or nineteen years.]

"I generally have to make out the summonses granted at the instance of paupers against parish officers who have refused them relief. Of late years the applicants have greatly increased in number as well as badness of character; in badness of character particularly.

"I should think that there are, upon an average, thirty paupers receiving summonses daily. A very large proportion of these paupers are Irish, in St. Luke's parish especially. I think that there are more females amongst the applicants. I see the same characters constantly; from their dress and deportment I know a large proportion of them to be prostitutes. Every day we have a proportion of not less than ten of this description amongst the applicants from the various parishes. They invariably have summonses when they apply, and say that the overseers have refused to give them relief. Their cant name for the parish money is, 'their reg'lars;' this is 6d. a day for each person, male or female; this is the allowance which the magistrates stipulate that they should have from the parish.

"Amongst the males who apply for relief are a number of able and hearty young fellows, who are vagabonds at large, and who will not work so long as they can get a sixpence from the parish. Their general object is the allowance of 6d. a day. I believe that there are many of these men who make out their living by petty depredation.

"We have had it happen that, after their cases have been heard, and relief has been ordered to them, but when it has not been quite so much as expected, they have threatened to 'serve out the overseer,' and the paupers have waited outside the office in clusters, each encouraging the others, and waiting for their respective parish officers. If the beadle happens to be in waiting, he conducts the overseer home; but where the beadle has not been present, the overseer has applied to the magistrate for protection, and an officer has accompanied him home. In some instances, however, the beadle is not sufficient, and additional protection is required. The magistrates have so little knowledge of people of this class of life, that they cannot see what is seen by us who know more of them.

"Mr. Benett.—That is natural enough. The magistrates can hardly be expected to know so much of this class of persons as those who mix with them, and converse with them, and overhear them.

"In cases where the parish officer suspects that the applicant, being a strong hearty man, might obtain employment, or that he has employment or means of subsistence, is it usual for the magistrate to postpone the case, to give the parish officers an opportunity of investigating the case?—No. The magistrate says, 'This man swears he is in want of subsistence, and you must give him relief; if you hereafter find out that he has the means of subsistence, bring him before us, and we will punish him.'

"Mr. Benett.—This relief is only for the exigency of the moment, and not permanent. This relief is never permanent, but only day by day, as the exigency occurs.

"In the great majority of cases, the oath of the pauper is conclusive.

"It frequently, constantly occurs, that the applicants for relief inquire who is sitting. If it is one magistrate, they will say, 'We will go away, we shall get nothing.' If another sits, they say, 'Oh, that will do; we will stay.' They make themselves acquainted with the character of particular magistrates, and their decisions, and know them well. It is the class of paupers who come the most frequently, the young and ablebodied, who make this application. It is with the most humane magistrate that the worst class of paupers succeed best. I have known them go away, when they found that this magistrate was not in the way."


"EXAMINATION of Mr. John Coste, Relieving Overseer of St. Leonard, Shoreditch.

"IN consequence of the practice which one magistrate (Mr. Benett) has pursued at Worship-street Police-office, I do believe that if that magistrate had the undivided control, it would be impossible for our parishioners to pay the rates.

"Mr. Benett.—My practice is invariably this. When the pauper applies for relief, the first question put to him is, 'Do you live in the parish?' The second question is, 'Have you asked the overseer for relief, and been refused? If the answers are in the affirmative, I grant a summons. If the overseer does not appear to the summons, and the pauper applies again, I ask if he has given the overseer the summons. If the answer is again in the affirmative, I grant a second summons, with a recommendation in the margin, that immediate relief may be given to the pauper: it is only a recommendation. If the second summons is not attended to, and the pauper applies the third time, I ask him if he has given the second summons to the overseer, and if the answer is still in the affirmative, I send an order of 6d. a day for an adult, and 3d. a day for a child, for seven days, the Act of the 59 Geo. III. c. 12, s. 5, empowering me to make an order for fourteen days, or until the next petty sessions, where there is no select vestry. The order is served on the overseer by one of the officers of the establishment, who keeps a copy. This is my general practice; but, in case of urgent distress, I send a summons, with the recommendation of 'immediate relief' in the margin, by an officer, and also on the Saturday night, when the overseer does not appear to a previous summons.

"His practice is, without swearing the parties as to whether they have applied for relief, to grant summonses to all who choose to apply for them, and who choose to say that they are in need.

"Mr. Benett.—That is true, and that practice must be continued. The pauper must have his case heard.

"There is usually the following nota bene affixed to these summonses:—

('N.B. It is requested by the sitting Magistrate that this pauper may be immediately relieved.

(Signed with the Magistrate's initials.)...W.B.')

"Mr. Benett.—This is the second summons, except in a case of urgent distress, and then an officer is sent with the summons, to explain the nature of the case to the overseer, who can appear before the magistrate, if he chooses to object, it not being an order.

"It is generally a mere matter of form for the pauper to say he has had no victuals that day, when the nota beneis at once attached.

"Mr. Benett.—The recommendation is not an order, and the overseer can answer that nota beneif he likes, he not having answered the summons. It is, in fact, a caution to him, equivalent to saying, 'That if you do not appear, and show cause why you do not relieve the pauper, an order will be granted.'

"It is very rare that any investigation into the real case of the pauper is made before this order is given.

"Mr. Benett.—Who is to be examined; the pauper alone, who will make good his own case, or the overseer, who refuses to appear and state his case before the magistrates, which refusal has occasioned the order to be made? The examination of forty or fifty paupers would consume from three to four hours, at three or five minutes each person, which at the office of Worship-street, where there are occasionally upwards of seventy persons committed for trial in a month, and where the great variety of other business presses so severely on the magistrates' time, that the office is frequently kept open until six o'clock in the evening, and the business resumed again at seven in the evening.

"Since June, 1831, I have received from the magistrates of this office about 590 summonses. Of these there were from—

"In the year 1827, I had as many as fifty names on one summons, on one day, from Mr. Benett, and I venture to say, that of these above thirty were bad characters, prostitutes, and thieves, who ought not to be relieved at all.

"Mr. Benett.—This is a proof of the justice of my complaint of the immense masses of paupers brought from the parish of Shoreditch before the magistrates of Worship-street. Many of these paupers ought to have been relieved without the intervention of the magistrates. In this instance, he says that thirty of the fifty were bad characters, who ought not to have been relieved. Why were not the twenty who were notbad characters relieved without the intervention of the magistrates; and were the cases of the thirty individuals objected to inquired into by the officer before the cases were brought before the magistrate? I do not think that the character of a pauper, if he is in distress, can be taken into consideration; for the Poor Laws were not established as a reward for good conduct, but as a provision for the person in immediate distress, and a person just discharged from the house of correction, or a prostitute, is as much entitled to relief as the most respectable pauper in the parish, because the principle of the English Poor Law is, that no one shall starve; therefore the magistrates are obliged to order relief to bad characters as well as good, if they are incapable of supporting themselves. If you refuse to persons who are bad characters relief when they are in immediate distress, the collective result must be very injurious to the best interests of society.

"All this troop, about fifty persons, came to my door, with an officer at the head of them, demanding immediate relief on the magistrate's order. "I said, 'No I cannot think of letting the parish be robbed in this way; I shall attend the summons this night at the office.' I did attend, and stated to Mr. Benett that I should insist on the whole of those fifty cases being gone into separately before I gave any money.

"Mr. Benett.—To examine into these cases of fifty paupers, at five minutes per case, would take four hours and ten minutes, which is impossible to be done, and unnecessary, inasmuch as it was the duty of the overseer to have inquired into the cases himself, and relieved the deserving, and rejected the undeserving.

"He said he was not going to have a vestry-room made of his office. I then handed him up the summons, and said, 'That is your signature, and I am come to answer it.' He then went into two or three of the cases. I think the first or second of these cases was that of a lad named Perkins. One of the officers told me that he knew that this Perkins had been at work that week, and had earned 8s. or 10s. This was proved. I then asked Mr. Benett whether such a lad as this ought to have had a summons, and an order for immediate relief.

"Mr. Benett.—It being Saturday night, and the overseer having neglected to inquire into the cases, it would not do to risk the chance of rejecting really distressed persons, and forcing them to go without relief through the Sunday, or starving until the succeeding Monday.

"Mr. Benett said, no; but that he had no means of inquiring into the cases. The lad was certainly discharged without relief. This lad has since been transported. I had no specific information, and had no means then of obtaining any with respect to the rest, and Mr. Benett having gone through about half a dozen of these cases, I then said to him, seeing him getting very angry at the prospect of a long detention, 'I will take the rest of them into the house.'

"Mr. Benett.—It is the usual practice which prevails now for the overseers to attend at the office on a Saturday night, I may almost say with masses of paupers. I have known 100, for I have had them counted. I have then said to the overseer words to this effect: 'There must be a great many distressed persons deserving of relief in this number; take them out, and relieve those who are deserving of relief, and bring back those whom you object to, and I will hear them separately;' and this has been frequently done by Mr. Coste. On these occasions I have sat at the office till ten and eleven o'clock at night. From the refusal of the overseers to relieve the paupers, and from their inattention to the summonses, such inconveniences constantly occur on a Saturday night.

"Myself and the beadle then went away, followed by the train of paupers, for on Saturday nights I find it necessary to take one or two beadles with me for personal security. The paupers used excessively bad language to us, and as they passed by-streets on the road to the workhouse, they slunk away, until at the workhouse, I think, we had only ten or a dozen, who chose to come in and accept the bread, for the want of which they declared to the magistrate they were starving at the time they first applied for immediate relief.

"Mr.Benett.—This is very probable; but how is the magistrate to help that, if, upon the investigation in the office, the pauper succeeds in his imposition? It is the duty of the overseer to inquire into the cases of the paupers, and he might come prepared with the evidence to prove the fraud.

"We frequently make the experiment of taking the applicants into the house with much the same results; but it by no means follows that when they are willing to go into the house they are deserving characters. They frequently get a magistrate's order to get into the house—

"Mr. Benett.—This cannot be; the magistrate has by law no power to order the parties into the house.

"But are no recommendations given which the overseers may call orders?

"Perhaps he means by an order, a recommendation. We often recommend the overseer to admit the parties into the house, but the law gives us no power to order.

"—for the purpose of getting clothed, and then escaping with the clothes; and very commonly, when they escape with their clothes, they sell them."


"OBSERVATIONS of W. Benett, Esq.

"From the injurious practice of the overseers of some of the parishes in the district of Worship-street, and particularly of the parish of Shoreditch, of refusing to relieve their poor, many of whom are deserving characters and in immediate distress, without the intervention of the magistrates, great numbers of their paupers apply daily at the office for summonses; if they are asked whether they have been to the overseer, such reports are frequently made by them of the answers of one of them to the applications, and so offensive, as far as they regard the magistrates, that they are often obliged to check them in their replies; and this completely puts an end to all confidence of the magistrates in that overseer, who once gave such an answer to an officer of the establishment who was sent with a pauper and an order for immediate relief, which was not obeyed.

"I have known an instance of another overseer of Shoreditch, appearing before meat the office at Worship-street, and in the presence of 105 paupers, who were counted, when I remonstrated with him, and desired him to relieve such as were in real distress, and bring those he objected to before me, declaring that he cared not for me or the law, and that he would not relieve one of them. I then proceeded to make an order in each individual case, when he stepped forward, and as each order was made, said, 'I will relieve him,' (or 'her,') and so continued throughout the whole number, converting by these means the magistrate into a relieving overseer, and the office into a vestryroom, and I did not finish this painful and unnecessary task till 11 o'clock that night."


No one can read Mr. Benett's evidence without being convinced of the excellence of his intentions; and our following remarks are directed not against him individually, but against the system, of which he is one among many administrators. It appears that he considers every adult within his district entitled, merely on his own showing, to 6d. a day from the public, unless the overseer can show cause to the contrary. The 59 Geo. III. c. 12, empowers a single magistrate, in case of emergency and urgent distress, to order such relief as the case may require, stating in his order the circumstances of the case. The Act throws on the magistrate the onus probandi; he is not only to ascertain that the party is in urgent distress, but he is to state in his order the circumstances of the case; that is, the nature of the urgent distress which has been proved to him. His practice, and it appears from other parts of the evidence to be a common practice, is to throw on the overseer the onus probandi; not to require the applicant to prove that he is in urgent distress, but the overseer to prove that he is not. The overseer, generally a person fully occupied by his own concerns, is to show this on a day's notice, with respect perhaps to fifty persons, scattered among the hundreds of thousands of this metropolis. "His practice," says the overseer of St. Leonard's, "is to grant summonses to all who choose to apply for them, and who choose to sav they are in need." "That is true," replies Mr. Benett, "and that practice must be continued." "It is very rare," says the overseer, "that any investigation into the real case of the pauper is made before the order is given." "The examination," replies Mr. Benett, "of forty or fifty paupers would consume from three to four hours at three or five minutes each person." This might be a ground for altering the law, and for enabling a justice to order relief without inquiring whether it is such as the case may require, and without stating in his order the circumstances of the case, or it might be a ground for the magistrate's refusing to interfere, and leaving the overseer to exercise the discretion which the law throws upon him; a discretion, for the exercise of which he alone is responsible; but while the law remains unchanged, it is no ground for ordering the applicant relief without investigation, on the plea that, if the overseer thereafter finds that he had the means of subsistence, the magistrate will punish him; punishment of which we do not find a single example. "I stated," says the overseer, "that I should insist on the whole of the cases being gone into before I gave any money." Mr. Benett—"To examine into these cases of fifty paupers, at five minutes per case, would take four hours and ten minutes; which is impossible to be done." To examine into them satisfactorily would probably have taken fifty or a hundred hours; and there cannot be a clearer proof of the necessity of returning to the words and the spirit of the law. When the 3 and 4 Will. And Mary, c. 11, enacted, that no person should receive relief except those whom the vestry should think fit and allow, but by authority of a justice of the peace; when the 9 Geo. I. c. 7, enacted, that no justice should order relief until oath should be made before him of some matter which he should judge to be a reasonable ground; when the 59 Geo. III. c. 12, s. 5, directed that in every order the special cause for granting the relief thereby ordered should be expressly stated; and when the liability of the overseer to an indictment for not affording necessary relief without a previous order, was carefully continued, and not a single Act requires the justice to make an order, who can doubt that the power given to the justice was a power to be regulated by a sound discretion, to be enforced only when he was convinced that the balance of evil was on the side of non-interference, and convinced by a careful examination of the facts of the case,—an examination so complete as to enable him to state them in his order?


The unquestionable fact, that sufficient inquiry cannot be made when fifty cases are to be decided on in an evening, proves only that the Legislature did not intend that the jurisdiction of the justice should form part of the routine of the administration of the Poor Laws. It was to be exercised in case of emergency. If its exercise is to be habitual, every populous parish must have its peculiar magistrate, as well as its peculiar overseers. On no other grounds can we explain why the justices are required to take into consideration the character and conduct of the applicant; a duty which is not enforced on the overseer. The justices are at liberty to interfere or not. The overseer has no such discretion. If he has suffered a man to starve, it is no defence that the applicant starved, only because such was his character and conduct that he could obtain no work, and he was unsuccessful in stealing. As he is not to be influenced by the character of the applicant, he is not directed to ascertain it.


The magistrates are to take it into consideration. For what purpose? That they may order to persons of good character more relief than is strictly necessary? Whatever may be the errors of our pauper legislation, it has stopped short of this. Necessary relief is all that the justices can order to the most meritorious applicant. How, then, are they to deal with the undeserving? Are they to consider their conduct, and then act precisely as if they had not considered it? The only conceivable construction of the Act is, that if they think the character and conduct of the applicant such as to render their interference inexpedient, they are to leave the matter in the hands of the overseer. The whole of the evidence shows how little this has been understood.


Our Appendix contains many complaints of the conduct of magistrates. It is to be observed, that much of this is ex parte evidence, which the persons complained of had no opportunity of contradicting or explaining, and that the overseers, from whom it was principally derived, may be supposed to have been anxious that the blame of mal-administration should rest on any persons but themselves. It must be acknowledged, however, that in so large a body as the magistracy of England and Wales, invested with powers so extensive and so uncontrolled, cases of misconduct must from time to time arise. Admitting, as we are anxious to admit, the general integrity and intelligence of the magistracy, and the importance of their services in the administration of justice, we yet cannot doubt that there are to be found among more than two thousand persons some exceptions to the general character. But we believe these exceptions to be rare, and that in a great majority of instances—so great as to form the general rule—the magistrates have exercised the powers delegated to them by the Poor Laws—not wisely, indeed, or beneficially, but still with benevolent and honest intentions, and that the mischief which they have done was not the result of self-interest or partiality, or timidity or negligence, but was, in part, the necessary consequence of their social position, and of the jurisdiction which was confided to them, and in part arose from the errors respecting the nature of pauperism and relief which prevailed among all classes at the time when the allowance system and the scale were first introduced, and still appear to prevail among the majority. Under the influence of such opinions even good intentions may become mischievous. A more dangerous instrument cannot be conceived, than a public officer, supported and impelled by benevolent sympathies, armed with power from which there is no appeal, and misapprehending the consequences of its exercise.


We have now given a brief outline of the most striking points in the present mal-administration of the laws for the relief of the poor, and of the principal causes to which we attribute it. We have endeavoured to account for it by the immediate gain which large classes have hoped to obtain, and in many cases have actually obtained from that mal-administration, and from the constitution and character of the authorities by whom parochial relief is distributed and awarded. There remains, however, one source of evil which has been alluded to in our previous remarks, but never distinctly stated; and that is, the evil which has arisen, and is arising, from the law which throws the burthen of relieving the pauper, in the first place, on those who occupy property in the district in which he is said to be settled. We will preface our account of them by a short history of the Law of Settlement.

Notes for this chapter

Mr. Walcott's Report from North Wales, App. (A.) Part II.
Mr. Majendie's Report from Sussex, App. (A.) Part I. p. 180.
Captain Chapman's Report from Somerset, Cornwall, and parts of Devon, Gloucester, and Wilts, App. (A.) Part I. p. 476, 477.
Mr. Whipple, overseer of St. James, Clerkenwell, App. (A.) Part I. p. 62.
Mr. Wilkes, assistant clerk and overseer of St. Andrew, Holborn-above-Bars, and St. George the Martyr, App. (A.) Part I. p. 70.
Mr. Nicholson, overseer of Wandsworth, App. (A.) Part I. p. 71.
Mr. Codd's Report on the Western Division of the Metropolis, App. (A.) Part I. p. 73.
Mr. Chadwick's Report, Evidence of Mr. Brushfield, of Spitalfields, App. (A.) Part II.
Mr. Majendie's Report from Sussex, App. (A.) Part I. p. 182.
Captain Pringle's Report from Hants, App. (A.) Part I. p. 291.
Major Wylde's Report from Lincoln, App. (A.) Part II.
Mr. Majendie's Report from Sussex App. (A.) Part I. p. 201.
Mr. Power's Report from Cambridge, App. (A.) Part I. p. 245.
Mr. Stuart's Report from Suffolk, App. (A.) Part I. p. 350-381.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 14.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 556.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 476.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 72.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 151.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 168.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 264.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 280.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 326.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 350.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 413.
App. (A.) Part I.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 685.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 665.
App. (A.) Part II.
The Questions numbered 33, 34, and 35 of the Rural Queries, and 10, 11, and 12 of the Town Queries.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 168.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 181.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 209.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 232.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 249.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 297.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 335.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 351.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 478.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 681.
App. (C).
Mr. Chadwick, App. (A.) Part II.
App. (B. 1.) p. 224 c.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 479.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 481.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 129.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 239.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 780.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 182.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 558.
Eden, vol. i. p. 575.
Eden, vol. i. p. 582.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 546.
App. (A.) Part II. p. 14.
House of Commons' Report on Poor Laws, 1817, pages 110, 111, 113.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 1.
Extracts, p. 228. App. (A.) Part II.
App. (A.) Part II. p. 16.
Extracts, p. 233.
Extracts, p. 235.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 168.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 252.
App. (A.) Part I. p. 474.
App. (B. I.) Question 44, Answer by Mr. Portman, Blandford Division, Dorset, p. 137 d.

Part I, Section 6

End of Notes

10 of 17

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