‘The Treatment of the Poor.’ by A Christian Democrat (7 February, 1880)

The following is an editorial that appeared in the ‘People’s Journal’ under the name ‘A Christian Democrat’. Here the topic tackled is the impact of Gladstone’s Education Act, their positive impact and how it can be improved upon. This was prompted by the publication of a book on vagrancy in Scotland by a former Sheriff of Aberdeen William Watson. Vagrancy was an issue which preoccupied contemporary liberal commentators, perhaps disproportionately. Vagrancy symbolised everything which the ‘People’s Journal’ sought to eradicate from the working class of Scotland through their doctrine of self-improvement.

Sir,—The Education Act of Mr Gladstone’s Government has already done much good, but it does not yet reach that class fully for whose benefit it was chiefly designed. The way in which the Poor Law is being administered in many parishes is rapidly increasing vagrancy, and thousands of uneducated children are growing up a curse to themselves and a burden to society. I argued at the time that the land of the country ought to have borne a far larger proportion of the school rate. The ratepayers were taxed at the expense of the landowners. They ought to have been forced to provide far better schools. The great expense of the recent Act is the best proof that they were neglecting their duty. Now, not content with taking the school teind as a bribe to let the Education Bill pass, they are in Parochial Boards forcing the poor literally upon the parish. Sheriff Watson, of Aberdeen, in a recent ale pamphlet* tells us that vagrancy is rapidly increasing in Scotland. In 1873 the number of vagrants in Scotland was 40,678. In 1878 they had increased to 54,236. The indignant Sheriff traces this largely to the selfishness of Parochial Boards, who are encouraged by the Board of Supervision to refuse all outdoor relief, and to apply the Poorhouse test rigidly. I do not deny that in certain eases the Poorhouse test is valuable, but it is often applied so as to decrease pauperism only to increase vagrancy. The Education Act is fitted to deal with the evil. Children move from place to place; they cannot be got at, not kept at school. Sheriff Watson argues that while children of working people are well provided for, the very poor are, in some respects, worse off than before the passing of the Education. Subscriptions can hardly now be got for ragged schools. People are so assessed that they refuse to give to voluntary schools for the neglected. Even criminal children, the Sheriff tells us, are better cared for than are the children of the very poor. Reformatories are supported by Government aid, stylish schools are built for the children of the ratepayers, but the “mitherless bairn,” the forgotten poor, are flouted at the doors of the Parochial Board, and flung out to wander over the country as vagrants and beggars.

Besides losing their education, the Sheriff goes on to show that they are never trained to work. The skilful workman, be his labour ever so hard, has a pleasure in it, but boys who have never learned any handicraft hate work. The only work they have ever got to do has been in Poorhouses or the like, and work has never been to them anything but repulsive. In this way a large class grow up injuring the moral tone of the working population and increasing the dangerous classes. I think that in rural parishes especially far more attention ought to be paid by the people to the administration of the Poor Law. If a Chairman does happen to be a man of sense and humanity the poor will be cared for, but if he is a selfish man, bent only on lessening the rates and decreasing pauperism, he will refuse all outdoor relief and flout the poor. Pauperism will of course diminish, but vagrancy—a far worse evil—will rapidly increase. I do hope that the new County Reform Bill will not much longer be delayed, and that the whole administration of the Poor Law will be placed upon a more popular basis.

In not a few parishes houses are allowed to go to decay, and labourers forced to walk miles to their work, lest their families gain a settlement. Cruel wrong is being done in this way, and it is very difficult to get the evil stopped. Electors in cities do not know the sufferings of the poor in rural districts, and the county franchise is so high that a whole suffering class are dumb and helpless. Sheriff Watson shows clearly how a great commercial disaster, when not properly met, depresses the moral tone of a whole district. He instances Aberdeen, and shows that when the workman and his family get out of work and lose hope they go rapidly down.

The conclusions to which Sheriff Watson arrives are—First, the administration of the Poor Law should be more generous and discriminating, so that vagrancy may not be increased even if pauperism is diminished. Second, that Industrial Schools are still required, and that many children would require a good “square meal” as well as good education. That all children should, if at all possible, be sent home to their own houses when school is over—be they ever so poor. He speaks with knowledge and from experience on this subject, having seen the great benefits of this in Aberdeen. Thirdly, he is wishful to direct attention to the great importance of learning young people to work, so that labour may become a pleasure to them and not a repulsive slavery.

I am surprised that the learned Sheriff does not dwell upon the immense advantages of the half-time clauses of the Factory Acts. These, wherever wrought with spirit, produce amazing results among the very class he is so anxious to reach. I think he has said enough to suggest inquiry into the management of many Poorhouses. I fear these houses are places where we deposit the moral refuse of society in one festering heap. I press also on all who have power not to send children to these places at all. Send them to board in the houses of country people, however poor; send them to Canada to be adopted by farmers, but do not send them to Poorhouses.

Sir, I invite the more intelligent of our working men to consider this whole question. They know this subject far better than middle-class people possibly can. They come into close contact with the poor; they know their wants, their sufferings, and their needs. I call upon them to make the administration of the Poor Laws their study, and to prevent them from being so managed as to increase vagrancy and in a cruel way to force the honest and worthy poor to associate in Poorhouses with the debased, the morally diseased, the obscene and the profane. The country is indebted to Sheriff Watson for his lifelong labours in the elevation of the down-trodden, and he is entitled to our warmest thanks for this timely, earnest, sagacious paper on a subject with which he is so well able to deal.

A Christian Democrat.

*Vagrancy in Scotland: Its Causes and Cure. By William Watson. W.S. ex-Sheriff of Aberdeen. Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons.

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