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

‘Political Oppression in the Counties’ by A Christian Democrat (17 January, 1880)

The following is an editorial that appeared in the ‘People’s Journal’ under the name ‘A Christian Democrat’. This powerful attack on the undemocratic actions of Conservative parliamentary candidates and the established church’s failure to mobilise voters appeared in the buildup to the 1880 general election. Readers were urged to go to the polls, high turnout was the way to defeat the Conservative government of Disraeli. Perhaps the most interesting passage is the attack on the government’s wars in Southern Africa and Afghanistan (the infamous battle of Isandlwana would still have been in the minds of many).

“How will our missionaries look the people of India in the face as messengers of peace on earth and goodwill to men now? How will they go to Zululand with the Gospel? We have ravaged the homes of the people, sent fire and sword into peaceful valleys, and trampled every principle of righteousness under foot, and then we send missionaries to convert the countries we have made desolate with most cruel and unjust war. The voters of Scotland must take this responsibility. If they wish an end put to this kind of policy they must come as Christian men to the poll, and send men to Parliament who will demand with authority that all this shall be changed.”

The 1880 election saw victory for Gladstone’s Liberals, and a reduction in the Tory vote in Scotland (winning just 6 of 58 seats, down from 18 in 1874).

To the Editor of the People’s Journal.

Sir,—I appeal to the people. No abuse, however powerfully defended, can resist the will of the people. A great crime is being done, a cruel wrong, under the protection of the law, is being inflicted, and there is no helper. I invoke the indignation of a people who love justice and hate oppression. In all our counties some proprietors of the soil are forcing the very best men and women to leave their homes or to violate their conscience. In Perthshire, for example, the Earl of Mansfield is inflicting most cruel wrong on a population whose only fault is their liberal opinions. Here are two facts:—In 1843 on the Logie-Almond estate there were 87 cottagers belonging to the Established Church. In 1878 only 23 remained. Of the twenty-one men who voted for Mr Parker in 1868 only four now remain on the estate. Sir, I accuse the noble Earl of a deliberate attempt to violate the Constitution. I denounce him as a setter of class against class, as a destroyer of that happy and cordial relationship which should exist between laird and tenant. I ask for Parliamentary inquiry. The House of Commons is insulted and its privileges and rights violated y this Earl, who uses the rights of property in this unrighteous way. Noble Christian men are banished from the homes of their fathers; families are torn up and flung houseless upon the world; men are forced to abandon their lawful calling—all for purely political honesty. They have committed no crimes; they have only exercised the rights put into their hands by Parliament. Sir, I call on Parliament to defend these honest men, who are punished for doing honestly the work Parliament gave them to do. Nor is the Earl of Mansfield the sole offender. All over our counties, and in Perthshire particularly, is this cruel and unconstitutional policy being pursued. I warn such violators of the spirit of the law that they shall not escape public censure. But, sir, they care for nothing. Public opinion they defy. They know they are abhorred, and that all honourable men despise their conduct. Parliament must instantly assert its power, and punish these violators of the equitable spirit of our law.

A host of little factors and small country bankers infest our counties. They know every man and his circumstances. If there is a bill to be renewed, if in consequence of bad seasons there is an arrear of rent, if there is any little difficulty perplexing a voter, then is the opportunity of these official oppressors. They have no shame, no delicacy. They come to the voter and simply say—“Now, are you to vote for our candidate? Give me your hand and your word that you will!” In vain the poor man tries to evade a direct reply. His wife, his daughters, his sons see his humiliation and burn with shame and rage. They all know the situation; they belong to the Free Church or the United Presbyterian; they are humbled and distressed. The shameless coward presses his advantage and the vote is promised. In hundreds of homes in Scotland this plan is pursued. And when stalwart noble men, like those at Logie-Almond, declare themselves staunch, out of twenty-one in a few years only four are left—the rest driven helpless from their homes. Sir, you as the editor of the People’s Journal have great influence. I call on you to wield it now. Especially I ask the voters in the villages who have feus to vote to a man against a system like this. I ask the Liberal candidates for burghs to raise this question. I call on the House of Commons to defend its privileges. I ask every honest man to stamp the cruel, cowardly conduct of these petty factors and pompous little bankers with their contempt. I ask Boards of Directors of our great banks to see that their influence and wealth are not used in this degrading oppression.

But, sir, I appeal chiefly to Christian men, who hold aloof from politics. I claim their help. Is Christianity only an affair of prayer meetings and religious observances on Sabbath days? No verily. The other side are organised. The licensed spirit trade to a man vote, and try to influence other voters. Their money interest is at stake, and they unite and make a mighty power, not in towns only but in counties. A languid and fitful opposition will not avail against an organisation like this. I wish to press on Christian men their duty as citizens. In municipal elections and in parliamentary voting I ask them to come to the poll. Men of high character are returned indeed by small majorities against men who are a shame to constituencies, but the majorities are too small—they should be overwhelming. The reason is that good, easy-going men do not trouble themselves to vote. A Scottish man with stuff in him should despise even being sent for or conveyed to the poll. To vote is his duty, his principle, he ought to vote frankly and openly too, giving all the influence he possesses to the side his conscience approves. The real weight of the Christian sentiment of the country is never felt in Parliament. A great statesman like Mr Gladstone requires to be insulted and driven from office before the good men of Britain are roused to take an interest in politics. Sir John Lawrence, and Lord Northbrook, and the Duke of Argyle have all entered their solemn protest against this unrighteous war in India. They have protested in vain. Why in vain? Because Christian men stayed away from the poll at the last election, and said that Whig and Tory had nothing to do with their religion. Sir, these men are responsible for this war. They did not support the right men at the right time, and the affairs of the county have fallen into the hands of men who “go in for gunpowder and glory.” Continue reading “‘Political Oppression in the Counties’ by A Christian Democrat (17 January, 1880)”