Morning Chronicle Labour and the Poor Series Introduction

On the day of the launch of the series of investigations into the working and living conditions of the poor in England and Wales, The Morning Chronicle published an introduction setting out their reasons for undertaking such a vast, unprecedented investigation:⁠—

The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, October 18, 1849.




We publish this day the first of a series of communications, in which it is proposed to give a full and detailed description of the moral, intellectual, material, and physical condition of the industrial poor throughout England. Appearing in an unassuming form, these communications will equal, perhaps surpass, official or Parliamentary reports in impartiality, authenticity, and comprehensiveness. The duty of preparing them has been confided by us to a chosen body of practised writers and thinkers, admirably qualified, by prior knowledge and habits of observation, for their task, who will pursue the investigation on the spot. The metropolis and the provinces, the town and the country, the manufacturing, commercial, maritime, mining, and agricultural population—will be equally included in our plan; and we shall not rest satisfied with a general survey of any given district; for wherever an estate, establishment, or institution shall be thought to present any marked feature of good or bad management, we shall endeavour to put the public in the way of benefiting by the example to the full. We have no reason to doubt that ample facilities will be readily afforded us for the due performance of this portion of the undertaking.

It would be hardly possible to anticipate, and tedious to number up, the several subjects to which this inquiry will extend; but amongst the principal of these may safely be named at once:—the rate of wages, their mode of payment, their fluctuations within living memory: the prices of provisions and other necessaries: the rent of cottages, with the general cost and character of the lodging accommodation of the labourer: the age at which his life of daily toil begins: his ordinary amusements or relaxations: the average duration of health and strength in different employments: the comparative degree of foresight and self-denial in each class, as shown by the numbers receiving parish relief, the tendency to imprudent marriages, and other plain tests: the influence of machinery upon mind and body: the relation between the sexes as modified by varying local habits and modes of living in town and country: and, above all, the grade of intelligence attained by the classes in question, with the religious and political notions they may have contracted, and the amount of instruction they have received.

We do not conceal from ourselves the magnitude of the undertaking, nor do we undervalue the obstacles to its successful achievement by a single journal. But in the course of our earnest endeavours to solve or settle the great social problems of our day, and to ascertain whether any (and what) legislative measures can be adopted to improve the moral and physical condition of the poor, we have been invariably stopped, embarrassed, thrown out, or compelled to pause and turn aside, by the want of trustworthy information as to the facts. And we are convinced, by sorrowful experience, that until this want shall be supplied from some quarter, no effective steps will ever be taken, either in or out of Parliament, by individuals or by the State, with the view of removing or even modifying an evil—the starving or mendicant state of a large portion of the people—which, if suffered to remain unremedied many years longer, will eat, like a dry rot, into the very framework of our society, and haply bring down the whole fabric with a crash.

We will name a few of the many momentous questions which, in the present state of our knowledge, it is impossible to discuss without being reduced to the mere bandying of contradictions.

No man of feeling or reflection can look abroad without being shocked and startled by the sight of enormous wealth and unbounded luxury, placed in direct juxta position with the lowest extremes of indigence and privation. Is this contrast a necessary result of the unalterable laws of nature, or simply the sure indication of an effete social system! Eloquent writers have attributed the whole mischief to the unchecked operation of the competition principle; and fervid orators have railed in good set terms at the wealth-seeking and wealth-accumulating propensities of the age, as if the auri sacra fames was unknown to our ancestors, and will be unfelt by our posterity. The rival school has maintained, with equal heat, that the workman has benefited as much as the capitalist from competition; that to limit accumulation is to paralyse industry; and that to fetter the free development of the national resources, is to aggravate the poverty of the poor. M. Thiers boldly met the assertions of the French Socialists by a comparative statement of wages and prices in 1789, 1814, and 1848.

“The workman (he said) has gained, by reason of this competition (concurrence) so vehemently assailed, two advantages. He is paid more, and he lives cheaper. He is paid more, because machinery is charged with the beast-of-burden kind of work which formerly weighed him down, and because he can devote himself to a work which demands more intelligence. He spends less for his consumption—not on each article, but in the lump.”

The value of this statement would be inestimable, if it could be clearly established and generalised; but we must wait for the projected verification of our statistics before we can venture to cite England as proving or disproving the theory propounded by M. Thiers.

His incidental assumption regarding the effect of machinery, is little less suggestive, and coincides exactly with Mr. Burton’s remark on handloom-weaving, in his excellent essay on “Social and Political Economy:”

“The handloom weaver does not labour, according to the sense in which the term is employed by a people advanced, like our own, in productive enterprise. He works with no more energy than the Hindoo, and yet expects a common share of the produce of the most energetic and productive nation of the world. He does not fulfil the condition necessary to the holding a place in the industrial society to which he professes to belong. While he believes that he is doomed to labour more than other men, and to obtain less, the real calamity of his lot is, that he has never known what true labour is. For if we really and seriously compare it with the other efforts of the human beings around us, it is an abuse of words to call the jerking of a stick from side to side, with a few other uniform motions, by the name of labour. A machine does it, and a machine ought to do it; men were made for higher, more intricate, more daring tasks.”

Is this true of the handloom weavers (computed at 800,000)? Is it true of any other large class? Is a man, a woman, or a child, engaged in watching a machine, or in executing some monotonous work in co-operation with it, not exposed to the same deadening and stupifying process, as if he or she passed ten or twelve successive hours in “jerking a stick” or turning a wheel? Here, again, is a question which nothing short of careful and minute inquiry into the physical and mental condition of the various classes of mechanics can enable us to decide.

The relative advantages of agricultural and manufacturing pursuits is still a moot point. The tone of the landowners is, indeed, a little lowered. Recent revelations regarding the amount of their poor-rates and the condition of their poor, have effectually debarred them from an over-confident recurrence to their old argument in favour of the bread-tax—namely, that this should be upheld to prevent the bulk of the people from being crowded into cities, and exposed to the ruinous uncertainty of employment dependent upon trade. They have been told, not only that average wages are very much higher in Lancashire and the West Riding than in Dorsetshire, Buckinghamshire, and Wiltshire, but that a close room in a town is not a more unhealthy dwelling than many a mud cottage; and that the power of associating for common objects, peculiarly those of an intellectual character, is an advantage only attainable by workpeople living in the immediate neighbourhood of one another. By the time our correspondents have finished their researches, and not before, we may be able to form a shrewd guess which was the most philosophical, or (some might say) the least foolish of two wishes—Mr. Hume’s, that the time might come when not a blade of corn should be grown in Great Britain; or a Protectionist contemporary’s, that the time might come when the grass should grow over the whole of what we call Manchester.

The light our reports will throw upon the working of the Poor-law is sufficiently obvious; and the advocates of the conflicting systems of education will find ample materials for the decision of their quarrel. As to the advocates of popular ignorance, their cause is already lost, without appeal. When the bulk of a nation have been taught to read and write, the only remaining question relates to the sort of mental aliment to be laid before them.

“At the present day (to adopt the eloquent language of Mrs. Austin in her Preface to M. Cousin’s Report) it is not worth while to discuss whether or not national education be a good. It is possible to imagine a state of society in which the labouring man, submissive and contented under some paternal rule, might dispense with any further light than such as nature, uncorrupted by varied wants and restless competition, might afford him. But if that golden age ever existed, it is manifestly gone, in this country at least, for ever. Here, the press is hotter, the strife keener, the invention more alive, the curiosity more awake, the wants and wishes more stimulated by an atmosphere of luxury, than perhaps in any country since the world began. The men who, in their several classes, were content to tread step for step in the paths wherein their fathers trod, are gone. Society is no longer a calm current, but a tossing sea. Reverence for tradition, for authority, is gone. In such a state of things, who can deny the absolute necessity for national education?”

Who, we are further tempted to ask, can deny the absolute necessity of treating such a people like reasoning beings, and of solving, or trying to solve, for their especial benefit, the great social problem of our age, namely, whether anything can safely be attempted by Governments or Legislatures to remove the startling inequalities of wealth and poverty which we see around us; whether, in other words, man can extend a helping hand to his fellow man through the medium of laws or systems, yet neither excite false hopes nor leave the sufferer still further from the rock of self-reliance,—perhaps (religion apart) the only resting-place upon which he can plant his foot, without having a fearful abyss constantly before his eyes and feeling the ground almost hourly crumbling away from under him? This problem, or the train of reasoning suggested by it, really underlies the whole of our proposed inquiry; and it would be in the highest degree perilous to procrastinate the solution (at all events the settlement) of it much longer; for either something must be done by the higher classes for the suffering poor, or the suffering poor must be satisfied that the higher classes can safely do nothing for them.

In the last number of the Edinburgh Review, Lord Melbourne is made to say that he only felt seriously alarmed when told that “something must be done.” The truth is, he was in the habit of expressing a humorous alarm for his own ease on such occasions; but, even in this point of view, he might well feel alarm at the present condition of our poor; and no statesman knew better, that there are periods in national history, when something more is expected from power, wealth, rank, and station, than pure passiveness. Incedit per ignes suppositos cineri doloso; and it matters little whether property is violently assailed by a pauperised and demoralized population, or eaten up by it. We ourselves incline to think that a great deal may be done by an energetic Government and an enlightened Legislature. For example, might they not cleanse and purify the localities inhabited by the lower classes, place pure water and wholesome lodging-houses within their reach, assist those who may desire to emigrate, and elevate all in the scale of human beings through the instrumentality of educational institutions on a more extended plan? But we wish to be understood as not pledging ourselves to so much as an opinion, much less a measure, until our collection of materials shall be completed. As regards these, we would say to our contemporaries⁠—

— Si quid novisti rectius istis,
Candidus imperti, si non, his utere mecum.

We have, we can have, no party purpose in this matter. Our sole object is the elucidation of questions which have embarrassed the wisest and the best. We may fail, as our predecessors in the same aspiring attempt have failed; but we shall most assuredly succeed in making very valuable additions to the general stock of knowledge, in dissipating many dangerous errors, in paving the way for the reception of some important truths, in laying the groundwork of an improved system of government, in promoting a better understanding between rich and poor, and in accelerating the progressive amelioration of mankind.

The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, October 18, 1849.