Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter IV.: PAUPER LIFE. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 3
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Chapter IV.: PAUPER LIFE. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 3 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1832). Vol. 3.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
No one could pass the gates of the workhouse on pay-day without seeing how much misery existed among the claimants of out-door relief; but few could guess, without following these applicants to their homes, how much guilt attended, not only their poverty, but the advancement of their claims;—guilt which would never have been dreamed of unless suggested and encouraged by a system which destroys the natural connexion between labour and its rewards.
Mrs. Bell's husband was now out of work, after having earned and regularly spent twenty-five shillings a week for many months. His third child had died after a long illness, and one which had proved expensive to the parish, from whence this family now derived four and sixpence a week. Mrs. Bell, who always went herself to receive the weekly allowance, lest her husband, through his dislike of tile business, should not “manage it cleverly,” took credit to herself for having given notice that the doctor need not take any more trouble about her poor boy, as he was past hope and nothing more could be done for him; but she omitted to state the reason of his being past hope, (viz., that he was dead,) because it would have been inconvenient to give up the allowance received on his account. So no doctor came to ask awkward questions, and the money was a great comfort indeed. Mrs. Bell had truly managed the whole matter very “cleverly.” She got another blanket, even out of due season, because the boy was apt to be cold at night. The Sick Poor Society allowed her a certain sum weekly as long as the child lived; and two or three kind neighbours gave her leave to call at their houses when they had a wholesome joint for dinner, to carry away a slice and vegetables for the patient; and if all these desired her to call on the same day, she managed to borrow a couple of basins and obey directions; for though the patient could not eat three dinners at a time, nor perhaps even one, there were others in the house who liked savoury meat, and it was only returning their thanks for the “nourishing cordial” in poor Bob's name. Then came the lamentations over the impossibility of burying him decently, and the thanksgivings for a half-crown here and there for the purpose; and then hints about any old rag of black, and the pain to maternal feelings of having no mourning for so dear a child; and the tears at sight of the black stuff gown, and the black silk bonnet, and the black cotton shawl,—all so much too good for her before they were put into her hands, but pronounced rusty, rotten old rubbish when surveyed at home. Then came the commands to the children to say nothing about Bob unless they were asked, and the jealousy of that prying, malicious old widow Pine, who peeped through her lattice a full hour before she should properly have awaked, and just in time to see the coffin carried out of the yard. Lastly came the subtraction of poor Bob's parish allowance from the rest before the money was delivered into her husband's hand. The early waking of widow Pine, and the use she might make of what she saw, no mortal could prevent; but all that devolved upon herself, Mrs. Bell flattered herself that she had “managed very cleverly,”
One day when she was going to the workhouse for her allowance, her husband accompanied her part of the way. Widow Pine was before them in the street, stepping feebly along, supported by a stick in one hand and by the wall on the other side.
“She'll trip over the tatters of her gown,” exclaimed Bell. “Poor old soul! she is not fit to walk the streets,—bent double, and ready to be knocked down by the first push. She will not trouble the parish long.”
“She will die in the streets,” replied his wife, “and with bad words in her mouth. She is for ever prying about people's affairs, and saying malicious things of her neighbours. The old hypocrite! she sits see-sawing herself, and drawling hymns while she combs her grey hair that never was cut, and all the while pricking up her ears for scandal.”
“You and she never had much love to lose,” replied Bell, obeying his wife's motion to cross the street to avoid passing at the widow's elbow. She saw them, however, and sent her well-known piping after them, striking the pavement with her stick, to attract the notice of the passers by.
“I wish you joy of your blue gown, Mrs. Bell! 'Tis no great thing to lose a child that comes to life again every parish pay-day!”
“Never mind the old wretch,” said Bell. “By the by, I have observed you put off your black sometimes. What is it for?”
“The officers are so quick-sighted about a new gown. They might take off some pay if they knew I had a friend that would give me a gown; and it really is a rag not worth disputing about.”
The husband was satisfied, but much annoyed with the abuse that came from over the way.
“I'll crush you, yet!” railed the old woman. “I can, and I will, such a pack of knaves and liars as you are! You'll soon hear from the parish, I warrant you! You'll soon be posted for cheats!”
“I say, goody, hold your foul tongue, or I'll correct you as you little think for,” said Bell.
“You! what harm can you do me, I wonder? —you that are lost, and I a holy person.”
“A holy person! How do you mean holy?” asked Bell, laughing.
“How do you mean holy! Why, sure of heaven, to be sure. I'm sure of heaven, I tell you, and you are lost! God has given me nothing else, for a miserable life I've had of it; but he has given me grace, and is not that enough?”
“You must keep it close locked up somewhere, for never a one found out you had it,” said Mrs. Bell. “I doubt the Talbots that have been so kind to you have never seen much of your grace.”
“Kind to me! The proud, mean, slandering folks! You little know the Talbots if you think they can be generous to anybody. They'll meet you hereafter when I shall be in a better place!”
“That is pretty well,” said Bell, “when you have”had bed and board, clothes and comfort, from that family from your youth up. Suppose I tell them what you say, neighbour.”
“As you please. It is only what I have told them myself. I shall look to hear you curse them soon, Mrs. Bell, for they have been told how you take parish money for your dead child. So you got a blanket to keep the boy warm? He is in a hot place now,—a little unregenerate devil as he was! If he was not to be saved, you are well off to be rid of him so soon.”
The husband and wife quickened their pace till they got out of hearing, the one full of disgust, the other of the fear of detection. She was anxious to receive her money before the widow should arrive; but there was already such a crowd about the gates that she saw she must wait long for her turn.
Two of the paupers had secured a seat on the door-step of an opposite house: the one, a well-known beggar, whose occupation had never been effectually interfered with by the police; the other, a young man, who was jeered at as a stranger by some who weekly resorted to this place. One gave him joy of his admission to the pauper brotherhood; another asked how he liked waiting on the great; a third observed that he could not judge till he had waited two hours in the snow of a winter's noon.
“Never fret yourself for their gibes, Hunt,” said Childe, the beggar. “You are more in the way to do well than you have been this many a day. You may make what you will of the great, if you do but know how to set about it.”
“I'm glad to hear it,” said Hunt, fidgeting about in a state of great agitation. “l'm sure the rich know well enough what to make of us. Not a word do we ever hear from them about our right to be kept from starvation; and they expect us to be wonderfully grateful for a parish dole, while they cut off a pound of meat a week from every poor soul's allowance within yonder walls, and advise us to mix illegibleye with our wheaten bread.—'Tis true, as l'm alive! A man told me so just now as he came out of yonder gate.”
“Well; let us get the pound of meat for our share, if we can. I'll bet you a wager, Hunt, I'll get a shilling a week more out of them for this very prank of theirs.”
“Done!” cried Hunt. “I bet you a penny roll they will be too sharp for you.” “A penny roll!” exclaimed Childe. “A pint of wine is the lowest bet I ever lay, man, A pint of red port to be paid to-night. Come!”
“You might as well ask me to bet a diamond,” said Hunt, laughing bitterly. “How am I to get port wine?”
“I'll show you when our business here is done,” said Childe. “Your father was my friend, or I should not open my confidence so easily. But just stand a minute at that fat woman's elbow, will you? Just to screen me a bit. There; that will do. Don't look round till I bid you.”
When Hunt had permission to look round, he scarcely knew his companion. Childe had slipped off his worsted stocking and bound it over his forehead and chin, so as to look very sickly; He sprinkled a few grains from his snuff-box into his eyes, so as to look blear-eyed, and forthwith set himself to tremble all over, except his right arm which appeared stiff.
“I have had a slight stroke of palsy this week, you see,” said he. “I can just get abroad to show that I must have another shilling a week.—Hang it, Hunt, it is not worth the trouble for such a trifle, if it was not for the bet!”
Hunt thought a shilling a week no trifle, and wondered how Childe came by such mighty notions.
“Because I've an e at the end of my name, man, that's all. That little letter makes a great man of me. It is worth house and board and tobacco and clothes to me for the whole of my old age. You think I am mad, I see; but, hark'ee! did you never hear of Childe's hospital?”
“Yes; near London. Is not it?”
“Yes; and I have the next turn there, and a merry life I make of it till I get in, fearing that the confinement may be rather too close for my liking. However, it is not a thing to be sneezed at. The money gathers so fast that' tis thought we Childes shall have silver spoons by the time I enter the brotherhood. I like gentility, and I would give up a little roving for the sake of it.”
“But how had you the luck to get on the list?” inquired Hunt. “Who befriended you?”
“Lord bless you, how little you know about such things! 'Twas I befriended the trustees, not they me. They are beholden to me for saving them the trouble of searching further for a Child with an e at the end of his name. None others will do by the terms of the bequest, which is for the support of thirteen aged men of the same name with the pious founder.—A deal of pride in his piety, I doubt, Hunt.—Well: the funds have grown and grown, and the trustees can't use them up any how, though their dinners and plate and knick-knackeries are the finest of the fine, I'm told; and the thirteen aged men have all they ask for. You should see what a figure I cut on the list of candidates,—alone in my glory, as they say;— ‘honest industry’— ‘undeserved poverty’— ‘infirmities of advancing years,’ and so forth. I wonder they did not make a soldier or a sailor of me at once,— ‘to justify their choice,’ as they finish by saying. Why, man, you look downright envious!”
“I wish any great man of the name of Hunt had endowed an hospital,” sighed Hunt; “but I am afraid there would be too many claimants to give me a chance.”
“To be sure. There's not one in ten thousand meets with such luck as mine. Bless you! there would be a string of Hunts a mile long, in such a case.”
And the beggar threw himself back, laughing heartily; but suddenly stopped, saying,
“Mercy! how nearly I had lost my bet! People in the palsy do not laugh, do they?”
“When do you expect to get into this hospital?” inquired Hunt, who could think of nothing else; “and how do you keep yourself so sleek meanwhile;”
“I shall depart to that better place when any one of the old pensioners departs to a better still,”of replied the beggar; “meanwhile, I grow fat in the way I will show you presently. Now for it. It is our turn. Do you keep just behind me and see how I manage.”
The method was worth watching. Childe won his way slowly among the groups, preserving his paralytic appearance wonderfully, and exciting the compassion of all who took notice of him.
“And who may you be, friend?” inquired the officer, as Childe approached the counter where the pay was being distributed. “Bless me! Childe! My poor fellow, how you are altered! You have had a stroke, I am afraid?”
“If it's ordained that the grasshopper must become a burden,” said Childe, mumbling in his speech, “we must submit, and be thankful to have lived so long. But you will not refuse me another shilling, sir.”
The officer was about to comply, when an assistant who stood by him remarked that the applicant looked wonderfully ruddy for a paralytic man, and that his eyes were as bright as ever. Hunt, who stood behind, jogged his arm, from which the stick immediately fell. Childe appeared to make several ineffectual efforts to pick it up, and looked imploringly towards the people behind him, as if complaining that they pressed upon him. The officer spoke sharply to Hunt—
“Pick up the man's stick, you brute! You knocked it out of his hand, and you stand staring as if you liked to see how helpless he is.—You observe, John, his right arm is quite useless. Give him another shilling.”
Hunt wished he had abstained from his practical hint. Before he could state his case, a woman got the officer's ear.—Sarah Simpson, spinster, by name and title. She was a clean, tight little body, poorly dressed, and sickly in appearance. She appeared excessively nervous, her eyes rolling and her head twitching incessantly. She pleaded for more pay, saying that she had a note from one of the guardians respecting it: but for this note her trembling hands searched in vain, while she was pushed about by the people who still continued to fill the room.
“Make haste, good woman,” said the officer. “We can't wait on you all day.”
At this moment, the poor creature turned round and swore a tremendous oath at a man who had taken upon him to hurry her.
“Upon my word, that is pretty well for a spinster!” observed the officer. “If you are not satisfied with your pay, madam, I would recommend your going into the workhouse. You have nobody dependent on you, I believe, and I should think the workhouse a very proper place for you.”
“She has been there already,” said the assistant. “Her tongue put me in mind of that. The master tells me such oaths were never heard within the walls as this woman's.”
“Mercy, gentlemen, what did I say?” asked the poor creature, whose eyes now rolled fright-fully. “I am not myself at times, gentlemen, when I'm hurried, gentlemen. I have such a —such a—such a strife and strangling here,” she continued fretfully, a tearing open her gown, and shaking herself like a passionate child.
“Well, well, that's enough of your symptoms; we are not your doctors,” said the assistant; “take your money and make way.”
In a hurried manner she closed her gown and drew back, forgetting her money, which however Hunt put into her hand.
“Only two shillings!” exclaimed the poor creature, returning timidly to the counter. “A'n't I to have what the gentleman recommended, then, sir?”
“You are to have no more money, so let us have no more words,” said the officer. “You have your full share already.”
Mrs. Bell, whose period of waiting seemed coming to an end, advanced to say that Sarah Simpson was subject to flights at times, when she did not know what words came out of her mouth; but that she was a humble, pious Christian as could be.
“I am afraid your recommendation is not worth much,” observed the officer. “Let us see.—Your husband, yourself, and how many children?”
Mrs. Bell, suspecting herself suspected, hesitated whether to say four or five. suspected, She shaped her answer dubiously,—
“Four and sixpence a week is what we have had, sir”
“How many children?” thundered the officer.
“Four,” admitted the terrified Mrs. Bell, who was glad to get away with three and sixpence, and a rating from the men in authority, accompanied by sneers and jests from the hearers. On her way home, she laid the entire blame on the ill-nature of her neighbours, especially on the spite of old widow Pine.
Hunt obtained a small allowance, and left the place, grumbling at its amount and at the prospect of having to spend it all in wine to pay his wager. Childe, however, gave him his first lesson in the mysteries of begging. Under the pretence of sport, he practised the art for the first time in a street on the outskirts of the city, through which many gentlemen passed in their way home to dinner from their counting-houses. Hunt was astonished at his own success, and began to calculate how much alms might be given away in a year in fills single street, if he and Childe had the begging department all to themselves. It might be enough, he thought, to enable them to set up a shop.—When the parish clock struck eight, Childe came to him and said it was near supper-time. Hunt was glad of it, for he was very hungry, having had nothing since morning. Childe begged pardon for the freedom of calling him a fool, but could not conceive why he had not taken a chop in the middle of the day, as it was his custom to do: it was sticking rather too close to the main chance to sit without food from morning till evening for fear of missing a monied passenger.
Hunt followed his tutor to a public-house in the heart of the city, called the Cow and Snuffers. Hunt had supposed this house too respectable to be the resort of beggars; but was informed that the fraternity thought nothing too good for them when their day's business was at an end, and the time of refreshment was come; not as it comes to poor artizans in their sordid homes, but rather to convivial men of wealth.
“Stay!” said Childe, as they were about to enter the house. “How much can you afford to spend? Five shillings, I suppose, at the least.—Never start at such a trifle as that, man! You will make it up between four and five tomorrow afternoon.”
Hunt had not intended to beg any more; but he deferred the consideration of the matter for the present, and followed Childe to a small room upstairs, furnished with washing apparatus, and with a wardrobe well stocked with respectable clothing. Three or four persons were already in this room dressing, their beggar apparel being thrown into a corner, and looking-glass, brushes, and towels, being all in requisition. Hunt was declared, after a brushing, to be presentable without a change of apparel, especially as he was a stranger. Childe was about to open a door on the same floor, when a waiter stopped his hand and intimated that they must mount higher, as the room in question was occupied by the monthly meeting of the Benefit Club. The cloth was laid upstairs, and it was hoped the apartment might be found quite as comfortable.
On the question being put to the vote among the beggars already assembled, it was pronounced an intolerable nuisance to be turned out of their apartment regularly once a month by these shabby fellows, who were always thinking how they should save money instead of spending it. The landlord was rung for, and requested to intimate to the workpeople that a large convivial party desired to change rooms with them. The landlord objected that the apartment had been positively engaged from the beginning by the club, and he could not think of turning them out. Being assailed, however, by various questions,—how he could bring the two companies into comparison?—whether he could honestly declare that the custom of the club was worth more than a few shillings in the year?—and, lastly, how he would like to lose the patronage of the beggars' company?—he consented to carry a message—the answer to which was a civil refusal to budge. Message after message was sent in vain. The club, having ascertained that there were unoccupied rooms in the house which would suit the purpose of the other party as well, very properly chose to keep the landlord to his engagement.
“It's monstrous, upon my soul!” cried a lady beggar, making her entrèe with a curtsey, which she had first practised on the boards of a barn, when personating Juliet,—“it is really monstrous to be poked into an attic in this way;— and to miss the view of the cathedral, too, which is so attractive to strangers!”
The appearance of this lady suggested a last appeal.
“Tell them,” said Childe, “that there's a lady in the case,—a lady who is partial to the view of the cathedral.”
The club sent their compliments, and would be happy to accommodate the lady with a seat among them, whence she might view the cathedral at leisure, while they settled their accounts.
The club were pronounced ill-mannered wretches, and the representations of the landlord about the probable overroasting of the geese, were listened to. Supper was ordered. Roast goose top and bottom;—an informality for which apology was made to Hunt, on the ground that the company liked nothing so well as goose in the prime of the pea-season;—abundance of pease; delicate lamb chops and asparagus, and so forth. Hunt had never before beheld such a feast.
“It will be long enough,” observed a junior member, “before those shabby fellows below treat themselves with such a set-out as this. I never liked their doings when I was an operative: I was one of the other sort.”
“What other sort?”
“One of the good livers, and not one of the frugal. I and some friends of mine used to sup something in this fashion when we earned near three guineas a week, We used to get our fowls from London.”
“Bravo! and what made you leave off trade?”
“I was turned off in bad times, and I shall tell you no more; for I hate to think of that winter of cold and water-gruel. My nose was positively frost-bitten, and my stomach like a wet bladder most part of the twenty-four hours. Pah! it was horrid.”
“You would have exchanged conditions with one of the frugal at that time, probably.”
“Why, I did envy one his bit of fire, and another his mess of broth; and the next winter I may envy them again, for I hear the magistrates have got scent of me; but no more of that now.—Miss Molly, your very good health! May I ask what you have done with your seven small children
“Left some of them on the bridge, and the rest in the Butcher's-row, with directions where to find me when the halfpence grow too heavy for them. I hope it is going to rain so that they will get little; for I don't want to be bored with the brats any more to-night.”
“They must be quite too much for you sometimes.”
“Hang it! they are. It is all I can do to remember their parentage, in case of its being convenient to return them. Two of them are getting to a troublesome age now,—so impertinent! I must really get rid of them, and borrow another baby or two.”
“Gentlemen,” said Childe, when the cloth was drawn and the door closed behind the waiter,“we have long wanted a general-officer in our company, and I flatter myself I have found one who will fill the department excellently, if he can be induced to join us. Hunt, what say you?will you be one of us?”
Hunt wished to know what would be expected of him.
“The fact is,” said Childe, “I took a hint during my travels last year, which is too good
to be let drop. General Y——, whom, as a boy,
I used to see reviewing the troops, gamed and drank himself down into pauperism, and I met him last year walking the streets, not begging, but taking a vast deal of money; for it was whispered who he was, and everybody gave him something. 'Tis a case of the first water, you see, and it is a pity not to profit by it. You will find your part very easy. You have only to let your beard grow a little, and walk barefoot and bareheaded, buttoning your coat up to your chin in the way of military men, and as if to hide the want of a shirt. You must look straight before you as if you saw nobody, and keep your left hand in your bosom and your right by your side. You will find many a shilling put into it, I expect, and very little copper.—If you think it as well to very the story, we can make you an admiral, with some resemblance to a pigtail; but you are hardly round-shouldered enough for a seaman, are there is something in the upright military walk that catches the eye better.”
Hunt had some scruples of conscience, which were discovered and combated with wonderful address by his tutor. The argument which proved finally successful was, that if lie believed he had a right to comfortable support, and could not obtain it either by work, or by allowance from the public fund, he must get it in any way he could.—Nobody inquired whether this permission was to extend to thieving, in case the gentry should take it into their heads to leave off giving alms; nor did any one trouble himself to consider where, short of murder, the line was to be drawn in the prosecution of this supposed right. Hunt had some confused notion that the act of begging is inconsistent with a claim of right: if he changed his petition into a demand, the act became one of highway robbery; between which and petty larceny and burglary, there are only degrees of the same guilt: there must be some flaw in this reasoning, since the gallows stood at the end of it. It might have been proved to him that, if he had the supposed right to support, he was now about to urge it in the wrong quarter ; and that, therefore, no species of begging is defensible on this very common plea. It might also have been proved that the right itself is purely imaginary; but he was now in a company whence it was most convenient to banish all questions of right except those involved in the settlement of bets, and of precedence in taking the chair.
There was much laughter at the sober folks below; the murmur of whose business-like voices rose occasionally during a pause, and who were heard descending the stairs before the clock struck ten. The waiter just then came up with a fresh supply of gin, Miss Molly having an inclination for another glass.
“How much do those people spend each time, pray?”
“Twopence a-piece, and a shilling over.”
In reply to the mirth which followed, Childe pointed out that the very object of their meeting was the promotion of frugality; and that his only wonder therefore was, that they did not meet somewhere where they need spend nothing at all.
The waiter, who had looked grave during the laugh, now observed that the members of the club drank so little because they had something better to do. They read the newspapers, and took an important part in elections, and had the satisfaction of helping one another in many ways. He could speak to the satisfaction of being a member of one of these clubs, and the pride he felt in it. There was no occasion to fear any magistrate or constable living, or to have anything to do with the parish; and they were, moreover, prepared so as to be at no man's mercy in times of trouble and. sickness; and when they were past work, there was a fund to go to, over which they held a right; and this, in his opinion, was worth more than jollity with want in prospect. The man was ordered away, and threatened with being thrown out of the window for his impertinence, and a riotous chorus was struck up on his disappearance; but there were, possibly, others besides Hunt, who sighed at his words, before they began to sing in praise of gin and revelry.