Front Page Titles (by Subject) HINTS RELATIVE TO THE POPULATION BILL. * To Charles Abbot, Esq., M.P. - The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 10 (Memoirs Part I and Correspondence)
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HINTS RELATIVE TO THE POPULATION BILL. * To Charles Abbot, Esq., M.P. - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 10 (Memoirs Part I and Correspondence) 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 10.
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HINTS RELATIVE TO THE POPULATION BILL.*To Charles Abbot, Esq., M.P.
Great is the debt your country owes you on many a score: on none greater than that of your Population Bill. But eulogium, how well soever merited, is not the object of these pages. The object is, to consult with you, if I may aspire to that honour, how that which is already good, may be made, if possible, still better. In this view, I will venture to submit to you a few hints as they present themselves: whether they will bear the test of examination, I do not even myself undertake to say. Suggestion is all I have to offer; for serutiny I have not time; nor for decision, competence.
1.Return of numbers without names.—Numbers (I observe) with sexes but not names: Names omitted, under the notion perhaps of saving trouble. But by this generalization, I am inclined to think, trouble would rather be increased than saved. Persons to be counted, must be distinguished, and how can they be distinguished but by names! Question—‘Well, friend, who have you in this house?’ Answer—‘There be me John Brown, my eldest boy John, likewise; my youngest Thomas, my wife Mary, my daughter Mary, likewise.’ Then and thus comes the general deduction—males, three; females, two. But how should the general deduction come, but from the particular information? I do not see how the trouble is increased by the giving of the names; and the security against error is infinite. If all that is required of a man is to say how many there are of each sex in the family, what check can there be? Some will not know how to make the account; some, through carelessness, will answer anything that comes uppermost: some, possessed by those suspicions which ignorance is so apt to harbour, will give answers purposely false: some theory will come across them, of an advantage to be derived, or burthen evaded, by increasing or diminishing the number. This they may do without much difficulty: falsehood will be exposed to no check. In the other case, where names are to be given in, there is a plain and palpable check.—Is a non-existing Thomas Brown inserted? There is then a plain, palpable, and disproveable lie, with incontestible mala fides as a concomitant of it. Is an existing Thomas Brown omitted? Here, perhaps, there may be no mala fides in the case: or if there be, the proof of it will not be so palpable: but a door will be open at any rate to correction, and such an one, as in the case of mere numbers, would have no existence. What? are these all? Have you not besides these a son or a younger brother, or a daughter, or a younger sister, who is at a day-school, or out a harvesting? Who is that lad, there, of the name of Brown, who is at farmer Hodge’s keeping sheep? Is not he a son or nephew of yours?—Does he come to you of nights, or does he sleep at the farmer’s?
Whatever inaccuracies result from the omission of the particularity I am contending for, will all be on the side of deficiency: forgery of non-existing persons is altogether improbable: omission of existing ones, may happen from any one of a great variety of causes. A part of your population, there is no saying how great a part, may thus slip through your fingers; and the result will be so much the less pleasing and encouraging than it would be otherwise.
“Here allow me to point out an omission, which if it be, (what I suspect,) an oversight, will be easily repaired. In Section 3, penalty on an inhabitant for refusing, or wilfully neglecting to answer such questions, (questions in the plural—so that one refusal or neglect will not constitute an offence,) meaning such necessary questions as shall be put by the persons authorized;—viz. the rector, &c. The addition I propose is, or wilfully, or through neglect, giving any false answer, &c. For the clause, as it stands at present, contains no provision to that effect.
II.Ages omitted.—Another head of inquiry that I do not see,—but should be glad to see, is, the ages: ages are material, inasmuch as they serve to show, not merely the absolute number existing at a given point of time, but the rate of increase. The quicker that rate, the greater the proportion of the infants of the last year, and so on year before year, to the adults. By this means you see likewise the number of fighting men for the current year; and are able to calculate and predict the number of that class, for each of so many years to come. The Americans in their census were not inattentive to this point. Age has the further use of helping to distinguish and identify the individual, where there are several that have both names in common:—a very frequent case.
III.Baptism and Burials.—Series incomplete. The returns required of baptisms and burials are incomplete; while those of marriages are complete. The former for every tenth year, and no more; the latter for every year. Why this difference? forty-five numbers more for the baptisms and as many for the burials, in addition to the six of each that are required, are all I want. When the register book is once taken in hand, how slight would be the addition thus made to the trouble! Names would not be to be collected in this case, as in that of the actual existing stock of individuals: that check exists already, and is already upon the books.—When one, two, three, and so on, are to be counted for each of six years, why not for the remaining and intermediate five-and-forty years? The information thus given by the births and burials, would thus correspond with the information given by the marriages; each would serve as a check and tally to the other; and the body of information given by both together would be complete. As it stands at present there will be a manifest gap in the information, and that a very wide one, without any apparent reason for it.
In the columns headed with the words Baptisms and Burials, there were no subordinate divisions for receiving the distinction between males and females. It is, however, a distinction universally made, and as universally regarded as an instructing one. Can there be any difficulty or any trouble worth regarding, in obtaining the information relative to it?—In the London Bills of Mortality, you have it, if my recollection does not fail me. You yourself require it, as above, for the actually existing stock.
IV.Houses, not connected in the account with inhabitants. Houses, I observe, are included in the account required as well as inhabitants; that is, two distinct accounts are required to be given, the one of inhabitants and the other of houses. What I should have been glad to have seen is, a connexion between the two accounts, the account of houses serving as a basis for the account of inhabitants; each house characterized by some distinctive mark, such as the street, &c., where situated, with a number; and then the names of the several persons inhabitants of that house. As it is, what I am apprehensive of, is, that the number of houses may be given by one random guess, and the number of inhabitants by another; and what check is there upon inaccuracy in either case? Difficulties, I am sensible, may be liable to occur in respect to the describing the situation, and establishing identity and diversity as between house and house: but for these difficulties, the connexion I propose to establish will afford a simple and very effectual remedy. In the case of this or that house, how to distinguish it by itself and without reference to its inhabitants, might be matter of difficulty: but when the aid of such reference is called in, and the house is denoted by the description of the house, in such a Lane, such a number, inhabited by John Brown, his wife Mary, and so forth, the obscurity is cleared up, the difficulty is at an end.
A circumstance that (I am inclined to apprehend) may render inaccuracy the more frequent, is the general tendency there has been found to be, to make omissions in the account of houses: principally, I believe, with views of favour and indulgence, to enable the inhabitant to elude the pressure of some tax or other burthen; and, perhaps, not unfrequently to save the time and trouble of the examinations and journeys, that might be necessary to ascertain whether any, and what additions have been made, and where, to the number of houses, in the time that has elapsed since the last return or examination. This propensity, whencesoever derived, seems to stand in need of some counter-force to counteract it.—One may be, the making the designation of dwellings, and the designation of their respective inhabitants, serve as indexes of each other, as above proposed: the other, the requiring an averment sanctioned by an oath; or, perhaps, still better, by a simple penalty without oath, (but of this afterwards,) that the houses, given in as the houses contained in the parish, &c., are really all the houses; and the persons, given in as inhabitants of the respective houses, really all the inhabitants.
V. Mode of circulating the inquiries, &c.
Another topic is the mode of circulation:—I mean the mode of conveying to those by whom the information is more immediately to be obtained, the instructions designed for their guidance, in respect to the obtainment of it. On this point I have my fears on the score of expense. Not that I myself should grudge the expense, supposing it necessary, were it ever so much greater than the mode proposed would render it. But there are some that oppose everything; some that have a particular aversion to every species of information; and some that, in proportion as a measure is good—good, even according to their own conception of it,—take a particular delight in everything that can tend to present it as impracticable. To such eyes, a degree of expense, more than appears to have been expected, would be a discovery too valuable not to be made the most of.
Under the bill, the documents in question are to be transmitted, in the first instance to the clerks of the peace of the respective counties, &c., and by them to the several acting justices in each county, &c. But why not to the several justices at once? (if their intervention should be necessary, of which afterwards,) and that by the cheapest, surest, and quickest of all channels, the post-office? As to the ascertaining here in town, who, in each county, &c., are the acting justices, I should not expect to find it a matter of any difficulty. Acting justices are among those whose names are inserted in the several commissions for the several counties, &c.—those who have taken out their respective dedimuses. In the metropolis there must surely be an office, one office at least, probably more than one, by which the list of them might be made out. If not, and at the worst, the clerks of the peace might send the lists to the post-office, from whence they might be conveyed to the respective magistrates, as well as to the several parish-officers concerned, (who cannot any of them be without their places of known residence,) without any additional expense. If this best and most approprite of all channels be not employed, what must be the consequence? The whole business of circulation must be performed by special messengers, riding about the country at a great expense, and at uncertain and successive points of time, to do what might be done all at once, in the compass of less than a week at most, without any expense.
The more I reflect on the expense, the more I am alarmed at it. The organization of the official system for the execution of the measure,—the selection of the persons to be employed about it—is taken, I observe, (upon a principle, the prudence and propriety of which is beyond dispute) from an existing precedent,—the 25th G. III. c. 56, Anno 1785: the Act for making returns relative to the Poor’s Rates. What the expense was of collecting that information, according to the plan of collection there chalked out, I do not pretend to know:—I am inclined to suspect not altogether inconsiderable. Taken separately, the fees (I observe) are very moderate (not to say trifling and inadequate) in their absolute amount, at least in some of the instances. For each return made,—Clerk of the Peace, 1s.; High Constable, 1s. 6d.; Overseer, 2s.; Justice’s Clerks, 1s.,—total 6s. 6d. But, even under that act, the trouble of the Overseer must, according to the magnitude of his parish, have been from five or ten, to some hundreds of times as great as that of the Clerk of the Peace, whose fee was half as great: the Overseer having accounts to take, and answer to make to six questions, some of them of no small degree of intricacy; while all that the Clerk of the Peace had to do with them was, to suffer his servant to open the door to receive them as they dropped in, put them together into a drawer, make them up in a parcel, and send off the parcel to London by the coach. It is as if the book-keeper at an inn where the wagon puts up, were to have as much for booking a wagon-load of cloth or silk, as the manufacturer for making it. If these fees, such as they are, were the whole expense attending the execution of the act, (I speak of the existing act,) the expense would come under calculation; and, considering the magnitude of the object, would not be immoderate. The whole number of parishes and quasi-parochial places was, according to the returns made in pursuance of the act, between 14,000 and 18,000; say, for shortness, 15,000; 6s. 6d. multiplied by this number, gives £4875. But the riding about to deliver copies of the act itself to the several acting justices in each country, &c., and copies of the schedule containing the questions, to a person in each of the several parishes and quasi-parochial places, 288 per county upon an average, must (I think) have been a separate expense from the receiving returns, and transmitting them in the lump, as above; and it should seem a much more considerable one. This is the expense I would wish, if possible, to save.
Having proceeded thus far, an idea occurs to me which promises to present, at one and the same time, a recompense for labour, and a security for accuracy; the recompense better proportioned, and the security more efficient, than could perhaps be afforded by any other means. The minister, or other officer, to receive so much a-head (a farthing suppose) for every person comprised in his returns; penalty, on the other hand, for the omission of any person; greater penalty (say five times as great) for the omission of any house; much greater penalty for the insertion of any person or house not in existence. Call the number of persons twelve millions; this, at a farthing a-head, as above proposed, would give for the total expense on this head £12,500. Even this, considering the importance of the business, the labour imposed, and the security given for accuracy, does not seem excessive. But if it were, it would be easy to require two names to be returned for the farthing, and thus reduce the expense to one-half, viz. £6250: a parish contains inhabitants in all numbers; from fewer than 10, to more than 10,000: but, on an average, upon the above supposition of twelve million inhabitants, and 15,000 parishes, &c., there will be 800 inhabitants in each parish: 800 farthings, at a farthing a-head, gives for the average amount of such returning officer’s fees, 16s. 8d. 800 half-farthings, 8s. 4d. Where the number of inhabitants was so small as ten, ten farthings, or ten half-farthings, would be sufficient; because the trouble not being worth regarding, nothing at all would be sufficient; where the inhabitants amounted to 10,000, and thereby the fee to £10, 8s. 4d. or £5, 4s. 2d. the trouble rising in proportion, the expense of it need not be grudged. The quantum of the fee being thus in each case matter of simple numeration, the amount of it might, upon proper authorization, be paid out of the parish fund; a fund which, in proportion to the magnitude of the fee, would be the larger, and better able to bear the expense. To render the proportionality as between labour and recompense absolutely perfect, the calculation, I am sensible, would require another clement to be added to it; I mean that of local extent. Hard (it may be said) it would be, that the officer, whose field of inquiry extended over a vast and thinly peopled country parish, requiring journeys to explore it, and, as it were, hunt out its scattered cottages and inhabitants, should receive no higher recompense than he, the subject-matters of whose observations are collected together within the comparatively narrow circuit of a populous town-parish. But, (besides that, in country places, parishioners, from causes which it is not necessary here to insist upon, are better known to one another, and to the parochial officers, than in towns) the adoption of this ingredient into the calculation would require certain data, which as yet neither exist with sufficient uniformity, nor could be employed for this purpose without more trouble than would be paid for by the advantage: I mean a set of parechial maps. To combine for this purpose the considerations of extent and population, and establish in each case a temperament (to use a musical expression) composed out of the two, would be an operation analagous to that which found employment, for so many months, to a committee of the first National Assembly of France. Having carried the idea of proportionality on this ground to a pitch so much beyond anything which the statute book affords us any example of, the interval by which it still falls short of the mark of ideal perfection, will not afford room for much regret.
A map of this kind, for every parish, &c., would be useful even to the present purpose (to say nothing of so many other purposes) in another point of view: I mean the marking down the situations of the several new built houses as they come into existence. But plans of this sort require deep consideration, and belong to other times.
The task, notwithstanding everything that can be done to simplify it, requiring, after all, an understanding not altogether devoid of culture, why not commit it at once, and that exclusively, to the officiating minister of each parish or place? Where there is a curate as well as a rector or vicar, to the curate, to the exclusion of such his principal: where there is no curate, then to the rector or vicar, only because there is no curate. This duty, like every other duty imposed by law, must have a certain mark to rest upon: it must not, by being left to float between two stools, be exposed (according to the proverb) to fall to the ground. In such minister we have an officer, who for every parish, &c., though not in every parish, &c., is sure to be found; for although it is not every parish, &c., that has a curate resident within its precincts, yet there is not any parish which has not either a rector, vicar, or curate, resident at such moderate distance as admits (what duty requires) his paying frequent visits to it. Who the individual is that fills the office in question, in each respective parish, &c., is a point, the ascertaining of which cannot present much difficulty to the local post-master of the town from which the place of such individual’s residence receives its letters.
In naming the curate I have named a character, which, while it gives the result of the required communication a claim to confidence, commands our respect, as well as engages our sympathy, for the person on whom the duty is to be imposed. If, in these times of unexampled pressure, the rate of recompense should, in some instances, appear such as might otherwise be thought too high, the slight addition that might thus accrue to an income in the most plenteous times but too scanty, and otherwise unsusceptible of increase, might well be matter rather of satisfaction than regret; and I should hope that, in this case, the entire farthing would not be grudged. In such a station we may look with confidence for a person qualified to correspond with effect, with any central office or offices, civil or ecclesiastical: the post-office, for example, for some purposes; the office of the Bishop’s Secretary, upon occasion, for other purposes; points might thus upon occasion be discussed, and doubts cleared up, and the letters being left open for the purpose, the corresponding parties might thus, without danger of abuse, receive that exemption which on such an occasion they ought to enjoy, from the expense of postage; and the ecclesiastical superior, the bishop, coöperating in his sphere with the intentions of the legislature, might, by the influence of his general authority, supply without difficulty any little defects that might be found to present themselves in the instructions or powers afforded by the letter of the law.
Were this choice to be approved, a variety of movements which at present figure in the mechanism of the proposed act, (as they did in the existing act above alluded to,) might be discarded without much regret: justices’ clerks, overseers, high-constables, clerks of the peace: perhaps even justices themselves.
Aided by this amendment, might we not carry our views a little further into the expanse of time? Population of the country for the first year of the century—so far so good: but if for that first year population be an interesting object, is there any other year in which it will cease to be so? Is not comparison, as between year and year, the main, if not the only, use of this and other such statistical accounts? Is the providence of the legislature to acknowledge itself exhausted, as it were, by a single and comparatively fruitless effort? The precedents afforded by other nations, the precedents you allude to, the domestic precedent, you not unwisely pursue, though without alluding to it (I mean Mr Gilbert’s Poor’s Rate Return Act as above mentioned) do not (it must be confessed) go any such length: they do not bear the marks of any such consistency or perseverance. But, however precedent may stop short, do not reason and utility point onwards. Nor has even precedent been at all times, and everywhere, thus lame. In Naples, I remember it well, (you will find it in an anonymous book by Pilate, intituled, Voyages en divers Pays de l’ Europe, 2 vol., 12mo,) accounts of the population of the country were taken by authority for at least twenty years together; since, for a period of that length, the author gives it to us. Accounts for twenty years! twenty years’ perseverance, in a line of communication which ought never to be interrupted! and what was the result? that in that small space of time, even in that immoral and ill-governed country, the population was more than doubled.
The exercise being thus repeated year after year, the task will, from year to year, grow easier. Points of doubt and difficulty (for of such it must be confessed the ground will not be altogether unproductive) will be cleared up. The mine of new cases will, by degrees, be worked out; experience will everywhere diffuse its lights; and the work will hereafter approach nearer and nearer to the perfection of accuracy.
The more I think of the two cases (that of the Poor’s Rate Return Act, and the proposed Population Return Act) the stronger is the light in which the dissimilarity presents itself to me; and the stronger the reason for substituting the above proposed simplicity to the complication with which the mechanism of that act was (though then, as to a great part at least, not unnecessarily) encumbered. In that act, overseers of the poor were employed; why? because the information to be given was matter of account—pecuniary account; and the overseers were the accountants. With those accounts the minister of the parish had no more concern than any other parishioner. Among those accounts were many disbursements, the particulars of which it was natural to suspect, (and it was undoubtedly suspected,) that the accountants would be more or less unwilling to disclose; hence the provisions for meetings of justices to examine them upon oath; hence again the necessity of notices and journeys, attended with no small degree of trouble and expense. But how do these provisions apply to the present case? Examinations to be taken upon oath, for the purpose of obtaining at second hand evidence given in the first instance without oath? If an oath is necessary, why not impose it upon the persons, the only persons, from whom the information it aims at is to come? If not necessary, why bestow so much trouble and expense on the imposing it upon a set of officers, who, but from hearsay, know nothing about the matter?
Here again comes an additional reason for committing the duty and power of collecting the evidence at first hand, the power of examining inhabitants in regard to the state of their families, to a permanent ordained minister; to the exclusion of all such miscellaneous and shifting characters as churchwardens and overseers. To the minister of religion the power of administering an oath may surely be intrusted without much scruple; especially where the object of inquiry and the field of power are included within such narrow limits. The beneficed clergyman, be he rector or vicar, (in many instances already a magistrate,) will in those instances be found in possession of ample powers of this sort; and, where education is the same, the want of the adventitious endowment of a benefice, will hardly, in the instance of a curate, be regarded as being to this purpose a serious ground of difference. On the other hand, in the case of the churchwarden or overseer, frequently an illiterate, or almost illiterate, farmer or mechanic, a power of administering an oath, and then of grounding examination on that oath, would be an instrument of too much potency and delicacy to be trusted to such hands.
Extra parochial places present a difficulty, (I am aware,) the removal of which is among the purposes for which the bill makes use of justice; but for this case provision might easily be made, by giving to the bishop the power of pitching for this purpose upon the curate (or if no curate, the beneficed minister) of any one of the contiguous or adjacent parishes.
“Occupation what?—Agriculture?—Trade or manufactures?—Other laborious occupations?—Occupations not comprised in the three preceding classes?” Questions highly interesting, no doubt, and to which the cultivated mind of a clergyman would be able to furnish you (I should expect) with a satisfactory set of answers. But what sort of work would your churchwarden or mechanic make of them, especially when not called upon (for the bill does not call upon him) to apply them to each person, or to any person individually, but to fill up the heads with so many abstract numbers? What will he do in the case (and that by no means an uncommon one) where the same individual is, at the same time, or at different times, employed in two or three, or all four of these ways? In such a case, will the individual be ranked in all these classes, or in none of them, or in any and which of them? Difficulties like these, require for their solution faculties which, on the part of any clergyman, I should look for with some degree of confidence; but which, in the case of your farmer or country mechanic, I should have little hope of seeing generally surmounted. My clergyman might, upon occasion, help you out with an additional column of his own contrivance, make use of your general columns as far as they were applicable, and where a particularity occurred, make a special case of it; but, of this logic, or, if you please, this metaphysics, (for really it is what the function requires,) what could you expect to receive from John Ironsides the blacksmith, or from Farmer Hodges?
A population table being once made—made for one year, made by hands of this description, and confided to their care, as in the case of the register of the baptisms and burials—might, with a degree of trouble comparatively minute, be continued through every succeeding year: comers-in by birth; comers-in by migration; goers-out by death; goers-out by emigration: added to the original stock, as exhibited by the table of the first year, the number under these four heads would carry on the account. Would you have change of occupation noted likewise?—It is a matter, I trust you agree with me, not without its difficulties, but by degrees, and from a fixed set of instruments, and these qualified and sifted, by an interchange of instructions and applications for further instructions and explanations on both sides, it might doubtless in time be brought about; and a satisfactory and improving mass of information might be thus collected from all quarters relative to all these points, and continued in an unbroken chain from year to year. But your farmers! your mechanics; and without a clue to guide them? But, forgive me, I have done.
A word or two only about collateral uses. All births are not followed by baptism. Hence a variety of gaps, such as a resident hand, guided by a cultivated mind, and directed by a competent authority, in a central situation, might have it in charge to fill up. To the eye of a persecuting Legislature, the wish of humanity would be, that the distinctions I allude to should be invisible; but I trust we have seen the last of persecuting legislatures.
In the clergyman of the parish we behold—we wish at least to behold, the pastor: in the parishioners, his flock. It will not surely be deemed a result altogether uninteresting or indifferent, if, in virtue of the exclusive choice I have ventured to propose, the pastor should, throughout England, be as universally well acquainted, as throughout Scotland, with his flock.
Bentham employed much of his time in the year 1800 in endeavouring to establish precautionary arrangements for the prevention of forgery. He wrote a pamphlet on the subject, which he sent to the Governor of the Bank of England, from whom I have a written acknowledgment of its having been received; but no evidence that any of the suggestions had been adopted, or seriously considered. The papers were sent to Dumont with this note:—
“15th May, 1800.
“My dear Dumont,—
The accompanying forgery papers I send you for a stay-stomach, to keep you in good humour. Take care of the newspaper, as well as of the letters. B. is said by C. to be the managing man at the bank, and the only man almost among them who is not below par. In a few days I will return you your papers, and you will return me these. The Ordinary of Newgate told me the other day of his having been at a deal of pains to pump a man who was hanged for forgery, and from whom he got and sent to the bank a plan for the prevention of forgery in the way of alteration; but the bank took no notice, not so much as acknowledged the receipt of his letter.”
One cannot wonder that Bentham’s humane feeling was greatly excited on this subject. He collected all the facts he could gather together relating to the forgery of bank notes. Among them I find a memorandum that, from February, 1800, to April, 1801, more than a hundred persons were executed in this country for forgery alone. Another note mentions that the Bank of England was at one time engaged in forty-five indictments at the different assizes, (January, 1802.) Bentham communicated his views to the Bank of Ireland through Lord Sheffield. I insert a letter from Bentham to Mr Colquhoun, and his answer thereto, on forgery, and the correspondence with the Bank on the subject.
[* ] It will be observed, that many of the improvements here suggested have been adopted in the late census returns.