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[SECT. I.—: OF CHARITY WORKHOUSES.] - Dugald Stewart, Lectures on Political Economy, vol. 2 
Lectures on Political Economy. Now first published. Vol. II. To which is Prefixed, Part Third of the Outlines of Moral Philosophy, edited by Sir William Hamilton (Edinburgh, Thomas Constable, 1856).
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OF CHARITY WORKHOUSES.]
Among these measures, one of the most plausible is that of Charity Workhouses, a plan proposed more than a century ago by Sir Matthew Hale, and warmly defended by many respectable writers of a later date. The scheme proposed is, in general, this:—That after a list has been taken of all the poor in any one populous parish, or in two or more smaller parishes, a house should be built for their accommodation; that materials for work of various kinds should be provided for them; that this house should be under the direction of a few respectable individuals, who should appoint one or more superintendents to regulate and inspect the management, &c. It cannot be denied that this plan promises, in theory, some very important advantages. In the first place, It leaves no opportunities for common beggary. The loathsome objects which fill our streets will be taken care of: the lame, diseased, and aged will be provided for. Secondly, It leaves no excuse for idleness: work will be given to all who are willing to labour. And in the third place, this appears to be the most frugal and profitable plan: a number of persons living together, will be more easily provided for, and their united work will be more productive, than when they live in separate houses.
It is not surprising that this plan, so plausible in itself, and so warmly recommended by many writers, should have met with considerable success; and that in the course of the last century, it should have been actually carried into execution in many great towns in England and Scotland. But its effects are now ascertained by experience, and it may be shown, from undoubted evidence, that Charity workhouses, in general, have been so far from answering the many excellent purposes which were expected to arise from them; that, in fact, they have proved the worst of all the methods that could have been devised for remedying the evil in question. Poor-houses, during the first years of their institution, may have proved useful, an effect which may have been partly owing to the greater zeal of the managers during the first enthusiasm of their beneficent exertions, but chiefly because the poor were then unwilling to be admitted into them. As long as this continues to be the case, the terror of being sent to a workhouse diminishes the burden of the poor-tax, in proportion to the number of indigent persons who dread poverty less than the loss of character. It is, in fact, a virtual repeal, as far as it extends, of those laws which should have, long since, given way to better regulations. But, unfortunately, it is the most worthy objects who suffer most from this institution, the effect of which is, to hinder those from receiving support who dread the confinement, or the noise and nastiness, even more than the confinement, of workhouses, and consider the security which they afford against the evils of want, as dearly purchased by the sacrifice of that serenity and peace, which can scarcely be expected to exist where an indiscriminate mixture of individuals of all different habits and tempers are collected together. The dread of involving themselves in this misery, can hardly fail to keep many poor struggling with poverty, till they sink entirely under its pressure. A most affecting statement of this nature has been given by Mr. Morton Pitt, in his Address to the Landed Interest on the Deficiency of Habitations and Fuel for the use of the Poor, published a few years ago, [1798.]
Nor are these institutions attended with the advantages which they promise in point of economy. Even in parochial workhouses, and in those which are under the best regulations, the poor do so little work, that the produce of their labour almost escapes notice, while they are maintained at a most enormous expense. Instead of doing more work under one roof, and being fed more cheaply than when dispersed in their several cottages, the reverse appears clearly to be the fact. And, indeed, this is no more than might have been expected from a candid examination of the general principles of human nature. It is not reasonable, surely, to suppose, that men deprived of their liberty will work with the same cheerful activity for others, as they would do for themselves, and be contented with the same hard and homely fare which they would eat with thankfulness at home. It is hope which must sweeten all our labours; nor will any abundance of the means of subsistence relieve us from that despondency at our state, which must necessarily ensue, where we have no object of pursuit, and no room for fears and doubts. It is chiefly owing to this very circumstance, that the services of slaves are so much more expensive than those of freemen.
In Mr. Morton Pitt’s Address, some observations are introduced on the comparative expense of maintaining the poor, in their own houses and in workhouses. They are quoted from a letter to the author by Mr. Davies, of L . . . ,* whose extensive and practical acquaintance with subjects of this nature seems to be universally acknowledged. The result, we are told, of his elaborate and minute inquiry, was, that every individual in a workhouse cost the parish a considerably greater sum weekly, than when supported out of the house during the same period. The cause of this inequality he attributes chiefly to the difference in their food. . . .
Against County Workhouses the objections are much stronger; the buildings, furniture, salaries, everything in short being there on a large and expensive scale, without its being possible to preserve, for any length of time, a system of economy. At first, indeed, there may be a great exertion; but the novelty being over, few will be found public-spirited enough to continue their attendance and attention to a business in which they are so little interested, and from which they are continually diverted by more important engagements, and more agreeable pursuits. In the meantime, while the expenses of these institutions are so enormous, the objects whose relief they are intended to accomplish, are wretched, still more even than in parochial workhouses, where they are not condemned to the same state of banishment from their friends and relatives. If such institutions are attended with any benefit at all, it can only be the negative one, of operating as a partial repeal of laws, which make still greater depredations on the public resources.
All the foregoing observations, it must be remembered, apply chiefly to County Workhouses, and must not be extended, without many limitations, to similar establishments in large and populous cities; in which, probably, there are always a great variety of individuals who could not be disposed of in any other way so properly. This distinction between Town and Country Workhouses is strongly stated in a letter, formerly adduced from Mr. Davies, [p. 302.] . . . In these remarks, there is undoubtedly much truth and good sense. But they ought not to have been extended beyond the cases which Mr. Davies describes,—those of destitute orphans, and of those friendless and helpless persons mentioned by him; and in general, it may be safely affirmed, that wherever the poor can be provided for by a weekly supply of money or food, in their own houses, this method is, in many respects, preferable to the other.
To those who may turn their attention practically to the state of the poor, more particularly in great towns, some important hints may be suggested by a perusal of Voght’s Account of the Management of the Poor in Hamburgh, published at Edinburgh in the year 1795. An abstract of the account, drawn up by the Bishop of Durham, will be found in the Seventh Report of the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor. The success which has attended the efforts of the original projectors of this plan, has far exceeded their most sanguine expectations. The institution was formed in the year 1788, at which time, out of 100,000 inhabitants of Hamburgh, there were about 7000 distressed persons, in want of regular relief, besides an average of 2500 persons in the hospitals. Since that period, scarce a beggar has been seen in Hamburgh, and the decrease of sickness and mortality has been rapidly progressive. The average mortality was, at first, in the proportion of one to ten; in 1789, it was greatly reduced; and it has since gradually diminished to less than one to twenty. The average of all the expenses attending the employment of the poor, for three years ending 1st December 1796, including loss on the sale of manufactured goods, was annually £611.
In reviewing the origin and progress of the institution at Hamburgh, the Bishop of Durham has very justly remarked the benefits it has derived from the division of attention, the advantages of which he compares to those resulting from the division of labour in manufactures. “The division of labour has not produced more extraordinary effects in a well-conducted manufactory, than the division of attention in a well-arranged institution. The giving to every acting member his peculiar and appropriate duty, not interfered in by any other person, as has been done with great effect at Hamburgh, is of the utmost importance in every establishment. Those who have attended much to the conduct of charities, must have had frequent occasion to regret, that, even among the best intentioned men, more time and more power is often wasted in the counteraction and controversion of petty and trivial measures, than in the furtherance of the real objects of the institution. This is the friction, the impediment of action, the obstruction to progress, which it is most essential to prevent; and it is in this respect, that the benevolent and enlightened founders of the institution at Hamburgh have been peculiarly judicious and successful.”*
After all, it is impossible not to feel some apprehensions about the permanent stability of an institution which requires the active and gratuitous co-operation of so many individuals. The steadiness with which it has hitherto been conducted, does infinite credit to those concerned in its management, and may probably continue unabated while the enthusiasm of the original projectors remains to animate their exertions. But the most public-spirited and benevolent men are not always the most active and persevering, and it thus often happens that the management of institutions for the poor, of whatever nature, after the first efforts of zeal are passed, fall into the hands of persons indifferent to their interests, and unfit to carry them on. It might be advisable, therefore, if any similar establishment is formed elsewhere, that the most essential parts of its execution should be committed to men, who are paid for their labour, and at such a rate as to render the employment an object to persons placed in the more respectable conditions of life.
The publicity and regularity of the accompts, seem also to have contributed much to the success of the undertaking at Hamburgh. And, indeed, where precautions of this sort are overlooked in any charitable establishment, it cannot but, sooner or later, subside into a mere job.
It gives me much satisfaction to learn, by a letter which I received about three years ago, that this very interesting establishment continues still to prosper.
The same general views which suggested the plan now under consideration, prompted the execution of a similar establishment, by Count Rumford, at Munich. The success of this undertaking has been singularly great. But it is unnecessary for me to enter into any details with respect to it, not only because the plan is very generally known, but because a great deal seems to have depended on the particular nature of the government by which it has been so effectually protected and encouraged.
[* ] [As the Editor has been unable to procure Mr. M. Pitt’s Address, he can neither supply this name, nor give any quotations from the pamphlet.]
[* ] [Reports of the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, No. XL.; Vol. II. p. 41, third edition.]