Front Page Titles (by Subject) 252.: WALTER ON THE POOR LAW AMENDMENT BILL MORNING CHRONICLE, 12 MAY, 1834, P. 2 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II
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252.: WALTER ON THE POOR LAW AMENDMENT BILL MORNING CHRONICLE, 12 MAY, 1834, P. 2 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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WALTER ON THE POOR LAW AMENDMENT BILL
After two years of writing only for the Examiner (which continued to be his main newspaper voice for the next few months), Mill here returns to the Morning Chronicle for which (except for the translation given in App. C) he had not written since 5 June, 1828. He is responding to “The Poor Laws,” The Times, 8 May (Thursday, not Friday, as Mill says), 1834, p. 6, which in turn recommends a pamphlet by John Walter (1776-1847). ALetter to the Electors of Berkshire, on the New System for the Management of the Poor, Proposed by the Government (London: Ridgway, 1834). Walter, son of the John Walter who founded The Times (1739-1812), gave the newspaper its character and importance. The discussion centred around the controversial new Poor Law, “A Bill for the Amendment and Better Administration of the Laws Relating to the Poor in England and Wales,” 4 William IV (18 Apr., 1834), PP, 1834, III, 235-90 (enacted as 4 & 5 William IV, c. 76, in 1834). This unheaded article is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A leading article in the Morning Chronicle of 12th May 1834, on Mr. Walter’s pamphlet against the Poor Law Amendment Bill” (MacMinn, p. 40). See also No. 253, a leader on the Poor Law in the Sun published on the same day as this, and No. 265.
the times, of Friday last, contains nearly two columns of extracts from a Pamphlet against the Poor Law Amendment Bill, which it introduces to the notice of its readers in the following words:
Among the numerous Pamphlets on the Poor Laws which have reached us, we have been struck with the following passages in a Letter from a County Member to his Constituents, which we extract, because we think them deserving the attention of our readers, particularly at this period.
The nameless County Member, whose Pamphlet our contemporary has been struck with, and so studiously explains his motives for quoting, is John Walter, Esq., M.P. for Berkshire, and the principal proprietor of The Times. There is a considerable difference between the tone of the pamphlet and that of the newspaper. When Mr. Walter uses his own voice, he “roars” much more “gently” than when he speaks through his “thundering” Editor.1 His language is not brought, like that of his journeymen, from Billingsgate; nor does he show any of that canine rabies which is characteristic of his newspaper, whether in a bad or in a good cause, and which has fixed on it indelibly the vulgar epithet originally stamped upon it by a greater master in blackguardism.2 In substantial merits, Mr. Walter’s own argumentation, and that of the stronger and coarser hand whom he employs, are much upon a par; but that utter disregard of every fact or argument militating with their conclusion, which is common to the County Member and his penman, has, in the latter personage, every appearance of being intentional, while in the former it seems the involuntary result of a real incapacity to feel, even in ever so slight a degree, the force of any facts and arguments which can be presented to him. There are considerable indications of sincerity in Mr. Walter’s performance. From this specimen we should imagine him to be a fair enough sample, both as to their good intentions and as to the quality of their intellects, of that sort of English country gentlemen, who, by their mode of administering the Poor Laws, have so frightfully demoralized our peasantry, and who (what we care far less about) will in a few years, if such counsels as Mr. Walter’s are listened to, have handed over the whole residue of their own rents to be the patrimony of the paupers, and made the land indeed (in the phrase imputed to Spence and his followers) the people’s farm.3
Mr. Walter, we understand, is reputed in his neighbourhood “the poor man’s Magistrate,” which always means one with whom the pauper is generally in the right, and the overseer in the wrong; one who is liberal in granting orders for relief after the parish officers have refused it. Liberality in a Magistrate is like the liberality of an absolute King; it consists in giving away very freely other people’s money, and, in the one case as in the other, almost always to the undeserving. A “poor man’s Magistrate” is one who is ever ready to compel a parish, in which perhaps he himself has no property, nor pays a single farthing to the rates, to maintain all who choose to demand parish assistance in a style of comfort, ease, and liberty, which makes them objects of envy to those who earn their own subsistence and refuse to be supported by other people. Mr. Walter is understood to be such a person; one of that class of Magistrates who, from compassionate feelings or love of popularity, or both combined, have laid upon their consciences the responsibility of having made the bulk of the agricultural population of England paupers at heart (progressively verging downwards into the condition of paupers in fact). It is, therefore, quite natural that Mr. Walter should greatly dislike the Poor Law Bill, the object of which is to deprive such men of the power of doing any further mischief, and to repair, as far as may be, the incalculable evil they have already done.
It is no very easy matter to chase Mr. Walter’s reasoning through the labyrinth of his pages. The staple of his pamphlet is general denunciations, expressions of alarm, and predictions of evil, with here and there some grains of argument scattered by the way-side. Let us pick them up and examine them.
The chief object of Mr. Walter’s dislike is the proposition of a Central Board. Of this he says,
It is an inversion of what has been esteemed the natural and regular order of all good Government, which rises from the management of families, parishes, towns, counties, to the general Administration of the State. Here the State starts first in the character of a Central Board, and diffuses its regulations below. This is what the French call centralization. Everything springs from Government in France; the people do nothing for themselves; roads, bridges, canals, are all the work of the State. I do not know that this is a happy example to copy.
This is one of the finest instances we have lately seen of a common-place, in the original sense of the phrase—an argument which will serve all turns equally well—a standing argument which saves all inquiry into the merits of the case—an argument which you may know beforehand may always be used in all cases of a particular kind, without taking the trouble to look at them—a blank objection, to be filled up with any measure you please. In a book of directions to Members of Parliament how to make out a case, this might stand as one of the instructions: whenever it is proposed to entrust any duty to the Government, or to appoint any officer to superintend and check a multitude of other officers, cry Centralization! Be the measure good or bad, that is one thing which may always be said against it. Any person of sense and candour would think it necessary to inquire what duties may be most advantageously entrusted to local, and what to general functionaries, and whether the case in question fall within the one or the other class: a fool saves himself the trouble, by making an objection which avails against all government whatsoever. The Courts at Westminster are a case of centralization; all the Cabinet Ministers are cases of centralization; it is centralization to have a King; it is centralization to have a House of Lords or of Commons: Mr. Walter’s objection is exactly as strong, neither more nor less, against every one of these institutions, as against a Central Board. Why should not “the people,” as Mr. Walter terms the little knots of jobbers who are called vestries, make their own laws? Why should they not administer justice for themselves? Why not make war and peace, vote the supplies, and keep up their own standing army? “The natural and regular order of all good government rises from families, parishes, towns, and counties, to the State.” But these are things, it seems, which are better done by the State than either by the family or the parish—else why have any Government at all? Take the trouble, then, to examine whether pauper management, in the department of superintendence and control, be not one of these things.
Mr. Walter cannot distinguish between two countries so differently situated as France and England; between a country which has always been overgoverned, and one in which Government scarcely interferes in anything. In France, the King and his Ministers are the real governing power of the country, and it is they who need to be restrained; here the real Government of the country practically resides in the local functionaries, the magistrates, overseers, &c., and if the King and his Ministers need controul, they (i.e. the local functionaries) need it infinitely more, because they are infinitely less under the public eye. France wants local bodies to be a check upon the Government; England wants a Government to be a check upon the local bodies.
Mr. Walter’s next argument is, that the grounds which Ministers have alleged for their proposition make directly against them. They say that their system has been tried in above a hundred parishes, and succeeded.
Now what system is this of which his Lordship thus predicates the success? A system consisting of district workhouses! I have not heard that an additional workhouse has been built. [N.B. The parishes had workhouses already.] A system consisting of District Commissioners and Metropolitan Commissioners—a system without Overseers and Magistrates—finally, the system which is now recommended? No; it was totally impossible. The system, therefore, which produced this wonderful change in the hundred parishes was, in truth, and must have been, the old system. Why then, I say, abolish such a system instead of “improving and well regulating it,” as has been done in these 100 parishes? Why substitute one in its place perfectly theoretic? [&c., &c., &c.]
Now let us just consider what the Ministerial proposition is. There are in England and Wales about 14,000 parishes. Of these about 100 have been managed well, the remaining 13,900 ill. What says Lord Althorp? He says, what 100 parishes out of fourteen thousand have done for themselves, with the most unqualified success, while the other thirteen thousand nine hundred, instead of following the good example, looked on and did nothing; this, we must find some means of inducing the 13,900 to do.5 We will adopt the system of management which has been so beneficially tried in the 100 parishes; but in order to introduce that system, we cannot trust to machinery which has succeeded in only 100 cases, and failed in 13,900. “No, [says Mr. Walter,] the system which has succeeded in 100 cases, cannot need any alteration.” But it has failed in 13,900. What then? Let the 13,900 parishes, to be sure, imitate the 100. But they will not. Compel them, it may perhaps be said. Why that is exactly the object of the Bill, and the sole object.
The creation of a Central Board, with discretionary authority, instead of being a harsh measure, is the only one by which the task can be accomplished without harshness. A Board can relax its orders, can grant time, can make exceptions and concessions to peculiarities of circumstance. An Act of Parliament can do none of these things. A superintending functionary can gently untie all those knots which the Legislature, if it proceeded by an imperative statute, must peremptorily cut. The very object which the opponents of the measure stickle for—a relaxation of the proposed rule for confining the relief of the able-bodied to the workhouse—cannot be granted without defeating the whole measure, unless there be a Central Board. To such a Board, a discretionary power of making exceptions to that rule may safely and beneficially be granted. But if the law is to be administered by Vestries, and Magistrates without any superintending authority, there could be no hope of improvement unless out-door relief were entirely prohibited. If the slightest opening be left for it, the same motives which have produced the present deplorable abuse of that mode of relief, will continue to produce the same fatal effects. Every increase of the latitude given to the Central Board is an alleviation of the real or apparent harshness of the measure as it respects the pauper.
Mr. Walter advocates the abolition of the allowance system; he would have no one relieved without coming entirely upon the parish, nor any relief granted except in payment of labour; but he would have labour provided for the paupers without bringing them into the workhouse. Now if there is one thing that is more obvious than another, both from the evidence before the Commissioners and from the common sense of the case, it is that pauper labour anywhere but in the workhouse is merely a particular kind of idleness. A person who is sure of employment whether his labour be efficient or only nominal, will make no exertion that he can possibly avoid. An able-bodied pauper, anywhere but in the workhouse, is necessarily, and is proved to be in point of fact, far better off than the independent labourer. If the allowance system were to be abolished, and no workhouses provided, all, or nearly all, who now receive partial relief, would come upon the parish altogether. If, on the contrary, workhouses are provided and properly regulated, no one will choose to enter them who can obtain an honest living by unaided industry.
Mr. Walter speaks [p. 37] of the “evidence already published by the Poor Law Commissioners as to the immorality and depravity which the present workhouse system daily generates:” the very reason why workhouses are, by the proposed Bill, placed under the superintendence of the Central Board, in order that all this immorality may be restrained by adequate regulations. Mr. Walter says that, under any alteration, if crowds of able-bodied persons are congregated within the same walls, they must be demoralized. True, perhaps; but any parish employment must congregate crowds of able-bodied persons. If they were not congregated, but set to work apart, the parish, for every labourer it employs, must pay a superintending officer to look after him. Accordingly, when they are not “congregated” in workhouses, they are congregated somewhere else—generally in the roads; and if Mr. Walter, in looking at “the Evidence published by the Poor Law Commissioners,” had not confined his attention to what seemed to favour his own views, he would have found the demoralizing effect of the employment of paupers on the roads to be quite as remarkable as even that of “immuring” them in the present abominable workhouses. [P. 37.]6 But, in the one case, the evil arises from the very nature of the case—from the impossibility of superintendence, and the unavoidable absence of any kind of classification. In workhouses, there may be the most perfect superintendence, and any degree of classification is deemed advisable.
We have now exhausted everything bearing any semblance of argument which we can find in Mr. Walter’s pages. The rest is such stuff as this:—“The boast of the English Constitution, that it was one of practice rather than of theory”—“worked well though it read ill”—“a scheme theoretic merely”—“speculators knowing little of the habits and usages of Englishmen”—“such a change never took place in this country since the time of the conquest”—“change of which no one can foresee the consequences”—“change in the British Constitution itself”—“revolution in the manners and habits of the British people”—“consequences which cannot be looked at without dismay,” &c. &c. &c. [Pp. 21-3.]
In conclusion, as Mr. Walter’s Editor politely intimates that whoever ventures to say anything in behalf of this measure, after his fiat has gone forth against it, can have no motive but the hope of finding opportunities for profit, “and perhaps for peculation,” by employment under the Bill; it may be as well to state that the writer of the present article has neither had any employment, paid or unpaid, in connection with the Poor Law Enquiry, nor will have any in connection with the authorities to be created by the Bill.7
[1 ]The editor (1817-41) was Thomas Barnes (1785-1841).
[2 ]The “greater master in blackguardism” was William Maginn (1793-1842), Irish journalist and poet, who, in the Morning Herald, 17 Feb., 1829, fixed the epithet “Thunderer” on The Times (after it had said, “we thundered out that article,” on 11 Feb., 1829).
[3 ]Thomas Spence (1750-1814), London bookseller and radical land reformer. For the idea, see, e.g., his The Meridian Sun of Liberty; or, The Whole Rights of Man (London: Spence, 1796), p. 5.
[4 ]Walter is quoting Spencer, Speech in Presenting a Bill to Amend the Poor Laws (17 Apr., 1834), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 22, col. 879. The square-bracketed passages are Mill’s.
[5 ]Ibid., cols. 879-80.
[6 ]See Extracts, pp. 216ff.
[7 ]The quotation is from a leading article on the Poor Laws, The Times, 8 May, p. 5. Despite the disclaimer of the last sentence, on 13 May, in a scathing attack, The Times attributed the leader to Mill’s friend Edwin Chadwick, who had taken an active part in the inquiries of the Poor Law Commission and who was thought to be a candidate for the Central Board.