THE POOR'S RATE;
THE TREACHEROUS FRIEND.
"GOOD morrow to you, Dame Hopkins," said Farmer Stubbs, as he entered her cottage; "how fares it with you and your family?"
"Pretty well in health, thank you, sir," said she, wiping a chair with the corner of her apron for him to sit down; "but, with such a family as ours, it's a hard matter to make all ends meet; and, indeed, we never could do it without the help of the parish. John is only just gone down to get the weekly allowance."
"Indeed! I thought Hopkins held himself above receiving relief from the parish."
"And so he did, till the children were well nigh starved. Ah, I shall never forget it. It's just two years come Michaelmas, we had five of them ill of the measles at once; and there were but four got through it," added she, a tear starting from her eye.—"And, as soon as the fever was off, though the poor things were so weak they could scarce crawl about, they had such craving appetites, and a morsel of food did them so much good, that when I had not enough to satisfy their hunger, I told John I could bear it no longer; 'So bring down your proud spirit,' said I, 'and go and claim your dues. We have as much right to the parish money as others; ay, and a better right than many of our neighbours, who make no scruple about it. It is better to come to the parish than to come to be beggars; and I would rather ask alms than see my children starve.' Then John said, 'I had thought to have gone through the world without demeaning myself by asking aught of the parish;' and I do think that a tear came into his eye; but I did not dare notice it. So he took his hat, and trudged off with a heavy heart; and, to this very day, he never goes with a light one; but," added she, with a sigh, "use blunts the edge of things we can't help."
"True enough, you can't help it now," returned the farmer; "but, if your husband had been a prudent man, and had belonged to the benefit club, he might have got relief when his children were sick, without going to the parish."
"Ay, but that weekly sixpence, to be paid down every Saturday, when, God knows, we have a sixpence too little when the day comes round, rather than one to spare for the club. Sixpence seems a mighty small matter to you, Master Stubbs; but, to come every week, it's a heavy call upon a man with so large a family as ours."
"He should not have had such a large family, Dame, if he could not provide for them in sickness and in health; for he knows that sickness and trouble is the lot of man in this world."
"We have good reason to know it," retorted Dame Hopkins, who was nettled at the farmer's rebuke; "for we have had our full share. And, as for the number of our children, we know pretty well, by experience, the hardships that brings on us, too: and has not John been breaking off the match between George and Betsy Bloomfield on purpose?"
"A very prudent step," replied the cautious farmer; "but here he comes.—Well, John, how much have you got from the overseers?"
"Not more than I had need of," answered John, sulkily, as if he thought that that was no business of Farmer Stubbs.—"Why, I want to know how much of it comes out of my pocket, man."
"And if some of it does," retorted John, "I owe you no thanks; for it is not I that take it from you, but the law of the land."
"Ay, but if you, and such as you, did not come to want, the law of the land would not meddle with my money."
"You are well to do in the world, and can afford to pay the poor's rate: and let me tell you, that if you have little pleasure in paying it, why we have not much in receiving it. It is dealt out in such a niggardly grudging manner, and with such a surly tone, that one would think the overseers were giving you their own."
"Why, for that matter, they pay pretty heavily towards it; so they have some cause to be discontented."
"Well, it is hard," said John, "to grudge us the only law that is made to favour the poor, when there are so many to favour the rich."
"Why, by your own account, John, it is not a good law; for you allow that it is both paid and received with an ill-will."
"Yes; but it gets us bread, which we can't do without, either with a good will or a bad one," said Dame Hopkins; "and I don't take it over kind of you, Master Stubbs, to be grumbling at my good man about the parish money, when I have just been telling you how he hated to go for it."
"Why, look ye, John," said the farmer; "it is natural enough that I and the overseers, and the rest of us that pay the poor's rate, should grumble at it. You say I am well to do in the world; and it is true I have a little property; but I have a large family as well as you."
"Ay, but they live in clover," cried John.
"Why, I wish to do the best I can by my children, as we all do, and to turn my means to the best account. Well, here are these twenty acres of common I have been turning up: I could have brought them to good account, if I could have bought as much manure and have paid as many hands as the land required to bring it into good order. But while I am reckoning up my means, and turning in my head how I can manage it, in comes the collector for the poor's rate, five shillings in the pound! and when I complain, he tells me that, besides the large families, there are I don't know how many able-bodied single men, who can get no work, and must be maintained by the parish. Then, indeed, I fell in a passion, and said, 'You are going to maintain them in idleness with the very money which I should have paid for their labour, if they had come to work for me.'—'Oh, they will be ready enough to work for you.'—'Well,' replied I, 'then leave me the money to pay for them;' but he answered, 'You know well enough that I must collect the rate that has been assessed; make what agreement you will afterwards.'—'I can make none,' replied I; 'when you take away my money, you take away my means.' Now, if this happened to me only, you might say that I argued for my own interest; but it happens to every one who pays the poor's rate throughout the kingdom; and that not once and away, but every year, regularly, more or less."
"Well, but you don't reckon fairly," said John, "if you say that the rate you pay is all sheer loss; for, depend on it, if the overseers did not pay a part of the maintenance of children, farmers would be obliged to give higher wages, else the families would be starved to death; and then I should be glad to know how you would get your work done?"
"I would willingly pay higher wages, and employ more hands, too, could I once be rid of this poor's rate; for then I should get the value of my money in labour; whilst now I get nothing in return, and it goes to support a set of vagabonds who can't get work. And I will tell you why;—because they won't seek it, and because their labour is not worth having: and so these lazy fellows are employed idling their time away over some parish labour; and taking away the money that would have employed an honest hard-working man, and have enabled him to have maintained his family without going upon the parish."
"Get me paid wages enough to maintain my family, and I promise you the overseers shall not see my face again."
"But you have such a swarm of children, John; now I pay a man the value of the work he does for me, without minding the number of his children: for that is his business, not mine."
"Then the poor's rate must make up what's wanting," cried Dame Hopkins; "for mothers won't let their own flesh and blood starve: and, if they can't maintain them by their labour, why, they would beg, borrow, or steal, sooner than come to that. And as for the poor's rate, Master Stubbs, there can be no harm in taking what the law gives you."
"I tell you it is a bad law: bad for the rich, because it hinders them from employing the poor (at least so far as the rate goes); bad for the poor, because it encourages them to increase and multiply, till they come to rags and starvation. Let me ask you, Hopkins,—when you married, had not you an eye to the parish relief, in case you should come to distress?"
"Mayhap I might: and sure, a prudent man ought to look forward to the changes and chances that may happen in life; for then he is the better able to provide for them when they do come."
"Better provide against their coming at all," replied Stubbs; "but you counted not on your own efforts, but on the parish for helping you in distress."
"And could I do better, when the law makes such a provision for those that come to poverty, and can't help themselves out of it?"
"They would not have got into it if the law did not make such a provision for them. You yourself own you would not have married so early, had you not reckoned on the parish. Others would not either: families would have been smaller; labourers would have been fewer; they would more easily have got employment; ay, and have been better paid too."
"Why, that is just all I have been telling my wife; but I never thought the poor's rate had any thing to do with it. I am sure our distress all comes from having too many children; not from the poor's rate, which helps to maintain them."
"But what is it encourages large families?" cried Stubbs: "why, the poor's rate."—"What is it lowers wages?" retorted John: "why, the poor's rate; you can't deny that."
"No, I don't; but I tell you again it's the poor's rate that brings them to the brink of starvation; for, is it not large families, low wages, and want of work, that does it? Ay, and it is not receiving it only that does the damage; for, paying it, many a time, brings those to poverty who would else have been able to keep their heads above water."
"That's true enough of one I saw this morning at the vestry," said John; "and a hard matter I had to see her; for she wrapped herself up in her cloak, and pulled her bonnet over her face: but my heart misgave me,—it was the widow Dixon; and so I turned short upon her; and, when she saw me right before her, the blood came up into her face, which is, you know, as white as a sheet, and has been so ever since she lost poor Dixon, except round her eyes. And when I asked her how she came to be so reduced (thinking her husband had left her pretty well off), she said, 'No, Master Hopkins; he did all he could not to bring me down to a lower station while he lived; but his means were but small, and the profits of our little shop did but just serve to maintain us. We should have laid by a trifle every year, if it had not been for the poor's rate; but that eat up all our savings. However, I ought not to complain of it now, since it brings me relief; but it is hard to have shame and sorrow come upon me at once:' and the tears ran down her cheeks. I told her there was no shame in taking her own again. She, who had paid it so long, had more right to it than any of us. She said, 'God's will be done!' but she looked as though sorrow and shame would break her heart. It was sad to see her."
"And why should you needs be thrusting yourself upon her," cried his wife, "when you saw she had no mind to be noticed? You should just have let her have her way, poor woman, since you could not give her any help."
"Ay, but it lightens the load upon the heart when any one gives you a good word and a kind look, as much as to say, 'You should not have come to this pass if I could have helped you;' for the widow Dixon thinks more of the disgrace than of the want of bread, or she would not have been so shamefaced."
"Well, if the poor's rate goes on increasing and increasing, as it has done of late years, it is what we shall all come to at last," said the farmer; "and then who is to pay it?"
"Nay, it will never come to that pass, Master Stubbs."
"Mayhap not; but the time may come when the collector will not be able to raise the rate that is assessed: and that time is well nigh come in some parts of the country, as I can tell you, John, of my own knowledge; for, bad as the poor's rate is here, there are some places in which it is still worse; that is some comfort."
"Much good may it do you, Farmer Stubbs; but, to my mind, it is a poor comfort that comes from the distress of one's neighbour."
"As for that," returned Stubbs, "there is not much neighbourhood in the matter; for I am talking of the counties in the south of England, and that is some hundred miles off."
"Ay," but what does the Scripture teach us, Master Stubbs?" said Dame Hopkins; "to love our neighbour as ourselves; and that neighbour, the parson tells us, does not mean the next door neighbour only, no, nor the next market town, but every body and every where. So we ought not to get comfort from our neighbour's trouble any more than from our own."
"Well, but how is the poor's rate managed in the south?" said John.
"Why, I will tell you," replied Stubbs, "if your dame has ended her sermon. The men are paid according to the number of their children, not according to the value of their work."
"Well, but, asking your pardon, Master Stubbs, you said a bit ago, that farmers care much more for the goodness of the workman than for the number of his children; and that they will employ an able-bodied, hard-working man, without asking whether he be married or single."
"To be sure they will; but let me go on with my story. Well, as I was saying, this regulation began in Berkshire. The magistrates declared that it was very unfair that the single and the married should get the same wages; and as they could not oblige the farmers to give the one more than the other, they agreed to make up the difference from the poor's rate. So they made a table of the rate of wages; saying so much would maintain a single man, and then they doubled it for a married man with one or two children; then it went on so much more for five, and so much for seven children. Then, again, the wages were to depend on the price of bread also."
"Well, one must say that was very thoughtful of the magistrates," exclaimed the good wife, "and very humane too; I did not think they cared so much about the poor as to portion out his lot to each so fairly and honestly."
"Stop a bit, till you have heard the end of it, Dame; and then, if you give them credit for good will, you won't for clear-sightedness. I heard all about it from an uncle of mine, who is a landholder in those parts, and he says the poor's rate is intolerable to those that have to pay it; and as to those it maintains, they are worse off there than in any other part of the country."
"But how is that, when there is such a provision for them?"
"Why, when the regulation was first made, it did well enough, for a while. But no sooner did the young lads find that a married man got double wages, and more, too, if he had several children, than their heads were all agog after getting wives; for you know it is natural enough they should fancy the girls, when they get the money to boot. My uncle says, that he remembers the time when a decent young man never thought of a wife till he had put by forty or fifty pounds; and some, much more: but now, instead of working hard to save up the money, and so getting habits of industry before they marry, they take a wife in order to get the money without working for it, and so begin life with habits of indolence. Why, the magistrates might just as well have gone about driving the young couples into church, as you would sheep into a fold. Well, the next year the children swarm, increased rates must be raised; and so it goes on year after year, till the young ones grow up fit for work. But there is no work for such numbers; and they come more and more upon the parish, till at last the parish is forced to give in, and can't keep to its agreement, for no rate will satisfy so many mouths. So then the youngsters fall to grumbling, and after that to poaching and pilfering; for when a man cannot get a livelihood honestly by his labour, he is little like to resist a temptation that falls in his way to get it otherwise, especially when he has been bred up to indolence: then come prisons, and trials, and transportations, and sometimes the gallows; and though it is no more than their deserts, they won't put up with it; and so, at last, they come to rioting, and sending threatening letters, and burning of farms, and all that sort of thing, as you know they did last autumn."
"God forgive them, poor souls!" ejaculated the good wife, "seeing it is no fault of theirs, but of their parents, who brought them into the world before there was room for them."
"Yes, but they should know how to behave themselves when they are in it," replied Stubbs.
"Where is the use of being industrious and hard-working," cried John, "when you get nothing by it? We don't work for the pleasure of the thing, Master Stubbs, as you well know, but for the gain it brings us; and if the parish will maintain them without it, they won't wear themselves out for nothing. And then as for laying by forty or fifty pounds, as you said they did formerly, why, it would be impossible with these regulations, even if they had no mind to marry; for, while wages are so low to a single man, he can make no savings."
"When wages were alike to all," said Stubbs, "the single man had to spare, and could lay by, though the married one was straitened."
"And do you call that fair and honest," said the dame, "to straiten the man with a family, in order to give the single man more than he can spend?"
"I believe it is wise and prudent, wife," said Hopkins: "for, instead of driving the lads into wedlock, it would make them keep out of it; at least, till they had got somewhat to maintain a wife and family."
"True enough," said Stubbs; "so you see that this humane regulation of the magistrates encourages idleness just as much as it encourages early marriages, and a superabundance of children."
"But the worst of all," said the wife, "is, that it teaches them to be idle, discontented, and riotous, and madly to burn the very ricks of corn that might have made them bread."
"Yes, my uncle said, that the labourers now-a-days were quite different from what they used to be. Their characters quite changed within his memory; not but there maybe some among them right-minded still, but, take the general run, they are a bad set. There was one of them so impudent as to say to his employer,—'If you don't give me better wages, I will marry to-morrow, and then you must maintain me at double cost.' For the fellow was sharp enough to know, that, though the magistrates paid the difference, it came out of the farmer's pocket in the shape of poor's rate."
"But when the parish maintains them, the parish ought to make them work," said John.
"So they do, as far as they can: they send them round to the farmers in gangs, and when the farmer can find them work, they pay the wages to the parish, who let them come off cheap, as they help to maintain these paupers."
"The more fools they!" cried John; "for the farmer will turn off his labourers at regular wages to employ these cheaper hands, and then these others will come upon the parish too."
"And cruel it is," said the wife, "upon those that are turned out of their natural work by these gangs, and so forced to go upon the parish themselves."
"However," continued Stubbs, "the farmers find they make no great savings by employing these gangs of roundsmen, as they call them, for they don't do half the work of a common day labourer."
"Why should they?" cried John—"do little, do much, they get no reward but their maintenance; just like an ox, or a horse, that won't work without the whip."
"Or like the negro slaves in the West Indies," said Stubbs, "who want the whip, too, to stir their indolence."
"What a sin and a shame," cried the dame, "to use men like negro slaves and brute beasts!"
"Why, it all comes of your fair, honest, and humane regulations made by the magistrates," cried the farmer, laughing at her.
"It is no laughing matter, methinks, Master Stubbs: you may be in the right, and I in the wrong; and if I am, why I am free to confess it. But I can't but think that, in all this talk, you have had more an eye to your own interest, than to the good of others."
"And if my interest, and the good of others, go along together cheek by jowl, where is the harm of thinking of one's own interest? Let us each take care of number one, say I."
"No objections to that," said the dame, "if you don't forget number two when your interests don't jog on together."
"Well, I maintain that it would be for the good of one and all to put down these poor's rates. Did you ever hear what a sum they amount to?—Why, above six millions."
"Gracious me!" cried the wife, "what a power of money that must be!"
"Well, and all this to be employed in doing more harm than good,—for I don't pretend to say that it does no good. No; when the large families are there, and distress and poverty keep close at their heels, then the poor's rate lends a helping hand, it is true. But it is a treacherous friend, that pretends to do a mighty deal of good by giving you a mouthful, after it has taken away a whole meal. You don't think of the lost meal, because you never saw it, and don't understand it. But just think a bit: if this enormous sum of money, instead of being paid in poor's rate, was employed in setting people to work; why, the poor would earn the same money by labour that they get now as paupers, and the hard-working and industrious would come in for the best share, which now falls to the lot of idle vagabonds."
"There is some sense in all that, no doubt," said John; "but still, though we should get the money another way, there would not be enough for all, any more than there is now."
"I don't know that," replied Farmer Stubbs, "for the poor's rate is the root of the evil; and if you cut down the tree, root and branch, there is no saying how much good may come of it. Poor folks would not marry so early in life, and have such swarms of children; in the course of time labourers would become scarce, and they would get higher wages; and so, after a while, all would be set to rights."
"If there never had been any poor's rate, perhaps it would have been better; but now that we have the large families, and the low wages, and the want of work, we can't do without it."
"The more is the harm of having brought the poor to such a condition," said Stubbs; "but it might be done by degrees."
"I don't see how, except by starving half our children; and I shan't agree to that, I promise you."
"Mercy on me!" interposed the wife, raising up her hands, "how can you talk after that manner, husband? And how can you put such thoughts into his head, Master Stubbs?"
"No, no, I am not so hard-hearted as that comes to," said Stubbs: "but suppose a law was made that no child born after three or four years from this time should be entitled to parish relief, why, that would give time for people to think of the consequences; large families would thus be discouraged; and when those who receive relief from the parish died off in the course of nature, why, the poor's rate would die of a natural death too; for if there was none to want it, it would not be raised; so the landholders would get their own again, the labourers higher wages and plenty of work, and the world would jog on merrily."
"Ay, but do what you will, Master Stubbs, a poor man is always falling in with bad luck: first there is sickness; then there are accidents."
"Here and there a case," said Stubbs; "but that is not an every-day evil: besides, when a man gets good wages, he may put aside a penny against the unlucky day, and lock it up safe in the club-box, that he may not be tempted in a merry freak to spend it at the alehouse; or, what is better still, he may put it in the savings' bank, where it is safe and sure, and gives you interest into the bargain. Besides, you know, John, that in case of accident there is no want of hospitals, where there are as skilful doctors, and as handy nurses, as the rich have themselves. And then the great folks are, many of them, very good to the poor in case of need, and would do still more for them when they knew they had not the parish to go to for help."
"Well, it is a hard matter to understand the right and the wrong of these things," said John; "and if we did not feel them any more than we can understand them, why, I should not trouble my head about them. But a hungry stomach is apt to make one discontented, and turn it in one's mind how things might be changed for the better. They are bad enough now, God knows! so I am one that would not object to make trial of some change, if it were done fairly and softly."
"Well, I hope we shall live to see it," said the farmer, taking up his hat; "and so a good day to you, John; and to you, too, dame, if you bear me no ill will."
Dame Hopkins contented herself with dropping him a slight curtsy as he went out; and no sooner was he gone, than she exclaimed, "Have a care, John, how you lend an ear to that man, though he is one of your betters; for it is as clear as broad day that he thinks of nothing but his own good."
"Ay, one may see that with half an eye," said John; "but for all that, he has his wits about him, and knows more than I do of these matters; and I can't but think that what he said was very near the truth."
"True or false," cried the dame, "I can't abide to hear him talk in so hard-hearted a manner."
"Ay, but the matter is much more to the point than the manner; and I do agree with him, that, if we understood it rightly, the interest of the rich and poor might go hand in hand, like a loving man and wife, who, though they may fall out now and then, jog on together till death parts them."
"Ah, John! if the husband were rich, and the wife poor, they would not long go on lovingly together."
"Well, you won't believe me, because you don't understand it; but come, now, Tom shall read you a fable, and an apt one it is,—it shows how the rich stand in need of the poor, as much as the poor in need of the rich; and if so, their interests must lie the same way."
Then he called Tom to bring his book, and bade him read the Fable of the Belly and the Members.
Tom, who had been some time monitor at the Village School, began in an audible voice, and we shall leave them to their lecture.