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The Progress of the Nation page 17


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But Firmin had not studied the- dry rules of political' economy, and had, therefore, no objection to give money too where he saw it was needed. He had studied in the school of Christ, who said, "The poor ye have always with you;" and, "What you do to one of these little ones you do also unto me." He was not, like Miss Martineau, in her "Tales of Political Economy," opposed to all almshouses and hospitals, lest people should calculate on them and grow lazy. Concerning this work-house and the spinners, Mr. Firmin would often say that, "to pay the spinners, to relieve 'em with money begged for 'em, with coals and sheeting, was to him such a pleasure as magnificent buildings, pleasant walks, well-cultivated orchards and gardens, the jollity of music and wine, or the charms of love or study are to others."

The East India and Guinea Companies, as well as many other parties and persons, took his goods off his hands; and the fire of London following the plague, gave him plenty of work to do in the way of assisting the destitute. He added woollen spinning and weaving to that of flax and hemp; but after all he considered the making of linens the most adapted to employ the people in such circumstances. "I know of no commodity of the like value," he says, "that can be set up with less stock. Three parts of four, even of that cloth which comes not to above two shillings an ell, will be paid for work to the spinner and weaver; and many times a woman will spin a pound of flax, that cost but sixpence or sevenpence, to that fineness, that she will receive twelve- pence or fourteenpence for her pains, which will make an ell of cloth worth three shillings; at which rate five parts of six will be paid for labour; nay, sometimes I have seen a pound of flax, not worth above one and sixpence at most, spun to that fineness that it hath been worth ten shillings; and' in other parts I have seen a pound of flax of not much higher value spun to that fineness that it hath been worth three or four pounds sterling."

Firmin next set children to work in schools of industry - a plan again introduced as new in our own day. The idea, he confesses, came from abroad, but he had the honour of introducing it here. "I have," he says, "at this time some children working for me, not above seven or eight years old, who are able to earn twopence a day, and some, that are a little older, two shillings a week; and I doubt not to bring any child about that age to do the like; and still, as they grow up and become proficients, even in this poor trade of spinning, they will be able to get more and spin better than older people. Neither would I have those schools confined only to spinning, but to take in knitting, and make lace or plain work, or any other work which children shall be thought most' fit for." He then refers to the foreign practice, and to the fact of children being employed at Norwich, where it was computed that they had earned twelve thousand pounds more than they had spent in knitting fine Jersey stockings.

This was a plan admirable for teaching children all kinds of businesses and household work, but liable to. enormous abuses; and the trading community seized on it and carried it into coal mines, and cotton and other factories, to that fearful extent of cruelty that compelled the legislature of our time to step in and protect the unhappy children. Firmin's honest and benevolent mind did not foresee this evil use of the idea; yet he was by no means incautious. He used to beg often as much as five hundred pounds a year, and distribute it amongst the poor; but he always took pains to inquire into cases of real necessity, and visited the sufferers in their own houses to convince himself of their actual necessities.

In Yarranton, Gouge, and Firmin we see the pioneers of that great host of philanthropists who have from time to time followed in their steps, till now the whole country is alive with schools, ragged schools, reformatories, schemes of industry, and the thousand institutions which are on foot to improve the condition, of the poor. In this age we see the germs of that vast manufacturing system which has made one great workshop of the island, and caused its redundant population to overflow to the amount of nearly a quarter of a. million a year into other countries and hemispheres, carrying their industrious habits and skill to found new nations. Indeed, taking altogether the age under review, notwithstanding the dissoluteness of the government and hardness of the upper and middle classes, and the rudeness of the lower, it was an epoch in which the elements of future greatness were rife. The same rigour and independence which punished the tyranny of Charles I. and erected the commonwealth, though they seemed to recede again, in Charles II.'s reign, again displayed themselves under James II., and, driving away the impracticable Stuarts, Established an elective monarchy, the bill of rights, and exercise of religious freedom. In this period philanthropy became united with manufacturing and commercial enterprise, whence have sprung the glory and greatness, of England; and at this period, too, in the writings of Child, Davenant, Petty, and others, dawn the first principles of political economy, afterwards elaborated into a system by Adam Smith, and still perfecting itself, as a science by the correction of its errors, and the blending of a spirit of humanity with its original exactness of deduction. The great principles of the Commonwealth moulding the monarchy at the close of this period to its demands, settled, permanently the liberties and the ascendancy of the English race.

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Pictures for The Progress of the Nation page 17

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