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Chapter XXX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7


Condition of the Poor in Ireland - Sir George Nicholls's History of the Irish Poor Law - Hereditary Vagrancy and Social Disorder - Commission of Inquiry; its Reports - Existing Provision for the relief of the Poor - Enormous amount of Destitution - Remedies proposed - The Voluntary System - Dissentient Commissioners, Mr. Bicheno and Mr. Cornewall Lewis - Recommendation on the subject in the King's Speech - Three Poor Law Bills introduced - Mr. Poulett Scrope - Lord Morpeth - Mr. Nicholls's Mission to Ireland; his Instructions; his Inquiries - Signs of National Improvement - Demoralising Effects of Mendicity - Social Habits of the Peasantry - Support of the Poor thrown entirely on the Industrial Classes - Public Opinion in favour of a Legal Relief for the Poor - Subdivision of Land - Excess of Population - A Cycle of Evils - Workhouse Test - Mr. Nicholls's Report the Basis of the Irish Poor Law - The Measure introduced by Lord John Russell - Progress of the Measure in Parliament arrested by the Death of the King.
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The great seal had remained in commission ever since the resignation of Sir Robert Peel, and it was supposed to be reserved for lord Brougham, till the king's objections to his re-appointment should be overcome. But on the 1st of January, 1836, Sir Charles Pepys, master of the rolls, was appointed to the office of lord chancellor, and created a peer by the title of lord Cottenham. At the same time Mr. Henry Bickersteth, appointed master of the rolls, was called to the upper house by the title of baron Langdale. Parliament was opened by the king in person on the 4th of February, in a speech remarkable for the number and variety of its topics. It gave the usual assurances of the maintenance of friendly relations with all foreign powers - expressed regret at the continuance of the civil contest in the northern provinces of Spain, and hope of a successful result to our mediation between France and the United States. Referring to domestic affairs, the state of commerce and manufactures was declared to be highly satisfactory; but difficulties continued to press on agriculture. Measures were to be submitted for increasing the efficiency of the church, for the commutation of tithes, for alleviating the grievances of dissenters; and improvements in the administration of justice were recommended, especially in the court of chancery. The special attention of parliament was directed to the condition of the poor of Ireland, and it was suggested that as experience had proved the salutary effect of the Poor Law Amendment Act in England, a similar measure might be found useful in alleviating the social condition of Ireland. Allusion was also made to the reform of Irish corporations, and the adjustment of the Irish tithe question, which we have already disposed of in the preceding pages. Chiefly with reference to these questions, amendments to the address were moved in both houses; in the upper by the duke of Wellington, whose amendment was carried without a division -, and in the lower by Sir Robert Peel, whose motion was rejected by a majority of 284 against 243.

On the 8th of February lord John Russell brought forward the paragraph of the speech relating to agricultural distress, and moved for a select committee to inquire into the causes of the depression of the agricultural interest, although he confessed that he did not anticipate any satisfactory result from the investigation. In this the noble lord did not miscalculate, for after sitting for eight months, the committee could not agree to any report, and all the benefit they conferred upon the public was an outline of the evidence which was laid before the house at the end of the session. On the 9th and the 12th the same minister submitted three measures to the house, which were passed into law this session - namely, a bill for the commutation of tithes in England; a bill for a general registration of marriages, births, and deaths; and another for the amendment of the law of marriage. On the 16th of this month Mr. Hardy brought before the house of commons the case of Mr. O'Connell and Mr. Raphael. The latter gentleman was one of the sheriffs of London, and he wished to represent an Irish constituency. Mr. O'Connell thought it was possible to get him in for the borough of Carlow; but he warned him that the expenses would be 2,000, and that this sum should be deposited in bank as a preliminary, " say 2,000." It was alleged that this was a corrupt bargain, and Mr. O'Connell was accused of selling a parliamentary seat. Mr. Hardy, therefore, moved for a select committee to investigate the transaction. The committee was obtained, and the result was a complete acquittal of Mr. O'Connell.

Attention was now turned to a matter of the highest importance, in a commercial, an intellectual, and a moral point of view. The stamp duty on newspapers had been the subject of keen agitation for some months, and newspaper vendors had incurred repeated penalties for the sale of unstamped newspapers; some of them having been not only fined, but imprisoned. A general conviction prevailed that such an impost was impolitic, if not unjust, and that the time had come when the diffusion of knowledge must be freed from the trammels by which it had been so long restrained. It is certain that the expenses of government must be borne by the governed; and it is a subject of interesting inquiry whether this should be accomplished by direct or indirect taxation, or in what proportion by both: but there can be no question that it should be fleeted in the way least calculated to oppress the payer, and, above all, least likely to impede his progress in the improvement of his condition. It is clear that any taxation which acts as a hindrance to commercial, intellectual, and moral progress must be highly objectionable, since, in reality, a far greater sacrifice is made than is represented by the sum which is actually contributed. Numerous excise regulations of former times were mischievous in this way; they placed the greatest obstacles in the path of the manufacturer, prevented him from making the experiments which were necessary to bring his product to perfection, and tied him down to a system of manipulation which, in many cases, was the very worst that could have been selected. Many, but not all, of these incongruities have been got rid of, by a more correct knowledge of the principles of political economy. The evil of unwise interference becomes yet more serious when the mischief is done, not merely to the commercial prosperity, but to the moral and intellectual condition of the country; and this occurs to its fullest extent when the taxation imposed presses upon those manufactures which are indispensable to moral and intellectual improvement, or impedes the diffusion of knowledge. The former is evidently the effect of a duty on paper, and the latter of requiring that newspapers should be stamped. The immediate loss to the revenue was long a great obstacle to the removal of even the most obnoxious taxation; but it was ultimately found that, from causes which are now obvious enough, such diminution always results, at no distant period, in augmenting the income of the state; and still further experience showed that the total removal of a mischievous impost not only increases the commercial wealth, and therefore the ability to meet the legitimate demands of the government, but indirectly augments the very revenue itself. And so important is every circumstance connected with the levying of taxes, that not only their amount, but the mode of collecting them may seriously affect the results. Hence, when, about the commencement of the present century, the duty on paper was divided into three, instead of seven classes, the increase in the quantity manufactured became so considerable that the amount received by the excise was very soon six times, and ultimately twenty times as great as it had ever been before. But that diminution of the duty of which we are to speak presently gave an immense impetus to the manufacture, and, by increasing the number of hands employed, not only in the paper-mills themselves, but also in those branches of trade which were indirectly affected, added immensely to our commercial prosperity. The increase of our wealth was, however, only a small part of the benefit conferred by a wise legislation in this matter; much more has been gained by the greater facilities for obtaining a sound moral and religious education enjoyed at present. The wide diffusion of useful knowledge was rendered easy, ' by the concession now made, by parliament, in the spirit that led immediately to a diminution of the duty on paper, without which any other boon must be of very limited advantage. A deputation, consisting of Dr. Birkbeck, Mr. Hume, colonel Thompson, Mr. O'Connell, Mr. Grote, Mr. Roebuck, Mr. Brotherton, Mr. Wallace, and Mr. Buckingham, having, on the 11th of February, waited upon lord Melbourne, to ask for an entire abolition of the stamp on newspapers, he promised to give his most serious attention to the matter; and he kept his word, for on the 15th of the next month the chancellor of the exchequer brought the subject before parliament, and announced the intentions of government with regard to it. He stated that it was proposed to revise the whole of the existing law respecting stamp duties, first by consolidating into one statute the 150 acts of parliament over which the law was at present distributed; secondly, by the apportionment of the various rates on a new principle - namely, by the simple and uniform rule of making the price of the stamp in every case correspond to the pecuniary value involved in the transaction for which it is required. The effect of this change would be to reduce the stamp duty upon indentures of apprenticeship, bills of lading, and many others of the more common instruments, and to increase it upon mortgages and conveyances of large amounts of property. It was intimated that the proposed consolidation act would contain no less than 330 sections. With regard to the stamp on newspapers, then fourpence with discount, it was proposed to reduce it to one penny without discount. This would be a remission of a proportion, varying according to the price of the newspaper, of between two-thirds and three-fourths of the tax. To this remission parliament assented, and the illicit circulation of unstamped papers was in consequence abandoned. Some of the members very reasonably objected to any stamp whatever on newspapers; but the time was not yet come when government would venture entirely to remove it, although the advantages which must necessarily arise from such a proceeding could not but have been foreseen. It was considered unfair that the public at large should pay for the carriage of newspapers by post; and it does not seem to have been remembered that, as only a portion of them would be transmitted in this way, an injustice would be committed by demanding payment for all. The difficulty of the case was, however, in due time, easily surmounted; and political knowledge was, by the change even then made, in a great degree exempted from taxation - a good preparation for the time, which was not very far off, when a newspaper of a high order might be obtained, even for the reduced price of the stamp. This was the only part of the scheme of the chancellor of the exchequer which was now carried into effect; but the advantages which resulted soon became evident, since the circulation of newspapers became four times as great as it had been, even taking into account the increase in the population. The wonderful effects produced by the total removal of the duty on paper, and of the stamp on newspapers, will be noticed at the proper time, but they may be easily anticipated.

The condition of the Irish poor, and the expediency of a state provision for their support, had long been a subject of anxious consideration with the imperial government and the legislature, and also with public men of every party who took an interest in the state of the country. It was at length resolved that something should be done for their regular relief. Sir George Nicholls has shown, in his valuable history of the Irish poor law, that as early as 1310 the Irish parliament assembled at Kilkenny resolved that none should keep Irish, or kern, in time of peace to live upon the poor of the country; " but those which will have them shall keep them at their own charges, so that the free tenants and farmers be not charged with them." And 130 years afterwards, the parliament assembled in Dublin declared that divers of the English were in the habit of maintaining sundry thieves, robbers, and rebels, and that they were to be adjudged traitors for so doing, and suffer accordingly. In 1450, this class of depredators having increased very much, and by their "thefts and man' slaughters caused the land to fall into decay, and poverty wasting it every day more and more; whereupon it was ordained that it should be lawful for every liege man to kill or take notorious thieves, and thieves found robbing, spoiling, or breaking houses; and that every man that kills or takes any such thieves, shall have one penny of every plough, and one farthing of every cottage within the barony where the manslaughter is done for every thief." These extracts show a very barbarous state of society, but Sir George Nicholls remarks that at the same period the condition of England and Scotland was very similar, save only that that of Ireland was aggravated by the civil conflicts between the colonists and the natives. There was a constant effort made in Ireland by various enactments to put down this evil, and to provide employment for the large numbers that were disposed to prey upon the industry of their neighbours, by robbery, beggary, and destruction of property. There was indeed always in Ireland a large number of vagrants, called in the old times "cosherers and idle wanderers," including a number of "young gentlemen" who would not apply themselves to labour or honest industry, but lived idly and inordinately, "coshering" upon the country with their horses and greyhounds, and preying upon the poor farmers, drinking, and gambling. So that the evils that have been complained of so much in modern times are of long standing, deep-rooted in the natural disposition of many of the people, and therefore with difficulty eradicated. Vagabonds and strolling beggars were always a large class of the community, and the impoverished condition of the industrious classes, thus preyed upon, was not a matter for surprise. The wonder, indeed, is that society could have existed at all under such circumstances. For a series of years inquiry after inquiry had been instituted by commissions and committees with a view to devise means of amelioration, but without leading to any satisfactory result. At the close of 1835 there had been a poor law commission in existence for more than two years, consisting of men specially selected on account of their fitness for the task, and standing high in public estimation, including the protestant and Roman catholic archbishops of Dublin. They were appointed, in September, 1833, "to inquire into the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland, and into the various institutions at present established by law for their relief, and also whether any and what further remedial measures appear to be requisite to ameliorate the condition of the Irish poor or any portion of them." In July, 1835, they made their first report, in which they refer to the various theories with which they were assailed in the course of their inquiries. "One party attributed all the poverty and wretchedness of the country to an asserted extreme use of ardent spirits, and proposed a system for repressing illicit distillation, for preventing smuggling, and for substituting beer and coffee. Another party found the cause in the combinations among workmen, and proposed rigorous laws against trades unions. Others, again, were equally confident that the reclamation of the bogs and waste lands was the only practical remedy. A fourth party declared the nature of the existing connection between landlord and tenant to be the root of all the evil. Pawnbroking, redundant population, absence of capital, peculiar religious tenets and religious differences, political excitement, want of education, the mal-administration of justice, the state of prison discipline, want of manufactures and of inland navigation, with a variety of other circumstances, were each supported by their various advocates with earnestness and ability, as being either alone, or conjointly with some other, the primary cause of all the evils of society; and loan-funds, emigration, the repression of political excitement, the introduction of manufactures, and the extension of inland navigation, were accordingly proposed each as the principal means by which the improvement of the country could be promoted."

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Pictures for Chapter XXX, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7

Mr. Brotherton
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Cottages of the peasantry
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View of Armagh
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