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The Redress of Wrongs I page 2


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Public feeling now urgently demanded that the reformed Parliament should care for the education of the people. It was yet the day of very small things. A grant of <20,000 was voted, the money to be expended by the National and the British and Foreign School Societies. Such was the lowly origin of the present system of national education. For a few years the same amount was annually voted, - surely a modest contribution to the education of a million of utterly untaught children. In 1839 it was increased to 30,000. It was not without difficulty that this enlarged amount was obtained. The vote by which it was carried was 275 to 273. The educated portions of the community were themselves sadly in want of education. Many of the upper and middle classes cherished and avowed a deeply rooted dislike to the education of the poor, as tending to discontent and an overthrow of that orderly subordination without which society cannot exist ("The principle was reverenced as indisputable, that the ignorance of the people was necessary to their obedience of law." - Lord Cookburn).

The Reform Bill did not bestow upon the people the privilege of self-government in their local affairs. The government of many English burghs was virtually private property. In others, the local authorities were chosen by a small number of the old freemen, - poor, demoralized, and greedy of bribes. The administration of affairs was worthy of its origin. The funds of the community were expended to secure control of Parliamentary elections. Even charitable endowments, the heritage of the poor, were habitually employed in the purchase of votes. In Scotland the municipal government appointed its successors, and the people endured the humiliation of witnessing their resources applied to purposes of which they disapproved, at the irresponsible will of men whom they despised. This anomaly was quickly marked for destruction. It was unreasonable that the men who voted in the election of a member of Parliament should be without voice in the appointment of a town councillor. The old abuses were indefensible, and they were with little difficulty abolished. In the English burghs, the whole body of ratepayers were in future to appoint their civic rulers; in Scotland, the privilege was limited to those who had the right of voting in Parliamentary elections. The reign of fraud and injustice was closed, and the citizens gained fitness for the duties of citizenship by the habitual exercise of its rights.

The evils of pauperism in England had become unendurable, and it was felt that some attempt to remedy them could no longer be delayed. According to the wise practice which about that time came into frequent use, a commission of inquiry was appointed, that legislation might be based on competent knowledge. The investigation of the commissioners revealed a system "destructive to the industry, forethought, and honesty of the labourers; to the wealth and morality of the employers of labour, and of the owners of property; and to the mutual goodwill and happiness of all." The enormous cost of the system - nearly eight million sterling - was not by any means its most serious aspect. It was achieving with appalling rapidity the utter demoralization of the English peasantry. Already the wholesome repugnance to accept the pauper's dole had become almost extinct. In some counties men refused to work, as they preferred the easier and ampler maintenance of the parish. Wages were supplemented from the rates, and in consequence fell so low that they ceased to yield support to the labourer. There were whole parishes in which the labourers were paid partly by their employers and partly from the rates. There were other parishes where cultivation actually ceased, because the revenue yielded by the land was not equal to the sum exacted for support of the poor. Relief was demanded as a right, and in some counties was avowedly given to all who applied. Pauperism had become hereditary. Once conceded to the applicant, the privilege was continued during life, and transmitted to his idle and debased progeny. Money thus acquired was spent freely in vicious indulgence. Tradesmen bribed the parish officers to obtain for them contracts at unjust prices. The parochial administration with fatal rapidity was corrupting the poor, and consuming the substance of the rich.

So deeply were these evils felt that some voices were raised for the total abolition of poor-laws as the only cure. Parliament enacted that out-door relief of the able-bodied, except in cases of emergency, should cease. Henceforth the pauper would not ordinarily receive money to be expended at his discretion; he would receive food and lodging, in order to obtain which he must accept the restraints of a strictly governed workhouse. The supplementing of wages from the rates was forbidden. A central board, with large powers, was appointed to direct the administration of the law. A vast and most beneficent change in the condition of the English peasantry takes its date from that day. Two years after, wages had risen; the able-bodied paupers had found employment, and were self-supporting. The rates had diminished forty per cent. There was, gradually, a marked change for the better is the habits of the working people, and a marked decrease of illegitimate births. But this amelioration has not been progressive; indeed, it has not been permanent. In course of years the practice of giving out-door relief became once more so habitual that now only about one-ninth of the paupers enter the workhouse. One person in every twenty is a pauper (In Scotland the proportion is one in twenty-three. In Ireland-a poorer country, where the workhouse test is more strictly enforced-the proportion is one m seventy-four). The annual cost of pauperism in England and Wales exceeds seven million sterling. Nor is the expense of the system its greatest evil. It is a yet greater calamity that so large a proportion of the people have fallen so low as to compete for a disgraceful maintenance out of the earnings of others rather than undergo the labour by which they might honourably support themselves.

It was fitting, in a country whose citizens were assuming the direction of their own affairs, that easy access should be enjoyed to such political information as an unfettered newspaper press may be expected to convey. The heavy tax of fourpence on each copy rendered the newspaper a very occasional luxury to a working-man. The newspapers of the kingdom had only three hundred thousand readers, and their entire circulation was no more than thirty-six million, copies annually. The growing thirst for intelligence rendered the tax peculiarly offensive. The revenue which it yielded fell off year by year, notwithstanding the increase in the circulation of newspapers. The excessive tax resulted in an open defiance of the law. The government owned that every effort had been made to suppress unstamped newspapers, but made in vain. It was urgently necessary to modify a tax against which public opinion pronounced thus emphatically. The Whig government proposed to reduce it to one penny. They were resisted with predictions of "a cheap and profligate press." It was urged that the people were not asking for cheap newspapers, but that they were solicitous of cheap soap. They could read the high-priced newspaper in a coffee-house as easily as if it were cheapened; while the high price of soap inflicted filth and disease on the very persons whose minds government professed a desire to illuminate. But the House, unmoved by these appeals, struck the fetters from the newspapers, and sent them forth on a career of boundless expansion and inestimable usefulness. A considerable reduction of the duty on paper still further satisfied the lovers of cheap literature.

The postal system of the country presented some features which proved that it was not adequately meeting the wants of the people. During the twenty years which followed the termination of the war population and commerce had largely increased, but the revenue of the post-office had remained stationary. This could result only from restriction imposed by the excessive price charged. The rates were indeed so high as almost to forbid the use of the post-office by the poor, and injuriously to limit its use even for commercial correspondence. The conveyance of a single letter from London to such distances as Aberdeen or Belfast cost one shilling and fourpence; from London, to Brighton, eightpence. In defiance of law, vast numbers of letters were sent by carrier or other forbidden channels. Peers and members of Parliament had the privilege, practically unlimited, of franking letters. Every one who had access to such a dignitary solicited from him a store of franks, to be used as occasion required, for the free transmission of correspondence.

In 1837 Mr. Rowland Hill offered to the country a daring suggestion. He proposed that all the existing rates of postage should be abolished, and their place taken by a uniform rate of one penny, irrespective of distance, with prepayment by means of stamps. The post-office officials pronounced with emphasis against this revolutionary scheme. Sir Robert Peel - not yet liberalized - condemned it without reserve. But the country at once and warmly approved it; a committee of the House of Commons recommended it; and Parliament adopted it. Our example was gradually followed by every civilized state.

The results of this great measure have largely exceeded the hopes of its most sanguine supporters. Under the old system the correspondence of the British people averaged four letters annually for each of them. In 1875 the average had risen to thirty-three. The incredible aggregate of over a thousand million of letters and post-cards was reached. Of newspapers and book-packets two hundred and fifty-nine million were carried. The gross revenue of the post-office was five million and a half sterling. The net profit realized was one million eight hundred thousand pounds.

The horrors inflicted upon women and children of tender years by their employment in mines and collieries had been fully exposed to public view by the report of a Parliamentary commission. There was such a concord of opinion, on that terrible subject as made legislation easy. A measure introduced by Lord Ashley passed through both Houses with little opposition and without important change. Henceforth women were forbidden, to work in mines. Children were not suffered to be employed until they were ten years of age, and then with limitation of the hours of work. Government officers were appointed to exercise supervision over mines, and secure the observance of this salutary enactment.

Very early in the century public feeling began to disapprove of the excessive severities of the penal code. But in those days public feeling did not translate itself quickly into legislative action. The law had to be endured, but its harshness was largely mitigated by the merciful obliquity of jurymen. It was a capital offence to steal from the person or from a shop an article of the value of five shillings, or from a dwelling or vessel on a navigable river an article of the value of forty shillings; but it became impossible to persuade a jury that any stolen article was so valuable (Sir Samuel Romilly gives some curious instances of the verdicts which humane jurors returned during the prevalence of those terrible laws. A woman confessed that she had stolen 5 from a dwelling. It was money she stole, and there was therefore no ambiguity on the question of value. But, in spite of her confession, the jury found that the amount was only thirty-nine shillings. - Two men were engaged jointly in a, theft from a shop. One of the two gained the good graces of the jury, who found that the value of his theft was four shillings and tenpence, and he escaped. The other had the misfortune to be less acceptable to the jury. His valuation was fixed at five shillings, and he was hanged.). Thus theft was growing to be a privileged occupation, the following of which could not be effectively reached by law. The penalty was tremendous, but the machinery which alone could inflict that penalty refused to be put in operation (The harshness of the law was still further mitigated by the increasing frequency with which the prerogative of the crown was exercised. Down to 1756 about two-thirds of the condemned were actually brought to the scaffold; from 1756 to 1772 the proportion sinks to about one-half; between 1802 and 1808 it is no more than one-eighth. Dr. Paley argues in favour of a liberal condemnation of criminals, tempered by a liberal exercise of royal mercy. It is impossible, he asserts, for the law to discriminate with sufficient accuracy between the shades of crime. It is therefore better to sweep into the net every crime which under any possible circumstances can merit death, and leave it with the crown to pardon those offenders for whose crime death would be an excessive punishment.).

In 1808, Sir Samuel Romilly, a good man and an eminent lawyer, began to seek the mitigation of this pitiless code. He laboured strenuously for ten years, but it was his only to sow (Romilly died by his own hand in 1818, during a temporary derangement of mind resulting from domestic affliction); other men were to reap. He was able to do no more than exempt from death the crimes of picking pockets and stealing from bleach-fields. He persuaded the House of Commons to strike various other offences from the roll of those for which the punishment was death; but the Peers were less merciful, and maintained without further abatement the terrors of the law.

Sir James Mackintosh took up with success the cause of the over-punished criminal. In 1820 the mind of the Upper House ripened a little towards mercy. It ceased then to be a capital offence to poach by night; unless, truly, the offender blackened his face, for which enormity no pity could be shown. The protection of the gallows was now withdrawn from "Westminster Bridge. A gipsy might at length remain for a year in the same locality without danger of expiating his wickedness by death. Even a known thief found in one of the northern counties might hope to live unharmed if he did not anew provoke the resentment of the law.

Very slowly the relaxation proceeded until 1832, when the progress became less timid. During the next few years many crimes ceased to be punished by death. It was long before the mitigation reached the stealing of cattle and sheep, that being an offence against the majesty of the agricultural interest. The legislature manifested an. impartial reluctance to spare the forger. At first, Parliament consented to exempt only certain classes of forgeries; and it cost several years, and three several acts of Parliament, before forgery of every degree ceased to be visited with death. After 1834 it was no longer permitted to behead the body of the slain criminal, or dissect it, or hang it in chains. Hitherto the counsel of a prisoner under trial for felony was not permitted (except in Scotland) to address the jury on behalf of his client. In 1836 that privilege was conceded, not without considerable opposition. Until this year a criminal condemned to death had but one clear day between sentence and execution. For that day his sustenance was bread and water, and no friend was allowed access to him. All these needless cruelties were now done away. In 1837 the list of capital offences was further abridged, till it contained no more than seven. The record of sentences passed in these years shows how rapidly the relaxation now progressed. In 1834 there were pronounced four hundred and eighty sentences of death, but only one hundred and sixteen in 1838. In the former year eight hundred and ninety-four persons were sentenced to banishment for life, but in the latter only two hundred and sixty-six. A few changes had still to be made; but the triumph of mercy, after thirty years of effort, was now substantially complete.

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