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Social Condition of Great Britain page 2

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The prison accommodation provided by the state was well fitted to reconcile criminals even to the gloomiest of all methods of deliverance. It was in 1773 that John Howard began his noble and fruitful researches among the prisons of England, but many years passed before remedies were found for the evils which he revealed. In Howard's time the jailer received no salary; nay, he often paid a considerable annual sum for the situation which he filled (The jailer of Northampton, for example, paid forty pounds a year for his place). He was remunerated by fees extracted at his own pleasure, and often by brutal violence, from the wretches who had fallen into his power. It was his privilege to sell their food to the prisoners, and to supply, at an extortionate price, the straw which served them for beds, unless they were content to sleep on the damp floor. To be acquitted of the charge on which he had been arrested did not imply that the prisoner was to regain his liberty. The payment of certain fees was an indispensable preliminary to the opening of the prison doors; and many who had been declared innocent of crime were detained for years, because they were unable to satisfy the exactions of their jailers.

The prisoners supported themselves by such forms of handicraft as best suited them. John Bunyan, during his occupancy of that "den" from which heavenly light streamed out upon the world, was diligent in the production of cotton laces. Facilities were given for the sale of these manufactures. The prisoners were allowed to stand outside the gate, chained by the ankle, and offer their wares to those who passed. Howard saw this done; and no doubt, a century before, the people of Bedford often saw John Bunyan similarly occupied. And then the prisoners were allowed to beg. If on the level of the street, they projected from the window a spoon fastened to a stick; if on a higher level, a stocking, suspended by a string, offered itself to the charitable passer-by. The grated openings of the prison were crowded by miserable wretches, who assailed with their piteous tale all who would listen to them.

The rooms in which the prisoners lived were small, dark, damp, and ordinarily crowded. No bed was provided; there was no ventilation; vermin swarmed; prison fevers from time to time swept off the unhappy captives. No provision was made for separation of the sexes. The child arrested for some petty offence was at once introduced to the society of old and hardened offenders, and subjected to its inevitable contamination (Lord Cockburn's description of Edinburgh prison, - the Heart of Midlothian, - which was used till near the close of the war, is applicable to British prisons generally. " A most atrocious jail it was, the very breath of which almost struck down any stranger who entered its dismal door. It was very small; the entire hole being filled with little dark cells; heavy manacles the only security; airless, waterless, drainless; a living grave. One week of that dirty, fetid, cruel torture-house was a severer punishment than a year of our worst modern prison." The prisons of France, at that time, were in advance of ours, and the food supplied was adequate. But generally on the Continent torture was habitually practised. In the prisons of Hanover a machine was used to tear off the hair of the offending wretches).

In the early period of English history the trouble of poverty and mendicancy prevailed to a grievous extent. The legislators of that time had no thought of removing the causes of these maladies, or of extending relief to the sufferers. Theirs was the simpler device of forcible suppression. A man might be poor, but he must endure, his poverty at home. In the fourteenth century begging was an offence, and especially begging beyond the district in which the mendicant had been born. The English poor were a restless people then. It was deemed that they had never settled down after the wanderings of the Crusades; but, perhaps, it is a juster inference that their home-life was not attractive or satisfying. As they wandered, they supported themselves by begging - enforcing their petitions by such an amount of threat as might suffice to obtain for them a favourable hearing. The law for some centuries gave its energies to the suppression of this practice, not looking at ail to the merciful alternative of relieving the deserving poor. In the time of Henry VIII. it was enacted that the "sturdy beggar" should be well whipped for his first offence, and have his ears cropped for the second. In the event of his proving so obdurate as to sin a third time, he was to be put to death as a felon (That the authorities were in earnest is made plain by the circumstance that during the whole of this reign the yearly average of persons hanged for vagrancy was two thousand). But the attempt to make men endure hunger in silence did not prosper. In the sixteenth century we find the dawn of a legislative provision for the impotent poor. At first the funds were to be raised by an appeal to those who were able to contribute, the clergy being directed to " exhort gently " those who were disinclined to the duty. This arrangement, as it might have been expected, proved disappointing; and a few years later power to enforce payment was given by an act of Queen Elizabeth. The regulations instituted by the wise government of that time continued in force till the year 1834.

Towards the close of the eighteenth century a change came over the spirit in which the poor-law had been administered. There set in with much energy a reaction against old severities, and a dangerous relaxation of strictness. It was not wholly or mainly an enhanced tenderness of feeling towards the poor which produced this reaction. It came to be understood that the poor were suffering, and were in consequence discontented. To avert the probable results of their dissatisfaction, an act was passed enlarging the powers of magistrates, and ordaining that relief should be given in such manner as would make the condition of the paupers comfortable. This law was construed with dangerous liberality. The able-bodied labourer who sought relief was no longer obliged to enter the poorhouse; money was given to him at his own home; insufficient wages were supplemented from the rates. The lowest class of persons obtained relief with such unwholesome facility that the condition of pauper became more desirable than that of self-supporting labourer. The cost of the system became intolerable. In 1801, four million sterling was expended in relief of the poor of England and Wales. In 1818, the amount had grown to nearly eight million. There were parishes in which the owners and farmers offered to give up their land, which could no longer be cultivated to a profit under the scourge of an intolerable poor-rate, and where the assembled paupers refused to accept the land of the parish, because "they liked the present system better." The paupers were the chief support of the beer-shops. The old law had worked fairly well during many generations; but the utter demoralization of the labouring class in the rural districts of England was now resulting from the altered spirit in which it was administered.

The size which our great cities had attained was inconsiderable in comparison with their present dimensions. London itself, instead of the monstrous city of nearly four million which we know it to be, held only one million of inhabitants. Manchester and Salford had a population of 110,000; Liverpool, of 100,000; Birmingham, of 85,000; Glasgow, of 100,000; Edinburgh and Leith, of 100,000; Dundee, of 33,000. There was no drainage, and the filth of the city lay festering on the streets, poisoning the unhappy people. The citizen who ventured forth of a winter night, supplemented by a lantern the feeble light of the scattered oil-lamps. Gas as yet was little known, except for indoor uses. Only in 1807 had it been tried in the streets of London. It was vehemently opposed with the prediction of ruin to existing interests, which has been urged against every beneficial change. Whale-fishing, it was said, would be destroyed; thousands of sailors, carpenters, and rope-makers would be ruined. But Parliament gave London leave to light her streets, and soon the cheerful blaze chased away the foul creatures who were wont, in the darkness, to plunder and to kill (Like many of the appliances which render modern life agreeable, the lighting of streets is comparatively of recent origin. Before 1683, London, then a city of half a million inhabitants, had no artificial light whatever for her streets. In that year an oil-lantern was placed before every tenth door on the nights when the moon did not shine. The disorders which darkness invited among such a population were frightful).

It has been boasted that while the Continental governments forced their subjects to take up arms, Great Britain was able to maintain her enormous forces by voluntary enlistment. This, however, is only true in part The ranks of the militia were filled by conscription, and means were successfully used to induce the men of this service to enlist as soldiers. And in manning the navy, voluntary enlistment was largely supplemented by the efforts of the press-gang (An institution which had long been a terror to the people. Dr. Johnson's favourite black servant was seized by the press-gang, and the doctor was under the painful necessity of being indebted for his deliverance to the intervention of the hateful John Wilkes), Any seaman who could be stolen from the merchant service was carried on board a ship-of-war, and compelled to fight. A band of men armed with this formidable power lurked in every sea-port, ready to seize the sailor returning from his voyage.

Military and naval discipline was maintained by a savage use of the lash. When we inflict two or three dozen strokes upon a criminal, we deem the punishment sufficiently sharp. Long ago a soldier or sailor was doomed, often for a slight offence, to such punishments as five hundred lashes. The men who applied the torture were changed at short intervals, lest the punishment should be at all mitigated by their fatigue. The doctor stood by to say how much the victim could bear without dying. When that point was reached, he was taken down and carried to the hospital, to be brought back for the balance of his punishment when his wounds were healed (In 1811 the London Examiner reported a case exceptionally horrible. A soldier was sentenced by court-martial to one thousand lashes, of which seven hundred and fifty were actually inflicted. The Examiner copied from a country paper an article which mentioned, in connection with this atrocity, that flogging was not practised in the French army: - "Bonaparte's soldiers cannot form any notion of that most heartrending of all exhibitions on this side hell - an English military flogging." Government prosecuted the conductors of the Examiner for libel, but the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. The editor of the country newspaper which originated the offending article was less fortunate. A jury of squires, resolute to uphold the government, found him guilty, and he was sentenced to eighteen months' imprisonment). Immediately after Waterloo, when the House of Commons was voting large sums to the Duke of Wellington and the other heroes of the war, it was proposed that the punishment of a soldier or sailor should be limited to a hundred lashes. Lord Palmerston resisted the proposal. The English, he said, owing to the freedom of their constitution and their higher feeling of personal independence, required more punishment than other nations did. His views prevailed, and the motion was rejected without a division. The brave men who fought our battles continued to be subjected to all the brutalities which their officers chose to inflict, till the advancing humanity of the age interposed for their rescue. In 1846 a soldier was flogged so that he died. Immediately after, punishment by flogging was limited to fifty lashes. Twenty years later, the House of Commons resolved, by a small majority, that flogging in time of peace should be wholly abolished. Since then the punishment of flogging has been inflicted only on three occasions.

The men who are slain in battle form but an inconsiderable proportion of those who lose their lives in war. In the Crimean war two thousand six hundred British soldiers were killed, while eighteen thousand died in hospital of wounds and disease. During the first seven months of that war the men died of disease at the rate of sixty per cent, per annum. So miserably, at first, were the wounded cared for, that operations which, under more favourable circumstances, would have involved no risk, nearly always proved fatal. The hospital was a position immeasurably more dangerous than the battle-field. Nor are the special risks of the soldier limited to the period of actual warfare. The Life-Guards in their barracks in London experience a mortality twice as large as that of civilians of the same age.

Until her sad experiences in the Crimea, England had not bestowed much thought upon the care of her wounded. She had accepted as inevitable the terrible ravages of disease among the brave men whom she gathered around her standard. Each of her regiments had its surgeons, and each of her wounded soldiers was ministered to in course of time. But the power to inflict wounds is immeasurably in advance of the power to heal. The sufferers had often to lie for days in their anguish before it was possible to relieve them. Multitudes perished from neglect. Multitudes perished from disease engendered by crowded hospitals. If England had lost only those soldiers who were slain or received fatal wounds in battle, her wars would have been fought out at a cost comparatively trifling.

Slavery still existed throughout the world to an enormous extent. The great mass of the Russian peasants were serfs. There were nine million slaves in Hungary. The peasantry of Austria and Prussia were nearly all slaves. America had put down the slave-trade (In 1808), but she still owned slaves, and had not begun to question the propriety of doing so. During the first seven years of the century English ships conveyed annually across the Atlantic forty thousand Africans, one-half of whom perished at sea or soon after landing. The British Parliament had expressed its approval of the traffic in twenty-six acts, and was not roused to its suppression until after twenty years of agitation. The Genius of universal emancipation, it was poetically said, forbade the presence of a slave in England; but slaves lived and suffered in her colonies. The whip was still freely used on her West India plantations. It was eight years after Waterloo till the flogging of women was put a stop to by a government order, and the planters resented so highly this limitation of their rights that they spoke of asserting their independence of the mother country. Slavery existed in Scotland down to the very last year of the eighteenth century. The colliers and salters were slaves, bound to their service for life, bought and sold with the works at which they laboured.

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