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Social Condition of Great Britain page 4

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The act which prohibits combinations remained in force till 1824. Down to so recent a period the interests of the British working-man were regulated by a law passed in 1350, soon after the battle of Bannock burn. Its avowed object was to repress him, and keep him back from asserting his right to the market value of his labour. Although this law was long felt to be oppressive, the working-classes did not have sufficient influence upon the course of legislation to procure its earlier repeal. No better evidence could be found that the government of the country was guided by a regard to the interests of certain classes, rather than a regard to the general good.

They were a hospitable people the men who flourished during the earlier years of the century, but their exercise of this excellent virtue was not according to knowledge. When they received their friends, it was deemed indispensable that every friend should mark his appreciation of the good fare which he enjoyed by becoming intoxicated. The host claimed it as his due that every guest should drink till he could drink no longer. The supreme crowning evidence that an entertainment had been successful was not given till the guests dropped one by one from their chairs, to slumber peacefully on the floor till the servants removed them.

A general coarseness of manners prevailed. Profane swearing was the constant practice of gentlemen. They swore at each other because an oath added emphasis to their assertions. They swore at inferiors because their commands would not otherwise receive prompt obedience. The chaplain cursed the sailors because it made them listen more attentively to his admonitions. Ladies swore, orally and in their letters. Lord Braxfield offered to a lady at whom he swore, because she played badly at whist, the sufficient apology that he had mistaken her for his wife. Erskine, the model of a forensic orator, swore at the bar. Lord Thurlow swore upon the bench. The king swore incessantly. When his majesty desired to express approval of the weather, of a handsome horse, of a dinner which he had enjoyed, this "first gentleman in Europe" sup ported his royal asseveration by a profane oath. Society clothed itself with cursing as with a garment.

Books of the grossest indecency were exhibited for sale side by side with Bibles and prayer-books. Indecent songs were sold without restraint on the streets of London, and sung at social gatherings by the wives of respectable tradesmen without sense of impropriety. Sir Walter Scott relates that he once lent to a very old lady the works of a female novelist of some reputation in her day. The old lady returned the volumes with the remark that they were much too coarse for her perusal now, although she remembered hearing them in her youth read aloud to admiring audiences of fashionable ladies and gentlemen (Many causes have conspired to bring about the remarkable improvement which has taken place in the moral tone of British society. Among these, the influence exerted upon public morals by the pure domestic life of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert fills no inconsiderable place. The intellectual ability recognized in the Queen and her husband, and their manifest devotion to the public good, added largely to the authority which their high station conferred upon them, and disposed the nation to be guided by their example. The Queen and Prince lived conspicuously blameless lives in the earnest and effective discharge of the family and public duties which their position imposed. Their example confirmed and powerfully reinforced the influences which at that time ushered in a higher moral tone than had distinguished previous reigns. The service thus rendered to the nation was valuable beyond all estimate).

The educational condition of the English people was alarmingly defective. The existing means of education were utterly inadequate to the wants of the nation. At the beginning of the century there were no more than 3363 schools, public and private, in all England (Fifty years later they numbered forty-five thousand). In 1818 it was found that more than one-half of the children were growing up without education. A few years after it was noticed that of all the persons who came to be married, one-third of the men and one-half of the women could not sign the register. In the manufacturing districts it was still worse. Forty per cent, of the men and sixty-five per cent, of the women were positively unable to write their own names. The weaving population, in the collapse of their fortunes which occurred after the close of the war, lost the power to bestow education on their children. And, besides, child labour had grown to be an important source of revenue to poor parents. What hope did the child have to be educated when the dissipated and the poor could earn money by his labour from the time he was six years of age? England had fallen into an abyss of ignorance, her rescue from which is a bright page in the annals of the succeeding generation.

In the darker ages of the world's history, justice was a thing of difficult attainment. The patient search and sagacious tracing out of evidences of guilt from a mass of trivial circumstances, by which, as by the unerring vision of Heaven, the criminal is revealed, was far beyond the untrained intellect of the time. How was guilt to be ascertained? Our ancestors, unable to achieve the discovery by their own efforts, referred it to the judgment of Heaven. The suspected man was appointed to meet his accuser in single combat, and the right was held to be on his side who was so fortunate as to cleave the head of his antagonist, or pierce him through with his lance.

The Normans introduced trial by combat into England. For centuries it enjoyed formal sanction as a recognized method of judicial settlement in certain classes of legal proceeding. As ages wore on, the uncertainties of the process became slowly manifest, and better methods of administering justice were established (The ordeal of battle was claimed by a criminal so recently as 1817, and was not formally abolished till then. Society has discontinued the combat as a mode of settling individual differences, but retains it for the settlement of differences between communities. Growing enlightenment will, in time, discredit this foolish and brutal practice, as it has done the other). But the duel was not therefore abandoned. It expressed, conveniently, the love of fighting which the English mind has never been able to put far away. It served the purposes of wounded vanity or personal hatred. The governments of Europe strove vainly to suppress these private wars. The ferocity of a half-civilized people refused, in defiance of law, to forego the privilege of slaughtering an enemy.

Long before the opening of the century it was a capital offence to kill in a duel. But public feeling was so tolerant of duelling that juries would not, under ordinary circumstances, convict the murderer. In 1808, Major Campbell, a successful duellist, was hanged, but it was for special enormities by which his crime was distinguished. The ordinary duellist was, upon the whole, upheld by public opinion in his defiance of the law.

During the earlier years of the century duelling was familiarly practised. Outside the domain of law, questions constantly arose which it was deemed by the imperfect civilization of the time could not be settled otherwise than by the blood of either disputant. These questions were, for the most part, utterly trivial. In 1804, Lord Camelford, nephew of the Earl of Chatham, challenged his intimate friend, Mr. Best, for having spoken disrespectfully of him. He was satisfied that he had been misinformed, but persevered in his challenge, and was so wounded that he died in great agony. About the same time, Colonel Montgomery fell by the bullet of a friend with whom he had a quarrel concerning the merits of their favourite dogs. In 1822, Sir Alexander Boswell published in an obscure Glasgow newspaper a song by which his relative, Mr. James Stuart of Dunearn, considered himself aggrieved. Mr. Stuart challenged him, and wounded him to death. Most of the leading politicians of the time waged private war. Fox, Pitt, Castlereagh, Canning, O'Connell, and Wellington, had all attempted the slaughter of a foe. So recently as 1840 two members of Parliament, Mr. Horsman and Mr. Bradshaw, had a hostile meeting, and after exchanging harmless shots, mutually offered and accepted explanations. The ferocious passions which had so long supported this wicked usage were now dying out, and duelling in its decay had seldom a more respectable motive than the fear of being esteemed a coward. To meet this childish sentiment, the War Office, in 1844, issued a formal declaration that it was suitable to the character of honourable men to offer and accept explanations and apologies for wrong committed (For this important declaration, which irretrievably discredited duelling in its last stronghold, the army, the country was indebted to Prince Albert, then a young man of twenty-five. A fatal duel had been fought between two soldiers - Colonel Fawcett and Lieutenant Monro. The Prince took up the question, and his communications with the Duke of Wellington resulted in the Amended Articles issued by the War Office).

Small-pox was still the scourge of the people. One-tenth of all deaths was caused by this disease. Undrained fields generated intermittent fevers which destroyed many lives, and pressed heavily on the vitality of the rural population. In the cities, the filth of the streets and of the dwellings of the poor produced undue mortality. The death-rate of London about the middle of last century had been as high as one in every twenty-four. Epidemics were frequent and desolating. Medical science, whose era of progress was yet in the future, could do little to limit the ravages of disease. But yet the sanitary condition of the people was better than that of their fathers had been. The average duration of human life was steadily lengthening. In. 1780, one Englishman died in every forty of the population. In 1800, the death-rate had fallen to one in forty-eight. As the century wore on, the improvement continued, and in 1820 the deaths were only one in fifty-seven. Especially marked was the economy of life among the young, on whose immature strength the evil sanitary conditions of the time pressed most severely. At the beginning of the century, the deaths in London exceeded the births, and the growth of the metropolis depended wholly on immigration from the provinces. After 1810, these conditions were reversed, and the births exceeded the deaths.

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