Project Canterbury

Squires, Spires, and Mires

By William Bury

From the Fortnightly Review, XXXVII (New Series), 1885.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia 2007



"THE cause of the poor in heaven's name." Such--with a somewhat profane conclusion--was the toast proposed by the immortal Teufelsdröch to the assembled intellect of the town of Weissnichtwo, and received with enthusiasm, although, as the meeting broke up, some were heard muttering that one day he would probably be hanged for his democratic sentiments. Possibly the wish was father to the thought. Deprecating for myself the predicted fate of its proposer, I adopt the toast, "The cause of the poor in heaven's name." But, first, what is meant by "the poor"? There is no term which has lent itself more completely to cant and conventionality, but neither cant nor conventionality have ever defined it. And define it no one can. It may be a term of respect or of reproach, and under it are included the honest, the industrious, and the independent, as well as the vicious, the idle, and the improvident. Without attempting a definition, I intend in this paper to limit the term to the agricultural labourer. Another word which cant and conventionality have made their own, and to define which is equally difficult, is "charity." In one sense it is the noblest of virtues, in another and the popular sense it has rightly been called the next most pernicious thing to vice. For the purposes of this paper it will be used in the popular sense, and an attempt will be made to show what it has done for the agricultural labourer, and to what noble deeds it appears to have stirred the hearts of one of his professed friends, namely, the country gentleman.

I am not going far afield, but shall confine myself to my own immediate neighbourhood, describing what I have seen and known. I do not intend to call in question the wisdom of existing laws or to suggest new ones. I have no programme of my own, but shall endeavour to point a plain moral by telling a plain tale. The tale is one of the country, not of the town, for of the "bitter cries" and "crying evils" of the towns I have no personal knowledge; besides, the tale of the towns has been told so often. It will be assumed that the country gentleman still desires to be thought what he, with the parson, has always claimed to be par excellence, the poor man's friend. The farmer has claimed it too, but in a less pronounced manner. His connection with "the poor" being more or less a business one, has scarcely allowed scope for the free play of his feelings of pure benevolence; and while the law of the land continues to offer him a direct inducement to escape his responsibilities and exercise his charitable feelings (when he has them) at other people's expense, it will be in the nature of things unlikely that he will have a very [352/353] elevated notion of his duty to his neighbour. "There is a deal of human nature in man," especially in farmers; nevertheless he, like the parson and the country gentleman, would resent the notion that he had not "the cause of the poor" at heart. We can recollect how bitterly it was resented some ten or twelve years ago, when the agitators of what was called "the labourer's movement" included squires, parsons, and farmers in one breath of abuse as the natural enemies of the labouring class. All of us who happened to be either squires, parsons, or farmers regarded such language as the rant of ignorance, and were only saved from loss of temper by a sense of the absurdity of the charge. But, then, was it so very absurd after all? "The tree is known by its fruits." Judged by its fruits, what shall we say of this friendship? What has it done for the labourer? What has it made of him? We have had him in hand, so to speak, for centuries. He was always ready to be led by the squire, and docile enough until lately under the teaching of the parson. Where have we led him to? What have we taught him? Have all our "charities," almshouses, clothing clubs, and out-door relief raised him in character and independence above the level he had reached centuries ago? Is he one whit a better man in any sense of the word than if we had let him alone? Is he not still content to be in leading-strings and ready as ever to sell his freedom for a dole? Has not the net result of the squire's leading and the parson's teaching been to impress the ordinary labourer with the belief that poverty is the best policy, and that improvidence is the surest road to the pockets if not to the hearts of his friends? Poor fruit this of so long a friendship.

But, for the present, leaving parsons and farmers out of the question, let us confine our attention to the country gentleman. What a splendid position is, or at any rate, has been, his! Opportunities for good which are denied to most men--possessing wealth and influence and ample leisure. He is supposed to be, and as a rule is, a man of some education, and as a matter of course a Christian. As regards "the poor," his position has been almost that of providence itself. He is the owner of the homes they live in, the ground they cultivate, I had almost said the air they breathe. It is hardly too much to say their fortunes are subject to his guidance and control. They are his "dependents." He is their law and their gospel too, their patron if not their patron saint. Of a stewardship such as this what account can he give? I happen to live in what may fairly be considered a typical county. If in anything it differs from others, it is in the numbers of its squires and country gentlemen. It is what is called an aristocratic county, and especially a hunting county. In addition to the resident country gentlemen there are a number of wealthy men who have settled in the county simply and solely for hunting purposes, owning good houses and maintaining large [353/354] establishments but occupying little or no land, and repudiating apparently every obligation but the supreme one of pleasing themselves. Of these some are merely birds of passage, so to speak, renting their houses only for the hunting season, and naturally resenting the idea that any responsibility attaches to them in regard to the parish or neighbourhood in which they are pleased to hibernate.

It is about a county such as this, alive with squires and men of wealth, that my plain tale has to be told. Let it not be supposed that the state of things described is peculiar to this neighbourhood. On the contrary, it may fairly be taken as a sample of the conditions of rural life and of the way in which the duties belonging to a country gentleman, and especially those which affect the "poor," are, I will not say discharged, but regarded. Some twelve years ago, in the very heart of this wealthy district, and during a period of general prosperity, the guardians of the rural union to which I belong were called to task for the amount they were spending in relief to the poor. An inquiry was called for and instituted, and the report showed that, with every outward sign of wealth, and in the very midst of prosperity evidenced in a thousand ways, one person in every twelve was a pauper. Nor was this appalling amount of pauperism confined to the large and open, and as they are called "poor" parishes. It was worse in the close parishes where one owner reigns supreme, and in model villages where charity abounded, pauperism was more pronounced than in any other quarter. It is not here contended that the reproach of such a state of things lies entirely at the country gentleman's door, but can it be denied that it bears witness to a want of thought or a want of heart painful to contemplate on the part of those who posed as the poor man's friends, among whom, naturally, the country gentleman takes precedence? And indeed it seems hard to believe that a man should interest himself successfully in regulating the number of his pheasants, or should feel himself almost disgraced when his covers are drawn blank, and yet should acknowledge no responsibility and feel no shame as to the number of paupers in the parish he owns and controls. It is absurd as well as untrue to plead that he is helpless in the matter; it is worse than absurd to plead ignorance. By virtue of his position, and apparently for no other reason, he is a magistrate, and as such he is an ex-officio guardian. It is his business to know, and further, it lies within his power, to determine the number of paupers on the estate which he represents or in the parish with which he is connected. Everyone at all conversant with the proceedings of a rural board of guardians is perfectly well aware that the influence which the landed proprietor can exercise on the decisions of the board, as to the relief of cases in which he is, or ought to be, interested, is almost irresistible, and I have no hesitation in saying that the condition of the rural union referred to, was [354/355] mainly due to the culpable indifference--to call it by no harsher name--of the country gentleman.

My story, unfortunately, does not end here. The inquiry and the report alluded to led to a reform in the administration of the law. Certain recommendations were proposed and carried into effect, which produced an immediate result in a very surprising and, as some thought, a cruel diminution in the number of cases which had up to that time been in receipt of out-door relief. The facts and figures connected with the work of reform obtained for the union a certain notoriety, and were referred to in the House of Lords in support of a motion brought forward by the late Lord Lyttleton in the direction of a further restriction of out-door relief. In the immediate neighbourhood, the proceedings of the board created much excitement. The guardians were divided among themselves, and part held with the reformers and part with those who thought the reform unnecessary, or at any rate too severe, and the relations between the two parties for a time were, to put it mildly, somewhat "strained." Among the poor themselves, as was natural, there were great searchings of heart--it was a vital question for them--and no one who had their interests really at heart could fail to be moved one way or another by what was taking place. Indifference was impossible to a real friend of the poor. It is clear that those who held that reform was called for, and that a remedy had to be applied with firmness if the disease was to be cured, were bound to maintain their view at any cost to themselves. Those, on the contrary, who held it to be unnecessary, or who thought it was being carried out with undue harshness and severity, were equally bound to resist it to the utmost of their power. The one course which no real friend of the poor could possibly take was, as has been said, that of indifference. That, nevertheless, was the course taken by the country gentlemen. At first there was a good deal of talk and excited discussion, and occasional attendance at the board when hunting or shooting--the real business of life--permitted it; but even this soon died away. As to anything like serious consideration or self-denying and persistent effort such as men will devote to a cause they have at heart, there was not then, and there is not now, the smallest evidence one way or another. In this I speak of what I know.

There is probably nothing connected with country life of which the country gentleman is so absolutely ignorant as the inside of his friend the labourer's cottage. How can it be otherwise? He never visits his friend; that's not his business. He leaves that to the women and the parson. Occasionally he looks in at the cottage of some old retainer on his way back from church, or takes a friend to see the outside of a new idea in cottage-building of which he is justly proud, and thinks how "deuced comfortable those labourers are after all." But that is the extent of his personal knowledge of the subject. [355/356] Perhaps it is therefore ignorance rather than indifference which is chiefly responsible for such a state of things as the following description of a village in the union already referred to discloses. I quote from a report made a few months ago to the sanitary authority of the union to which I belong by a committee appointed to inquire into the origin of a fever which had broken out in the place:--

" . . . At a block of six cottages where the fever originated, and where there have recently been outbreaks of fever and small-pox, six cases of fever have occurred. . . . . One of these cottages is occupied by a man and his wife and five young children; they have but one bedroom. . . . . The next cottage which your committee report upon is one occupied by A., with his wife and three children, who have but one bedroom. Two children here have died of the fever; until death reduced the family there were seven persons sleeping in the one room. The drains from the cottage are entirely blocked. . . . In a cottage occupied by B., a widow with five children and a grandson, namely, a son aged twenty-five, a daughter aged nineteen, three more sons aged seventeen, fifteen, and eleven respectively, and a grandson aged five, there is but one bedroom. . . . . In a cottage occupied by C., a tailor, there are four grown-up persons sleeping in one room, namely, the father and mother and a grown-up son and daughter. The mother and daughter have both had the fever. . . . . A cottage occupied by D., who with his wife and five children sleep in one bedroom, which, though small, is open to the roof. The next-door neighbour under the same roof has but one bedroom, in which sleep the father and grown-up son and daughter; there are indeed two beds, but the room is so small that there is barely two feet between them. . . . . Your committee report upon a row of five cottages. . . . In one occupied by E. there is but one bedroom, part of which is partitioned off, and forms what looks more like a cupboard than a room, without door, or window, or fireplace. In this one room with its open cupboard a family of eight have been brought into the world, and, with the father and mother, still use it as their sleeping-place. Two sons and one daughter are grown up, and the rest, consisting of three sons and two daughters, are under sixteen. The grown-up daughter has just been sent to the workhouse to be confined (she returned in a fortnight's time with her child). In another cottage occupied by F., with his wife and five children, there is but one bedroom, reached by a broken staircase, the two bottom steps of which have disappeared. There is, indeed, a small loft or attic in the roof, reached by a step-ladder through a trap-door; but as it has no window, and as the trap-door is broken and cannot be opened, it is never used. . . . . In a third, occupied by G. with his wife and four children, there are two small bedrooms, but only one is used, because the other is so damp. There are no back premises. . . . The man and all his children have had the fever. . . . . In a cottage occupied by H. there is but one room up-stairs and one down-stairs. In the latter are two beds, in one of which lies Mrs. H., bedridden; the other is used by her husband. Five grown-up men, a child, and the woman who waits on Mrs. H. sleep in the bedroom. . . . In a cottage occupied by I. there is but one bedroom; the family are father and mother, two grown-up sons, and one grown-up daughter . . . . they all sleep in the same room. . . . . When your committee were there they found, in addition to the usual occupants, a married son with his wife and child staying on a visit. . . . "

Such is a plain statement--the accuracy of which as an eye-witness I can vouch for--describing the condition of a portion of the cottage accommodation of the village. It must not be thought, however, that it is an exceptional case. I can answer for it that in the rural union of which it forms a part there are at least four villages where [356/357] the cottages are equally bad. Nor must it be concluded that there is anything peculiar in the village itself. It is an ordinary country village, with a squire and a parson, and all the usual charitable appliances. True, it is an open parish, but the land comprised in the parochial area is in the hands of two landowners who in their respective spheres are monarchs of all they survey. It has a "Hall" of its own, is surrounded by large estates, and is within sight of two if not three country houses. What has happened here is what has happened everywhere in this country. The country gentleman likes broad acres, but he hates cottage property. It spoils the view, it heads the fox, it creates responsibilities, and it doesn't pay. He says to his soul, "I will pull down my cottages and use other people's; the next parish can supply my estate with the labour it requires, and is it not an open one?" Thus a demand for cottages is created in the open parishes, hence the temptation to small tradesmen and others to run up miserable tenements unfit for human habitation; hence overcrowding, immorality, fever, pauperism. But why blame the country gentleman? Is it not lawful for him to do what he will with his own? Is he not, from one point of view, perfectly justified in freeing his estate from encumbrances, and weeding out from his particular parish every one who does not come up to his idea of respectability? Undoubtedly, so long as he remembers that the duty to himself is not the whole duty of a country gentleman. After all, human beings are not weeds which a man can throw over his neighbour's hedge and have done with; and even if they were, his neighbours might have just cause of complaint. But it is not thus easily that his responsibilities are escaped. In the act of thus trying to be rid of them he is creating fresh ones. What was before confined within the limits of his own estate is now extended, and becomes a responsibility shared with his neighbours, and which he has less right than before to shirk. More than ever he is bound to interest himself in the affairs, sanitary and other, of that parish of which he has made use. Can it be doubted that it rests with the country gentleman to remedy such a state of things as I have described, or to see that it is remedied? Not merely because he is a man of wealth, and education, and leisure, which he might well devote to "the cause of the poor," of which he is a professed champion, but because he is in so great a degree responsible for its existence; and yet, as a matter of fact, there is no part of his duties which he more systematically neglects. Here again he cannot plead ignorance; neither can he plead want of power, Parliament having expressly provided that he shall be ex-officio member of a sanitary authority whose business it is to deal with such cases, and whose powers, if properly and firmly used, are amply sufficient for this purpose. But, alas! Parliament proposes, the country gentleman disposes. There are no less than thirteen country gentlemen ex-officio members of the sanitary authority of the district referred [357/358] to, but not one of them attends its meetings or takes part in its proceedings.

What are we then to say of this friend of "the poor"? On questions which so vitally concern the labourer, questions which affect his wages, his character, his comfort, his body and soul, the country gentleman, who of all others is best qualified to guide and help hint, proves to be of all others the least inclined to recognise his obligations. But perhaps he reserves himself for what he considers more important duties. He is before all things a magistrate, and at least once a fortnight he is supposed to attend petty sessions to administer justice. It is perhaps on the bench that the real value of the country gentleman is discovered, and there it is that he finds the proper sphere for his energies. Possibly it is so; I am unable to follow him there; I am obliged to imagine the administration of justice in the hands of one who has had no training for it, and who is a magistrate only because he is a country gentleman. As Dr. Johnson said of the dog that sat up, the wonder was not that it sat up well, but that it sat up at all. But granting all that the most ardent admirer of country justices can assert in their favour, it must be allowed that one day in a fortnight is not a very excessive demand upon a man's time, and leaves a somewhat broad margin for other duties. And it is at least conceivable that magisterial functions would be discharged none the less efficiently if the country gentleman qualified himself for them by a little personal acquaintance with the practical working of some of the acts which in the last resort he is called upon to enforce.

I notice that in a recent number of this Review the writer of the "Radical Programme" advocated certain clauses in the laws which affect the agricultural labourer. Blots are hit both in the Sanitary and in the Education Acts. But reforms in the law are not the only, perhaps not the chief, requirements of the case. We all know that a coach-and-four may be driven through most Acts of Parliament, and most country gentlemen can drive. My experience points to defects in administration rather than in the Acts themselves, and this in the direction of laxity rather than of undue severity, as implied in the article above referred to. It would be ill-natured and perhaps unfair to suppose that in these matters the country gentleman is influenced by a desire for popularity, or that he takes the opportunity afforded in such questions as these for qualifying severe sentences in matters which more nearly concern his own interests. The difficulty of obtaining a conviction for overcrowding, and the still greater difficulty of getting it enforced, may arise from the fact that the country gentleman has never realised by personal inspection what overcrowding means. The leniency too frequently displayed in enforcing the provisions of the Education Act may be due to a sense of the unfairness of compelling a labourer's child to qualify for "bird frighting" by passing Standard IV., while [358/359] no educational test whatever is required for "justicing." Whatever the motive may be, my experience points to the conclusion that the failure in the Sanitary and Education Acts is mainly owing to the uncertain action of the Bench.

There are other departments of country life to which attention might be drawn, in which the help of the country gentleman would be invaluable. It is indeed tantalising to think how much there is which lies within the reach of his influence. How comparatively easy for him to give the lead to his tenants, and to direct public opinion in his neighbourhood on questions largely affecting the community. How easy for him to give encouragement to thrift by an intelligent interest in the management of clubs and benefit societies, and by promoting co-operation, that best of boons to the labourer. How much good might be done by the exercise of an enlightened despotism over the public-houses which are under his control, or by taking an active part in the administration on sound principles of those village charities which as a rule are village curses; or what a really charitable application of money it would be for him to provide a skilled nurse for a neighbouring parish; the expense is but slight, less than the keep of a hunter, and without the initial cost. The sufferings and the lasting mischief arising from bad and ignorant nursing are really dreadful to think of. Then, again, why should he not buy up some miserable row of tenements in the next village and convert it into dwellings capable of being made into homes. It would cost something of course, but what in the name of all that is reasonable can be the sense of talking of charity that costs nothing, or complaining of cost at all with ten or a dozen horses in the stable? How easy too and insignificant the cost (if that must be thought of) to solve, or at any rate to simplify, the difficult and troublesome question in rural unions of what to do with pauper children, by taking upon himself the responsibility of such children who belong to his own parish or immediate neighbourhood, and either boarding them out under his own personal supervision, or, as has been done in some instances, admitting them into his own establishment to be educated and trained for service, and then sent out into the world with some happier idea of life than can be given within the workhouse walls. It might be a little troublesome, but who ever heard of charity, except in the popular sense, which involved no trouble; and after all, the trouble falls less on the master or mistress than on the servants, and my experience goes to prove how ready they are to co-operate in such an undertaking.

In what has been said I have been careful to confine myself within the narrowest limits and to speak only from personal knowledge. Perhaps I shall be accused of being severe. My feeling is rather one of regret and sorrow. It seems so unspeakably sad to see powers for good running to waste. With so much to be done and so little time [359/360] for doing it, it is heartbreaking to see strong men looking on like the men of Meroz, while others with not a tithe of their power or wealth or leisure painfully and ineffectually attempt it. The pity of it is even worse than the shame. On the other hand it may be urged that I am unfair, and that I have been supposing powers and possibilities for good which do not now exist, whatever may have been the case in days gone by. In these hard times country gentlemen, it is said, have gone to the wall, and have lost their influence as well as their money. If this were altogether true, what must be thought of a class of men who succumb thus easily at a touch of adversity? As a matter of fact, however, it is only partially true. There are the men and there is the money in abundance still. Country sports and pleasures are thriving as ever, and show no signs of declining for want of either. And in so far as there is any truth in what is asserted, it would seem not altogether unfair to suppose that it has been brought about in a great degree by that very neglect of duty which I have remarked upon.

Let me not, however, be misunderstood. I am not pleading for heroic sacrifices, I am not suggesting that the country gentleman should be one whit less keen in the pursuit of manly pleasures. I am the last man to ask him to forego his hunting and his shooting. I am not complaining that he does not accept a programme sketched out for him by philanthropists. My complaint is limited to this, that he neglects the plain duties which lie at his very door, and which require nothing from him beyond a little self-denial; that on matters of local administration properly belonging to him, and which are really of vital importance to the community, and especially to the labourer, the country gentleman is conspicuous by his absence; that when he is brought face to face with local abuses of the gravest kind he is apparently unconcerned, and that in attempts at local reforms he lends no hand. There are of course notable exceptions; but, unless my experience be peculiar, they are few and far between.

No doubt there is something to be said in excuse for him. He has never been educated to any higher view of his position and work in life. He has not to win his property like other men by labour and self-denial; he only "comes in" to it, and therefore naturally believes that he has only to enjoy it. The good and great qualities which he often possesses are perhaps undeveloped because superfluous for a man whose occupation is that of owning land. His education is finished when he inherits his property. School days are over, now come the holidays; the country is his playground, and the duties which his position force upon him are but bothering interruptions to his enjoyment, which, like holiday tasks, he will shirk if he can. But the Nemesis which follows us all is not far behind the country gentleman. Duties may be avoided; penalties cannot. Already there are signs which seem to bode him no good, and awkward questions [360/361] are being asked about him, and awkward answers have to be returned. Is it too late for him to recover lost ground and regain that splendid position which he once held of being "the shepherd and leader of the people"? He looks back often with justifiable pride upon the history of the past, in which his ancestors bore an honourable, or at least no insignificant part. In every great crisis of his country's history; in the struggles which, from time to time, convulsed her and through which she reached her greatness; in her foreign wars, and in her civil strifes; in resisting the encroachments of the kingly power, or in maintaining the throne against the usurper, his forefathers were ever to the front. Their faults, like their virtues, were strongly marked; but they were men, and they were a power in the country. Does he never reflect what made them so? Partly, no doubt, the times. They were stirring times. The battle was to the strong and the race to the swift. But was there nothing in the fact that from their earliest days they had been trained by the rules of chivalry to discipline self, to take Christ for their captain, and to "do their devoir" to all men? Life now is smoother, the warfare now of a different kind, but it is none the less real. Its rewards are less tangible, but they are more enduring, and it still needs men who are trained by self-discipline, who will take Christ for their captain, and who will do their devoir to all men. Will the country gentleman never again become a power in the country? Is he to disappear like the dodo and other extinct, because no longer useful, creatures? If so he will have only himself to thank for it. If he never regains the position he once held, it will be because he refused obedience to those divine laws of labour, duty, and self-denial which alone render such a position possible or deserved.


A FEW months ago I read the following description of the agricultural labourer, from the pen of one who apparently wrote from experience:--"The rustics are not happy, they are sullen, averse to labour, they are ready for any form of rowdyism, they have no love but quite the reverse for those who are only anxious to serve them, they have lost all belief in kindliness or disinterested motives, they disdain to submit to such restraints as religion has a tendency to impose. Physically and morally, a steady deterioration of the quality of our Arcadian swains has been going on." I am disposed to think that the writer's experience of the agricultural labourer had been somewhat unfortunate, and that one whose lines had fallen in pleasanter places, or who was perhaps of a more hopeful turn of mind, would probably give a very different account of him. Indeed, if his political friends are to be believed, there can be no question as to his material improvement, both in character and condition. [361/362] Mr. Giffin, too, in the paper he read before the Social Science Congress on "The Progress of the Working Classes in the Last Half Century," takes anything but a gloomy view of the case, and backs his opinion by some very remarkable statistics. The truth is, it is by no means an easy matter to arrive at a just conclusion. As an individual, the agricultural labourer is very hard to understand; while of all classes, his is perhaps the most difficult upon which to generalise. The circumstances which affect his condition--the rate of his wages, the way he is housed, the character of the land, as well as that of his landlord--vary within such extremely wide limits, that general conclusions are almost sure to be misleading. That there are some hopeful signs almost everywhere, no one would deny. His life is not quite such a drudgery as it used to be, though drudgery, alas! it is at best; he is in many ways more civilised; he fares better; his pleasures, few though they be, are of a less coarse nature; his field of view, narrow as it is, has been enlarged, and he now takes an interest in a world beyond the smoke of his own chimney. If he be more discontented, it is possibly only the sign and penalty of his having become less of an animal and more of a man. In some things it is to be wished he were more discontented still.

On the other hand, it is equally indisputable that together with these hopeful signs there is everywhere much that is sufficiently discouraging. I am afraid, too, it must be acknowledged that what is hopeful has been effected without, or even in spite of, the aid of his would-be friends, and that what is discouraging is largely due to their mistaken interference. And if so, it is not perhaps to be wondered at if he has ceased to believe in his friends. It is to be feared that there is only too much truth in the assertion. Most of us will have to acknowledge, if not the complete failure, at any rate the very imperfect success of our endeavours, especially of late years, to win his confidence; and, however disinterested our efforts on his behalf, he still views them with suspicion. The question now asked is, Can we account for his suspicion? Is it just or reasonable? Is it our misfortune or our fault? It may be conceded that if anxiety to serve another, and willingness to make sacrifices on his behalf, constitute a friend, then among all his so-called friends the agricultural labourer has none with a greater right to the name than the country clergyman. There is nothing he has so much at heart as the welfare of the labourer, nothing he covets more than the reputation of being the "poor man's friend," and for this end he is sometimes only too ready to make sacrifices. As in the case of the country gentleman so now with the country clergyman, my remarks will be strictly limited to the social, as distinct from the spiritual and religious, aspect of the question. If the country clergy had been content to confine their ministrations to the spiritual welfare of their flocks, they would have been less open to criticism. But they have been [362/363] ambitious, and rightly so, of a wider sphere, and a great part of their energies have been spent in direct attempts to better the outward conditions of the labourer's life. How far these attempts have been wise or successful is the question before us. It must be added that I am a country clergyman myself, and as such take my share of the criticisms which follow on a body of men to which I am proud to belong.

Let us take the case of an ordinary country parish, and let us consider the part which the clergyman plays in respect to the various agencies which surround, and directly or indirectly affect the moral and social well-being of the labourer. These, for the most part, exist with the avowed intention of benefiting those who are called "the poor," and it may be fairly said that for nearly all of them the clergyman is to a greater or less degree responsible. To him, as a rule, they owe their existence, and through his instrumentality they are maintained in working order. Among such must be reckoned the eleemosynary endowments of all kinds, the Christmas and other doles of bread and clothing and other necessaries of life, the coal and clothing clubs, the offertory alms, and the charities emanating from the Hall. It is not too much to say that these are the fruits of his ministry, the outward visible signs of the Christianity he has preached. It was under the influence of his teaching, in days gone by, that the rich man who fared sumptuously every day was converted on his death-bed into a pious founder and left behind him lasting monuments of his piety in those village charities which afflict, most country parishes. It is now mainly owing to his influence, and in answer to his appeals--and, let me add, by large sacrifices of his own time and money--that new charitable schemes are set on foot, and those already existing efficiently maintained. It is he who administers the endowed charities, organizes the clubs, distributes the offertory alms. If such things as these are really beneficial in their operation, the agricultural labourer has no better friend than the country clergyman. At any rate, it would seem impossible that the pains thus bestowed on his welfare, and the really large sums of money year by year spent on his behalf, should fail to have an effect in improving his condition or should leave him without a sense of gratitude to those who thus devote themselves to his interest. But what is the fact? Generation succeeds generation without any one being able to trace the least sign of real improvement arising out of such direct attempts to help him, and, so far from being grateful, an experienced writer assures us that "the labourers have no love for those who are anxious to serve them." Judging by results, the blindest admirer of such forms of benevolence must begin to suspect that their wisdom admits of a doubt.

As a matter of fact, the country clergyman himself does not believe in them, and will often confess as much. He may be, and generally [363/364] is, too timid to set his face against them, or he may make use of them, consciously or not, as a means of strengthening his own hands, or of acquiring, as he mistakenly supposes, a good name amongst his flock; but, unless he has been exceptionally unobservant, he has long ago lost faith in them as a means of really improving the condition of the poor. The astonishing thing is that his belief in them has lasted so long. It is, indeed, almost unnecessary nowadays to discuss the question as regards doles and eleemosynary charities. The intrinsic evil of such things is acknowledged even by the most inveterate "charity" lover, although it is seldom that he has the courage of his convictions. But the evil is only a little less apparent in almost every other scheme of direct benevolence which aims at supplying primary wants. The clothing and coal clubs, for example, which are generally regarded as essential to the efficient working of a country parish, are at best only the means whereby the poor are bribed to be provident, and unless entirely managed by themselves, as they ought to be, their inevitable tendency is to make the poor not more self-reliant, but less. Invidious distinctions have to be drawn provocative of jealousies and heart-burnings, those only being considered eligible who are called "the poor," while others, perhaps ten times more deserving, are left out in the cold, because their own exertions have raised them just above that favoured class. It is fair to say that such clubs had their place and value when first they were started and when possibly there was a necessity for something of the kind to induce an utterly thriftless class to make an attempt at providing for the future; but even so, they should have been regarded as temporary expedients and as stepping-stones to something better. Nothing can be more certain than that so long as the poor are treated like children they will never learn to go alone. Then there is the offertory. As a rule it is at the sole disposal of the clergyman, and may be said to have almost all the evils of the dole system, together with some peculiar to itself. As usually distributed, it is impossible for it to be otherwise than a direct incentive to hypocrisy of the worst kind, to say nothing of envy, jealousy, and ill-will. As to the "charity" which emanates from the Hall--that doubtful good at all times, that unmitigated evil often--I pass it by because it may be thought unfair to make the parson responsible in these days, whatever he may have been in the past, for the doings or mis-doings of the Hall. Taking, then, into consideration merely those charitable agencies of a country parish for which the clergyman is responsible, and which exist avowedly with the intention of benefiting "the poor," we look in vain for results; after centuries of trial we can point to no real service that they have done; in so far as there has been any effect at all, it has been of a demoralising nature. This is humiliating enough, but it is even more humiliating to think that the country clergyman should fail to recognise it, or, worse still, should recognise it and persist as [364/365] he does in pursuing the same mistaken policy. Such methods of helping the poor appear to be still his only idea of charitable help. A parish is considered to be well worked in proportion as agencies of the kind flourish and abound. A clergyman's zeal and earnestness for the people's good are measured by his exertions in this direction. It is hardly to be wondered at if the shrewder among the labourers are beginning to distrust such mistaken friendship, and to receive with suspicion attempts like these to win his regard. But worse results than these are inevitable. The clergyman represents religion. He claims its name and sanction for what he does on behalf of the poor, and if his own character begins to be questioned, or if under a cloak of religion he is discovered or even suspected to be advancing his own popularity, or to be offering blessings which do not really bless, religion itself is brought into disrepute. And this is just what is said to be happening. Men are beginning, we are told, not merely to be suspicious of the parson, but to distrust the religion he represents. And indeed, if religion, or rather what is done in her name, does nothing for them, no wonder if they become indifferent to its claims, and disdain to submit to the restraints it has a tendency to impose.

Passing from agencies of this kind to those which appear to be of a less directly "charitable" nature, but which undoubtedly exert by far the most powerful influences on the character and condition of the labourer, it is very noticeable how little the country clergyman concerns himself about them. By what principle he is guided here, or by what process of reasoning he determines what is or is not within the sphere of his ministerial duties, it is very difficult to say. Why, for instance, should he concern himself about the labourers' coals, blankets, and clothing, and decline to interfere in the matter of his house, his water supply, his drains? Why should it be considered to belong to the sacred calling to distribute the parish doles and offertory alms, but not in any sense his duty to take an active part in social questions which materially affect the labourers' interests? In what is the office of a charity Trustee a more clerical one than that of a Guardian of the poor? It is intelligible that a clergyman should say that he intended to occupy himself exclusively with the spiritual concerns of his people, but it is past understanding that he should draw the line where he does; the strangest part of it all being that he limits his interference to those very things in which it is unnecessary and often mischievous, and refuses to stir a step in a direction where possibly his advice and experience might be of service.

The fact appears to be that the country clergyman is infected with the popular but radically mistaken conception that social improvement is to be won only or chiefly by direct schemes of benevolence, and that charitable help consists in supplying primary wants. Whereas nothing could be farther from the truth. Social improvement is not a manufacture but a growth and a product, and direct [365/366] schemes of benevolence, which are usually of in artificial and sentimental character, so far from promoting it, interfere in an arbitrary manner with those natural laws by which a sound and healthy progress is secured. Far beyond all the schemes of social reformers is the influence for good of legislative, scientific, or economic improvements. What, for instance, have all the charitable schemes ever devised by "the poor man's friends" done for him compared with what has been done by free trade or the spread of the principles of co-operation? The parson who establishes a co-operative store in a country village has done more for his parish than if he had spent all his living in "charity," so-called. Good and pleasant cottages at fair and not fictitiously low rents, are more "improving" and really helpful than miles of flannel and rivers of soup and wine. Poor Laws, Sanitary and Education Acts, properly administered, advance the interests of the poor a thousandfold more than the good intentions of pious founders, however piously carried out. There can be no manner of doubt that the better administration of poor-law relief in the union to which I belong, by means of which the proportion of paupers to population has been reduced from 1 in 12 to 1 in 60, has done more for the labourer in ten years' time than all the charities, coal clubs, and almsgiving which have flowed for centuries from the Halls and Rectories of every parish, within the district.

Let me not, however, be supposed to aim at stopping or even checking the kindly attention of the rich to their poorer friends. There is no need for it to be hurtful or degrading for the rich to give or the poor to receive, although too often it is both. There is nothing either hurtful or degrading connected with giving or receiving in the class above that of the labourer. A present of a hare and a brace of birds does not demoralise giver or receiver. Neither need the gifts which pass from the rich to the poor. The mistake and the mischief lie in the way they are regarded and bestowed, in looking on them as charities, and supposing they are really going to touch the question of doing good. We have yet, it would seem, to learn that as a general rule the proper sphere, perhaps the only safe sphere, of benevolence lies in providing opportunities--in endeavouring to secure men fair chances in life, in removing hindrances, in making virtue easy and vice difficult, in putting within their reach the means of obtaining light and knowledge and independence. For this, after all, is the Divine plan: God gives opportunities, but He does not interfere with natural laws in an arbitrary and haphazard way to save men from the consequences of their own neglect or folly. All who will may profit by His kindness, and prosper by the diligent use of the means He has provided, or take the consequence of abusing or neglecting them. Human philanthropy, on the other hand, trying to be more "charitable" than God Himself, adopts an exactly opposite course. It fails to provide, or, even worse, denies sometimes the opportunity, [366/367] and then tries to relieve the distress which selfishness or want of thought had caused. So it too often happens that the labourer is denied his fair chance in youth and manhood, must be content with a wretched home, low wages, few interests or opportunities for bettering his condition. Then when he is old and worn out we consider it "a charity" to give him "parish relief," a miserable pittance, compulsorily derived, not from our own but from other people's pockets.

But besides sharing and being in some measure responsible for these popular mistakes, it must be confessed that we country clergymen appear to have failings peculiarly our own, possibly developed by our profession, which largely depreciate the value of our ministrations. Among these, Moral timidity must be reckoned as perhaps the first. Our great aim, glory and criterion of success being a full church, we are haunted by the constant dread of offending our congregation. Probably we are not worse in this respect than our brother clergyman of the town, but our position is a much more difficult one. Plain speaking is comparatively easy to a congregation in which the various social grades are represented by hundreds, to what it is where they are represented by units. In this case home truths have the appearance of personalities, and are resented accordingly. However alive we may be to the shortcomings of the rich, to the harm they do by mistaken and self-indulgent charity, or to the good they might do by a little self-denial; or, however clearly we may perceive that the crumbs which fall from the rich man's table do not really help the beggar at his gate, it is by no means easy to warn or rebuke or point out the more excellent way, when there is but one rich man in our congregation, and perhaps we dined with him yesterday, or will dine with him to-morrow, and thus the warning or rebuke, if given at all, is given so vaguely that no one is the better for it. Especially, perhaps, is this the case in matters affecting the poorer members of the parish. We see only too painfully the mischief of the village charities. We hate the system, would give much to be rid of it, but dare not lay a finger on it because our popularity would be gone, we should cease to be regarded as the poor man's friend, and our church would be emptied. So with the clubs, we are afraid to abandon such time-honoured features of parish machinery, however much we may suspect their usefulness. So with the offertory alms, we are fearful of departing from the ordinary method of distribution by odd shillings and half-crowns, in order to substitute a more intelligent one by which our ministrations might be dissociated, as they ought to be, from almsgiving. Thus a mischievous system is perpetuated from generation to generation, each clergyman in turn being too timid to attack it.

Then, further, we are hampered by Conventionality. The first article of our creed is, "Whosoever will be saved above all, things it is necessary that he keep the conventional faith." Conventional rules and standards guide or obscure our judgment upon all matters, sacred [367/368] or secular, and our habit of thought becomes as conventional as our attire. We adopt the conventional stand-point in the pulpit and on the platform with regard to the duties of the rich and the rights of the poor, and accept, without attempting a definition, the conventional phrases, "the poor," "the weak," and "the deserving." We submit without a protest to the conventional theory which condemns us to spend our energies in a round of small ministrations which any able-bodied old woman could discharge, but which forbids us to mix ourselves up in matters where possibly our superior education might be of service.

A third noticeable feature is what I must call, for want of a better word, our Transcendentalism. We are, so to speak, "up in a balloon," above our people's heads, and failing to perceive, except in a dim and distant way, the real interests of those below, who on their part regard us as belonging to another sphere, and are inclined to resent the necessity of looking up. Genuine friendship between us, as between man and man is felt to be impossible. An air of unreality seems to pervade the relations which exist between us. We are preaching about faith and feelings and the higher spiritual life, while too often they are absorbed in the question, "What shall I eat, what shall I drink, and wherewithal shall I be clothed?" The gospel we offer seems to them to have only the promise of the life to come. The gospel they want is one which will help them in the struggle for existence in the life that now is. We beautify our church and multiply our services, and are hurt that they don't seem to value either, forgetting that to many of them the idea of heaven itself is "a good fire, a pot of beer and a fiddle going."

A fourth peculiarity about us is our Superstition, or perhaps I should say, the superstitious character of our religion, by which I mean that on many points our religion is one which seems to shut its eyes to facts and its ears to the voice of reason and experience. It is this which has so often brought upon Christianity the reproach of being opposed to almost every reform, whether in medicine, science, or politics. The Bible, which is, and ought to be, our rule of faith in the matter of salvation, is interpreted often in a literal and mechanical way, and applied to almost every conceivable subject. We "go to the Bible," as the phrase is, very much as the American lad who was taught to "go to the Bible" for everything, and grew up thoroughly convinced that bigamy was the scriptural remedy for all existing social evils. With isolated texts or passages we dispose of the latest discovery of science, determine the age of the world, condemn the Deceased Wife Sisters Bill, settle the question of Church and State, and prove to demonstration the somewhat conflicting theories of the authority of the Church and the right of private judgment. Our superstition culminates in our relations with the poor. Here reason seems to [368/369] be abandoned, experience teaches nothing, political economy cries out in vain. With a mistaken reverence we cling to the "letter, which killeth." We seem to worship the book itself rather than the God who inspired it, and either discount its teaching to suit the general practice, or interpret it in a sense which every other voice of God flatly contradicts. And the natural tendency of this is to bring religion into contempt as an outrage upon reason and intelligence.

The last feature in the clerical character which needs to be noticed is Ecclesiasticism. Everything appears to be viewed with reference to the bearing it may have upon the Church (using the word in a limited and professional sense) rather than according to its intrinsic worth and usefulness. The Toryism which animates most country clergymen springs as a rule from the secret feeling that somehow or another, they cannot exactly say how, the interests of the Church are safer in the hands of the Tories than in those of the Liberals. It is this which is at the bottom of the unworthy fears which some of us have as to the extension of the franchise. This made many of us years ago view with suspicion the Education Act of 1870. This among other reasons (some of which are, no doubt, valid enough) makes us now so bitter against school boards. The first, the chief, almost the only consideration which appears to influence our opinion on any question of the day is, not how will it affect the people, or the general good, or religion itself, but how will it affect the Church?

In what has been written I have had in view country clergymen of the average type, men who are sincerely anxious, more so, perhaps, now than at any previous period of the Church history, to discharge the duties of their sacred calling, and who are particularly zealous in the cause of the poor. The contention of this article is that their zeal in this respect is not according to knowledge, and that partly owing to mistaken conceptions as to the way in which the poor should be helped, and partly owing to peculiarities, not to say defects, of a professional character, they have failed as a rule to win their confidence, and can scarcely be said to have deserved the name upon which most of all they pride themselves--"the friend of the poor."

There are, of course, exceptional cases above and below this average to whom the present article does not in the least apply There are also other departments of clerical work with which it is not concerned, in which country clergymen maintain a high standard of devotion. Generally speaking, their zeal and earnestness and self-denying labours are far in advance of those of any other class of men. Even from the point of view of this article it may be pretty confidently asserted that they will compare favourably with the ministers of any other denomination. The defects which have been noticed in the country clergy man would probably be found to exist in an exaggerated form among the Nonconformist bodies. It would be surprising if it [369/370] were not so. Whatever its advantages in other respects, theirs is a system which inevitably fosters such defects, while the temptation, which is always great, to swim with the stream, and sacrifice truth to popularity, must become almost irresistible where a man's income depends upon it. But the question before us is not what are we, or what have we done compared with other Christian bodies, but what have we done at all to make good our claim to be the friends of the labourer, or to justify our position as the ministers of a church whose boast it is to be the church of the people, and whose mission, as we are never tired of saying, is to preach the gospel to the poor. After all these years what is the result? where are the fruits of our labour? Is it possible to be satisfied with them? Professedly the great aim of the Church of England is the welfare of the poor. In every village and hamlet throughout the country she places a man qualified, as she supposes, for the work: a man of approved character and attainments. Here he takes up his position, and, in the name of religion, organizes charities, and gives time and energy and money to the work, drawing others in to his assistance, and yet the practical result proves to be at best of a very negative character. The object of all this expenditure of energy and benevolence still appears to require, or at any rate still goes in leading-strings, still is unfit, so it is said, for the franchise, and if we cannot quite endorse the opinion, that he has physically and morally deteriorated, it is only too apparent that he still remains in nine cases out of ten a potential pauper.

Something wrong there evidently is somewhere. If we as clergymen cannot admit that the Church of England is incompetent for her own special mission, or that the religion of Christ fails where it is needed most, we are bound to find some other alternative. Perhaps the reproach of failure may lie with ourselves. Our ideas of the Church's work, and the methods by which it should be carried out, possibly need revising. Our notions of charity and how to help the poor are perhaps obsolete, founded on what was "said by them of old times," and needing to be corrected by the "I say unto you" of a divine teacher, who is always with us, who did not give us stereotyped precepts eighteen hundred years ago, but ever-living principles, which by His spirit He teaches how to apply in the changed and changing conditions of the society of to-day. But wherever the defect or cause of failure may be, it is for each of us to endeavour to discover it, and have the courage to oven it, and the strength of mind, as far as lies in our power, to correct it.


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