Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Notes From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - Begging, Charity, Scraps and Food Vouchers For the Poor

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell was written a hundred years ago and described as 'a classic representation of the impoverished and politically powerless underclass of British society in Edwardian England, ruthlessly exploited by the institutionalized corruption of their employers and the civic and religious authorities'. This series of blogs is from the notes I made from the book. In this one I'm highlighting the comparisons that can be made of the treatment of the poor and the role of charities offering help to the impoverished in terms of food and vouchers.  

"Nearly every other firm in the town was in much the same flight as Rushton and Co.; none of them had anything to speak of to do, and the workmen no longer troubled to go to the different shops asking for a job.  They knew it was of no use. Most of them just walked about aimlessly or stood talking in group in the streets, principally in the neighbourhood of the Wage Slave Market near the fountain on the Grand Parade. They congregated here in such numbers that one of the residents wrote to the local papers complaining of the 'nuisance', and pointing out that it was calculated to drive the 'better class' visitors out of the town.  After this two or three extra policeman were put on duty near the fountain with instructions to 'move on' any groups of unemployed that formed. They could not stop them from coming there, but they prevented them standing about.

The professions of unemployed continued every day, and the money they begged from the public was divided equally amongst those who took part.  Sometimes it amounted to one and sixpence each, sometimes it was a little more and sometimes a little less.  These men presented a terrible spectacle as they slunk through the dreary streets, through the rain or the snow, with the slush soaking into their broken boots, and, worse still, with the bitterly cold east wind penetrating their rotten clothing and freezing there famished bodies.

The majority of the skilled workers still held aloof from these processions, although there haggard faces bore involuntary testimony to their sufferings. Although privation reigned supreme in their desolate homes, where there was often neither food nor light nor fire, they were too 'proud' to parade their misery before each other or the world.  They secretly sold or pawned their clothing and their furniture and lived in semi starvation on the proceeds, and on credit, but they would not beg.  Many of them even echoed the sentiments of those who had written to the papers, and with a strange lack of class-sympathy blamed those who took part in the processions. They said it was that sort of thing that drove the 'better class' away, injured the town, and caused all the poverty and unemployment.  However, some of them accepted charity in other ways; district visitors distributed tickets for coal and groceries.  Not that that sort of thing made much difference; there was usually a great deal of fuss and advice, many quotations of scripture, and very little groceries.  And even what there was generally went to the least-deserving people, because the only way to obtain any of this sort of 'charity' is by hypocritically pretending to be religious: and the greater the hypocrite, the greater the quantity of coal and groceries. These 'charitable' people went into the wretched homes of the poor and – in effect – said: 'Abandon every particle of self respect: cringe and fawn: come to church: bow down and grovel to us, and in return we'll give you a ticket that you can take to a certain shop and exchange for a shillings worth of groceries.  And, if you're very servile and humble we may give you another one next week.'

They never gave the 'case' the money. The ticket system serve three purposes. It prevents the "case" abusing the "charity" by spending the money on drink.  It advertises the benevolence of the donors: and it enables the grocer – who is usually a member of the church – to get rid of any stale or damaged stock he may have on hand.

When these visiting "ladies" went into a workman's house and found it clean and decently furnished, and the children clean and tidy, they came to the conclusion that those people were not suitable "cases" for assistance. Perhaps the children had had next to nothing to eat, and would have been in rags if the mother had not worked like a slave washing and mending their clothes. But these were not the sort of cases that the visiting ladies assisted; they only gave to those who were in a state of absolute squalor and destitution, and then only on condition that they whined and grovelled. 

In addition to this district visitor business, the well- to– do inhabitants and the local authorities attempted - or rather, pretended – to grapple with the poverty "problem" in many other ways, and the columns of the local papers were filled with letters from all sorts of cranks who suggested various remedies. One individual, whose income was derived from brewery shares, attributed the prevailing distress to the drunken and improvident habits of the lower orders. Another suggested that it was a divine protest against the growth of ritualism and what he called "Fleshly religion", and suggested a day of humiliation and prayer.  A great number of welfare persons thought this such an excellent proposition that they proceeded to put it into practice. They prayed, whilst the unemployed and the little children fasted.
....Meantime, in spite of this and kindred organisations the conditions of the underpaid poverty stricken and unemployed workers remained the same. Although the people who got the grocery and coal orders, the "nourishment", and the cast off clothes and boots, were very glad to have them, yet these things did far more harm than good. They humiliated, degraded and pauperised those who received them, and the existence of the societies prevented the problem being grappled with in a sane and practical manner. The people lacked the necessaries of life: the necessaries of life are produced by work: these people were willing to work, but were prevented from doing so by the idiotic system of society which these "charitable" people are determined to do their best to perpetuate.

If the people who expect to be praised and glorified for being charitable were never to give another farthing it would be far better for the industrious poor, because then the community as a whole would be compelled to deal with the absurd and unnecessary state of affairs that exists today – millions of people living and dying in wretchedness and poverty in an age when science and machinery have made it possible to produce such an abundance of everything that everyone might enjoy plenty and comfort.  If it were not for all this so-called charity the starving unemployed men all over the country would demand to be allowed to work and produce the things they are perishing for want of, instead of being – as they are now – content to wear their masters'  cast off clothing and to eat the crumbs that fall from his table."

The idea of 'change not charity' is what Tressell's protagonist Frank Owen is undoubtedly referring to. The working poor and unemployed of Mugsborough need a change to the system and tackling of the causes of this poverty rather than being given charity which perpetuates poverty and keeps the poor beholden to the charities.

Other blogs in this series:

Notes From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - Employers and Employment

Notes From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - 'Those Foreigners'

Notes From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - The Causes of Poverty are not laziness, drunkenness or machinery

Notes From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - Slavery

Notes From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - The Rotten System, Poverty and the Harsh Treatment of The Unemployed

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