The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Impoverishing of Poverty.

by Charlotte F. Yonge
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 806-817

Read at a Meeting of Settlement and C.O.S. Workers

Ruskin always urges upon us that we should make ourselves acquainted with the existing state of things we have to do with, for only upon that knowledge rests any possibility of improvement, and Mr. B. Seebohm Rowntree, author of Poverty: a Study in Town Life, is evidently of the same opinion. He has done for a cathedral town what Mr. Booth has done for London; but, where Mr. Booth's great work of nine volumes must be more used for reference, Mr. Rowntree's one volume, hardly equal in length to any one of Mr. Booth's nine, will be read, and re-read, we hope, by thousands. Mr. Rowntree shows that, in this book on York, he has within his grasp a definite and limited material, more within our comprehension than vaster numbers. The total number he deals with is eleven thousand families, and they can come better within our imagination than Mr. Booth's tens of thousands. It is something like the study of astronomy of which many persons fight shy, simply because they can form no adequate conception of the illimitable numbers and distances. To be able to study in the small, after being confused in the large, should make us feel very grateful to Mr. Rowntree.

The reason why this book on York seems of such vital importance is because his statistics show us that poverty is nearly the same in proportion and extent in York as in London; and to find results the same under very different circumstances may point out new ways of eventually discovering the causes which lead to those results, because the circumstances are totally different. First, the contrast in size of the two places--London with its 5,000,000, the largest population of any city in the world, and York with only 77,000, about 1/60 in point of number. Another difference is the constant fluctuation of many people in London, both rich and poor, and of various nationalities, especially at Whitechapel and the docks, as compared with the more unchanging population of York, where the comparatively few immigrants, except for the railway people and the Irish, are from the country round, and where the richer citizens are mostly descendants of families who have been settled there for generations. Then there are the many differences which there inevitably must be between a huge city, where buildings, repairs, examinations, inspections, are carried through by tradesmen and officials chosen for their assured capacity, and a town where more personal feeling may come in, and local patronage in choosing officials, and also where a sense of conservative feeling leads people to put up with many abuses, simply because they are of long standing.

In Professor's Jowett's Life is mentioned a man who asked his doctor if he were dangerously ill. "No, sir," was the reply, "but--you are dangerously old." I sometimes think when we see some of those pretty, heavily-thatched old cottages in the country, and the ancient, half-timbered houses in the towns, how often they should be labelled as dangerously old. When such buildings have not been kept up and improved to suit the higher standard of comfort and decency of this age, those old buildings must indeed be only picturesque to the unthinking persons who see the outside. To others who can observe and know, they are dangerously old, with roofs to let in snow and rain; rotten floors and staircases, unsanitary conditions, and germs of many diseases lingering on the walls. Mr. Rowntree describes some houses in York where old abuses have never been remedied, but left to accumulate with interest, fatal to the comfort and well-being of their unlucky inmates!

I wish first, however, to speak of the people in York, and will begin with the upper classes. There are many well-known local names of York citizens, families who have done and still do much good public work. Some are widely known both in this and past generations, such as the Tukes; there are many families who have all possessed members up to the high-water mark of knowledge and wisdom of how to help in their generation their poorer fellow-citizens. The help given 300 and 400 years ago in doles and bequests, and of which York, like most of our old towns, has had her full share, we see now to be unscientific in diminishing poverty; in fact it may be a good thing that in the course of years, from causes unknown, from bankruptcy of a single trustee, or from litigation, many have been lost. The spirit, however, which led to those ancient benefactions still lives in the citizens of York to-day, who spend their riches generally on hospitals, asylums, institutes, but more especially on education. But the causes of poverty lie deep. All the goodwill, wealth, and wisdom of the rich and influential citizens of York cannot eradicate poverty, and this is one of the uses of Mr. Rowntree's book--to show that poverty exists equally under a beneficent, philanthropic upper class, as under a more irresponsible and changeable one. It surely points to the fact that the causes are in the poor themselves, and that the only outside influence that can be of use is to raise their own standard, and then make them work out their own salvation.

Mr. Rowntree is able to speak with special authority on matters in York. The Rowntree's have now a world-wide name for their cocoa and chocolate works, in which they employ between 2000 and 3000 hands. The first of the name to settle in York was Joseph Rowntree, born 1801, the grandfather of Mr. Seebohm Rowntree, the author of Poverty. Joseph Rowntree started in business, to which he brought up his two elder sons, while the third started the cocoa works in a very small way; the cocoa works were at first unsuccessful, but Mr. Henry Rowntree was bravely struggling on in spite of ill-fortune, when he died. His elder brother Joseph, since known as the writer on temperance, took them on, and the tide turned, the works increased, and it is now a Limited Company, though most of the shareholders and some of the directors are of the Rowntree family. They are Quakers, and have done a great deal in the way of education and of philanthropy generally.

The Tukes are also Quakers, and one founded the very large Friends' Girls' School, at York--where, I believe, there are three or four hundred girls--to which the children from Quaker families come from all over England; another Tuke founded the York Retreat for the insane, which, by practically showing the success gained over the patients by kind treatment, influenced greatly other asylums for lunatics. The well-known Mr. James Hack Tuke was in Ireland at the time of the famine, in 1840, with his friend, Mr. W. E. Forster (later the Chief Secretary), and assisted him in the organization for emigration, and the giving out of food to the starving. He influenced several to go to York in hopes of work, and when the poor forlorn people arrived there, so many had the terrible famine fever that no houses would take them in. Mr. Tuke's father, however, lent a field, tents and sheets were rapidly put up, and the Tukes themselves visited them all daily with stores of provisions. Mr. J. H. Tuke caught the fever, and nearly died. It is a common sight now in the Irish quarter of the town to see the women sitting on their kerb stones smoking clay pipes. The number of Irish has begun to decline, but of those who remain most find work as general labourers, while many of the women pick up a living by working in the fields, often tramping out for miles in the morning to their work.

There is no special industry peculiar to York. The introduction of the railway in the middle of the last century attracted many workmen, and there are now about 5500 men and boys on the railway, but except for them and the Irish, the population is indigenous to the city and the surrounding country.

Mr. Rowntree, in getting up his statistics of classes, health, wages, paupers, families, etc., etc., has closely followed Mr. [William] Booth's methods, and he quotes a letter in which Mr. Booth says: "You known with what interest I have watched your investigation into the conditions of life at York . . . Our totals may be correctly compared, and the comparison, as you have shown, is very close. At this I am not surprised. I have indeed long thought that other cities, if similarly tested, would show a percentage of poverty not differing greatly from that existing in London, and your most valuable enquiry confirms me in this opinion."

Mr. Rowntree divides people into various classes according to their wage-earnings:--Class A being those under 18s. per week; Class B over 18s. and under 21s., etc., etc. Sometimes one class would be merged into another, e.g., people with earnings above 18s. a week might yet be in Class A because of a greater number of small children. Class A comprises all the poorest people in the city, and Class B consists chiefly of unskilled labourers and their families, and, though their standard of living is a degree better than that of Class A, there is, nevertheless, a large amount of poverty among them. Practically the whole of this class are living either in a state of actual poverty, by which is meant that their total earnings are insufficient to supply adequate food, clothing, and shelter for the maintenance of physical health, or so near to the state of actual poverty that they are liable to sink into it at any moment. They live constantly from hand to mouth. So long as the wage-earner is in work the family manages to get along, but a week' illness or lack of work means short rations, or running into debt, or, more probably, both of these. Extraordinary expenditure for any article of dress or furniture is met by reducing the sum spent on food. As a rule in such cases it is the wife, and sometimes also the children, who have to go short of food--the importance of keeping up the man's strength is recognized, and he obtains his ordinary share.

The following is an account of a family in Class B, where the mother is a very good manager, the father steady, and in regular work, earning 20s. a week, and three children at home. The man gives his wife 18s., keeping 2s. for himself, of which he spends in the week 7d. in beer, 3d. in tobacco, puts 3d. into the children's savings-box, and clothes himself out of the remainder--that is, not 48s. to get boots and clothes which have to be worn in all weathers, and in hard work, for a whole year! The wife, with her 18s. pays the rent, 3s. 2d., and in addition to everything else pays 1s. 1d. a week into three clubs, 6d., 4d., and 3d. respectively, for sick club, life insurance, and clothing club! She was asked how she managed about clothes, as the 3d. a week put into a clothing club seemed to represent everything in that way for herself and three children. "Well, as a rule," she said, "we'ave to get it out o' the food-money, and go short; but I never let Smith suffer--'e 'as to go to work, and must be kep'up, you know. And then Smith 'as ollers been very good to me. When I want a new pair o' shoes or anything, 'e 'elps me out of 'is pocket money, and we 'aven't to pinch the food so much."

And this is a family far above the average in the steadiness and full work of the husband, and in the forethought and economy of the wife; at its best times a life of care and privation, as the acquiring of any extra necessary is only obtained by the doing without other necessaries, and any illness, misfortune, or accident, to which any one is liable, but the poor to a greater extent than richer people, may at once plunge them nearly into starvation!

Part II.

The "family budgets" are exceedingly interesting. Mr. Rowntree induced a number of people in various classes to keep a strict record of all their expenditure, and of the menus of their meals for terms of eight weeks. In making his calculations as to the necessary amount and sort of food sufficient for physical health, Mr. Rowntree concluded to adopt the standard of Professor Atwater, U.S.A., who is well known as an authority on the Chemistry and Economy of Food. He has taken the standard of Professor Atwater, sufficient for men with moderate muscular work, and the standards for women and children are expressed from 8/10 of the men's standard for women down to 3/10 for a child under two years old. Then Mr. Rowntree turned these figures into selected cheapest dietaries, a standard less generous than any approved by the York Local Government Board for workhouse inmates. And this barely sufficient amount, bought at the cheapest possible rate, is not obtainable by an immense proportion of the poor. It is terrible to think of, when one reflects how habitual under-feeding stunts not only the body but the brain, and of how poor life must be to those who never feel the vigour and joy of proper strength! I was told once that the prison diet at Dartmoor--and I suppose elsewhere--had to be calculated to keep the men barely in working order. If they had enough in the sense of what would be considered normal feeding for any other men, it raised their spirits too much, and they were more refractory with the gaolers, and planned more attempts at escape. The diet is therefore limited, so that they can do their work, but are too cowed and low for anything beyond. We are often told that prison life is made too easy for people who are, after all, put there to be punished, and it is a little outside our subject, but when we think of the influence of proper food on our mind and body, how fearful it is to think that books like Mr. Rowntree's and Mr. Booth's point to the fact that 7 1/2 millions of people, more than a quarter of the population, are, at the present moment in England, living below the poverty line!

It is not only the stunted mind and body but the actual disease also which is caused by extreme poverty. I think I never in my life heard a sadder thing than what a man five years ago said to me in Whitechapel. He was dying, and his wife was telling me he had been in a consumption for three years. The poor, ghastly-looking man interrupted her, "Consumption? I can tell you, it is the want of consumption that is killing me. I have never had enough to eat in all my life."

As a result of underfeeding, Mr. Rowntree notes that in the schools the average height of a boy of 13 of the poorest class is less by 3 1/2 inches than that of the better off boys. A labourer in Class A is underfed during three periods of his life--in childhood, when his constitution is being built up; in early middle life, when he should be in his prime, but he has to go short that his children may live; and, lastly, in old age. The women have their worst time of poverty during the greater part of the period that they are bearing children. The danger of underfeeding is not in the immediate want and hunger, but the undermining of all claim to what may be called a constitution, weakened in each successive generation till it dies out!

Concerning the housing question, the rents are low, and there is not much overcrowding. Every family lives in a separate house. Mr. Rowntree divides the housing of the working-class families into four classes, from the well-to-do artisan's house, with five rooms and a scullery, at 7s. 3d. or 7s. 6d. a week, including rates, down to the slum houses of two rooms at 2s. a week. About one quarter of the working-class families, that is, about 3000 families of struggling poor, pay rents of 2s. for a two-roomed house (generally called "an oop and a doon,") up to 4s. 6d. for a house with four rooms, the landlord paying all rates. Mr. Rowntree gives seventeen towns to exemplify overcrowding, by which term is now generally meant more than two people on the average to each room. Of those seventeen, Glasgow is the worst for overcrowding, 59 per cent. living so, London is 19 per cent. (and yet we all know overcrowding in London is bad enough!), and York only 6 per cent; this means that 663 families are living in York in overcrowded conditions. The slum houses were mostly built long before Public Health Acts or bye-laws regulating the width of streets and the construction of houses were heard of. Many of them open on to narrow alleys paved with cobbles, others in courts separated from the main street by dark-covered passages, three or four feet wide. There are many back to back houses, which prevent any thorough ventilation ever taking place, many are back to back with warehouses, others against a blank wall. Mr. Rowntree has repeatedly visited typical slums in London, and is convinced that though larger in extent, they are no worse than those in York, and in this opinion he is confirmed by two sanitary inspectors, who agree that they have not seen any in London so degrading and filthy as some they have visited in York. Inside, the rooms are often dark and damp, many of the floors are brick, uneven and much broken, having been laid on to the earth with no concrete or other foundation. Description of seven typical slum houses and four courtyards are given by a certified lady sanitary inspector. Rain coming through the ceiling, staircases with but one sound step, frame-work of doors torn away, great cracks in the walls, mice coming through holes in the floor or the walls--all these seem common and unclean experiences. In one house the accumulation of dust between the banisters and the wall was measured; it was of an average depth of nine inches, in one place measuring sixteen inches. Imagine how the germs from every illness common to that house must for years have been accumulating there!

There are revolting revelations of sanitary carelessness shewing the need of very much extended inspections, but among the principal drawbacks to healthy dwellings is the large number of slaughter-houses, too often situated in the very midst of densely-populated districts, often up narrow passages. After slaughtering, the blood is allowed to run into the common sewers, the grates of which are in some cases close to dwelling-houses. From their number and site, adequate inspection of these shambles is all but impossible. There are 94 of them, and not one is built in accordance with the Local Government Board Bye-laws. There is no certainty about the soundness of the meat, any more than there is regarding the merciful methods of killing the animals. The smells beggar description, and both sights and sounds are brutalizing to children and also to their elders.

Mr. Rowntree says his object is to state facts rather than to suggest remedies. He does, however, occasionally suggest them; as for instance, in the chapter on Public Houses, which, he says, are so socially attractive that they point to the need for the establishment on temperance line of something equally attractive in this respect. He speaks of very hard drinking in public houses on Saturday nights, and his close investigations have made him arrive at the conclusion that the predominant factor of poverty is drink. There is one public house to every 230 people in York. The greatest number are within the old city walls, and the comparative fewness of them in the newer out-lying districts points to the unwillingness now manifested by the magistrates to grant licenses beyond those actually required. Their action in refusing has been usually supported by widely-signed petitions from local inhabitants. It is possible the enormous number of public houses in the old part of York are relics of a time when York was a great coaching centre. A careful study was made of three typical public houses, one in a slum district, another in a busy thoroughfare, and a third in a broad street on the border line between a working class and a wealthier residential district, but this last one is what all publicans try to have, viz., a corner house, so as to have various entrances, two from the broad, bustling thoroughfare, and one from the narrow side street, where people can go in more privately, and also in a bad case of drinking, be put out more unobserved! These three houses were noted on different days at various hours. The number of men, women and children who went in, who brought away drink, and who stayed; the singing, shouting, quarrels, fights; the uses of the houses for social clubs, drinking or betting--all this was ascertained. Some of the watching was for seventeen consecutive hours, and during the busiest time was undertaken by two investigators together. There is more drinking in Class B than Class A; but that does not imply a higher moral standard, but simply that "A" is too absolutely destitute to get the drink. In Class B the money can only be found in the majority of cases by the rest of the family going without necessaries. Another great factor in poverty is in the early marriages, without the least provision for the future.

Mr. Rowntree sums up his account of the poverty in York by saying how he has been increasingly impressed with the gravity of the facts as they have unfolded themselves. That in this land of abounding wealth, during, perhaps, a time of unexampled prosperity, so many can be living in poverty must well cause great searchings of heart. There is surely need for a greater concentration of thought by the nation upon the well-doing of its own people, for nor civilization can be sound or stable which has at its base this mass of stunted human life.

In this commencement of the twentieth century we look forward with an enthusiastic hope to seeing the overthrow of many of our standing evils, especially in the way of physical disease. Particular studies are now being carried on to find cures for consumption, cancer, and the bubonic plague. As we all know, our experts have to discover the cause, the individual microbe, the conditions which create and foster it, etc., etc., and to find the exact cause is a great advance towards discovering the exact cure. In the same way we must fight the disease of poverty.

Throwing the fierce light of publicity upon the way of life among the poor as Mr. Booth and Mr. Rowntree do, gives an immense mass of knowledge which will all tend towards discovering the causes, and later on tend to the diminution of poverty. It may be that someone stirred by the example of these two writers will give us a like book on a manufacturing town, which would differ in many essentials from both the work on London and that on York, as much as these two do from each other. A town, for instance, like Leeds, with its population of 500,000, and its enormous number of industries, its engineering works, steam ploughs, cloth mills, ready-made clothing, and all its other factories. The more light that can be thrown upon a subject from different points of view always makes it an easier thing to classify. In spreading the light we all can help; each carefully carried out investigation will help us to the hidden causes which lie so deep below the surface. Each worker here in S.E. London [Read at a meeting of Settlement and C.O.S Workers.] may contribute something to the general stock of knowledge which the experts may turn to account. Those of us especially, I think, who work with the C.O.S. should feel bound to reap some fruit from the training in observation that our enquiries among the people give us. At any rate, even if contributing no new data to the scientific knowledge of poverty, we can, by acquiring more knowledge for ourselves, raise the average of information among workers; and what is a very important point, deepen our own sympathies with those we want to help. I think it is Mr. Stephen Phillips who gives us a happy vision for the future when he speaks of--

      "binding man closer to man,
      And closer woman to woman;
      And the stranger will see in a stranger his brother at last,
      And a sister in the eyes that are strange."

The sense of universal brotherhood, of being members of one human family, should gain upon us as we work.

I think there is more room for ambitions in work now than there has ever been before. And, of all ambitions, what can be greater than to help to a fuller and happier life those who are physically and mentally starved? The essentials of a good and happy life are very few--home, health, sufficient work and occupied leisure. If only in gratitude for having enjoyed such ourselves, we are bound to do all we can for those who are less fortunate.

The new Bishop of Worcester, when speaking once on social reform, said: "When Lazarus was to be raised from the dead, it was the life-giving word of Christ alone which could impart life, but before that word could find access to the tomb, the stone had to be taken away. Which things are an allegory. Christ alone can restore the moral health of individuals, but there are preliminary obstacles to its influence to be removed. Bad dwellings, inadequate wages, inadequate education, inability to use leisure--these are the stones which lie upon the graves of men spiritually dead. We must take away the stone. Only we must not exaggerate what merely external reform is likely to accomplish. The real obstacle in social advance is selfishness, or sin. Real social reform will proceed from small groups of sanctified men like the apostles."

Bishop Gore's words give us much to think of. An ambition indeed to call back the dead to life! And his last words, saying social reform will proceed from groups of people like the apostles, give us a high ideal for our own lives. But the ambition and the high ideal are the two things which prevent us despairing when we read books like this of Poverty in York.

For ourselves we must remember that--

      "Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,
      These three alone lead life to sovereign power,"--

and for those we would help we must consider that things have improved even while abuses have only been slightly touched by all varieties of persons working unknown to, and separately from, each other, a state of things which can never meet with success like a system of co-operation. We want a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all together, and I think that is one of the things borne in upon us in this twentieth century. In the past century, as Benjamin Kidd says, altruistic feeling has alleviated the horrors of war, abolished much slavery, and improved our criminal laws. It remains for this century to deepen this altruistic feeling, and with altruistic feeling wedded to co-operation, for all workers in social reform to combine together for the purpose, as Bishop Gore says, of taking away the stones. The people no longer being weighed down will rise to the better life, and to such an end, enquiries and facts like those Mr. Rowntree has made and given us are of untold value.

Typed by LovieWie, August, 2023; Proofread by LNL, August, 2023