Livesey autobiography — chapter 6

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Every additional paper I write under this head seems to be an increasing task, having to dwell so much upon myself and my own doings. But feeling unable now to draw back, all I have to crave of my readers is, that they will forgive any appearance of vanity or self-praise of which I may appear to be chargeable. This paper will refer to some of my dealings with the poor. Naturally I cling to them; I feel a pleasure in their company, and when I meet persons drunk or in rags—a sight forbidding to most people,—I seem drawn towards them, and never pass them without a feeling of pity. These feelings, perhaps natural, were, I believe, very much matured by my early reading of the New Testament, my attention often being arrested with the kindly, benevolent, sympathising, charitable, forgiving spirit of Jesus as manifested in all His teaching and in all His works. Many a time have I pictured to myself the scene of the woman washing His feet with her tears, and wiping them with the hairs of her head, and the kindly words He spoke to her in opposition to the rebukes of the Scribes and Pharisees. And then, again, the words He spoke to “the women taken in adultery,”—”Hath no man condemned thee?” “No man, Lord.” “Neither do I condemn thee, go, and sin no more!” Mine has been an unpretending, humble course, trying, in a limited sphere, to relieve and serve the sons and daughters of poverty. It has always appeared to me that a man who devises plans for benefiting his fellow creatures, and carries them into effect himself—who disposes of his bounty with his own hands—can do much more good than one who gives far larger sums, but leaves the distribution entirely to others, and whose liberality, too often, after his death, is wrongly appropriated. No doubt I have been often imposed upon, but in this, as in all other human affair I would balance the good of relieving a number against the evil of occasionally being cheated. I think it is Paley who says he preferred giving occasionally when he knew he was being imposed upon rather than check the current of benevolence which it was important to encourage. But, at the same time, I have spared no pains in visiting people’s houses and testing their real condition. There are very few poor streets or courts or yards, in Preston, where I have not been. And among those who, a long time ago, laboured in the same way, I have the pleasure to name the late Mrs. German, and Miss Whitehead (now Mrs. Dr. Stavert). On most, if not on all occasions when we had, during our depression in trade, public subscriptions for the relief of the poor, I took a part. It seems natural to me to enjoy myself among the poor; and if my present means were doubled or trebled, I think it would make no difference. I feel happier at any time at the fireside of a poor man’s cottage, chatting with his family, than in the drawing-room of my richest friend. I shall not go into details, nor dwell upon visits to “the widows and fatherless in their afflictions,” which is the duty of all, as part of “pure and undefiled religion,” but refer to instances of a more public character, where I have originated and carried out plans, apparently simple in themselves, which conferred great good upon the needy poor. I may however, just name one case, quite forgotten to myself, but brought to my mind by a letter I have received from a lady. Speaking of her father, who was an old friend of mine, she says: “He calls to mind an incident soon after your marriage, which exhibits the kindliness of your nature in the case of a poor man, who resided in a cellar in Vauxhall Road, sick, and full of putrefying sores, and to whom you sent the best feather-bed you had. Doubtless, if he were talking to you, many interesting events would be elicited.”

In my intercourse with the poor, I found the greatest symptoms of misery, as it struck me, in their bedrooms. Many a score of beds have I seen without a single blanket; sometime with no covering but a thin cotton sheet or two, perhaps a few wrappers, or a piece of old carpet. These, and their body clothes, being all the covering they had during the winter nights. Few could believe how poor families sleep unless they saw it. And it seldom happens that lady visitors, or others who call, go up stairs. Everything there is alike wretched. Beds filled with straw or old chaff. The ticks dirty, and sometimes with holes in; the chaff wet, or running out. The floors not clean; the windows and fire-places closed; indeed, the air is so bad, that it is a wonder how the}’ pass the night. In many cases, and generally where the parties have been “sold up,” there are no bedsteads, but they sleep on the floor. Five in a bed, I have often met with—three in the usual position, and two youngsters at the feet. Visiting late at night, I once found seven persons in one bed, four little ones across at the bottom, feet to feet. It is true enough that one half of the world does not know how the other half lives. I was always so impressed with the discomforts of the bedrooms, that I turned my special attention to this. There is nothing, at a small cost, that is more comfortable for a poor family than a new chaff bed; and, I have heard a poor woman say, ” it warms three sides.” This I seem to have made my special study. One hard winter (I think it was about 1826), I distributed, on my own account, 900 sacks of chaff. Assisted by a few friends, we visited many of the poorest houses and cellars in the town. After making all inquiries, I decided to whom I would give two, three, or more sacks of chaff, according to their needs; but, as a condition, they were all, after throwing away their old chaff, to wash their bed ticks. I purchased the chaff from the farmers, at about 8d. a sack, and they brought it in cart-loads of about 30 or 40 sacks at a time. I gave them a list of names and streets, and sent a man to assist in delivering the chaff at the poor people’s houses. On several occasions afterwards, in connection with our public charities, I may be said to have had the office of chaff distributor and bed inspector.

Formerly, working people, as a rule, were poorer than they are at present. Food was dear, work scarce, and wages low. The competition among workpeople was so severe that emigration, for a long time, was looked upon as the chief remedy. We had many public subscriptions in times of distress—in 1816, 1830, 1840, and 1842, &c. In these, the distribution of soup and bedding generally formed the most prominent features. In the year 1830, the soup was made in the kitchen of Lord Derby’s house, in Church Street, on a large scale. The chaff was stored in, and given out, at a warehouse in Fox Street. At another time, Lord Derby’s stables were engaged for the same good work. We had, in 1858, a distribution called distinctly, “The Bedding Charity,” and its history is worthy of being referred to. Mr. Isaac Whitwell, of Kendal, a truly benevolent man, had an exhibition in the Temperance Hall of the “Magic Lantern,” to Sunday School children and others, which left a balance of £11 19s. 2d. He left it with me to decide how the balance should be appropriated. It was then a time of distress, and after consulting some friends, I said, if we could raise £30 or £40 more, we might replenish a number of poor people’s beds. We made application to a few benevolent persons, and the project was so well received, that we resolved to form a “Bedding Charity.” The following are the first and concluding paragraphs of the Appeal we issued for carrying this into effect:

It is much to be lamented that among other privations, the bedding of a great number of the working people of Preston, especially the aged, is in a .deplorable condition. They have but little covering—many not a single blanket —but, worse than all, their beds are in a very bad state, not having been renewed for many years. The chaff is reduced to dust, a deal of it very dirty, and in many cases it has become so wasted that the bed-cords are often felt through it. The high price of provisions has prevented them from being able to purchase new chaff; and now that an inclement season is at hand, it has been thought no greater service could be rendered to the poor, at a moderate expense, than to renew a considerable number of these beds with new chaff. It is also intended to supply new bed-ticks, cotton sheets, and coverlets at a low charge.
To the rich and benevolent we appeal to assist us in this good work; and we trust, considering the present lamentable depression in trade, the approaching inclement season of the year, and the orderly behaviour of the poor of the town, that this appeal will not be made in vain.
J. OWEN PARR, Chairman. J. J. MYRES, Treasurer. ” J. LIVESEY, Vice-Chairman. J. SHAW, Secretary.

A warehouse was taken as a depot for chaff and bedding; a great number of persons were employed in making bed-ticks and filling them. Every part of the town was visited; and it was really a sight to see new beds and old beds, filled with new chaff, being trucked and carted through the town daily for a long time during these operations. It was a condition that the old bed-ticks should always be cleaned. Lime was also furnished to the people for whitewashing their houses, and sometimes soap; and in cases, owing to sickness or old age, where the parties were not able to clean their rooms, women, some from the workhouse, were sent to do it. There was such a cleaning out on this occasion as had never been seen before, and thousands of clean beds were secured to the poor. For many weeks I never went home to dine, but remained at the depot, quite happy in taking a bun and a glass of water, or a basin of soup for dinner. The Rev. J. Shaw, curate of the Parish Church, rendered invaluable service, and instead of the £30 or £40, we raised and expended upwards of £1,100, besides the amount which the people paid for Bolton sheets and quilts, at a reduced price. We had collections in the Churches and Chapels, and I may here quote two paragraphs from a printed sermon of the Rev. Cannon Parr, M.A., vicar of Preston, preached in the Parish Church on the 14th February, 1858, on behalf of this charity:—

The Bedding Charity has been organized with a view to mitigate the extremity of distress known to exist. Honour be to Mr. Livesey, the prime mover in it—honour to the first and most munificent contributors to it—honour above all to the laborious and self-denying visitors, and to the honorary and earnest efficient secretary, the Rev. J. Shaw. Thanks to all these; much has been done to relieve, and more to discover, an extent and depth of suffering which must be seen to be adequately understood and felt.
The visitors have been struck with the amount of uncomplaining patience, unmurmuring endurance, which they have witnessed. The poor have felt comforted, and cheered, and honoured by the notice taken of them, and the sympathy expressed for them; and in many it seemed to lay the foundation of a hope, that being thus seasonably helped, they might now be able to help themselves, and to do away with that feeling of desperation and self-abandonment, which extinguishes all exertion, and offers those who sink under it, a ready prey to every evil influence.

All classes, excepting the very poorest, could enjoy themselves every summer by going with the cheap railway trips. This led me to conceive the idea of arranging one for this class, which was eminently successful. Every summer the poorest in the town, “the halt, the lame, and the blind,” the scavengers, the sweeps, and workhouse people, have been treated by a railway trip to Blackpool, Southport, Fleetwood, or some other sea bathing place. This annual treat commenced in 1845; it was entirely my own conception, and has been continued ever since, generally in the month of August. It has been called the “Poor People’s Trip,” the “Old Women’s Trip,” and the “Butter-milk Trip,” the latter because, for number of years, we took a truck load of butter-milk with us for the use of our guests. The trip numbered at first 2,000 to 2,500, but in time it increased to 4,000. We arranged with the railway companies to take them for 6d. a head, and we issued tickets in packets at 8d., including for each person a bun, and milk ad libitum. Latterly coffee was substituted for milk. Benevolent persons and employers purchased the packets and distributed them among the poor, and the demand, I may say, always exceeded the supply. It was managed by a committee, of whom Mr. Joseph Dearden is one of the oldest. This low charge continued for 20 years; but for the last two years the railway companies have demanded 1s. I don’t blame them for this, for it had become impossible to discriminate sufficiently so as to prevent numbers of persons taking advantage of the charity trip who were well able to pay a full fare. The trips however, have gone as before though at the higher charge, except that refreshments are not supplied; and it is not looked upon now as an exclusively charitable arrangement. It used to be an interesting sight to me to see the trains start one after another, every carriage crammed with the poor people as “happy as princes.” It was the only “out” many of them got during the whole year, and they would talk of it many a long day. Long before the time arrives the old women will call to ask when the trip will come off, and describe their ailments, telling marvellous tales how much they were benefited the year before. I often think how much friendship and good will might be diffused among the poor, if the rich would but only mix more with them, and contrive for their enjoyments: They little think of the store of gratitude that is lodged in breasts covered with rags, for anyone who becomes their benefactor.

My attention at one time was directed to the way in which the poorest classes were served with coals, which was by bags containing a hundred-weight each, or what should have been a hundred-weight, for I found upon weighing some bags that they did not contain more than 90 to 100lbs., instead of 112lbs. I determined to introduce an entire new system, so as not only to secure honest weight, but to reduce the price. Instead of bags filled at the coal yards by so many spadefuls, I fixed upon different points in the town, contiguous to the residences of the poor, and had cart loads of coals laid down in the streets. They were weighed on the spot, and wheeled in baskets to the people’s houses. When one load was served out, the men employed moved the scale, which went on wheels, to another point and did the same there; and it soon became known in each locality on what day the coal men would come. A great advantage was gained to the poor, and the bagging system became abolished. We sold at a price to cover expenses, for ready money. This plan worked most beneficially. After seeing it fully established, I induced a friend of mine, William Toulmin, to carry it on, which he did for many years, establishing small retail coal yards in different parts of the town, a system which now generally prevails.

In my visitations the conviction was forced upon me that but for their drinking and improvident habits, a great many families would not have been in the wretched condition in which we found them. In 1824, I wrote a pamphlet of 24 pages, entitled “A Friendly Address to the Poorer Classes,” which went through several editions, but is now out of print. In this I spoke of industry, cleanliness, economy, sobriety,—against smoking, shopping, pledging, dealing with tallymen, and generally on better domestic management. Before I heard of temperance societies, I wrote and circulated, for the same classes, a pamphlet headed “The Besetting Sin.” This dealt with the question of temperance as many deal with it in the present day, showing the horrid evils of “drunkenness” merely, urging great moderation, but saying nothing against the drink itself, or against its dangerous tendencies in small quantities. I had a restless spirit; I was generally inventing something, as I thought, for bettering the condition of the poor. This will further appear when I speak of the schools and institutes which I either originated or assisted in promoting. I had fully intended, in this chapter, to give a sketch of my labours in connection with the Belief Fund during the Cotton Famine, which in magnitude and length of time eclipsed all the charitable distributions we ever had in Preston; but this, for want of space, I must defer till my next.

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