Livesey autobiography — chapter 7

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In the last chapter I omitted, from want of room, noticing my labours in connection with the Preston Relief Fund, during the Cotton Famine. This was by far the largest of our public distributions. Commencing in January, 1862, it continued till May, 1865, three years and three months, without intermission. The fact that £131,000 was distributed in the various forms of bread, soup, flour, employment, coals, bedding, clothing, &c, shows the magnitude of the undertaking. The number of tickets given out for bread, soup, coals, clothing, &c, amounted to 5,141,418; and the number of persons, including all the branches of the families relieved amounted, at one time, to 40,627. This was a gigantic undertaking, and was managed so as to secure the praise of visitors from all parts of the world. Preston, being almost entirely dependent on the cotton trade, probably suffered more than any other town. For about two years I devoted most of my spare time to this important charity. There were so many mills stopped, and so many people out of work, that I and a few friends projected the first public meeting to originate a subscription, and which was called by the mayor. The general impression, however, was, that we were too hasty, and that it was premature to commence giving relief, though the result proved that we did not move a day too soon. We had prepared resolutions, and got the consent of parties to move and second them. The Rev. J. Owen Parr, the vicar, with a short speech moved the first resolution recommending a public subscription, which was seconded by Mr. Bairstow, upon which Mr. T. B. Addison rose, and made an elaborate speech against the resolution, urging that relief should be given only through the Board of Guardians. He seemed to have made a great impression upon the meeting; a pause ensued; no one rose to reply, although the meeting called by circular was attended both by ministers and private gentlemen. With me it was a moment of intense anxiety; I had laboured hard to bring this meeting about, and I feared that the ingenious appeal of the learned Recorder had frustrated all my hopes. Just as the motion was going to be put to the vote, I felt impelled to speak, (though according to arrangement I was to speak to a later motion,) and once on my legs, I felt no difficulty in replying to Mr. Addison. Warming up as I proceeded, I carried the meeting with me. Several others then followed, and the resolution was carried with only two dissentients, Mr. Addison and another. If ever I felt that I had rendered a service to humanity, it was by coming forward at this critical moment. A committee was appointed, the Vicar being chairman, and I vice-chairman, and afterwards all went on successfully. Mr. Philip Park and I were deputed to look out for premises in which to carry on our operations, and we were fortunate in meeting with a building in Crooked Lane, one with five storeys, resembling a cotton factory, belonging to Mr. James German, the use of which he granted us freely. This was fitted up chiefly under my superintendence. On the ground floor we had seven boilers making soup, and store rooms for the meat, bread, and flour. On the next floor was stored the clothing sent from all parts of the country, in quantities almost incredible, a part of this room being allotted to the females employed in making and mending all sorts of garments. In the next storey was deposited an immense quantity of chaff and cut straw (cut by steam-power), and here the poor people’s beds were filled, and a vast number of new ones given out. Above this, on the next floor, we had joiners, tailors, and shoemakers at work. Altogether it was a busy place; our operations extending also to a number of coal yards and schools in various parts of the town. Speaking of our busiest time, the report puts down the number of persons employed at 489, in the following departments: —Bread room, 5; soup room, 20; clothing room, 13; joiners, 9; chaff room, 20; tailors, 66; shoemakers, 27; coal distributors, 10; assistants, or odd hands, 7; dressmakers, 54; potato peelers, 50; visitors and messengers, 18; to which may be added 160 female sewers. We had offices close by, where I attended daily, and for months I rarely went home to dinner. In one part of the large building I made arrangements for washing the children who generally came very dirty, and to many were given tickets containing the following: —”To promote cleanliness and decency, Mr. Livesey will pay to any hairdresser one penny who cuts the hair of this poor boy. This ticket will be his claim for payment any time he may wish.” Mixing daily with the hundreds and thousands of the poor and the unemployed, if I had not previously been familiar with every phase of poverty, I should have become so here. The old enemy, drink, plagued us here as it does everywhere. One Saturday, after paying our “gangers,”—men who took the lead in the outdoor labour department,—nine in number, I watched them all make off to a public-house. The next week, after receiving their wages, I called them into an adjoining room and spoke to them of their conduct, of which they professed to be ashamed, and promised not to do so again. I got a person appointed paid secretary, the son of a teetotaler. He had never tasted drink up to 28 years of age; but having had a fever, was induced to take porter by the advice of the doctor. This was the first step of his becoming a drunkard. He signed the pledge, and we hoped he was reformed, but while in the office he broke out, got behind with his cash, which I had to make good, and he was dismissed. He is since dead. Many visitors to our establishment from the higher ranks saw more of the condition of the “million” on this occasion than they had ever done before. The gifts in the shape of clothing from every part of the kingdom were extraordinary; I have seen as many as 50 bales of new material and cast-off clothes received in one day. The devoted labour and liberality of the gentlemen of the town, and the handsome subscriptions that were sent by numerous parties, especially those through the Manchester Central, and the London Mansion House Committees, proved equal to the emergency, and had it not been for these during this protracted period of suffering, it would have been impossible to have preserved the peace of the town. I hope no one living may ever see another “cotton famine.”

The new Poor Law, which passed in 1834, was very unpopular. The parishes in the north felt that they did not require it, for though abuses existed, the rates had not, as in some parts of the south, risen from 10s. to 18s. in the pound. The starvation of the agricultural labourers, the heavy burden of the poor upon the farmers, and the consequent losses to the landowners were the natural effects of the Corn Laws, and yet instead of seeing this and repealing them, a remedy was sought in a more stringent Poor Law, which equally affected north and south. From the first I was opposed to this measure, and did my best to prevent its being enforced in Preston. I foresaw that it would be a most expensive change, that the poor would be dealt with more harshly, and the liberty of the parishes sacrificed to a central authority. It would be difficult for me to recount the amount of labour I undertook, and the time I spent in opposing this measure. And though some of the absurd provisions have been repealed, and the orders of the Poor Law Board modified, or allowed to remain in abeyance, even yet it is a crude, expensive, and oppressive measure; and an interference with the liberty of local authorities such as would not be borne with in any other department. We had Assistant Commissioners, appointed at £700 and £800 a year, and whose expenses amounted to about the same sum, coming on visits of inspection, who knew very little of poor law administration. Where the law was enforced, and the authority of the Poor Law Board submitted to, the old fashioned workhouses, which corresponded to their names, were broken up; looms and implements of labour of all kinds made away, and new expensive Union houses (“Bastiles”) were erected in their stead, whose tests are not work, but confinement and division of families. For more than 20 years I successfully opposed the erection of a new workhouse for the Preston Union—at the Board while I remained a member, and afterwards through the columns of the Guardian and other mediums; and I don’t hesitate to say that I have saved this Union many thousand pounds by my opposition. While in office I could secure a majority of the Guardians against this measure, and at one time when the Poor Law Board at London had actually issued an order for building a Union Workhouse, I raised such an opposition and disputed the legality of the order in such a way that the work was not proceeded with. At last, however, I got tired out, and in the face of the labours and statistics of Mr. C. R. Jacson, industriously got up, I made no further attempt at resistance, and the new house, which was to cost £32,000, but which will amount to about the moderate sum of £42,000, is just about to be opened.

Mr. T. B. Addison was from the first a strenuous advocate of the new Poor Law. He and I could never agree; he would carry out the measure in all its rigour, and for five years at the Board we were constantly in opposition. Though he was a barrister, I also was well read as it respected the law and the orders of the commissioners (which were equivalent to law), and did frequently and successfully dispute his statements. Every year we had a warm contest about the chairmanship of the Board of Guardians. The magistrates and the country guardians generally supported Mr. Addison for chairman, and I and others as constantly opposed him, for we were better able to thwart his measures when we kept him out of the chair. Either twice or three times he was rejected, and in some of the instances by a majority of one. Once we certainly stretched a point to gain the majority of one, his opponent, Mr. Lomas, being persuaded to vote for himself. Mr. Addison’s views and mine, as to the character and merits of the poor, were so utterly at variance that it was impossible we could work well together. I knew their condition from actual visitation, and he did not. He was very severe, and I was lenient, so much so that had I not been checked by him and others, I should often have committed errors by being too indulgent. Mr. A. was always hard upon the poor women who had been “unfortunate,” or who had married young, and many a contention have we had about giving relief to such. His award was uniformly “the house” for such, and indeed for many others who were more deserving. I always set my face against urging poor families to break up their little homes by forcing them into the workhouses, the husband to one, the wife to another, and the elder children to a third. All this was inflicted under the soft name of “classification.” My heart has bled many a time to see the poor pleading for a small pittance of out-door relief, where nothing but the workhouse was offered. Formerly the poor were relieved in the spirit of Christianity by the churchwardens and overseers; the shadow of such a thing never enters the administration now; the practice with many is to get rid of the poor every way and any way at the least expense, and for this the Union house is the readiest. Formerly the services of parish administrators were generally unpaid, but now a vast amount of the poor rate is absorbed in salaries, and townships that have few, if any poor, are yet heavily taxed for what are called “establishment expenses.”

The new Poor Law for some time was so unpopular that resistance was frequently offered to its introduction. Mr. James Acland, said to be employed by government, went through the country lecturing in its favour. Coming to Preston, and knowing my opposition to the measure, he placarded the walls, challenging me to a public discussion. Though reluctant to appear in this character I accepted the challenge; the theatre was engaged, and the whole town was in a state of excitement. Every corner of the building was crammed. I had about the cleverest antagonist that could have been selected; but the feeling of the people was against him, and having made myself well acquainted with the law and the orders upon it, I was well able to dispute his positions. The discussion continued three nights, each speaking a given time. I carried the audience with me, and at the close, upon the question being put to the vote, Mr. A. had from 20 to 30 hands, all the rest being raised for me, followed by an extraordinary burst of feeling in my favour, and against the new Poor Law.

From causes which these papers will explain, I have always been mixed up with the poor and their affairs, and taken an interest in anything that contributed to their welfare. Several times I have raised subscriptions for noted persons who have been reduced, and thus secured to them a weekly allowance which proved a great help, and in no instance do I remember ever failing in getting assistance for persons whom I could recommend. Several times have I attempted to set poor men up in a little way of business as hawkers—selling books, blacking, caps, &c, but with one exception, I think, they were all failures, so clear is it that success depends far more upon personal qualifications than upon other circumstances. Often have I caused a little unpleasantness at home by introducing persons—strangers, who were in distress; for whilst on the one hand I was too credulous in believing their distressing tales, my family, from what they had seen, were apt to regard them as imposters.

I have still all the feelings of a poor man; I prefer the company of poor people; and if misfortune should render it necessary, I think I could fall back into that humble sphere of living with which I commenced without feeling the shock as most people would do. I have tried two or three times to be a gentleman; that is, to leave off work and to enjoy myself, but it never answered. I always felt desirous of coming back to busy and useful life, employing my time as I am doing at present. My notions of life are very simple, for man, I believe, is the happiest when removed from either poverty or riches, has tolerable health, and is pursuing day by day a useful object. An order to “live upon sixpence a day and to earn it ” would not alarm me as it would most men. The plainest fare is what I like and what I prefer, and, as a rule, I should feel quite as happy at the poor man’s table as I have done in France or Germany, where we had seven or eight courses to dinner.

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