THE poorer classes are described by many foreigners as well fed and well dressed, even at the end of the century when destitution was widespread. Probably the traveller never penetrated into the slums and saw the state of filth and misery in which the very poor lived. Still, as we may see from Hogarth's plates, the destitute were to be found everywhere. They jostled the gentleman in his velvet and laces as he walked the streets, they rubbed shoulders with him at prize-fights and bull-baitings, crowds of beggars swarmed in every city. We must conclude that the condition of the poor was not so bad in England as in some continental countries.
"There were very few poor in London" Grosley tells us, and Moritz says that the neat villages and small towns suggested opulence.
"The feet of the peasants" Voltaire notes "are not bruised by wooden shoes, they eat white bread, are well clothed and are not afraid of increasing their stock of cattle nor of tiling their houses from any apprehension that their taxes will be raised the year following."
Meister even quotes a certain Count D— who complained on returning to his native land that their most celebrated criminals did not go to the gallows so well dressed as the commonest English thief.
"I rarely see" Moritz says "even a fellow with a wheelbarrow who has not a shirt on."
The poor man in England, Meister tells us, was better clothed, lodged and fed than his contemporary in France. As he had more food he worked better and there were fewer holidays in England than in France. This was true as regards holidays, especially towards the end of the century. In Catholic countries there were still many church festivals when no work was done. In England, since the Reformation, such holidays had dwindled in number, until at the end of the eighteenth century they were very few indeed. The country labourer might take a day or two off at Christmas, and make holiday on May Day and at the parish feast; but in London and the larger towns Good Friday was often the only day besides Sunday which a workman could call his own.
Even the beggars, according to de Saussure, were well off. He speaks of one who had amassed a thousand pounds, a very large sum in those days. Perhaps he was a myth, at any rate he must have been an exception, for when de Saussure visited England about the middle of the century there were many beggars, and it is obvious that they could not all have made fortunes. Baretti, who was more observant, gives a different account. "In spite" he says "of the hospitals and the vast amount spent in private charity and the heavy sums paid by the poor law, there are enough of them (indigent people) to fill a province. This is not an exaggeration."
He always carried a pocket full of small change to give to beggars though he could often ill afford it. Baretti was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of the great Fielding, when he was magistrate at Bow Street, and he inquired of him whether some of the beggars whom he saw in the streets did not die of hunger. "Over a thousand or even two thousand of them in a year" Fielding answered, "but London is so large it is barely noticed." It is curious that Baretti was almost the only foreigner to realize the miserable condition of the London poor. Were they so much worse off than the poor of his native Piedmont? Had Piedmont, had Venice, which he knew so well, no beggars, no starving poor ? It is difficult to believe this. Probably with their small populations, their lovely surroundings and their sunshine the Italian cities looked more prosperous. At any rate they had no fog and black rain, no inky mud to emphasize their misery.
Hatred of the French
Grosley complains of the rudeness of the mob, particularly towards foreigners, and of such expressions as French dog and French b— which were hurled at them. A Portuguese, taking a walk by the riverside and speaking his native language, was confronted by two watermen who doubled their fists at him:
"French dog" they exclaimed, "speak your damned French if you dare!"
Grosley contrasts this outrageous behaviour with the politeness of the upper classes and the civility of shopkeepers and he admits that the English poor could be very rude and violent towards their own countrymen. He describes how a mob in Seven Dials, disappointed because a man had not been put in the pillory, threw the dead dogs and rotten eggs, which they had been saving up for him, at the passing coaches and foot passengers.
In spite of this episode Grosley praises the comparative order of the London streets, though there were no troops, guards or patrols to keep order. He even goes so far as to declare that
"London is the only great city in Europe where neither murder nor assassination happen".
It is plain that Grosley could not have read the newspapers; but as regards the safety of the London streets he is borne out by Meister, who says that
"a constable armed only with a single staff of his authority effects more here in London than all the crimson ensigns of our august municipality are able to do in Paris. He met" he says "with fewer disturbances and affrays in a fortnight in London than in one morning in Paris."
The animus against the French, which was exemplified in the rudeness and intolerance of the mob, can be easily understood. France had for so long been the enemy; she was a Catholic country, she might invade England and set up bonfires in Smithfield, or, what was almost as bad and more probable, settle among the English and undercut them. There was the example of the Huguenots before their eyes, though they, of course, were Protestants and had to be tolerated. With the French were naturally confounded all foreigners, though exceptions were often made. Benjamin Franklin was much respected by his fellow workmen, though he was an American and only drank water. The negro slaves who came to England and who, after Lord Mansfield's famous judgment, remained here as free men, did not complain of any colour bar. The English lower classes regarded them with kindliness and tolerance and sometimes intermarried with them.
If the foreigner was often critical of our customs and way of life, he usually had nothing but praise for our charities and the methods by which the poor were provided for in England. Macky, after mentioning "A noble Hospital for Decayed Habidashers", goes on to tell us that there were "more almshouses in and about London than in all the cities of Holland which prided itself on them".
"No rich person" de Saussure says "dies without leaving large legacies. Most parishes in London and the country have hospitals for the sick, the poor and the aged, also charity schools, where poor children are fed, taught and clothed."
When de Saussure speaks of country hospitals he is probably referring to some kind of almshouse, for at the date when he writes, the middle of the century, there were very few hospitals anywhere out of London. There was the Bath Hospital, which was, Count Kielmansegg tells us,
"for poor indigent patients of all kinds who have to take the waters. . . . The inmates are well cared for free of charge and enjoy every comfort."
As the century advanced more hospitals were built both in London and in the country towns.
Sophie de la Roche tells us of a Maternity Hospital for the wives of the London poor which certainly exceeded in generosity and the length of care bestowed anything of the kind in our own day. The women were taken in a fortnight before their confinements were expected,
"being nourished meanwhile with strengthening foods, so as to live through their child-bed, and for six whole weeks they are given a good bed with nice, white linen and all possible attention. They are finally presented with a cot and swaddling clothes for the child."
These lying-in hospitals were generally well managed. From them came the maternity nurses who attended the well-to-do, and a ladies' committee superintended their organization.
The Foundling Hospital was one of the sights to which foreigners were taken. This hospital, built in Lamb's Conduit Fields, so that its inmates might enjoy pure country air, was one of the beautiful things of London and it lasted until the philistine authorities of our own day suffered it to be destroyed. As early as 1713 Addison, in an essay in the Guardian, had called attention to the plight of unwanted infants, who were often exposed to die upon the highway. It was not, however, till 1742 that, thanks to the exertions of Captain Thomas Coram, a place of refuge to be called the Foundling Hospital was built by public subscriptions. Three of Hogarth's pictures, which that great painter had presented to the Hospital, hung upon its walls; Handel had given an organ for the chapel and every year a benefit of his oratorio, The Messiah, which he conducted himself.
Sophie de la Roche describes it with her usual enthusiasm. She says that "the children looked bright and attractive and very healthy; that the beds were clean, the air pure" and everything looked so nice. The elder girls had laid the tables in very pretty, spacious dining rooms, everything was white and spotless; other girls did the waiting; the meal only consisted of one course of mutton boiled with barley; but it was so well prepared and in such quantities that with their good bread and mug of beer the children could not want for anything better."
The Foundling was, by eighteenth-century standards, very well managed, and was far better than the workhouses which were the only other refuge for abandoned children, and where they so often perished miserably. Needless to say, these institutions were not shown to foreigners.
Greenwich Hospital excited general admiration for the beauty of its architecture and internal decoration. It was opened in 1705 for the reception of fifty-two sailors of the Royal Navy and the Mercantile Marine who had been wounded in battle.
"Nothing is wanting" Meister says "that can lend to the production of repose and conservation of health"
and Count Kielmansegg goes into greater detail concerning the internal arrangements.
"There are" he says "partitions contrived like small wooden ship's cabins, sufficient to contain a bed, a table and a chest of clothes, so that all the men sleep separately, though during the day they are together. Very few sailors, I believe, have been so well housed before, for every man is allowed per week 7 lb. of bread 3 lb. of beef 2 lb. of mutton and a pint of peas 1 3/8 lb. of cheese 2 oz. of butter 14 quarts of beer and a shilling for tobacco. Those who have been boatswains mates or other petty officers are allowed in proportion is. 6d. and 2 s. 6d. for tobacco. They receive also every other year, a blue suit, a hat, three pairs of socks, two pairs of shoes, five neckties, three shirts and two nightcaps."
The authorities seem to have been mean about butter, but the allowance of meat was more than ample; indeed in these restricted days it seems surprising that a man could eat 5lb. of meat in a week, even allowing for large proportions of bone and gristle.
Bedlam, incredible as it may seem, was one of the sights of London. The gentle, kindly Sophie de la Roche paints it in softened if not glowing colours. There were, she said, no chains or straps, though the worst of the patients wore strait-jackets, which were tied with cords to the corners of the rooms. These rooms were bright and comfortable and the inmates were encouraged to read and occupy themselves quietly. Sophie found Mrs. Nicholson, who had tried to murder George III, reading Shakespeare, and asking for some more quill pens. The man at that time in charge of the asylum was Dr. Monroe, who insisted on fresh air and cleanliness, and that the patients should be treated kindly.
"This" he told Sophie "is a fever of the mind, tender, gentle handling is the only cure for this."
Unfortunately very few doctors agreed with Monroe and when he was not at Bedlam things were very different. De Saussure saw dangerous maniacs chained and terrible to behold.
"On holidays" he says "numerous persons of both sexes, but belonging generally to the lower classes, visit the hospital and amuse themselves by watching these unfortunate wretches who often give them cause for laughter." Von Uffenbach says that "in Holland such places are managed with far greater propriety ".
The open-handed charity of the English struck many foreigners.
"Their humanity has been clearly proved during the present war" Baretti says; "a voluntary subscription was made by the whole nation to clothe the many thousands of their enemies who were kept prisoners in this island, and who, without these liberal contributions from all classes, would for the most part, have died of cold last winter, which was very severe. What nation, ancient or modern, has ever given the world such an example of heroic charity? . . .The truth is that the English do their utmost to make money; but once they have made it, they spend it freely and will give it to you if you ask them for it . . . when they are convinced that you are an honest man; whether you are a foreigner or one of themselves, they make a point of supporting you and advancing you."