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(1781 - 1849)

Comments on the Poor Law

Two pieces by Elliott are dealt with in this article: the first is a report from 1837 of a rowdy meeting in Sheffield on the Poor Law Bill; the second from 1839 is a longish speech where Elliott talks about his contact with the Guardians of the Poor.

The first piece is a report which appeared in the Sheffield Independent for 17th June 1837. Elliott proposed an amendment to a motion on the New Poor Law Bill. The Corn Law Rhymer's amendment was greeted noisily amid a clamour for adjournment.

Mr Ebenezer Elliott said, I shall support the motion, by moving that the operation of the New Poor Law Bill be suspended, until our palaced-paupers repeal their Corn Laws. I am by no means sure that I shall carry the amendment, which I am about to read to you; but the press will carry it from sea to sea to the ends of the earth, wherever man is and tyrants are; and every self-supported man ought to get it by heart, and, as a sacred duty, recite it every morning to his plundered family, containing, as it does, volumes of argument, which, based on eternal principles, will be found true when I am dust.

Before I move my amendment, if there are in this Hall any canting hypocrites who, feigning zeal for the good of the deluded people, come to fight the battle of the aristocracy, I solemnly warn them - (uproar) - in the words of a poor girl, which I remember having heard more than forty years ago, "That them as raises the Bad One cannot always lay him." (Great tumult.) Let me remind you, as you seem to have forgotten it, that I am one who never told the people of England a lie. (Confusion.) Standing, perhaps, (though I hope not) among persons, some of whom, I fear, never willingly told the people of England a truth, I proceed to support and second the motion, by moving, "That, because the New Poor Law Bill is the deliberate and almost unanimous act of the whole aristocracy - Whig, Tory; mongrel, Methodist, and Methodist-mongrel; because it is intended to be, like the Reform Bill, another of their safety valves, because, if we had fair play, that is, if we had freedom of trade, no Poor Laws would be needed, except for the palaced paupers - (cheers) - because, if the poor are to live on their own, the rich ought to set them the example - (confusion) - because the Corn Laws prove, that the existence of a body of men who have an interest in lowering profits, and consequently wages, is incompatible with the wellbeing of a fully peopled country - (confusion) - because those laws have converted our tribunals into offices of mockery and wrong, rendering it impossible for an honest juryman to find any criminal, unless he be a bread-tax eater, guilty of any crime, - the most guilty of the victims being less guilty than the least guilty of the victimizers - (great tumult) - because the Corn Laws, if continued, would not only cause a run on the workhouses, which could not be met, but revolutionize and anarchize the nation; because the first fury of the multitudinous victims of the Corn Laws would be diverted from their oppressors to the Guardians of the Unions; because those Guardians ought not to be sacrificed, by standing, in vain, between the aristocracy and that vengeance which is justice; because palaced-paupers, as such, have no right to live, and, of course, no other right, it is criminal to retard their final cure - (uproar) - and because, if the poor are to be deprived of out-door relief, they ought to be placed in the same position in which they stood forty years ago, when wheat could be imported on paying sixpence per quarter duty, instead of about forty shillings, as at present. (Cheers, hisses, and confusion.) Therefore it is expedient, that the operation of the New Poor Law Act be suspended, until our palaced-paupers shall have repealed their Corn Laws, or until the Corn Laws shall have repealed our palaced-paupers, which we believe they will soon do, effectually and for ever. (Loud cheers and uproar.)

[During the time Mr. Elliott was reading his resolution, the uproar was so great that he could not be heard; and one man had the indecency to exclaim, "It's only mad Elliott: take no notice of him."]

Elliott's amendment was not seconded.

The second piece on the Poor Law is very interesting for a number of reasons: firstly, it tells the story of Elliott visiting a workhouse with an elderly man seeking Poor Law relief; and secondly the piece gives some information on Paulton, the Corn Law lecturer whose career was started in the first place by Elliott. As we must expect, the attention of the Poet of the Poor soon turns to denouncing the food monopoly. At great length!

This long item was collected by Diane Gascoyne (as was the previous item); it appeared as a report in the Sheffield Daily Independent for January 5th 1839 and was entitled "Lectures On The Corn Laws."

Mr. Paulton, a gentleman of education and of fortune, who has devoted himself to the destruction of the famous food monopoly, by making the public aware of its real character and effects, has delivered his two lectures on the subject, in Sheffield, this week. The first lecture was on Thursday evening, when the attendance was rather small. Mr. Elliott was called to the chair, and opened the meeting, in a speech which we are glad to be able to give entire, for since the public are beginning to grow rational on this subject, they will soon see that Mr. Elliott is not as they have been accustomed to call him - "Corn-law-mad."

Mr Elliott, the chairman, said: "Fellow townsmen
, the worst of all bores is a prating chairman. But I hope you will allow me ten minutes on this occasion, because a famous fool may be listened to, when wise men cannot obtain a hearing; and a few plain words from me, truly painting the position of the aristocracy, and its dangers, may, it is most possible, reach and warn them. I wish your wives had been present, for I have to tell a tale, poetical because true, which I had rather addressed to them than to the hard-gizzarded souls of their husbands.

About a year ago, a poor old fork maker came to me and said, "I can work no more; I have worked during the last 25 years from five in the morning until seven or eight at night; and if I could have got as much money for 15 hours work as I once got for eight, I should now have been independent. But I am 75 years old; my wife is 76, and we have only 2s. a week from the club. I have brought up a family respectably, but they are now as poor as I am. What are we to do? I might as well kill my wife at once, as take her into the Workhouse; for she is of a respectable family. Go with me to the guardians, and tell them that in my better days I paid poor-rates 40 years, and persuade them, if you can, to allow us a little outdoor relief. I shall not trouble them long."

I felt instantly, that if this old gentleman - I call him a gentleman - had not been robbed during the last 23 years, of half of his earnings by the food monopoly, he would have needed no assistance. So I went with him to the Workhouse, and the parties we met there were men; but I should speak low, lest the despots of freedom hear us. The guardians allowed him 2 shillings a week and a loaf for which he was affectingly thankful, - thankful even to tears. Well, about six days ago, the old man came to see me again, and said, "My club-pay is at end - the club will only bury me now. What am I to do? It will kill my old wife, if I take her into the Workhouse; and she is 77 years old. Go with me again to the guardians, and persuade them, if you can, to make up my club pay, for I shall not trouble them long, and the club will bury me."

So, on Monday next, I shall go again with him to the Workhouse, and again, I have no doubt, meet with men - who will not mercilessly execute a merciless and most wicked law; most wicked, because it began at the wrong end, for it ought, first, to have taken the hands of the lords and squires out of the working man's pocket, when, peradventure, no poor law would have been granted, except for the lords and squires.

But, gentlemen, if ever I am appointed guardian, I will not stand between the aristocracy and their victims. I will tell them that until they restore what they have taken from the workers by their food monopoly during the last 23 years, the poor have a better right than they have to ride on coaches and fours, and live on venison and moselle, in the Workhouse or out of it. I will ask, and bid all England ask, why palaced paupers are allowed to have property? why a distinction is made between honest paupers and rascals, in favour of the latter?

And I will tell them again, as I have twice told them already, that if I again find myself in a jury-box while they continue to exercise their present horrible power, I cannot find verdicts against their victims. I would rather they would hang themselves, but much rather they would do justice. Aye, but they will not do justice; they have had a great meeting a few days ago, and their cry was, "No surrender!" Why no surrender? Spence Broughton surrendered; - the murderers of Weare surrendered. Is not hemp strong enough to hang worse criminals? Then the law must neck-chain them; there is iron enough in England to hang them all in chains, and the spectacle would benefit remotest posterity.

Oh! but the landed interest must be supported! Why? Because land is all-in-all important. That is neither proved nor provable at present; but if it were true, there is no connection between the two ideas; for the landed interest would support itself. Besides, the possession of land does not give the possessor a right to rob me, and destroy our common country. What has the landed interest done for Sheffield? Sheffield supports the landed interest. Here, on about 700 acres of land, not originally worth three halfpence, live 120,000 human beings, who not only maintain themselves, but the agriculturists also, as Chandos and Co. will find, if they destroy the trade of England; for, instead of getting 50s. per quarter for wheat here - as with a free trade, they might honestly do, - they will have to sell it at Amsterdam for 28s., pay 10s. expenses, and sack lads. Land is all important? How? Look at the productive power of trade, compared with that of land, in relation to time only. It takes 12 months to grow a bit of raw cotton; but machinery can quadruple it in twenty-four hours. Will you suffer Chandos and Co. - the most useless and ignorant of men - the vilest vermin on earth, not excepting lice - will you suffer such creatures to destroy such a power, merely that, in the end, they may horribly destroy themselves, by forcing their victims to eat them?
Look seriously at one fact, which lies under your very noses, and it will open your eyes for ever. Why do the Hull ships cross from Hull to Hamburgh, when their captains want to lay in their shipping beef? Because beef is 7d. a lb. at Hull, and 2d. at Hamburgh. Is that the reason? I believe so; but I am the mad poet you know.

Well, here is Mr. Paulton: ask him, though I suspect he is madder than I am. He wishes to convince you that 1s. with a good trade, is better than 6d., or 3d., or 2d., or 1d. with no trade at all. Now, your lords and squires have declared the exact contrary, by act of Parliament; and to my knowledge, you are of their opinion, and have been for 24 years; or, there would now have been little poverty in England, and you would have had few rivals on the continent or elsewhere. Only think of this young sprig presuming to differ in opinion from you and the nobility. But what will you think of his brazen modesty, if he imagines he can convince you that he is right? If he cannot, there are two chaps coming that can; they call one of them "Nothing-to-do," and the name of the other is "Nothing-to eat!" Then will be seen at every other door throughout Great Britain, a hideous, grinning, long-shanked fellow, with a jointed bone instead of a belly, and the upper part of him all ribs, bare scalp, and teeth. You know the name of him! It is Death! But if millions are to die of famine, caused by act of Parliament, Oh, God, why were they born? And why were governments instituted? Better return to the woods and deserts, and like wild beasts, devour each other.

But your lords and squires are not satisfied with their corn laws, though they say they are. They wish to give you a slow fall (but an irretrievable one) to potatoes, to potato-peel. They want a fixed duty on corn, equivalent, with the other branches of the food-monopoly, to a fixed burden of some eighty millions a year on your industry. They have got the collar round your necks; let them get a fixed duty; and they snap the lock.

You must sweep away the whole food-monopoly, and all other monopolies; or suffer the monopolists to finish their work, - let them anarchise this nation, and lay the most industrious nation in the world at the feet of the first foreign despot who may think it worth his while to seize old England for a potato garden. Depend on it, he could not do worse to you, than tax your food, and, at the same time, destroy the market for your productions.

But do our aristocracy really wish to see the day when coal will be our only article of export; - coal, which they will sell abroad for less than some of them get for it, at the pit head? If they do, if they are so blind, and if they are to be dominant, as their fellow pauper, Lord Russell, says they are, what hope have you? Look at their insane position! That which is true in theory today, may be practise tomorrow, for that reason, namely, because it ought to be. If then, (as can be demonstrated) their food-monopoly has cost more than the land is worth, it is already time in theory, that a government representing the interests of the nation, might tomorrow, with the strictest justice, sequestrate the estates of the monopolists, and with the rents pay the taxes, till the cost of the monopoly should be repaid to the state. If, then, I repeat, they are so blind, as to place themselves in such a position, and if they are to be dominant till you say "No!" what hope have you, but in yourselves? Oh, but they think you have no hope in yourselves, for they can broom you out with cannon! They had better do justice, and let us double their incomes, by doubling our own.

Awful is the responsibility of that party which has, first, recourse to physical violence; and fatal is the error of those who imagine that an ignorant and desperate populace can be safely despised. The more ignorant they are, the more dangerous. Such a populace in France, destroyed the dynasty of Hugh Capet. Besides, Messrs Chandos, Destruction, Palaced Ignorance, and Company! England is not like that Canada which you are brooming out with cannon; England is not a string of wooden villages, which can be fired by the rocket, - villages, situated on a navigable river, where they can be battered down one by one. No; England is a land of hedges, of stone fences, of innumerable commercial and other buildings - in short, a land of infinite shelter, where, if the people were in earnest - as they soon will be, if again wantonly attacked - the battle of the rifle, in a few months, would convert redcoats into rarities; and were Wellington himself at the head of one hundred thousand veterans - Wellington, the greatest military mind, with one exception, since Caesar, would find that he could not hold Strathfieldsay, unless he stood upon it. Oh but they can establish a rural police! They have one already - the yeomanry, their armed unliveried, - their soldiers, who are not liable to be flogged, as her Majesty's armed gentlemen are. Besides, they have their gamekeepers, teachers of the art of sharp-shooting; and a pretty dash they cut with them! I warn them, I, their best friend, I who, alone, with the exception of Colonel Thompson, and half a dozen other individuals, have for twenty-three years told the truth, and nothing but the truth; - I warn them, that the moment they get their rural police, the game of assassination will begin in earnest, - the "sniping," as a military commander called worse murder in India, - and their only estates will be their graves. Nay, if they do not instantly retrace their steps, I warn them, that their own acts will destroy them; they will perish, they, their wives, their children, and (which is of infinitely more importance) the national independence. Why, their attempts to prevent the people from seeing the corn laws; - the harangues of their Oastlers, their Bells, and their O'connors - have already (and from my soul I thank them) opened the eyes of more than two millions of self-sustained and long outraged men, to the means of ridding, not the corn laws only, but all other monopolies, and, worst of all, the monopoly of lawmaking.

Who are the authors of this agitation? Themselves. Madmen! do they not know that though public opinion can be retarded, it cannot be put back? Are they unable to see that, in a very short time, there is likely to be only one class of people in Great Britain, - "the dissatisfied class!" And do thirty thousand splendid beggars imagine that they can long resist the just indignation of a great people, whose industrial genius has baffled a competing world? I have yet to learn that mere beggary is a power anywhere. They will find it is weakness here, though assisted by robbery. And, instead of giving themselves airs, they had better set their mortgaged house in order, and ask themselves what sort of a figure their spoon-fed, fox-hunting, empty-pated sons will make, when they come to compete with our Vickerses and Sandersons, as merchants, - our Palfreymans and Rodgerses as lawyers, - our Knights, our Hollands, our Thompsons, our Favells, as physicians, - or these poor fellows, as file cutters? Is it our fault, if men who live in palaces which they call their own, make laws for their own destruction? Is it my fault, if their food monopoly is an instrument in the hands of the Almighty mercy to exterminate the vermin that, in man's image, libel God's? Why will they convert even poets into politicians? If they would have allowed us anything like fair play, - if they would have done us anything like justice, if they would have let it be possible for us to stand under our burdens, - if they would have destroyed the monopolies, which are destroying the nation, and will destroy their authors, - I would not have crossed my door-step for all the politics in the universe. - But I am the mad poet. Here is Mr. Paulton. Listen to him. Discreet in his ravings, he will instruct many, and offend none; but not fail, I trust, to startle some of you into something more like common sense than your practical wisdom of the last 23 years. [The Chairman concluded amid loud cheers.]

After this very long report on the Corn Law Rhymer's speech, the newspaper declined to offer anything but a brief summary of Mr Paulton's lecture. William Ibbotson then moved a vote of thanks for Mr Elliott, the chairman of the meeting, and went on to propose the establishment in Sheffield of an Anti-Corn Law Association. This was greeted with loud cheers & the motion was carried with much applause. Elliott then addressed the meeting again, but was mercifully brief:-

Mr. Paulton has told you that government is a machine for keeping people quiet. He meant to say, for keeping them down. The worse you use your ass, the less it will kick, but when its back is breaking, it lays down and kicks on its back. (Laughter.) That is the state we are coming to. The British ass is beginning to kick. Three years ago, bread was 1s. 6d. a stone. Were your wages lower then than now, or higher? Now bread is 3s. 4d. a stone - are your wages doubled? Your Oastlers, and Bells, and O'Connors have told you, that when bread and meat rise in price, your wages rise to. Have you found it so? Then this gentleman deserves your thanks, if he has taught you no more than this - not to believe any man who tells you that 6d. is better than a shilling. [Cheers.]

Mr Paulton then made a brief reply which was met with loud cheering. A vote of thanks to Mr. Elliott was then carried, with three times three cheers.

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