Professor Huxley on the Charities of London

By R. H. Hutton
The Spectator (May 20, 1871)

[598] Professor Huxley is doing high service to the London School Board, by giving free rein to that passion for completeness of logical sequences which is as clearly the distinctive note of the thinker, as the yearning for completeness of aesthetic harmony is the distinctive note of the artist. And not the least signal of his services was done last week, when he persuaded the School Board to make an effort to gain at least part of the funds belonging to the crowd of charities that the pity, the piety, and the folly of past generations have left to the London poor. He moved that "measures be taken to ascertain whether any, and if so, what charitable or other endowments in the London School District ought to be applied wholly or in part to the augmentation of the School fund." This skilfully framed resolution was passed without a division, after a debate that displayed an astonishingly Radical impatience of the dull, dreary, idiotic cant which used to meet every such scheme by an appeal to the designs of the "pious founder," and to boast that the devotees of Toryism would enjoy the privilege of going into the same lobby with the dead,–which usually meant going into the same lobby with the Devil. It would seem, therefore, that at last men of business, and clergymen, and members of the Conservative party are beginning to see how foolish and how iniquitous are the mass of those petty endowments which seemed [599] so sacred a few years ago, that when Mr. Gladstone proposed to subject them to the income-tax he raised a storm of indignation, and was assailed by a deputation so huge, so aristocratic, and so "influential," that he might have prosecuted the patrician leaders at Bow Street for intimidation. No country in the world has been richer than England in bequests for the poor. There is hardly a parish church that does not proclaim in staring letters that some pious Churchman has set apart a certain part of Indian stock or parish land for the poor of the neighbourhood. If the money has sometimes been left for uses wholly good, more often it is devoted to such utterly vicious ends as the giving of doles to old men and women. We may lay it down as a general rule that the pious people who have left their money to feed the poor have destined their substance to a purpose utterly and irredeemably bad. The pauperism that they have manufactured is ten times as great as the misery that they have relieved. The almshouses of England have been the hotbeds of idleness, helplessness, misery, vice, and chronic poverty, handed down from generation to generation, and if good intentions were not usually an all-extenuating plea at the bar of morality, the founders of the small charities would have a high claim to the execration of history. On the other hand, it may also be laid down as a general rule that charities founded not to tempt grown-up people into idleness, but to teach children how to read, how to write, how to earn their daily bread, how to be honest men and women, merit the fostering hand of the State. A wise statesman will strive to turn the local charities from the channel of adult pauperism into the channel of juvenile ignorance. He will send the inmates of the local almshouses to the workhouse, and convert the buildings into schools for the young. But he cannot stop at that stage. Even those endowments which were meant to be the stimulants of education have in many cases been so twisted as to minister to the self interests of class or sex. At the meeting of the School Board, Professor Huxley pointed grimly to the fact that funds left for the schooling of poor children had, in some mysterious fashion, found their way into the coffers of the cathedrals, and gone to swell the fat incomes of useless canons. Many of the endowments for education were originally meant for girls as well as boys; but what was called the wisdom of after generations decreed that women had a "sphere," and that she would be unfitted for the duties of maternity if she knew mathematics. Again, many of the endowments which were destined for the poor have drifted into the hands of the middle-classes or even of the rich. We do not say that the process should now be reversed, for in many cases that is now impracticable; but the fact, nevertheless, must be noted as one of the factors in the equation of reform.

Some strange tales were told at the School Board respecting the misuse of London charities. Among the most flagrant sinners is the parish of St. Edmund King and Martyr, which has an income of 1,500 a year. Half of that sum must be given to the poor; but there are no poor. The poor have been driven away by the crowd of rich merchants, to whom the land is so valuable, that they would cover it with sovereigns in order to become the owners of the fee-simple. So the parochial authorities are driven to their wits' end to get rid of the money with a show of legality, and, we are told, they have put the bellman into a cab, sent him to the suburbs to hunt up objects of charity, and when he had found a dozen persons, they have given to one 92, to another 59, to a third 58, and so on. The story is almost incredible, but it was told in the House of Commons by Mr. Johnston, repeated at the School Board by Professor Huxley, and not contradicted by Alderman Cotton or by any of the other City Members who may be expected to represent the policy of leaving most things alone. The parish of St. Mildred, Bread Street, is another sinner. Its income is 702 2s. 11d., of which 233 is applied in aid of the poor-rate. That is to say the burdens on real property are lessened to the amount of 233. Now, since the parish can contain the houses of few poor people, that amount must be divided between the rich shopkeepers and merchants. The shabbiness of such conduct is eclipsed only by its folly. The Rev. J. A. Picton told the Board of other charities, producing from 2 to 50 a year, which were frittered away in doles of bread and coal to poor men or poor housekeepers. The money might as well be cast into the Thames. The Rev. H. Rogers said that he was trustee for a large charity, of which there was no mention in the twenty-one blue-books of the Charity Commissioners, and the trustees did not know what to do with the money. Some laughter was caused by the mention of a fund in London to pay for the burning of heretics, and therefore of Professor Huxley. If the fund were applied to the burning of those persons, whether clerical or lay, who squander the charities of the country on such wanton follies as we have described, humanity itself would offer no plea for mercy.

Professor Huxley does not hope to sweep away all the misused funds into the net of the School Board. But he means to press for a Parliamentary inquiry into the Charities of London, and after Whitsuntide, he is to be seconded in the House of Commons by the Vice-President of the board, Mr. Charles Reed. The Professor will demand, of course, that all the charities which are either useless or mischievous shall hand over their funds to the School Board. Hence he would put an end to those petty doles of clothing, bread, and coals which, at best, only do the work of the Poor Law, and which more often are positive premiums upon idleness, dependence, and all the other vices that lead to the workhouse and the gaol. He also aims at the bolder feat of laying a reforming hand on such institutions as Christ's Hospital. Not that he dreams of abolishing that great school, or of applying the funds to lessen the school-rate of London; but he points out that, although it was founded for the education of the poor, it is exclusively filled with children of the middle-class, and he argues that, as the representative of the poor, the School Board has a right to a large number of the presentations. It will be curious to see how that argument will be met by the party which professes unbounded veneration for the designs of the pious founder.

The Elementary Education Act sanctions at least part of Professor Huxley's purpose. Mr. Forster placed in his Bill a clause that distinctly invites School Boards to claim endowments which are applied to such purposes as doles, the payment of marriage portions, and the relief of poor prisoners from debt. Nor can we doubt that so Radical a House of Commons as the present, when it shall learn how scandalously precious funds are wasted, will transfer the control of the money to the School Board. Professor Huxley and his colleagues want every penny that they can get for the education of the London poor. The work to be done is enormous, the expense will be vast, and if the House of Commons do not offer some further relief it is almost inevitable that the funds will be doled out with so niggardly a hand as to cripple the machinery. Alderman Cotton argued, it is true, that rich men would cease to give their money for the good of the public if the State were not to respect their intentions, and were to put the funds to such uses it might think fit. The Alderman speaks with a knowledge, not of human nature, but of City nature,–just as the gentlemen who clamourously defend vested interests from the benches behind Mr. Disraeli speak with a knowledge of that fragmentary share of our common humanity which falls to the lot of country squires. The correcting hand of the State may no doubt close the purse-strings of those rich men who fancy that they put their money to a proper use when they leave it exclusively to people of their own name; and the same grim influence may abridge the public gifts of those other rich men who imagine that because they believe a certain creed to be true, they have a right to dictate that its precepts shall be taught throughout all time. But the progress of culture is rapidly extinguishing that race of beings, and we shall gain by the loss of their benefactions. The men whose charities are really valuable, on the other hand, will give their wealth all the more readily when they see that the State closely watches each charity, and takes care that the pecuniary force shall never be wasted or be allowed to do evil. Such men will say to themselves, in the spirit of true modesty, "At present the poor of London lack knowledge, and therefore we will leave money to endow schools; the Low-Church clergy lack culture, in order to cut down the essentially Pagan theology of the High Church, and therefore we will endow chairs of philosophy, logic, Church history, for men of Evangelical opinions; the Newtonian philosophy is the glory of England, and therefore we will leave the means of making the Principia an open book to all willing students. But there may come a time when the tide of ignorance shall have flowed away from London; when Low and High Church shall have become as purely a thing of merely antiquarian interest as we now find work done by the Augurs of Rome; and when the law of gravitation itself shall have become subsidiary to generalizations of larger sweep. We seek to meet the wants only of that future which we [600] see opening. To the hand of the remoter future–to the State–we leave the task of so changing the destiny, or the scope, or the division of our bequests as to minister to new wants. And the more vigilant that the State shall be to fulfil this duty, the more completely shall it carry out the spirit of our dying decree." Such are the conditions on which men will learn to bequeath their money to the public, when the tone of public morality shall have grown somewhat higher, and the State shall ceaselessly watch those charities of which it is the custodian, to check the waste and prevent the mischief that always tend to accompany the action of corporate bodies. How great that task will ultimately become we may judge from a fact noted by Mr. Smithies at the School Board. A former Lord Mayor of London, Sir Thomas Harper, left two fields in Bloomsbury for the education of poor boys in Bedfordshire. At the time of the bequest the value of the land was 40 a year. Now it is 80,000, and at the end of the present lease it will be about 160,000. The State will thus become the custodian of enormous masses of property. When it shall own the sites of the great towns, as it ultimately must if England is to continue a habitable country, its functions as a landlord, or as a trustee, will rank with the highest of its duties. Professor Huxley is only one of many workers who are urging the State the utilize the wasted force of the public funds.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University