What has the Charity Organisation Society to do with social reform? Henrietta Barnett

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Might not — may not charitable effort be organised to remove some of the social conditions which stand as barriers to prevent, or anyhow make it painfully difficult for … people to live the highest, fullest, richest life?

A Paper read at a meeting of members of the Charity Organisation Society, held at the Kensington Vestry Hall on February 28, 1884

I feel not a little shy at speaking to so large and thoughtful a body of workers; and I should not have ventured to accede to Mr. Loch’s proposal had I not felt myself to be an old friend of the Charity Organisa­tion Society. I cannot say that I have ever seen its founder, neither was I present at its birth, but I was at its christening, when some long names were given ; and later, at its confirmation, I heard the duty undertaken, and indeed the declaration made, that the main object of its existence was ‘ to improve the condition of the poor.’

I am very proud of our friend; but, being a Charity Organiser, I can see his faults, of which, to my mind, one of the chief is that he has forgotten his baptism! I do not mean his name, but some of the promises then made for him. Far from forgetting his name, he thinks rather too much of it, having fallen into the aristocratic [157] fault of believing a name more important than a character ; and inasmuch as ‘on what we dwell that we become,’ he has run the danger—and we will not say wholly escaped it—of sacrificing the one to the other. He has, in short, unkindly ignored the thoughts and wishes of some of his god-parents. Have not his friends a right to be aggrieved?

We hear nowadays much about Social Reform, which, being interpreted, means, I suppose, the removal of cer­tain conditions in and around society which stand in the way of man’s progress towards perfection.

Every human being, surely, ought to be able to make a free choice for good or evil. It is, no doubt, possible for each of us to choose the higher or the lower life  in that state of life in which it has pleased God to call us; but the condition of some states keeps the higher life very low.

The moralists may tell about the educating influence of resistance to temptations; but are not temptations strong enough in themselves without being buttressed by conditions? Even the most ingenious of Eve’s apologists has never ventured to advance the view that she was hungry.

It should be a matter of man’s free will alone that determines which life he lives. Social conditions, over which as an individual he has no power, now too often determine for him, for there are forces in and around society which crush down the individual will of man and which bind his limbs so tightly that not only his course, but too often his gait, has been determined for him.

1. Great Wealth. Can a man live the highest life [158] whose abundance puts out of daily practice the priceless privilege of personal sacrifice — from whom effort is undemanded—whose floors are padded should he chance to fall—whose walls, golden though they be, are dividing barriers, high and strong, between him and his fellow­men?

2. Great Poverty. Can a man live the highest life when the preservation of his stunted, unlovely body occupies all his thoughts—from whose life pleasure is crushed out by ever-wearying work—to whom thought is impossible (the brain needs food and leisure to set it going)—to whom knowledge, one of the prophets of the nineteenth century and a revealer of the Most High, is denied ?

3. Unequal Laws. Is a man wholly unfettered in his choice of life when his country’s laws have allowed him to become a victim to unsanitary dwellings—when they permit him to sin, by providing that his wrong should (on himself) be resultless—when its ministers of justice, interpreting its laws, declare in the strong tones of action that bread-stealing is more wicked than wife­beating? Or is the highest life made more possible by laws that allow so much of our great mother earth —God-blessed for the use of mankind—to be reserved for the exclusive benefit and enjoyment of the upper classes?

4. Division of Classes. Love is the strongest force in the universe. At least the ancient teachers thought so when they renamed God, and left Him with the Christian name of Love. But love, a certain kind of love for which no other makes up, becomes impossible by the great division between classes. We cannot love [159] what we do not know; it is as the American said, c Oh, Jones! I hate that fellow.’ ‘Hate him?’ asked his friend; ‘why, I did not think you knew him.’ ‘No, I don’t,’ was the reply; ‘if I did, I guess I shouldn’t hate him? The division between classes is a wrong to both classes. The poor lose something by their igno­rance of the grace, the culture, and the wider interests of the rich; the rich lose far more by their ignorance of the patience, the meekness, the unself-consciousness, the self-sacrifice, and the great strong hopefulness of the poor.

5. Besides these conditions, others exist, forming barriers and hindering a man from leading his true life, such as want of light, space, and beauty. The sun­rising is to a large number of town livers only an inti­mation—and rarely an agreeable one—that they must get out of bed. It is but the lighting of a lamp, and not, as Blake said, the rising of an innumerable com­pany of the heavenly host consecrating the day to duty by crying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty? And even if there is the space to see the sky, there is still the absence of leisure to watch its unhurried changes. We all haste and rush, we hurry and drive. The very parlance of the day adopts new words to express dis­patch, and one dear old body whom I know, who is sixty years old and of appropriate proportions, con­stantly informs me that she flew ’ hither and thither— a method of locomotion which, in earlier years, I re­member, she reserved strictly for future and more heavenly purposes.

But enough has been said of the ills of society. We all know them. The hearts of some of us have been [160] very sick for many a weary year. The hands of those who have sat on the height and watched the progress of the battle have become tired, and have been upheld only by faith and prayer. But reinforcements have arrived; friends for the poor have arisen; from all sides press forward willing volunteers, who say, ‘Put us in our place. Let us do something. How can we break down these barriers—unloose the golden fetters of these impri­soned souls—or relieve the burdened shoulders of those pale dungeoned creatures? How are we to make strength out of union—to right wrongs, and give to every man the light by which to see to make his choice? ’

If one is to carry heavy weights one must have trained muscles. If one is to reply one must know. The Charity Organisation Society is the watchman set on a hill, who by his very constitution has special facilities for giving an answer—and a wise one—to these ques­tions. He has exceptional opportunities for knowing both the classes in which social reform is most needed, and knows them under the best conditions. The rich come to him with ‘ minds on helpfulness bent ’; the poor come at a time when their hearts are sore, when their lives are troubled, when their sorrows have made them ‘ unmanfully meek,’ and they are willing to lay their lives and circumstances bare to inquiring eyes. For fifteen years the one class has been meeting the other in the thirty-nine district offices provided by the Society, and some 230,000 families have asked for succour when they have been either morally, physically, or circumstantially sick. Last year alone 14,132l passed through the hands of this Director of Charity, and at this moment there are more than 2,000 men and women actively engaged in his [161] work, while he records the names of nearly 3,000 sub­scribers whose money is an earnest of sympathy and potential working power.

But magnificent as this sounds, and is (for there can be no doubt about it that our friend is a very fine fellow), still there are flaws both in his past and present constitution and character which make his work less effective than it otherwise might be. Briefly, his heart is not large enough for his body—his circulation is slow —his movements are ponderous—and, being slightly hard of hearing, he does not take in things until some little time after other people have done so. Then, too, he ‘is somewhat a creature of habit; his mind does not readily assimilate new ideas, and he does rather an unusual number of things because ‘ he always has done so.’ His raison d’etre, his whole work, is founded on the first word of his name—Charity—(which the new translators tell us we may call love, if we like), and yet he is sometimes curiously persistent in ‘ thinking evil/ and he hardly, I fear, ‘ hopeth all things,’ nor yet lives up to his standard of ‘never failing’; or what does 463 cases thrown aside as ‘undeserving and ineligible’ mean in this last month’s returns of work ?

Then he has an odd way of talking about his work. I have often seen ordinary, commonplace, every-day sort of people begin to listen to him with keen interest, but gradually drop eyelids and lose sympathy as he threads his way through investigations, organisations, registrations, co-operations, applications, administra­tions, each and all done by multiplication !

This is a pity, for of course the every-day sort of people are most wanted to help him. He cannot only [162] work with people who have been cradled in blue-books and nourished with statistics, nor yet with those who are like the man who ‘did not care to look unless he could see the future.’

Some people dislike this faulty creature very much. They see no good in him, and call him all sorts of hard names; but then one is apt to find faults in large people more unbearable than in little ones. Clumsy people, if big, are so very clumsy; they tumble over the furni­ture, and kick the pet dog, and if they do chance to tread on toes it hurts so very much! and that is partly the case with him. But he has virtues, and plenty of them; he is not afraid of work, and he really cares for the poor; he is exceedingly honourable about money; he is methodical and business-like; he is thorough in all he does, thinking no detail beneath his notice ; he is accurate about his facts and moderate in his state­ments ; he is most even in his temper (though person­ally I should like him better if I could once see him in a rage), and he is patient and painstaking ; he is humble, though conceited, too; that is, with the sort of conceit that one sometimes meets with in swimmers who know that they do the stroke ‘quite perfectly ’ but yet are somewhat afraid of deep water; fearful, not of their breath or strength failing, but of the cramp, or jelly-fish, or other unknown dangers of the deep.

But that he is a fine being we shall all agree, with a full, rich nature; and if he could or would add to his many virtues that of adaptability; if he would become a little more elastic in his fingers as well as in his body; if he would take digitalis, in the shape of hearty hand-shaking, to improve his circulation; if he would determine every [163] week to do some new thing, ‘just for a change ’; if he would, having been awakened by all his baptismal names, remind himself—just while he was dressing—of the main object of his existence; if he would not be above using an ear-trumpet, particularly on those occasions when he leaves his papers and goes to ‘sup sorrow with the poor ’ —if he would do some or all of these things we might yet see his strong arm foremost among those who remove barriers to let in light; we might yet hear his strong voice giving out with no uncertain sound the charitable —the loving—answer to some of these soul-stirring questions.

For instance (and you will perhaps pardon me for carrying you into Committee for a few minutes), here is the case of Williamson, a man of forty, with his wife, three living children, and the recollections of the funerals of two. He is a casual dock-labourer, working when he can get work, and then only if his bad leg allows him. His wife asks for a loan to enable her to stock more fully her street-hawking basket. The father is described as a ‘quiet, steady man.’ The mother is a ‘ decent woman.’ The decision of the Committee is ‘ineligible,’ and Williamson goes away a sadder and no wiser man.

And why is the case ineligible? Because the Com­mittee think that money will do the family no good. The people are below the stage when money help can be useful. They have drifted till they are, in fact, ineligible for what the Society, materialistic as the age which counts money the greatest good, feels itself alone able to give, and by the decision of the Committee they are allowed to drift still. And yet not one of us could say that this family did not need help. On the case-paper, [164] in the very middle of the first page, stand two helpable facts. Williamson is only casually employed by a great permanent company. Williamson is in no club.

Charitable effort needs organising even more than charitable relief. Some people fear the devil more than they love God; or, in other words, they fear to do harm more than they love to do good. Seeing that money unwisely bestowed does great harm, they have hastened to organise it, neglecting meanwhile to organise effort, which for the creation of good is stronger than money for the creation of evil.

Williamson, with his rough, decent wife and his three unkempt children, is, let us grant, ineligible for charitable relief, but not for charitable effort. That might be directed to induce him to belong to a club, to take in­telligent interest in the actions of his country, to realise, helped by Sir Walter Scott or Tourgénief, the thoughts of other nations, the character of other centuries or classes. Let effort be used to help him to accept the strength which union gives to resistance, be it to personal temp­tation or to public wrong.

And could not charitable effort undertake that Mrs. Williamson’s tiring day be less degradingly _ tiring? Could it not provide a cosy parlour-club, or a chair more tempting than an upright Windsor, in which darning and mending would be possible? And perhaps that dull task would not be so wholly distasteful if enlivened by a sweet voice, who would read ideas into the stitches, or sing patches into rhythmical relations. Such effort would soon make a difference in the unkempt appearance of the little Williamsons, and maybe evenings given up to those who cannot ‘ ask us again ’ or Sunday-planned [165] walks would not be entirely wasted efforts, and if mul­tiplied to any extent might have a perceptible influence on our country’s conscience, though it might perhaps re­duce our country’s revenue from excise and customs.

Charitable effort, too, might make gutter-mud and street-fights less attractive to John, Sarah, and Jane by providing them with playgrounds as well as something— and perhaps young philanthropists will add somebody— to play with. And could not charitable effort take the children for a few weeks out of the one room, to learn ideals of cleanliness and to have some fun which is not naughty in the cottage homes of our country villages?

And wisely directed effort might, too, aim at abolish­ing the system of casual labour at the docks—a system which keeps thousands of half-fed men hanging each morning about the dock gates because on one day in ten all may be wanted—a system which degrades men by forcing them to scramble for their work and almost enjoy the chance on which homes and existence depend. Such a system is not to be justified on the plea of profit or on the fear of strikes. But, granted that even my friend’s great, strength is powerless before Giant Dock Companies, yet is not this an occasion when, if he could do nothing else, he might use strong language, to which it is often noticed that neither animals nor companies are wholly indifferent?

So much for Williamson. But Committee is not over yet, and here are the papers of Mrs. Canty—56 years of age—a poor shrivelled old woman, ugly and un­interesting in appearance, unable to work from a dread­ful complaint in her face, living with her two children, the only survivors out of a goodly family of six. The [166] children, a boy of 20 and a girl of 16, are earning 24s. between them, and the Committee decide that the case is one ‘ not requiring relief.’ Perhaps not—in money, but is cold, hard money the only relief that the Charity Organisation Society has to offer? Surely charitable effort could be organised for the benefit of this family. Some one could be sent with time and tact who would help the poor widow to other pleasures than those of re­gretful memories; for we read she was ‘ well-to-do in her husband’s lifetime.’ Some one who would make bright half-hours for her and take her mind from dwelling on her poor painful face, guiding her to draw strength from the thought of other lives and hope out of greater interests.

Is not some one’s carriage at the Society’s disposal in which she may be taken—she is too weak to walk and has not been out for two and a half years—to catch a glimpse of the bright spring flowers and the new-budding trees ?

For the boy too. He may be in a good place and earn enough for bare necessities; but he has not the means of getting books, the opportunities for joining a gymnasium, nor the knowledge of the club, where he could be re-created and form friendships. These may all be within reach, and would certainly be for the relief of such a lad’s hard and monotonous life ; but the Charity Organisation Society, declaring that he does ‘ not require relief,’ lets him go without an effort to give him what would influence his life far more radically than the asked for half-a-crown a week.

And for the girl also. She may be training for good work, but she must often be tired of the drudgery of her five years’ nursing done without the help of a competent doctor—for the old lady ‘ doctors of herself’—and done, [167] too, between the intervals allowed by her business of widow-cap making. Does she require no relief which the Charity Organisation Society can give—the relief which comes through books and patience-preaching pic­tures, the relief which follows the introduction to the singing class leading to the choir, or which comes through the hand-grasp of the wiser friend when the road is unusually drear?

Relief through such agencies would often make later relief unnecessary — relief which we dare not with­hold, and yet ache as we silently give it to lock hospitals, reformatories, and penitentiaries. Might not—may not charitable effort be organised to remove some of the social conditions which stand as barriers to prevent, or anyhow make it painfully difficult for these eight people to live the highest, fullest, richest life?

And the hindering barriers to the rich man’s life. I have hardly said a word about him, yet I am quite sorry for him, more sorry than for his poor neighbour; but there is not so much need for anyone to look after him, because he himself already does it. He had better be forgotten for a bit, so that he may be helped to forget himself. ‘He that loseth his life shall find it,’ and the good, if unsought, will come to him. When he, with ‘all he is and has,’ goes to reform his neighbour’s conditions, he will find them wondrously interwoven with his own. He will find, if he digs deep enough, that the founda­tions of both palace and court are of the same material, and also that he both sees further and breathes easier after having melted down his golden walls to frame his neighbour’s pictures.

But the Charity Organisation Society could help him. [168] It must help both the rich and the poor. It must make of itself a bridge by which the one set of condition* hindered people can cross to reach the other condition- hindered people; and, as is sometimes the case in fairy tales, the hindrance will in individual cases disappear in the very act of crossing the bridge.

I do not mean that the mere meeting will in itself be a social reform, but it will tend to it, and that in the best way. Which of us having once been in a court disgraceful to our civilisation, and yet all that forty or fifty families have to call ‘home,’ would lose a chance of promoting a Sanitary Aid Committee or of getting the law enforced or amended ? Which of us, having once seen a Whitechapel alley at five o’clock on an August afternoon, and realising all it means, besides physical discomfort, could go and enjoy our afternoon tea, daintily spread on the shady lawn, and not ask himself difficult questions about his own responsibility—while one man has so much and another so little? The answer would, maybe, have legal results. Which of us, having sat by the sick-bed of the work-worn man (not having relieved ourselves by giving him a shilling), can return and drink for our pleasure the wine which might be his health? Which of us, having become acquainted with the low ideas, the coarse thoughts, the unholy hopes of (pardon the expression) the ‘ outcast poor,’ can reject the privi­lege of self-sacrifice for their help; can neglect, at the cost of any personal trouble, a single effort which will aid their ‘ growth in grace’?

Evil is wrought from ignorance as well as want of thought; and the rich suffer from not knowing, as much as the poor from not being known. Both classes want [169] help. They cannot alone break down their barriers, and alone they cannot live their best life. Our Society must help them—our Society, guided by wise rules as to what not to do, can introduce, as the children say, Mr. Too-Much to Miss Too-Little; it can be the ‘Helpful Society,’ helping the man stifled with too much; helping the man starving with too little; helping the idler whose true nature is literally ‘ dying for something to do’; help­ing the worker who seeks the grave gladly from fatigue; helping the lonely man to find his place in the crowd, and the crowd-tired man to opportunities of solitude; helping the owner of knowledge to outpour his treasures, and the ignorant to receive the same; helping the merry­maker to make merry, and the sorrowful to teach the lessons of pain; helping those who have found the true meaning of life to ring out their news to those of us who are still groping and restless for assurance; helping, in short, all who will give effort to wise uses.

Practically the thirty-nine district offices might each be the centre of all those forces which, under any name, are directed against the evils and hardships of life. Their rooms might be the places in which the members of charitable societies would hold their meetings. And, instead of dreading association with the Charity Organi­sation Society, all honest workers might hope to find in connection with it associates the most helpful. One day the committee-room would be occupied by a Relief Society, which would make its grants; another day would find ladies gathered to consult on some Befriending Society. Each day the office would have its charitable use, and people of all sorts would meet, thinkers and workers; the clergy and the laymen; the man with the new scheme [170] and the well-worn worker in the old paths; the practical reformer and the enthusiast. A kind of registry might be kept by which those wanting to help might be introduced into empty posts of helpfulness. It would no longer happen that a man should be kept years at case­-writing when he had within him a divine gift for managing boys. Clergymen, members of societies, by advertising their vacant posts, could then find among other societies able helpers.

Practically it seems a small thing to say, let the offices be more generously used; let the secretaries make it their business to find out the vacant posts of usefulness in clubs, night schools, &c. Such a simple practical reform might have great issues. Frequent meetings would result in action, weak local boards be strengthened, pressure brought to bear on neglectful officials, vacancies in the ranks of teachers and visitors filled, and a public opinion formed strong enough to condemn both luxury and suffering—both over and under work. If such a scope of action frightens those who are conscious of thin ranks and limited resources, let them remember that it is the thought of wider action which will tempt in re­cruits. Many who have no taste for ‘case work’ and Committee forms will be glad co-operators when, in any way, they can be brought face to face with the poor; when they can feel that, by their organised effort, some steps are being made in social reform.

I do not for a moment mean to imply that I believe society will be reformed if the Charity Organisation So­ciety were to decide to adopt a larger policy or a more embracing area of work. Even those of us who most believe in it must acknowledge that it is but one among [171] many influencing forces; but it is possible to hope that all such influences working together may make a com­munity where conditions (as mountains in landscapes) will only make variety in the level of humanity. A flat country is dull. Mountains and valleys are much more beautiful; but then the hills lend their beauty to the dales—their torrents fertilise the low-lying lands, and the lofty mountain crag which first gains the light, and is the last to lingeringly let it go, gives back its reflected glory to gladden the shadowed valley.

A sameness of circumstances might not mean social reform (indeed, personally, I doubt if anything but love for God will mean social reform), but reform is necessary, and with that we all agree. ‘Effort is bootless, toil is fruitless’; with that we do not agree—our very presence here denies it. There only remains then that organised effort should be directed towards reform, noticing, by the way, that, having swept the room, we do not leave the broom about! If those who make the effort will, not neglecting statistics, returns, and order, keep their eye on the far-away issue, which is the life of man raised to its perfect fulness, our children may, ‘ with pulses stirred to generosity,’ rejoice to tell the tale of what the Charity Organisation Society did for social reform.

Henrietta O. Barnett. [172]

This piece has been reproduced from Barnett, H. O. and Barnett, S. A. (1888). Practicable Socialism. Essays on social reform. London: Longman Green and Co. The whole book is available from the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/practicablesoci01barngoog/page/n10/mode/2up and is said to be in the public domain.


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