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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

The Poor in Town and Country
(S367a: 1883)

Editor Charles H. Smith’s Note: A letter to the Editor printed on page 6 of The Daily News issue of 1 November 1883. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S367A.htm

     Sir,--The great majority of the writers on this subject both in your own columns and those of your contemporaries, have treated it as one of house-accommodation only, and this view will be rendered more general by the interest excited by Lord Salisbury’s article which deals mainly with this aspect of the question. But surely this is a most erroneous and partial view. The enormous pressure of population in our great cities, the insufficiency of remunerative employment, with the consequent misery, idleness, and crime, are the real evils to be combated, of which the miserable dwellings are only one of the symptoms. To think that we can cure these evils, or even to any important extent reduce them, by devoting all our energies to improving the houses, is exactly parallel to the old system of treating zymotic diseases simply by medicine, while totally ignoring the unsanitary conditions which continually produced fresh crops of disease. As supporting this view allow me to quote a sentence or two from the admirable article on "Poor Men’s Politics" in Saturday’s Daily News. The writer says: "What I wish to insist upon is, that the ordinary everyday life of the mass of the poor--and, remember, that means at least seven out of ten of the people--is not worth living, and wouldn’t be worth living if we could put them into model lodging-houses to-morrow." . . . "Promote emigration, improve their dwellings, reinforce your missionaries, unfurl your temperance banners, and teach the people thrift; but don't forget that a radical change is bound to come before all your tinkering can really avail." . . . "Do all that, and we shall still go round into the homes of the people, and find that they are being driven to crime and suicide for want of work, or else they are working fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen hours a day for wages that they cannot live upon."

     Now the fundamental cause of this state of things is to be found in that constant flow of labourers from the rural districts which has been going on for many years, but which has only recently attracted serious attention; and the causes of this outflow were clearly stated by Mr. Bright in his speech at Rochdale on his 70th birthday. He then stated that "the younger people, finding they had no tie to the soil, that they can never become anything but labourers at very low wages, are leaving the rural parishes in which they have been born. They are emigrating to the great towns in the neigbourhood." Again, what does Mr. Thomas Hardy say in his admirable essay on "The Dorsetshire Labourer," in Longman's Magazine?--"A depopulation is going on which in some quarters is truly alarming. Villages used to contain, in addition to the agricultural inhabitants, an interesting and better-informed class, ranking distinctly above these—the blacksmith, the carpenter, the shoemaker, the small higgler, the shopkeeper, together with nondescript workers other than farm labourers, who had remained in the houses where they were born. Many of these families had been life-holders, who built at their own expense the cottages they occupied, and as the lives dropped and the property fell in, would have been glad to remain as weekly or monthly tenants of the owner. But the policy of all but some few philanthropic landowners is to disapprove of these petty tenants who are not in the estates' employ, and to pull down each cottage as it falls in, leaving standing a sufficient number for the use of the farmers' men and no more. The occupants, who formed the backbone of the village life, have to seek refuge in the boroughs. This process, which is designated by statisticians as 'the tendency of the rural population towards the large towns,' is really the tendency of water to flow uphill when forced. The poignant regret of those who are thus obliged to forsake the old nest can only be realised by people who have witnessed it." In these two sets of facts--the forcible depopulation of the country districts, and the over-population of the towns, with the consequent struggle for existence, crowded tenements, misery, starvation, and crime, we see cause and effect most clearly in action. And when we further consider the statement of Mr. Arch, that the labourer’s dream is "to secure his homestead to himself," we may be sure that if we give every man the opportunity of doing this in his native place, on fair terms, the population of all country villages and small towns would rapidly increase, and would soon draw back from the large towns a considerable portion of those who have been compelled to leave their houses either by absolute compulsion or, as Mr. Bright says, because they found their position there hopeless, but who have sunk into the still more hopeless condition of the cellar or attic dwelling labourer in some great city.

     Here, then, we see a plain mode of going to the root of the matter, of abolishing the causes of the disease, not merely ameliorating the symptoms. But if we are to do anything in this direction on a scale at all adequate to the huge proportions of the evil, we must not put our trust in local efforts or the disinterested action of individuals, by means of which a few wretched city dwellers may here and there be settled in the country. The only thing that will meet the gravity of the case is to enact that every man shall have a right to live in and on his native land. So vastly more important is this than the legal rights of landlords "to do what they like with their own," that any man desirous of settling in any part of the country should be allowed to claim a plot of land (of, say, half an acre to two acres, according to circumstances) at a fair agricultural rent fixed by valuation, and on a permanent tenure equivalent to a perpetual lease. A large measure of free choice of such land should be permitted, or the whole operation would entirely fail of its main purpose, which is to allow a free and natural growth of all rural populations. To decide what land is to be had on these terms, simple land courts should be established to visit every centre of population at intervals in order to receive applications for land, and, whenever possible, to give immediate possession. Let something of this kind be done for the whole kingdom, and I venture confidently to predict that long before legislative action has produced any perceptible effect on the dwellings of the poor, its work will be rendered much more easy by the diminished congestion of population in the towns, while, the causes directly tending to such congestion being removed, whatever improvement may be effected will have some chance of being permanent. --I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

Alfred R. Wallace.
Godalming, Oct. 30.

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