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Dr Duncan of Ruthwell
Chapter III


The most notable work of Mr Duncan's life and the one with which his name will ever be honourably associated, and which will give him an assured place among the benefactors of mankind, was the "System of Savings Banks"—of which he was the founder. Always keenly interested in the conditions of the poor, he was, as we have seen, very much averse to the poor laws. While studying this all-important subject, he came across a paper called Tranquillity by Mr John Bone, dealing with the very subject he was so much interested in, viz., a plan for gradually abolishing the poor rates in England, and a theoretical scheme for establishing a bank for the savings of the industrious. The germ of the idea which he afterwards successfully developed, was contained in this publication. It was of too visionary and unpractical a nature in its present form, but he felt, when he had separated the real from the ideal, that upon the substance remaining he could build up a practical scheme for encouraging the working classes to provide for their old age or for the proverbial rainy day. His maxim was to help the people to help themselves ; and not merely to relieve poverty, but to cure pauperism; or, to quote the excellent words of Dr Chalmers : "If you confine yourself to the relief of poverty, you do little. Dry up, if possible, the springs of poverty, for every attempt to stem the running stream has signally failed."

It was with this end in view that he carefully drew out his plans. He published a pamphlet to call attention to the subject and to get the necessary support "so as to render the measure he contemplated suitable not for one locality only, but for his country and the world." Mr Duncan at first met with little response. He was but too well aware of the difficulties and prejudices he would have to contend with in dealing with an untried scheme. There were numerous pessimists ready to quench the impulse and doom it to failure before it had reached the initial stage, and there was no resident heritor to give it the light of his countenance ; there were no rich people to come forward and support it, and there were not many even of the well-to-do among his parishioners. As for the poor, many of them already belonged to Friendly Societies, and, as it was, found difficulty in keeping up their payments. Not the least of his difficulties were' the suspicions and prejudices of the lower classes where money was concerned. Their reluctance to trust it to anyone else's keeping is told in the following words of his own: " Nor were there wanting surmises that the author of the scheme might himself have some private end to serve in taking possession of their savings." And this prejudice was overcome by means of a box provided with three different locks which could only be opened in the presence of three persons. [Mr Scott, of Inverness, whose grandfather was schoolmaster at Ruthwell for nearly forty years, has in his possession the original Savings Bank Box, and has kindly allowed me to reproduce it. It is painted green, and h»s in black letters on the lid, "Ruthwell Parish Bank" In his own account of the box he says, "... if my memory serves me right, my father told me the minister and each elder had the key of a lock, so that it could not be opened unless the three were present."] Even under the most favourable auspices an institution such as he hoped to

found must have endless difficulties to contend with, but he went on and on, writing, talking, hoping. Though at first somewhat depressed by the results, by sheer force of work, and his own passionate belief in the scheme, he pushed it through. To begin with, he had great confidence that the common-sense of his own parishioners would, in the long run, prevail, and he felt sure he could in time win them over to see the necessity of economy and thrift. The foundations of the little bank he proposed starting must be built on solid rocks; there must be no sandy foundations to give way and shake the timid confidence of those who first entrusted their money to its keeping. A stocking, a chink in the wall, or a loose board in the floor were in those days the only way of keeping surplus money for the lower classes, as the public banks did not take less than £10, and the want of a safe place to keep small amounts often prevented people from attempting to preserve them. Poor people were in danger of being robbed of their little treasure, dearly accumulated by much self-sacrifice and denial. The presence of the tempting nest egg was too often known to others; in that case it was difficult to avoid lending it, perhaps for a too .trivial reason. The hearts of the poor are very easily touched by the troubles of others. The temptation to break into it was more than human nature could withstand ; they would dive into it, and once that had been done it was so easy to dive again. But directly the money was safely in the keeping of the Savings Banks, Mr Duncan knew that they would hesitate to break into their little store unless for some definite or urgent reason. He says: "If any method then could be devised for giving to the honest and successful labourer or artisan a place of security, free of expense, for that part of his gains which the immediate wants of his family do not require, with tht power to reclaim all, or part of it, at pleasure, it would be a most desirable thing even if no interest should be received." Ruthwell was a very poor parish and seemed a peculiarly unsuitable place for any experiment of the kind. A trial looked as if it must fail. His cherished enterprise, however, so carefully worked out with such endless and dogged perseverance, met with extraordinary success. The first year, 1810, the deposits amounted to £151, followed by £176 in the second year, £241 in the third, and progress now being made by leaps and bounds, in the fourth year the money deposited was £922. Remarkable figures and far beyond his most sanguine expectations. Mr Lewin, in his work on Savings Banks, says : " The fact that an institution of the kind contemplated could possibly be carried out by a single individual, however benevolently disposed, is evidence enough of that person's sagacity and perseverance . . .; " and the Quarterly Review of 1816 says, some years after the founding of the Ruthwell Bank, "Justice leads us to say that we have seldom heard of a private. individual in a retired sphere, with numerous avocations and a narrow income, who has sacrificed so much ease, expense, and time for an object purely disinterested, as Mr Duncan has done." Mr Duncan carried his point; Savings Banks were an established fact. His real work began. His correspondence increased day by day—letters poured in by every post from town, country, and continent asking for information. The interest taken in his new scheme was most gratifying, it stimulated him to still further work. Fortunately for the future success of the new undertaking he was a remarkable letter-writer, and this laborious occupation never seemed to tire him. He was always an early riser, and would himself kindle his fire in the morning and devote himself to long hours of steady work before the rest of the world was awake. To inspire confidence in his parishioners he became himself the actuary. They felt then their money was in his personal keeping. The expenses of stamps, etc., were borne by him, and his biographer says that " he spent, notwithstanding the franking privileges of the day, nearly £100 a year on furthering the cause." Early in 1814 he published his essay on Savings Banks, which rapidly went into several editions. The following year an enlarged edition was published. Edinburgh, Kelso, Hawick quickly followed the Ruth well example, and in the South similar establishments were founded at Liverpool, Manchester, Exeter, Southampton, Bristol, and Carlisle.

In Ruthwell the small white - washed cottage is still standing that gave birth to the great movement. It in no way differs from its fellows, and stands side by side with them in the quiet village street; but once the threshold is passed you find yourself

in one long low room with wooden forms around the walls; the door is in the centre and on either side arc two small windows. Imagine the Httle cottage as I saw it on a dazzling day in June. The shutters were up and the small building looked much as if it were taking an afternoon siesta, so lazy and idle it seemed compared to the other cottages which showed signs of life, the faint blue of the smoke from the chimneys, the voices of children and the perfume of flowers. The sun was full upon it, and the sight of the humble little institution, where the depositors first brought their hard-earned savings, made one reflect on how small beginnings may end in great and noble things. For it was here, a hundred years ago now, that the impetus was first given to what is now a great movement; it was here in this little wayside cottage that it sprang into healthy active life, putting out roots and fibres that have since grafted themselves on to every country in the civilised world.

It was not till some years after the founding of the parish bank at Ruthwell that Savings Banks were put under Government protection. They were simply voluntary associations, protected by private individuals, generally benevolent people of note in their respective neighbourhoods. The first Act was passed in 1817. Up to that date the only guarantee that the poor had that their savings were in safe keeping was the honesty and integrity of the Trustees, and in that their confidence had never been misplaced. The Ruthwell Bank was, as far as possible, in the absence of a special Act of Parliament, under the protection of the Friendly Societies Act, but "the Father of Savings Banks," as Mr Duncan was frequently called in the House of Commons, was not satisfied with this state of matters. He took legal advice, from which it appeared that the protection afforded by the Act was doubtful, and that a plea founded on its terms might be ruled out as irrelevant if used in connexion with Savings Bank questions in a court of law. He therefore wrote to Sir W. R. Douglas, member for the Dumfries Burghs, on the subject of an Act to deal specially with the matter. He was, however, anticipated by Mr Rose, so well known as a keen observer and student of the poor laws, who only a few weeks later introduced the bill of 1817.

There were clauses in the measure which, for technical reasons unnecessary to go into here, were found to be quite unsuitable for Scotland. Mr Duncan, therefore, resisted the extension of the English Bill to Scotland, and fought an active campaign against it. In a large measure owing to his attitude the Bill was only passed for England and Ireland. It was another proof of his sagacity that Mr Douglas, M.P. for Dumfries, asked Mr Duncan to prepare the draft of a Bill adapted to Scottish Savings Banks, and to transmit the same to every Savings Bank in Scotland. Here, again, he was met with opposition, for the Edinburgh Bank sternly turned its face against the measure and deprecated the idea of Government interference as injurious to these establishments. So powerful, indeed, was the influence directed against the Bill that it seemed problematical whether it would ever have a chance of passing into law. Opposition, however, only whetted Mr Duncan's enthusiasm. He managed to get active support from most of the other Scottish Banks, and Glasgow fortunately supported him. The difference of opinion between the Edinburgh Bank and Mr Duncan was at its height in 1819. Edinburgh published a report protesting against State interference ; this was followed by a very able letter from Mr Duncan to Mr Douglas, M.P., on the expediency of the Bill, which was published and freely circulated. The Christian Instructor for March 1819 alludes to the controversy as follows: "All their objections (meaning the Edinburgh ones) he has refuted in the most complete and satisfactory manner, and offered such a full vindication of the measure towards which their hostility has been so industriously and powerfully directed as must remove every doubt which that hostility has excited in the public mind. . . ."

But there was also another and far more dangerous opponent—Cobbett. Cobbett was born in 1762 and was the son of a small farmer. The first part of his life was spent in agricultural pursuits. He came up to London in 1783 and entered a lawyer's office, but shortly afterwards enlisted in the Fifty-fourth Foot. At the dep6t at Chatham, he had time to educate himself, and he made the most of his time, rapidly developing a great taste for study. He attained the rank of sergeant-major, and what was more remarkable still he contrived to save not less, probably a good deal more, than £150. Yet this son of the people, the man who had largely educated himself and owed so much of his future advancement in life to his own thrifty habits, was a bitter opponent of the State protection of Savings Banks! His celebrated paper, the Political Register, was the first cheap newspaper. In 1816 Cobbett had suddenly reduced the price from one shilling and a halfpenny to twopence. The, effect was instantaneous; the lower classes had now, for the first time, within their reach a paper conducted by a man of the people. By this act Cobbett increased the power of the Press threefold, and the opinions of his paper were received with enthusiasm. In 1817 he bitterly criticised Mr Rose's Bill, alluding to it as "the Savings Bank Bubble," and later on as "the most ridiculous project that ever entered into the mind of man."

But it was in January 1819, in his letter in the same paper to Mr Jack Harrow on the new cheat, which is now on foot, and which goes under the name of Savings Bank," that he surpassed himself in virulence of language. He managed in the most ingenious way to bring forward his arguments against the scheme. He was a persistent opponent of the National Debt, which he maintained was a contrivance of the rich for imposing further burdens on the poor. He speaks of it as "the great fraud, the cheat of all cheats," and goes on to tell Jack what an imposture it is, and how shamefully the people have been taxed to pay the interest upon it. I must quote his own words as they are of great interest. Speaking of the Borough-mongers as he calls the " Lords, Baronets, and Esquires," he says that they knew how necessary it was that a great many rich people should uphold the system. " They, therefore, passed a law to enable themselves to borrow money of rich people and, by the same law, they imposed it on the people at large to pay, for ever, the interest of the money so by them borrowed. The money thus borrowed they spent in wars, or divided amongst themselves, in one shape or another. Indeed the money spent in war was pocketed for the far greater part by themselves. Thus they owed in time immense sums of money; and, as they continued to pass laws to compel the nation at large to pay the interest of what they borrowed, spent and pocketed^ they called, and still call this debt, the debt of the nation; or in the usual words, the National Debt." He then goes on to argue that Savings Banks are only a further means, and a particularly crafty one, of still further feeding the pockets of the detested "Borough-mongers." He devotes pages to repeating the same refrain, but, to put it into a nutshell, in a biting paragraph he says : " Now then, in order to enlist great numbers of labourers on their side, the Borough-mongers have fallen upon the scheme of coaxing them to put small sums into what they call banks. These sums they pay large interest upon, and suffer the parties to take them out whenever they please. By this scheme they think to bind great numbers to them and their tyranny. They think that great numbers of labourers and artizans, seeing their little sums increase, as they will imagine, will begin to conceive the hopes of becoming rich by such means; and, as these persons are to be told that their money is in the funds, they will soon imbibe the spirit of fund-holders, and will not care who suffers, or whether freedom or slavery prevail, so that the funds be but safe."

"Such is the scheme, and such the motives. It will fail of this object, though not unworthy the inventive power of the servile knaves of Edinburgh. . . .[This was not the case, as the idea originated at Ruth-well, and the Bill of 181!) was brought forward by Mr Duncan. The Edinburgh Hank opposed it] The parsons appear to be the main tools in this coaxing scheme." Cobbett succeeded in bringing over large numbers of people to his views, especially in Lancashire. A question was asked in the House of Commons whether the report was true " that the Government was about to seize the funds of the Friendly Societies and Savings Banks, and apply them to the payment of the National Debt." This report actually did lead to the breaking up of some Friendly Societies, causing great loss to those who had claims on them. The Chancellor of the Exchequer pronounced it to be utterly groundless," and assured the pubhc that money belonging to the institutions in question was kept entirely apart .... and even if the Treasury were base enough, they had not the power to misappropriate these funds."

The Times newspaper was also hostile to Savings Banks and kept up this attitude long after the benefits of these institutions were generally admitted. The more opposition that was shown the more fully determined " the father" of the measure was that the matter should be brought to a successful issue. Mr Douglas, M.P., a great personal friend and a warm supporter of Mr Duncan's policy, invited him at this juncture to stay with him in London. No doubt this was with a view to Mr Duncan lending the aid of his powerful personality to convince any wavering members of Parliament and induce them to support the Bill they both had so much at heart. A journey in those days was a great undertaking, and it was his first visit to the great city. He rode all the way, leaving Ruthwell on Monday morning and arriving at his destination on Saturday night. He stayed at the Albany in the very heart of London. The Albany, which was once Lord Melbourne's house, was altered in 1804 into separate apartments for " bachelors and widowers," most of them men of fashion, members of the House of Lords, House of Commons, or Officers in the Army or Navy. The name of the Albany was given to these apartments from the second title of the Duke of York. Many celebrated people had occupied rooms there, including Byron and Macaulay. There Macaulay wrote a great portion of his History, and it is recorded in Trevelyan's Life of the celebrated historian that he paid £90 for his suite of rooms. In an entry in his diary in 1856, he says, " After fifteen happy years passed in the Albany I am going to leave it thrice as rich a man as when I entered it." Lord Lytton and Brougham were also distinguished occupants. No ladies resided there or were even admitted, except very near relatives, but "this rule," Walford says, "was not strictly adhered to." Mr Duncan was presented to the Prince Regent, and no time was lost in getting into touch with various influential people.

He was himself at the very summit of life ; his energy was at its full height. He felt able and ready for all things. Wilberforce promised him his support; Canning was greatly interested, and asked for his pamphlets; Macaulay showed him great kindness; Lord Minto became, after reading his views and suggestions, a convert, though a few days before at a dinner at Lansdowne House he found him "strangely possessed with the inexpediency of the Bill." The Lord Advocate supported him. The tide had turned. Of a special meeting of Scottish members, who had assembled to further discuss the matter, he writes to tell a friend the result. He says, "I had previously seen and converted Lord Minto and Lord Binning; I had neutralised Sir John Marjoribanks and Sir James Montgomery and had Kirkham, Finlay, Lord Rosslyn, and Mr Gladstone [Afterwards Sir John Gladstone, father of the famous statesman. He was at that time member for Lancaster.] for my firm friends." It was surmised that even if it passed through the House of Commons, the Bill might not be carried in the Upper House, but Lord Rosslyn promised to give it his special attention and protection, and he ends by saying, "After a tough and, at one time, a doubtful battle I have at last carried the day triumphantly." In one of his first letters to his wife he speaks of London as being " a dreadfully bustling town, and people pay dearly for their greatness. I would not lead such a life for all the wealth and honours the wrorld can bestow. . . . O, for my own fireside with my wife and bairns about me."

He was destined to remain in London for many weeks. He was asked to give, before the Committee on the Poor Laws, his views upon these laws, their effect in Scotland on emigration, etc., etc., and the great problems of pauperism to which as yet nobody has found the solution. This was the way he spent his time, feted, and sent for by some of the most enlightened and interesting men of the day, eager to hear what he thought, and recognising in him the practical philanthropist that he was. He would not have been human if he had not felt flattered by so much attention; he said himself later that "once was quite enough for the head of a quiet Presbyterian minister," and prayed that he might be "humbled." He returned in April to Ruthwell, that dear village where his heart was so closely entwined with the interests of his people. No offer, though he had many, to remove to a larger or more lucrative living with wider opportunities had ever tempted him to leave it. Ruthwell was his home and he loved his parishioners. His return called forth from his pen these lines, addressed to a neighbouring minister: "Never poor aeronaut, whose too buoyant vehicle had darted with him beyond the region of the clouds, and beyond the sight of terrestrial things, was happier to plant his foot on terra firma than I at this moment feel in being myself again." Think of the pride it must have been to him when the Bill that he had fought for so strenuously had passed into law—through the House of Commons—through the, at one time doubtful, House of Lords, into the book of the Statutes of the land. Mr Douglas also wrote to tell him : "You may carry with you the satisfaction of knowing that the Savings Banks Bill would not have been carried except by your visit to London."


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