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Good Words 1860
Doctor Chalmers at Elberfeld


Elberfeld, to most people, is suggestive of Turkey-red; and, no doubt, Turkey-red has everything to do with it. It was a notable place, however, before that excellent dye spread its reputation; and is likely to remain so whether the dye holds or not. For the beauty of its neighbourhood and its picturesque contrasts alone, it is worth halting at longer than between two trains. It lies in a charming valley of the Berg; and, fifty years ago, before the factory time, could boast one of the brightest and clearest of streams in the merry little Wupper. Pleasant heights, shaded with masses of wood, cluster round it. Away beyond them, the river winds between the heights, and below the woods, and laving the greenest meadows. Tempting openings stretch up into the hills; and there are gloomy, grotesque-looking ravines, with curious caves scooped in their sides— caves with real legends, not of the Rhine stamp, but akin to those that linger by the heather braes of Scotland, of Christian men in hiding, and sore peril of life, and of grand hymns they made, that echo through all Germany to this day. Moreover, about the beginning of the century many eyes were turned hopefully to the quiet church, where the elder Krummacher declared the gospel with a fresh, faithful simplicity, that startled the careless Christian world; and many hearts were praying that the light God had kindled there might not be put out; and strangers came into the vale to hear the famous preacher, and carry with them the joy of his good tidings. And ever since, through the changes of its population and character, the vale has maintained its faith, and is among the foremost places on the Continent for the spread and power of the kingdom of God. It was in Elberfeld that the first German missionary society was formed, and that good old Hermann Peltzer, at threescore and six, set himself hopefully to learn English, that he might publish translations of the tidings from English missionaries. And at the next turn of the river there is Barmen, with its mission-houses and seminary, and famous mission-paper, and forty-one missionaries—the greatest missionary organisation of Germany; and from which, at present, two daring men are going out into the more hidden heart of Africa, to teach the newly discovered populations there. But, undeniably, the leading interest is Turkey-red; and the little Wupper, that threw out its merry invitation to all the world, has been taken somewhat roughly at its word, and comes, coppery and hot and odorous, out of the dyeing-vats, and can no longer hear its own voice for the roar of the great factories along its banks. The town is like a hasty-grown boy, that shows awkwardly in lately proper but now ill-fitting clothes. A few handsome streets cleave long rows of narrow passages, through which the current of business persists in flowing. Odd little lanes wind over the hills and through the hollows, and cross and recross into an extraordinary network, where the stranger is left as in a labyrinth till some kindly opening reveals an escape. He emerges with a confused cricking of shuttles in his ear, and a very distinct sense of small children and a dense population. The houses, with their wooden framework, running in fantastic pattern over the whitewash, are bewildering enough; doubly so, one somehow feels, when weavers are plying their calling in every room; but they look comfortable, and the little fry are healthy and active, and there is a good-tempered, quiet civility everywhere, that is not often met in our narrow lanes at home. Elberfeld, in fact, is now a wealthy, bustling manufacturing city, that has multiplied its population often since 1800; and Turkey-red has been at the bottom of all this, and also of that state of things which required the vigorous interposition of the author of '' Civic Economy of Large Towns."

For with wealth there came poverty, and flung its shadow along the alleys, and below the rich men's houses, and out upon the broad sunshine; and wide as the city reached, and faster it grew, so wide and fast did the shadow. The town is always absorbing the country - its nerve and freshness—its incapacity and need as well. And as weeds thrive best on unfilled lands, so does poverty reach its rankest growth in the neglected haunts of city crowds. Manufacturing cities, besides, have a special poverty of their own. Plenty of work draws plenty of hands; but orders may stop with scarce a warning, and dull times set in, and the factory works at half-hours or at half-power, and then the strain begins, and there is pawning and debt, and by the time trade revives there are some who are too far down to rise. As often as this is repeated, some heads sink with the struggle, and cry below the smooth surface of the town's life. The poor have no monopoly of high-class virtues; they are no more likely than the rich to be thrifty, and prudent, and patient, and made of the firm, stern stuff of martyrs. When the hard daybreaks, it is not many who are ready for it. It is very painful, no doubt it is very blameable; but before casting stones at them, it may be well at least to spend a thought or two upon one's own thrift, and prudence, and preparation for reverse, and to ask whether one has ever taught his neighbours to do better, or has reflected much upon the matter until he was told of a bare, fireless room, and naked children, and then began to mutter something about "their own fault," and "the poor-house."

Elberfeld, with its rows of workshops, and factory roar, has, in addition to its other poor, its poor of this stamp—poor first by being thrown out of work and into beggary, and poor by being sprung from these, brought up among the influences and woful habits of poverty. Charitable, as great cities are after their fashion, it was forward to relieve them. Alms were freely given; poor-rates were freely paid. It prospered, spread up and down the Wupper, and over the country walks of the old gray-headed villagers, added field to field and trade to trade, and still the poor kept even pace, and the poor-rates were freely paid. At length murmurs rose. In 1847, 1848, 1849, its pauperism cost the city L. 17,000 per annum: its population was not 50,000, and the rate was up to 47s. a-head. The burden was pressing beyond endurance. Every year it was heavier, and the ratio of pauper increase was far beyond that of population. The poor-rate struck at the beginning of the year never covered the necessity; supplementary rates became the rule. Yet high as the tax was pitched, it proved futile. The more this hungry pauperism was fed, the more ravenous it turned; like a diseased stomach, it created its own appetite; and the citizens felt alarmed lest all their prosperous earnings should be drawn into its yawning mouth. Was trade declining? On the contrary, it was steadily progressing, money was more abundant, new streets were rising, strangers remarked on the rapidity of the improvements. Were the funds mismanaged? That was out of the question; the greatest sufferers were on the management, the system was well worked, the officers were rigid and careful; Was the system at fault? There were some who made bold to say it was wrong and dangerous from the foundation.

At the beginning of this century, when Krummacher was preaching and Peltzer was puzzling over his English, Elberfeld was a simple country town. The few poor were supported by voluntary contributions dispensed through ecclesiastical boards. Then, as time rolled on, beggars multiplied. They were like a plague in the streets and at the doors.

"To see the townsfolk suffer so
From vermin, was a pity."

And the townsfolk grew uneasy, and whether or no, like the rat-bitten population of Hamelin, they tame to the town-hall with a

"Rouse up, sirs! give your brains a racking,
To find the remedy we 're lacking,
Or, sure as fate, we'll send you packing!
At which the mayor and corporation
Quakes with a mighty consternation"—

we are ignorant; but the corporation felt an emergency, and, for want of a "pied piper," determined to form a civic aid to help the ecclesiastical: the town collected, and the Church dispensed. Then there came disputes, debt, and the year 1816. It was a year of extraordinary distress, dearness, and idleness; and the ecclesiastical boards, though of three confessions, proposed to their great credit to take entire charge of the poor. After twelve months' experiment the scheme broke down, and a plan of civic machinery was introduced; poor-rates were levied, poor-law guardians appointed, inspectors, relieving officers, and all the other officers set in motion, and its machinery went, as machinists say, sweetly. The change was going on elsewhere, over entire Germany. The Church, which embodies in itself the fittest poor-law, was careless, and proved incapable. It was slowly thrust aside, tolerated perhaps with a seat at the new boards, while the civic powers took the matter into their own hands, until now there is a general approximation to our own poor-laws and our own powerless extravagance. It was this civic system which some in Elberfeld began to whisper was in fault. They pointed to the amazing increase of taxes, and to the yet more amazing increase of pauperism: they shewed that the system worked admirably as a system, but that if it went on, bankruptcy hung over no very distant future. Gradually the corporation shared their opinion; proposals which came to nothing were made to the ecclesiastical bodies; and with this effort the people resigned themselves to an inevitable fate. It was then that among one or two clear-sighted citizens such a plan was matured, which, carried into the happiest effect, has made Elberfeld famous in the civic economy of the Continent, and a hopeful lesson for our civic economy at home.

Those who have read the "Memoirs of Dr Chalmers"—and who has not?—will remember that most brilliant and most sad chapter which records the success and failure at St John's. In this, as in so much else, far beyond his time, and following the instincts of a true and great heart that was sanctified by the Spirit of God and inhabited by His wisdom, Dr Chalmers determined to establish his principles in the face of every resistance and scorn. In a parish of 10,000 he found an annual poor-tax of L. 1400. Four years after his induction he could say that the expenditure was L.190, and the pauperism vastly less. When eighteen years had passed, the average expenditure was found to have been L.30 to every 1000 people against L.140 to every 1000 people when he began. There the matter dropped, but the truth and the protest remain the same, and whoever has the confidence and manliness to try will find the result unchanged still. People were familiar once with the mode by which he wrought, but it has so long slipped away into the timid region of the impracticable, that few can talk about it now. It would be out of place to say more of it here, than that its chief points were the thorough personal visitation of the parish by the deacons, the proper selection and conduct of these deacons, the administration of help through them instead of through parish officials. How far his writings on this favourite subject may have influenced Mr Von der Heydt, Mr Lischke, and others in Germany, it is not very pertinent to inquire. Their reputation in that country has been considerable, the course of the Inner Mission has of late directed more attention to them, and it is probable enough that besides the indirect influence of well-known opinions upon the general intelligence of society, Mr Lischke may owe much to the personal study of these writings. This, however, is certain and gratifying, that the parochial system of St John's has been reproduced in Elberfeld on a large scale, embracing the entire population; and that in those principles of poor relief for which Dr Chalmers contended, the only extrication has been found from the embarrassments which threatened that city.

Those who sought a new system sought it on an entirely new basis. They felt that a human heart and hand must be substituted for a board. The poor came into no real contact with the rich; they stood at a cold, legal distance. The rich came into as little contact with them, knew them only as people to whom the board gave alms. There was no attempt to check poverty, none to help the poor up. As many as were in bona fide need received a certain relief, and that was all. Alms were the easiest service; and that discharged, through the poor-rate and the workhouse, people took credit for loving their neighbours as themselves. And not in Elberfeld alone. God's teaching, Christ's voice through 1800 years, and this is the issue of it in our illuminated nineteenth century! And we will pay taxes fourfold rather than take the poor man by the hand, or feel the chill of his wan face upon our comfort, or remember that with the soil upon his life he is our brother, and we must answer for his blood. We hurry him to the great poor-house, and boast that we have done our duty by society, and feel it ought to thank us. Good-natured, pitiful, kind men will do it; they are not, as the poor may think, passive and bloodless as the stones: it is habit and theory, and the maxims of the world, that freeze them. Send him to the poor-house; but will you not first look into that miserable room where he is starving? Pay the highest rate; but will you not first consider the poor? It is not far: a few steps down the next street, a little climbing up the dark stairs. It was where the Lord went, and He said, "Follow Me." This was what these men in Elberfeld thought, that it is selfishness to stow poverty in an almshouse, and never touch it with a little finger, though it has father and children, and heart and brain, as well as we ; that poverty will never come to an end that way; and that we are in the world not so much to carry out the poor-laws as to love our brother. This was the foundation on which their plan rose. The official relation to the poor must cease, and give place to the personal; aid must be granted not by statute but by men whom the poor feel to care for them. Attain this, they said, and the rest will spring from it; better feeling, fewer poor, lighter taxes, less imposture, steady care.

The system proposed and at present in operation is briefly this. The town, with a population of 53,000, is divided into 252 districts, 1 to about every 210 people. A visitor is appointed over each district. The visitors offer themselves for three years; but, though they can then retire, by far the greater number have preferred remaining, and only those have withdrawn who were unable to continue. They are of all grades in society, in office and out of office, head-masters of the gymnasiums and elementary teachers, great merchants and small, persons of property and young men in warehouses, manufacturers and journeymen weavers, artisans and bankers. They may be of any denomination; an important matter in Elberfeld, which can boast almost every sect. They are only asked if they will faithfully discharge their duties. These are, to visit fortnightly each of the poor in the district in their houses (the number of families allotted to one is not allowed to exceed four); to inquire into their circumstances, to foster self-reliance, to counsel and rebuke them, to reconstruct the ruined family life, to preserve and develop family and neighbourly relations, by every means to prevent dependence on charity, where help is imperative to give no more than is absolutely necessary, where work is wanted to provide it, to detect imposition, and reclaim the outcast. The districts are organised into eighteen circuits. Every fortnight, of a Wednesday the visitors of each circuit meet under the presidency of a superintendent. At this meeting they report upon the poor, and prefer their requests for help. In doubtful cases a majority of votes determines, and in no case can relief be granted for longer than fourteen days; if still necessary, the application must be renewed. The superintendent must visit the poor of the district quarterly, as well as accompany the visitor in any circumstances of peculiar emergency. They appear also at the sittings of the Poor Law Board, which are held on alternate Wednesdays with the circuit meetings, report there upon the condition of their pauperism, and receive the needful supplies in money and kind for the circuit meeting following: they are, in fact, the organs of the board. This board is composed of men of high standing, who, like the rest, voluntarily offered their services. Its position is that of a committee of the Common Council. It fixes the assessment for the year, manages the outlay, superintends both the indoor and outdoor relief, investigates the condition and causes of the pauperism, and reconsiders or, if necessary, changes the decisions of the circuit meetings. Its president is the Mayor, if we may so translate the Ober-Burgermeister. And any one who wishes fuller information on the constitution or working of the poor-law will find it clearly stated in the admirable paper read before the Kirchentag of Hamburg in 1858, by Ober-Burgermeister Lischke.

Such is the scheme, somewhat complex perhaps, but working out its principles with a thorough persistency and order. The simple sense of a deep human fellowship is at the bottom of it, of the power of human sympathy and contact, of human duties that are owed, not through corporations, but from man to man. This is wrought into every detail, penetrates and sustains the whole. To have a personal acquaintance with the poor, there must be frequent visiting; to have a personal influence, the visit must be the prompting of neighbourly feeling. The one requires that the visitors be men with their own calling in life; the other, that they bear the largest possible proportion to the population. If the visitor have more families on his list than he can attend to with ease, he will attend to none ; if he is appointed to visit as his calling, his visits become hopelessly official. The connexion established between the impulse of a private pity and the restraint of a public grant is also very happy; the one stirs the heart, the other controls it by the judgment; while the limit of the grant-in-aid to fourteen days is a continual and most wholesome check upon an imprudent benevolence. Each, moreover, has a personal interest in removing pauperism, and those who are best acquainted with it are made the instruments of relieving it.

It was in 1851 that the plan, then well considered, was laid before the corporation. It was received with a storm of opposition, and not without ridicule. A well-meant impracticable theory! Who would volunteer to work like that? If one or two were ready, who would dream of 252? It was strangely Utopian; the council might pass on to business. Reduce the visitors, suggested one member at length; reduce the visitors, and it may have a chance. Reduce the visitors, was the reply, and it is at an end. Perseverance won some little concessions: permission was given for an experiment; it was allowed on sufferance; of course, it was said, the men will never be found. Nearly 300 offered. Then sage people shook their heads, and said it would not last a month. The poor regarded it with suspicion. It went on without pause or hitch, and is now in its eighth year; and with what result can be very briefly stated. In 1852, the town was in embarrassment, pauperism was advancing with the hugest strides, the poor-rates were enormous, the income fell far below the expenditure, the number of poor was upwards of 4000, or one in twelve. In 1857, the town breathed freely, the poor-rates were trifling, the reduced assessment much more than covered the need, street-begging had disappeared, there were no cases of neglect, the genuine poor received large help, and the number of poor had fallen to 1400, or one in thirty-eight, and was still falling. In 1858, there were only 151 families. Nor have the circumstances been favourable to this result. There was a continuance of hard years, when prices were high and work was slack. There was misapprehension, and the difficulty of an unfamiliar project. The accruing poverty of half a century had to be contended with. When these things are reckoned, it will be found that the figures are under a true estimate of the gain. Nor has it been impracticable to maintain the efficient staff. Last year the number of applicants for visitorships far exceeded 252; instead of requesting persons to act, the board have always been in a position to select. At first, it was almost at the peril of the visitors' lives that they went among the poor; now, they bring a joy into every household. And the impulse has reacted upon them. They have learned how it is more blessed to give than to receive, they have an unselfish doing of good daily asserting itself against the gravitating force of business and careful worldliness, new lights have broken upon many, new sympathies been stirred in them, the harsh repulse of class is disappearing, there is a mutual knowledge and reliance of the rich and the poor.

The story is uncommon and new. It is a pleasant, hopeful thought that a spinning, trading, Turkey-red-dyeing, money-getting city like Elberfeld can produce 252 men who are unselfish enough to follow an unselfish purpose, manly enough to reach a warm hand to those whom poverty has thrust up a reeking alley, with time enough to say a cheery word to the sick woman in the garret, or to look out work for the poor fellow hiding in the cellar. It is not the tendency of our time; it is not a story that we can easily believe. It is likely to be met with an incredulous stare. [A well-known banker, the chief promoter of the system, mentioned to the writer last year, that upon relating it a short time before to a member of our House of Lords, his travelling companion in the railway, he was told, "If I had not heard it from the lips of a living man, I should not have believed it."]

Hamburg, Berlin, the great towns, are incredulous. Yet there is the same peril threatening, the same burdens weighing them down. In 1849, in the forty towns of Prussia with more than 10,000 inhabitants, and a total population of 1,730,833, there was spent in in and out-door relief £416,381. The number of those supported was 311,963, or two to every eleven of the population; and the poor-rate was 4s. 10d. per head, or for a town of 100,000, £24,000. Do not the very same facts meet us at home? The poor-law expenditure in Glasgow is upwards of £100,000, or above £250 to every 1000 people. Between August 1840 and May 1849, its population increased by twenty per cent., and the cost of its pauperism by 430 per cent. Are other towns any better? Is it not a. universal evil, to which only habit has reconciled us, while remedy looks so unlikely that the few who dread the future are unwilling to alarm the present? The marvellous elasticity of our commerce, the growing wealth of our traders, may make the evil more distant, perhaps also more gigantic. Is it not worth while to try some effort, not to stave off misfortune, but to avert it? Is not Dr Chalmers' plan worth being tested once again? Elberfeld has shewn, at least, that it is possible. Are men less ready to come forward here than there? Are they less practical, less willing, less interested? Have we the poor less upon our hearts? Or, rather, are not the workers ready, if there were only the guiding hand to shape the work? We may find fault with the Elberfeld organisation, we may say it is not adapted to our wants; the principle remains intact; if it has been wrought into use and blessing there, it is hard to see why it could not be wrought into as much use and blessing here. It may be that this hasty sketch of what is doing in Germany will lead some one to think of what may be done in England, that the new birth and glory of a half-forgotten truth will give some one boldness to begin, let it be in ever so narrow a sphere, what was never really a failure at St John's.


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