Managing the Poor: General Suppliers to the Workhouse

Running the workhouse in mid-nineteenth century Birmingham required numerous supplies of everyday items. Decisions on who and what were supplied were made by the Guardians of the Poor at regular meetings. The workhouse was a considerable customer for many small businesses, and it seems likely that connections across the local business community could play an important role in securing contracts. However, some supplies came from much further afield. Below is the list of suppliers for 1858, agreed at a meeting of the Board of Guardians in early March and published in Aris’s. Meetings of the Guardians were regularly reported in the press, to ensure that local tax payers could see exactly where their money was being spent. The list is interesting for what it reveals of workhouse necessities, from oatmeal for gruel, through to shoes and coffins.

Meat                          Mr Billingham, Congreve Street
Oatmeal                    Mr William Jeffcot, Weaman Street
Ale                             The Deritend Brewery
Wines & Spirits       E. Simpkinson, Jamaica Row
Leather                     Frier, Bull Street
Shoes                         M’Kinley & Walker, Paisley
Butter & Cheese      Knowles, Broad Street
Grocery                     J. Whilock, High Street
Hosiery, Draper      Atkinson & Co., London
& Clothing
Coals                         Weal, Broad Street
Coffins                      Grimley
Stationery                Mr Billing, Livery Street
Printing                    Mr Tonks
Drugs                        Mr Humphreys
Milk                          T. Saxelby

Birmingham’s local newspaper archive is available to view free of charge at the Library of Birmingham, level 4. It may be prudent to make an appointment to avoid disappointment. The papers are also available to view by subscription to the British Newspaper Archive. Please continue to support our local archives and libraries.

 

 

 

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Managing the Poor: the Oakum Room

 

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On May 2nd, 1887, Thomas White was sentenced to fourteen days hard labour for ‘neglecting his task at the workhouse’. An article in the Birmingham Mail described White as a tramp, and the task which he was deemed to have been negligent of was oakum picking.[1] Up and down the country, in workhouses and jails, men, women and children were daily set to work in this onerous, uncomfortable job. Baskets or tubs of dirty, thick rope was pulled into individual strands ready for reuse as caulking material. In workhouses it was used as a test in an attempt to deter people from claiming relief. Most institutions set a daily quota that each claimant must pick. Richard Wood was the tramp master, and at White’s trial he testified that on the morning of April 30th that he had given White 4lbs of oakum to pick, but that he had only picked 2lb 13oz. The workhouse doctor had confirmed that White was in good health. The presiding magistrate enquired if cold weather might have impacted the defendant’s ability to undertake his task, but was assured that the room was ‘sufficiently warm’ and that the job was such a simple one that ‘some of the seven-day boys sometimes picked the oakum just for pleasure’.[2]

Birmingham’s oakum room had not always been situated within the workhouse. In 1867, Guardian Mr Benton brought forward a motion that a labour test should be imposed on those claiming outdoor relief, as it was in Manchester. He stated that he brought the motion forward ‘in no revengeful spirit, but because he thought it would be beneficial to the people not to allow themselves to become paupers.’[3] By the following year there was an Oakum Room Sub-Committee, consisting 11 Guardians, under the authority of the Visiting and General Purposes Committee. The oakum room was based on Great Charles Street, and divided into sections for men and women with male and female attendants.[4] This was some way from the workhouse, and it is possible that it was a test house only for those seeking outdoor relief, rather than for workhouse inmates. By 1871 it was decided that the oakum picking room should be moved to the workhouse, once the tenure on the Great Charles Street premises was up.[5]

It would seem that, although Mr Benton’s proposal was presented as novel for the town, there had been a longer standing tradition of poor tests, including oakum picking. For some reason it had been discontinued.  The Relief Committee was responsible for managing outdoor relief. In March, 1858, they reported to the Board of Guardians that they were currently employing upwards of five hundred men in stone breaking and oakum picking. It was stated that one hundred and fifty men had lately been in the oakum ward as a result of the pearl button makers strike. This statement met with mixed responses: Mr Tonks said that in his opinion ‘the Board ought to require from them such an amount of labour as would prevent them from going there from choice’. Mr Phillips reported that a number of ‘insubordinate’ men from among the strikers claiming relief had been sent to the outdoor oakum ward, but that there was danger of men becoming ill from the cold weather, a factor confirmed by Mr Maher, who agreed that some means of heating the oakum room should be considered as ‘setting aside humanity, it would be economy to do so’. Men who became ill could be an even greater burden on the parish. Only Mr Corbett appeared to show a modicum of empathy, suggesting that it seemed unlikely that men would choose to break stones or pick oakum in return for ‘the miserable allowance of bread and money’ which they provided.[6]

[1] Birmingham Mail, May 2nd, 1887

[2] Ibid.

[3] Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, May 4th, 1867

[4] Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography, GP B/2/3/10 Oakum Room Sub-committee 1869-1872

[5] Birmingham Daily Gazette, March 9th, 1871

[6] Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, March 8th, 1858

Mount Misery

Getting by in 19th century Birmingham could be hard.  A town of great innovation and opportunity it was also subject as much as any other to the vagaries of fluctuating economic fortunes and depressions.  Small trades could be impacted by changing fashions and new inventions. Another factor, particularly during the first half of the century, was the lull in heavy international conflicts, which caused a drop in the demand for guns and metal arms, for which Birmingham was a leading manufacture. In those days people suffering from poverty could become dependent on the poor rate. This was before the days of the Victorian workhouses. There was a workhouse in Birmingham, but it was not run under the sort of system more familiar in ‘Oliver’, and most of the poor were given ‘out relief’, a very small amount of money and often in return for otherwise unpaid labour.  This piece from Showell’s Dictionary of Birmingham explains. Pushing men, especially young men, into such backbreaking work would have been intended as a way of preventing violent unrest at a time of great deprivation.

Mount Misery.– At the close of the great war, which culminated at Waterloo, it was long before the blessings of peace brought comfort to the homes of the poor. The first effects of the sheathing of the sword was a collapse in prices of all kinds, and a general stagnation of trade, of which Birmingham made prosperous through the demands for its guns, &c., felt the full force. Bad trade was followed by bad harvests, and the commercial history of the next dozen years is but one huge chronicle of disaster, shops and mills closing fast, and poverty following faster. How to employ hundreds of able-bodied men dependent on the rates, was a continual puzzle to the Overseers, until someone, wise in his generation, hit upon the plan of paying the unfortunates to wheel sand from the bank then in front of Key Hill House up to the canal side, a distance of 1 1/2 miles, the payment being at the rate of one penny per barrow load. This fearful ‘labour test’ was continued for a long time, and when we reckon that each man would have to wheel his barrow backwards and forwards for nearly 20 miles to earn a shilling, moving more than a ton of sand in the process, we cannot wonder at the place receiving such a woeful name as Mount Misery.

The First Corporation Supper

On February 2nd, 1839, the Birmingham Journal ran an advertisement for a Town Hall dinner event to celebrate the institution of Birmingham’s first municipal corporation.

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Birmingham Journal, February 2nd 1839 © BritishNewspaperArchive

It was an expensive event, clearly not intended for the hoi polloi of the town. On the 21st February the Town Hall was decorated in fitting style. A further report in the Journal, published on the 23rd, revealed that,

Immediately above the mayor’s chair, in the way of a canopy, a large and very handsome crown, festooned with laurel and having a union jack waving over it. Over the vice-president’s chair, there was a splendid silk banner with the Birmingham Arms painted on it, and resting on the rail of the great gallery was the well-known symbol, the bundle of sticks surmounted by a cap of liberty, to indicate that freedom can only be upheld by union; and accompanied by a pair of scales, as emblematic of equal justice to all, the great purpose why liberty ought to be vindicated and maintained.

The symbolism of the decor was very telling, and perhaps slightly hypocritical given that the majority of ‘people’ had been debarred from the event by way of a prohibitive pricing policy. The mayor was clearly intended to be seated in a regal manner. It was William Scholefield who was granted this auspicious honour. His father was one of Birmingham’s first MPs and William would himself hold that seat a few years later. Scholefield, along with many of the other new town councillors, had also been an active member of the Birmingham Political Union, a Radical political group that had played a significant role in the establishment of  the Chartist Movement. The cap of liberty had been a hugely controversial symbol of Radicalism in the early part of the century when it was considered an expression of revolution and could get a man thrown in gaol just for displaying it. Now it held pride of place at Birmingham’s first corporation supper.

The silk banner bearing the Birmingham Arms was doubtless an expression of civic pride. Taken together, it is possible to come to a tentative conclusion that these men, Birmingham’s first municipal men, felt themselves to hold a vital position in ensuring that the town was properly represented. They were exciting times, the 1830s,  with the nation sitting in the cusp of modernity and at the very beginning of what would become recognised as the Victorian era. The railways were coming and life was running at an increasingly fast pace. Over subsequent months the municipal men would be faced with huge challenges and find themselves becoming very unpopular amongst the local community. But for now they made the most of their moment, celebrating the incorporation of the borough with good port, a fine dinner and a toast to what they earnestly believed to be a triumph of Radicalism.

Dr Church’s Steam Carriage

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Experiments with steam transport dates back possibly to as early as the 17th century, but it was with the expansion of road links in the later 18th century that interest in developing efficient forms of transport really took off.  I came across the following extract when browsing through Langford’s for information on something totally unrelated, but it is very easy to go off on a tangent when looking through his fascinating, somewhat quirky, account of Birmingham’s history.

Being a town built on manufacture and trade, roads and transport were incredibly important to Birmingham. One of the key reasons for the founding of the town’s first improvement body, the Street Commissioners, was to ensure that roads and byways were kept in order and it was this body that would later oversee the arrival of the railways.  So it is perhaps of little surprise that the minds of Birmingham’s innovative businessmen were absorbed in attempts to perfect modes of transport. If you travel along Broad Street today you will see a gold-coloured statue of three men, all members of the Lunar Society,  contemplating a document. One of those men depicted is William Murdoch, an early pioneer of steam transportation, although the other two men in the statue, Matthew Boulton and James Watt, did try to talk him out of it. Nevertheless, interest in the use of steam in road transportation continued to capture the imagination and in 1835 the London and Birmingham Steam Carriage Company was formed, following the successful patenting of a steam carriage by Dr William Church of Birmingham. The account in Langford’s seems to describe an early outing of his patent – very likely the one in the picture at the top of the page. It must have caused some excitement in the town and I wonder what the Brums thought of it as it trundled along.

Langford’s A Century of Birmingham Life, 1741-1841 was published in two volumes in 1868, and there should be a copy available in the Local History section of the Library of Birmingham. This is taken from volume II.

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Preparations for an epidemic

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Cholera swept across the globe from 1829, perhaps beginning in China and causing tens upon thousands of deaths on its route. It reached Britain in October of 1831, generally believed to have arrived on a ship which docked in Sunderland. One of the first tragic victims there was 12 year old Isabella Hazard who lived near the docks. After attending church twice on Sunday she fell ill and died the following day. The government responded quickly, introducing legislation mandating that all civic authorities must institute a board of health and take immediate preventative action. There was still little understanding of the transmission of disease at that time, general theory was focussed on ideas of ‘miasma’, the spread of disease through bad atmosphere. The cholera epidemic was a global disaster and in Britain more than thirty thousand died. This was not as lethal as other fatal diseases of the day, particularly TB, but nevertheless it was a dreadful event that caused untold misery and suffering.

Birmingham was a notable exception. There was one death attributed to cholera, in July 1832, but otherwise the town remained completely free of the terrible impact of the disease.  Professor Ian Cawood of Newman College University and the late, brilliant Dr. Chris Upton, suggested that the attitude of the  Board of Health established in Birmingham in 1831 was a significant factor in that prevention, as it insisted on a programme of cleansing the town and creating a healthy environment. This was perhaps in line with the prevalent thinking on ‘miasma’. The minutes of the Birmingham Street Commissioners includes an entry for a special meeting held on November 7th, 1831. This really shows that the town administration was fully committed to working cooperatively in deflecting cholera and the success of the programme is remarkable.

The following minutes are taken from the records of Birmingham’s Street Commissioners, held by Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography at the Library of Birmingham,  this volume reference MS 2818/1/1/6 Please support our local archives and heritage which are under constant threat of funding cuts from the local authority. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for ever.

On November 5th, 1831,  special meeting was held at Birmingham’s Public Office ‘for the purpose of considering what steps it may be proper to take in reference to the statement which appeared in the London papers of today, announcing the appearance of cholera in London.’ Birmingham was far from the ports, but with the ever improving transport system, the coming of the railways and the masses of bodies travelling to the town for work,  the disaster that had recently struck Russia and other parts of the continent, must have appeared imminent. Action was urgent. It was decided to form a committee – this was in advance of a government mandate requiring the establishment of Boards of Health – which would include representatives from the General Hospital as well as administrative officials and ‘clergy of all denominations’.  High Bailiff Oliver Mason presided over the committee and coordinated with the Street Commissioners and Guardians of the Poor to ensure that all recommendations of the new committee were carried out. At a meeting of the Street Commissioners held two days later, the extent of the programme was presented.

  • The Commissioners were instructed to clean all the town sewers and ensure that streets were swept and cleansed thoroughly; in response to the instruction they  ordered the Paving Committee to open and clean all the sewers and drains in the town and to employ as many extra hands as would be necessary to ensure that the roads were kept clean; special attention was called to the cleansing of courts and small passages and ‘the neighbourhoods of the houses in the lower classes’. John Dester, the town’s chief sweeper, received instruction to ensure that all of the town’s occupants swept their portion of the footpath every day
  • The Overseers of the Poor were responsible for ensuring that the homes of the poor under their responsibility were cleansed and whitewashed and ‘proprietors of small houses be respectfully and earnestly requested’ to take similar precautions in their own properties. All with ‘as little delay as possible’

These procedures, which included the whole community of the town, were really very advanced, particularly in the attention given to the sewers. It would have placed a strain on local services and inculcated the sort of expense that was usually baulked in those straitened times. But in the face of an impending crisis, the whole town came together, and it was this early ‘community spirit’ combined with level heads and rational organisation that helped to save Birmingham from the cholera.

Law Makers, Law Breakers

Although Birmingham was incorporated in 1838, until 1851 the majority of the management of the fabric of the town still fell under the control of the self-elected Street Commissioners. Over the course of some 80 years they oversaw the transformation of the town from a few puddled streets into a thriving commercial centre. They held administrative responsibilities not dissimilar to our current council, including paving, draining, lighting but also street cleansing, licensing of cabs, managing the markets and filling in potholes. They also had to oversee some seismic changes, particularly the coming of the railways. Overall, reading through the minute books of the Commissioners, there is an impression of a pretty impressive system. However, just like today, the management of a large and dynamic infrastructure came with many difficulties and the Commissioners came under fire, particularly over issues of drainage and smoke pollution. In the letter below, taken from the Birmingham Journal of September 24th, 1842, a local resident is complaining about something which must have been quite an issue to those living and working nearby, that is the smells of managing Birmingham.

Law Makers, Law Breakers,

Sir,- if I mistake not, our commissioners have made a bye law to prevent persons removing manure &c. between a certain hour in the morning and a stated time at night. Now, at their own premises in Shadwell-street, manure is often removed during the day, causing such a stench as cannot be conceived, far different to stable manure generally.  In fact, it is quite a nuisance.
Yours respectfully,
Truth.
Birmingham, September 17th, 1842

From rumour to riot

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Rioters attacking firemen in the Bull Ring

In the wet and stormy summer of 1839, Birmingham was in turmoil. There was a strong Chartist presence in the town, holding meetings in the Bull Ring twice a day promoting the ideal of universal suffrage to large crowds. It was the newly established town council which had the responsibility of policing the tensions, a difficult task given that the Churchwardens had taken up a legal challenge against the legitimacy of the council. They refused to hand over any of the rate money to the council, leaving them hamstrung and unable to properly suppress the growing unrest. In consequence the town’s first mayor, William Scholefield, decided to approach the Home Secretary for support. A body of Metropolitan Police had been dispatched, arriving in Birmingham on July 4th and subsequently being subjected to a severe beating as they attempted to break up a meeting. Two of the London police were stabbed, although they did make a recovery at the General Hospital. In consequence of this a new, bitter antagonism grew between the Brums, the alien police force and the town council who had called them in. Across the course of several days the Metropolitan officers exacted their response, operating a random stop and search policy and confiscating any tools that might be deemed as offensive weapons. In an artisan town where men relied on their tools to earn a living this act only added to the pervasive tensions. The riot act was put in place, but few observed the magistrates’ ban on assembling in public places. On July 15th a notorious riot took place in the Bull Ring, a number of shops were razed, firemen were attacked and some local families were forced to clamber down from upstairs windows as Birmingham burned. The episode caused a good deal of national scandal, the young Queen Victoria summoned a meeting with Prime Minister Melbourne and  wrote of her concerns  in her diary.

The case against the arrested rioters reached the Warwick Assizes in September, during which three men were found guilty of the capital offence of pulling down property. The following is the witness statement of Edward Savage, a shoe maker of Bow Street (near Horsefair). This is a useful statement as, if accurate, really reveals just how the riot of July 15th began. The Lovett and Collins mentioned in the transcript were William Lovett of the London Working Men’s Association and John Collins, a journeyman pen maker from Birmingham who was a leading Chartist. The two had been arrested and imprisoned in Warwick gaol for penning and publicly posting an objection to the behaviour of the London police. The news of their bail on the 15th had clearly reached Birmingham.

Edward Savage, a shoe-maker, Bow Street:- I left work about seven o’clock on the night of the 15th of July, and went with a few neighbours to the meeting at Holloway-head. There were some hundreds there. We came from Holloway-head down Exeter Row, where Wilkes directed the mob to go down Smallbrook Street, down Digbeth to the Warwick Road to meet Lovett and Collins. I and my companions saw two policemen endeavour to take a man into custody. We afterwards followed the crowd to Camp-hill, and the man, who was not taken, told the people there assembled how he had been treated by the police. When the man told the mob what had happened, some of them said they would go and ‘hammer’ the police. Two hundred, I should think, went back towards the Bull Ring.

Expenses of the Watch: 1848

At a general meeting of the Town Council held on February 1st, 1848, the Watch Committee presented the following account of their annual expenses from the previous year. At the opening of the report there was also a table showing the current ‘strength of the police force’, according to rank. The numbers presented were:

69 first class officers
69 second class officers
69 third class officers
61 fourth class officers
9 preparatory officers
5 detectives

The committee also confirmed that ‘the station and section houses are in good condition’.

There are lots of interesting expenses on the list, maybe we shouldn’t read too much into the Chief Superintendent’s ‘incidental expenses’ and the greatest expenditure appears to be on clothing and stationery. One woman appears on the list. Although it is not known why Mrs. Ford was left in charge of a female prisoner, but she appears to have been paid quite well for her trouble. Also on the list is a payment to cover damages to a ‘car’. This may have been a cab.

The table has been drawn up from original material taken from the Town Council minute books, which can be viewed at the Library of Birmingham, Archives, Heritage & Photography.  The staff are very helpful & infinitely knowledgeable. And of course the minutes in their original form are available to view free of charge. Because of recent cuts to this important service, visits are by prior appointment only. But do go and look at them, they’re fascinating. Reference number for this volume is BCC1/AA/1/1/2

I hope the format is easy to read. Payments are written in the form £,s,d (pounds, shillings & pence)

Payee Service/goods Payment (pounds, shillings & pence)
John Tonks Printing £20,,14,,0
Hunt & Sons Printing £18,,1,,0
Watts & Williams Surgeons 7s, 6d
J.W. Davies Surgeon 5s,, 0d
J.V. Solomon Surgeon £ 3,,10,,0
Dolans & Co. Clothing £194,,0,, 6
Thomas Evans Boots £153,,10,,0
W. & G. Ashford Stocks 18s,, 0d
Pashby & Plevins Repairs £11,,15,,9
Smith & Hawkes Repairs £1,,14,, 6
B. Burgess Repairs 7s,, 2d
Chief Superintendent ‘Incidental expenses’ £13,,1,,5
Inspector Glossop ‘Incidental expenses’ £1,,17,,3
W. E. Bayldon Apprehending a prisoner £  3,,8,,0
Mrs Ford Taking charge of a female prisoner 13s,,6d
Dawson & Son Printing &c. £19,,10,,0
Mr. Talbut Repairing locks 12s,,7d
Mr. Farmer Repairs 12s,,6d
J.E. Hornblower Preparing plans in support of an indictment £2,,2,,0
Superintendent Roberts Expenses in endeavouring to apprehend a prisoner £1,,15,,0
Allen & Son Stationery &c. £10,,12,,6
J.W. Showell Stationery &c. £4,,9,,9
John Holt Brushes &c. £1,,6,,6
Mr. Parkes Damage done to a car by a prisoner in custody of police £1,,6,,6
D. R. Hill Plans, specifications and estimate of cost of new police station £21,,0,,0

Soup for the poor

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The food bank is rapidly becoming a vital addition to local communities across twenty-first century Britain. In the nineteenth century, soup shops played an equally important role in the rapidly expanding towns that had been spawned by the Industrial Revolution. Back then, people in need were dependent upon the parish, which, under an act that had been passed in the time of Elizabeth I,  had a legal obligation to care for its poor. Everyone in the parish contributed to a poor rate, which was distributed to those deemed to be in need and worthy of assistance. In times of extreme economic distress communities often took further action and those who had the means would provide blankets and set up soup shops as large sections of local society struggled to survive on the few shillings a week from the poor fund.  The following is taken from the very first edition of The Birmingham Inspector,  a short lived newspaper published in 1817. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 would bring in the workhouse system that we tend to associate with Victorian poverty (although Birmingham was a slightly different case), but prior to that the precarious lives of the indigent poor could often be dependent on the provision of cheap soup. This notion of a nutritious and cheap ration of food had come from the continent at the beginning of the century, the brain child of Count Rumford, an advisor to the Bavarian monarchy and possibly the founder of soup kitchens. The suggestion presented by the newspaper is for the setting up of a soup shop in Birmingham.

The Inspector article begins by first decrying the national obsession with eating meat and suggests that it will therefore be fortunate, both as respect to the finances and the health of the community, if the expedients of a hard time should render a simpler diet habitual and that the consumption of meat should be reduced to its proper and moderate degree. The article then moves on to extol the virtues of soup, as first presented by Rumford:

The action of water in the preparation of food is perhaps not sufficiently known, or not considered. It was early observed by Count Rumford that the quantity of solid food necessary to form soup, amply nutritious, was so very small as to excite astonishment, how a person could possibly exist upon it…this is effected by the long-continued application of gentle heat to a mixture of water and vegetable matter; as barley-meal, oatmeal or potatoes. 

The economy of this method of food preparation was further ‘scientifically’ explained in such a way that it made soup sound like some new-fangled invention of the Industrial Revolution, rather than a simple method of cooking that has been around, probably forever!

The fairinaceous and gelatinous particles thus become completely suspended and diffused through the water, and when received into the stomach, draw it, as it were, with themselves, into a course of decomposition and consequent digestion. 

The best and most economical recipe to ensure maximum nutrition at minimum cost should be,

One pound of solid matter, in the form of grain or meal, would probably be  amply sufficient to thicken a gallon of water; or twenty ounces if a large proportion of potatoes are to be used. These proportions should be considered…as the basis of this soup, which ought to be kept several hours in a state of simmering, not boiling; the principal intention of other additions is to give flavour. The use of potatoes is strongly recommended as highly nutritious and greatly reducing the expense, they should be reduced in boiling to an uniform pulp. 

The addition of other vegetables to this most basic of soup were presented only as flavourings and these should be of the finest and strongest flavour, such as celery, onions, turnip and carrot &c., all cut into small and thin slices; herbs &c….and the whole, if well seasoned with salt and pepper will absolutely not require the addition of meat, either in point of nutriment, flavour or solidity. 

The writer of the article concludes by stating that the foregoing hints have not been thrown out at random: they have been verified by actual experiment and once more congratulates the name of Rumford a name which, after all the ridicule which is affected to be cast upon it, stands foremost in the list of those who have soberly and effectually exerted themselves to remedy the evils which the madness and folly of the rich and the great, in all countries, bring down upon the poor and lowly.