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Plight of the Unemployed 1816
What was called the revulsion from war to peace in 1815 had created universal distress among the producers in the British Islands. Barns were full, warehouses were weighed down with all manner of productions, and prices fell much below the cost at which articles could be produced. Farm servants were dismissed, and manufacturers were obliged to discharge their hands by hundreds. The distress among all workpeople became so great, that the upper and wealthy classes became alarmed, foreseeing that the support of the hundreds and thousands unemployed must ultimately fall upon them.
A great meeting was 122 held in the City of London Tavern to consider the cause of and remedy for this distress. The meeting was presided over by the Duke of York, and attended by all the prominent men of the day. That morning I was engaged to breakfast with the Bishop of Norwich. As he could not attend the meeting, [he requested me] to subscribe ten pounds for him.
All at the meeting appeared at a loss to account for such severe distress. A committee of leading statesmen, political economists and practical men of business was appointed, its chairman the Archbishop of Canterbury, to investigate this difficult subject. Upon this committee my name appeared – by whom proposed 123 and seconded I never knew.
I attended the committee meeting next day and listened to speech after speech, but amounting to nothing relevant to the subject. At length, the Chairman requested that I speak. 124 I had to force myself to overcome my diffidence and mistrust of my own powers. I said that the cause of the distress seemed to me to be the new extraordinary changes during so long a war, when men and materials had been in such urgent demand, to support the waste of our armies and navies upon so extensive a scale for quarter of a century. This gave great encouragement to new mechanical inventions and chemical discoveries to supersede manual labour in supplying the innumerable materials for war. The war was a most extravagant customer to farmers, manufacturers and other producers of wealth, and many became very wealthy.
On the day peace was signed, this great customer died, and prices fell as the demand diminished. The barns were full, the warehouses loaded; this very superabundance of wealth was the sole cause of the existing distress. Burn the stock in the farmyards and warehouses, and prosperity would immediately recommence. The want of demand compelled master producers to diminish their productions and the cost of producing. Every economy was resorted to, and men being more expensive, they were discharged, and machines made to supersede them. The numbers unemployed were increased by the discharge of men from the army and navy.
125 Mr Colquhoun, the political economist, asked how much I thought the new mechanical and chemical powers now superseded manual labour. The population of the British Isles was about seventeen millions. [About] one fourth were producers: the wealth of Great Britain and Ireland was produced by their manual labour, assisted by mechanical and chemical power. I [replied that] it must now exceed. the whole amount of manual producing power. Many exclaimed [that] it was utterly impossible. I said that the operations of about two thousand persons at New Lanark now completed as much work as sixty years before would have required the entire working population of Scotland.
The Archbishop [asked] what was the remedy for the distress. I said [that] 126 I thought I perceived the remedy, and offered to prepare a report giving my views. The committee unanimously expressed a desire that I should do so.
A document presented to the Factory Committee of the House of Commons showed the number of spindles at work in all the cotton mills over the kingdom. This enabled me to estimate the amount of manual labour which [they] superseded – that of a population of eighty millions; 127 and with the wool, flax and silk manufactures, two hundred millions.
The government, especially the Whig interest and the political economists, became alarmed by the number of workpeople out of 128 employment and claiming their legal support from the nation. The political economists now conspired against the just, natural and legal rights of those who could not find employment and whose sufferings were extreme. They did not take into account that the wealth of the nation had increased in a much greater ratio than the poor’s rate. Their measures starved the weakest and best of the poor, and drove others to theft, murder, and the poor females to prostitution. Meanwhile, there was abundance of uncultivated land. The rapid accumulation of wealth created by the industry of the people, now made abject slaves to the new artificial powers, accumulated in the hands of capitalists who created none of it, and who misused all they acquired.
129 I was on intimate terms with each of the political economists, frequently breakfasting with them. I was most desirous to convince them that national education and employment could alone create a permanent rational, intelligent and wealthy population, and that this could be attained only by a scientific arrangement of the people, united in properly constructed villages of unity and co-operation. They, on the contrary, desired to convert me to their views of instructing the people without finding them national employment, and of a thorough system of individual competition. 130 The political economists advocated individualism and they succeeded in converting the government and the public.
131 By my own experience and reflection, I had ascertained that human nature is radically good, and is capable of being trained, educated , and placed from birth, that all ultimately must become united, good, wise, wealthy, and happy. And I felt that to attain this glorious result, the sacrifice of the character, fortune and life of an individual was not deserving a moment’s consideration. My decision was made to overcome all opposition and to succeed, or to die in the attempt.
Before the next meeting of the Archbishop’s committee, the government appointed a committee of forty members of the House of Commons, the “Sturges Bourne’s committee on the Poor Laws”. When I presented my report and explained the remedy I proposed, the Archbishop and the committee appeared at a loss. After [conferring with] the government party, the 132 Archbishop said: “Mr Owen – this committee is not prepared to consider a report so extensive in its recommendations, so new in principle and practice, and involving great national changes. We recommend you to present it to Mr Sturges Bourne’s Poor Law Committee.” I said I would do so.
Mr Brougham, afterwards Lord Chancellor, was a member of this committee, and through him I gave notice that I had a report to present, and that I was willing to be examined as a witness upon their bill. I attended in the morning of the day appointed. The members connected with the government had been acquainted by the Archbishop's committee with the outline of my report. When I entered the committee room, I found the forty members present. I was personally known to all of them. I opened out all my plans and documents on the table, making I have no doubt a formidable display. After I had waited some time [while] the leading members were in private conversation, the chairman requested me to withdraw into the next room [as] the members desired some private discussion.
I withdrew, and occupied 133 myself with writing, and was thus engaged the whole day, until Mr Brougham came to me and said –“Owen, we have been discussing whether you should be examined. and have come to no decision yet. The debate is adjourned until tomorrow morning, when you must again attend.” In the morning I attended and occupied myself as before. The whole day passed before Mr Brougham came to me and said –“Well, Owen, this is an extraordinary business. The committee has only just now decided, by a small majority, that you shall not be examined.” I said –“It is indeed strange, but of little consequence. I will find means to enable the public to learn my views.”
In a day or two I published in the daily newspapers an examination of myself, as I imagined the best informed of the committee would have made. Next I decided to call a public meeting in the City of London Tavern “to consider a plan to relieve the present distress, to remoralise the lower orders, reduce the poor's rate, and gradually abolish pauperism”.