by Henry S. Salt
One of the most remarkable signs of the inability of the upper classes to understand the true significance of the social question is to be seen in the “Missions” which are being established by several public schools in the poorest quarters of London and other cities. The authorities of these schools have apparently come to the praiseworthy conclusion that they ought to interest the minds of their pupils as much as possible in the lower classes, and the result has been the establishment of these “Missions,” of which the largest and most important is the “Eton Mission” in Hackney Wick. The object of these institutions is of course primarily the moral improvement of the schoolboys, by whose subscriptions they are supported, efforts being made to keep the boys acquainted with the condition of the district in which the “Mission” is situated, and occasionally to induce some of them to visit the place and take a personal interest in the people. A secondary object, indirectly aimed at, is the benefit of the poor people themselves.
Now, as regards the first of these objects, we may at once admit that the question whether the sons of aristocrats and plutocrats who support these “Missions” are likely to derive much moral good from them it themselves, is not one in which we are greatly interested. But we can remark, in passing, that it is hardly possible that boys who merely subscribe, or rather get their parents to subscribe for them, a small sum which will in no way affect their personal comfort, can be greatly influenced by the action. Boys are naturally thoughtless, and will never be much moved by the accounts of suffering, however harrowing, which they only hear through sermons and lectures. Personal visits are, of course, impossible, except in a very few cases; with the mass of the school the collection must soon sink into an ordinary periodical subscription, and the whole subject is voted a “bore.”
On the other hand, as regards the people of the district in which any such “Mission” is planted, it cannot be too often or too strongly stated that these charitable institutions, though they may alleviate the sufferings of individuals, tend inevitably to postpone the general and final emancipation of the poor. It seems at first sight ungracious to criticise and condemn what is doubtless a well-intentioned scheme; but it must in candour be said that far more harm than good is likely to result from such injudicious attempts to bridge over the gulf between class and class, without in the least understanding the nature or the cause of the gulf. The real healing of the wound is rendered more and more difficult by these half-remedies and quack-medicines, which only leave the sufferer in the same helpless condition in which they found him. The true issue is obscured by this mistaken doctrine of “Charity,” which makes those who give imagine that they have done their duty towards solving the great social problem, and inspires those who receive with a false sense of an obligation that does not exist. For if the authorities of England public schools are really desirous of enlightening their pupils on the subject of social inequality, why do they not invite them to consider what is the source from which their parents’ money is derived? Why not propose as a subject for a school essay the meaning of “having £5000 a year”? Why not bid the boys consider how it is that they and their parents are fed, clothed, and supported in life-long luxury, without being compelled to do a single stroke of work? That would be a far more instructive manner of arousing their pupils’ sympathy with the lower classes than the present method of asking them to subscribe ten shillings each, and then feel the proud consciousness of having done a charitable act. As has often been pointed out, Justice, and not Charity, is the one power that can satisfactorily deal with this great social question, but unfortunately our rich folk are far more inclined to the consideration of charity than of justice. The mischief of all such institutions as the “Eton Mission” is that they salve the conscience of the rich subscriber, and make him far less likely to give the question his full and earnest consideration; while on the other hand they stave off the just discontent of the poor and prevent their seeing the enormity of the robbery which is daily perpetrated on them.
If a number of school-boys, after plundering a poor man’s orchard and regaling themselves to repletion on his fruit, were to send him a rosy apple out of commiseration of his poverty and by way of moral discipline to themselves, we should probably remark that they were adding insult to injury. Yet it would be a tolerably correct illustration of what is now being done by the “Eton Mission” and similar public-school charities.
Published: Justice, January 17, 1885 - No. 53