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Poor Law Amendment Act - The petition of Thomas Coombs

The petition of Thomas Coombs, Humbly showeth, - That your petitioner is a poor man with a wife and nine children, seven of whom are under sixteen years of age, and one only seven months old. His occupation is that of a labourer, chiefly digging clay for bricks, by which, working for Mr. Miall, one of the guardians of the Portsca Island union, he earned last summer 12s. a-week. But for fifteen weeks previous to the calamity which occasions his addressing your Right Honourable House he could not get any work whatever.

It is obvious that your petitioner could not, even when in constant work, support so large a family as is as it ought to be supported; and also that his wife could not, consistently with the discharge of her duties as a mother, earn anything in addition to that earned by him. His eldest child, a girl, stitches stays at seven farthings per pair, by which she cannot earn more than 1s. 9d. a-week. It may, perhaps, be asked why, if the remuneration be so low, the work is accepted? The answer is, the poor have no alternative but to accept whatever an employer may offer them, or starve. The Legislature has put the power of starving them into the hands of the administrators of the poor law, and they, as your petitioner is about to show, are ready to exercise it.

Having vainly attempted to keep himself and family by feeding on the very coarsest food, - namely, the refuse potatoes usually given to hogs, and sold for just half the price of those commonly eaten by man (in proof of which he may just state, that one day on his going to buy some the seller exclaimed to a bystander, ''That man is going to fatten his children on my hog potatoes ''), - he applied for relief to the guardians of Westbourne, of which union he is an acknowledged pauper, but was refused,-the board telling him that Portsea union was bound to keep him twenty-one days, and then send him home, when he would be placed in the workhouse. He therefore applied to the guardians of the Portsea Island union, stating to them the direction be had received from those of Westbourne; when he was refused by them also, and told, on asking how he was to get his children to Westbourne, that he might carry them on his back. Your petitioner believes that the refusal of his application by one, and probably by both of these boards, is contrary to law, or at least not enjoined by it; but, as the Legislature has refused to the poor an appeal from their oppressors, their right to relief when in distress, or claim for redress when wronged, is to all practical purposes a nullity.

Thus rejected and spurned as an outcast from society, your petitioner went about again seeking for work, till nature could endure no more. On the last day of January he dropped from the effects of want, and lay for some time - he knows not how long - on the snow. On coming to himself, after a little while, he staggered home, but immediately became so alarmingly ill that his life was despaired of.

Having thus reached that degree of suffering which the assistant commissioner for Hampshire gives as the description of destitution, namely, "being ready to drop in the street," and thus become qualified in the opinion of the Portsea board for relief, he had for his family 4s. and three gallons of bread weekly, and for himself medical relief and such nourishment as the surgeon who attended him prescribed. And when he had recovered sufficiently to bear the journey, he was, with his family, removed to Westbourne workhouse, where they were first locked up in cold damp rooms, as if they had been guilty of some crime, and afterwards separated from each other with as little regard to their natural rights or feelings as if they had been so many cattle. Distressed as your petitioner and his wife and children had previously been, they had hitherto had the solace of each other's society, and the alleviation which mutual love, when it can but pity, can give. But now, though their bodily wants might perhaps have been less scantily supplied than they had been, those feelings with which God has alike endued the peer and the peasant were so outraged by this separation of the husband from the wife, and the parents from the children, that they could not endure it, and accordingly the next day left the house, preferring, if it must be so, to pine away from starvation rather than from a broken heart. What the issue may be your petitioner knows not. He obtained work from a contractor for a new church, but was obliged to give it up from weakness. Till his starvation he was a strong and healthy man; now he is enfeebled, perhaps for life; a victim to oppression which defrauds and destroys the poor to enrich the wealthy.

Your petitioner, with the humility which becomes a subject addressing the Legislature, but with the indignation which a loyal, honest, and Industrious man may, though poor, be excused from feeling on the remembrance of wrongs so wantonly, though legally, inflicted, prays that protection may be co-extensive with allegiance, and therefore that such an alteration may be made in the poor law as may enable a poor man to obtain relief in necessity, or redress for the refusal of it. Had he died, the guardians would, he presumes, have been indictable (not that he supposes they would have been indicted) for manslaughter. He is led to this conclusion by supposing that the law assigns the duty of providing for the destitute to those whom it constitutes and designates their guardians; and hearing that a father, the legal guardian of his children, was lately indicted for "killing and slaying his son, by refusing to supply him with the necessaries of life." But the punishment of the manslayer, how salutary so ever as an example to society, is no compensation to the victim for his death, or to his family for their loss. Your petitioner therefore further prays, that the redress he asks for may be attainable before matters have proceeded to the last extremity, and comprise a reparation to the injured as well as the punishment of the offender. And your petitioner, as in duty bound, shall ever pray.

The mark + of THOMAS COOMBS.
Witness to the petitioner's signature, EDMUND DEWDNEY,
Incumbent of St. John's Chapel, Portsea.

LORD BROUGHAM. - This poor man appears to have a very great gift of composition, and it is extraordinary such a person should not be able to obtain better employment than that of a day labourer at a few shillings per week,

EARL STANHOPE. - The poor man cannot write; he has only put his mark to the petition.

LORD BROUGHAM.-If it is signed by a marksman, then blame cannot be imputed to him for the gross misstatements which are made in the petition both with respect to law and to fact; but if another person wrote the petition, then he certainly is most reprehensible for making such atrocious misrepresentations. I shall be perfectly ready to demonstrate both the assertions I have made; namely,-that the petitioner misstates law, and misstates facts also.

EARL STANHOPE. - Has the Noble and Learned Lord ever heard of the case before?

LORD BROUGHAM. -No; but the statement, that the object of the poor law is to grind the faces of the poor for the benefit of the rich, is entirely new to me.

The Mirror of Parliament, Volume 4 By John Henry Barrow

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