2nd May 2023
Southwood Smith’s 1847 Address to the Working Classes
The artificial distinctions by which the people of a country are divided into different classes have no relation to the capacities and endowments of our common nature. No class is higher or better than another in the sense of having more or different sentient, intellectual, moral, and religious faculties. Every property by which the human being is distinguished from the other creatures of the earth is possessed alike by rich and poor. Wealth can give to the rich man no additional powers of this kind, nor can poverty deprive the poor man of one of them. Before these glorious gifts with which our common nature is endowed, with which all human beings without distinction are enriched, and which can be neither added to nor taken away, the little distinctions of man’s creation sink into absolute insignificance.
It is the universal possession of these noble faculties by the human race that makes the gift of human life alike a boon to all. It is the exercise of these noble faculties on objects appropriate to them, and worthy of them, that makes life a boon. It is because these faculties, when duly exercised and properly directed, strengthen and enlarge with time, that the value of life increases with its duration. In the mere possession of the full number of the years that make up the natural term of life there is a larger and higher boon than is apparent at first view. What the natural term of human life may be is indeed altogether unknown; because, although one of the characteristics by which man is distinguished from other animals is, that he is capable of understanding the conditions of his existence, and of exerting, within a certain limit, a control over them, so as to be able materially to shorten or to prolong the actual duration of his life,—yet these conditions have hitherto been so little regarded that there is not a single example on record of a community in which the conditions favourable to life have been present and constant, and in which the conditions unfavourable to it have been excluded, in as complete a degree as is obviously practicable. History is full of instances in which the successive generations of a people have been swept away with extraordinary rapidity; but on no page is there to be found the notice of a single nation, in ancient or modern times, the great mass of the population of which has attained a higher longevity; yet it is certain that a degree of longevity never yet witnessed has always been attainable, because such longevity depends on conditions which are now known—conditions entirely within human control.
I have said that there is involved in the mere length of life a larger and higher boon than is apparent without reflection. First, because length of life is in general a tolerably accurate measure of the amount of health, without a good share of which life is comparatively worthless. The instances are rare in which a person attains to old age who has not enjoyed at least a moderate share of daily health and vigour.
Secondly, because length of life is a perfectly accurate measure of the amount of enjoyment. Long life is incompatible with a condition of constant privation and wretchedness. It is one of the beneficences of the constitution of our nature that when the balance of happiness is against us, a limit is fixed to our misery by its rapid termination in the insensibility of death. In the very brevity of its existence, therefore, a human being indicates his own history for evil; the shortness of his life is the sure and correct index of the amount of his suffering, physical and mental: it is the result, the sum-total, the aggregate expression, of the ills endured.
Thirdly, because length of life is the protraction of that portion of life, and only of that portion of it, in which the human being is capable of the greatest degree of usefulness. I have elsewhere shown that every year by which the term of human life is extended is really added to the period of mature age; the period when the organs of the body have attained their full growth and put forth their full strength; when the physical organisation has acquired its utmost perfection; when the senses, the feelings, the emotions, the passions, the affections are in the highest degree acute, intense, and varied; when the intellectual faculties, completely unfolded and developed, carry on their operations with the greatest vigour, soundness, and continuity: in a word, when the individual is capable of communicating, as well as of receiving, the largest amount of the highest kind of happiness.
These considerations give peculiar interest to the results of the inquiries recently made into the actual duration of life at the present time in our cities, towns, and villages. From these inquiries it appears not only that the rate of mortality in the whole of England at the present day is deplorably high, but that there is an extraordinary excess of mortality over and above what is natural, supposing the term at present attainable to be the natural term of human life. The statement of this excess presents to the mind an appalling picture. From accurate calculations, based on the observation of carefully recorded facts, it is rendered certain that the annual slaughter in England alone by causes that are preventible, by causes that produce only one disease—namely, typhus fever—is more than double the loss sustained by the allied armies in the battle of Waterloo; that 136 persons perish every day in England alone whose lives might be saved; that in one single city—namely, Manchester—thirteen thousand three hundred and sixty-two children have perished in seven years over and above the mortality natural to mankind.
It appears, moreover, that the field in which this annual slaughter takes place is always and everywhere the locality in which you reside, and that it is you and your wives and children who are the victims. In some instances in the streets, courts, and alleys in which you live, the mortality which afflicts you is nearly double, and in others it is quite double, that of the inhabitants of other streets in the same district, and in adjoining districts. While the average age at death of the gentry and of professional persons and their families is forty-four, the average age at death attained by you and your families in many instances is only twenty-two, just one-half,—that is to say, comparing your condition with that of the professional persons, you and your families are deprived of one-half of your natural term of life.
Though the causes by which you and your children are thus immolated are well known; though they have been constantly proclaimed to the public and the Government for nearly ten years past; though their truth is universally admitted; and though it is further admitted that the causes in question are removable,—yet not only has nothing whatever been done to remove them, but their operation during this very year has been far more fatal than at any period since we have had the means of making accurate observations on the subject. Thus we are informed by the Registrar-General, that in the summer quarter of the present year Ten Thousand Lives have been destroyed, in a part only of England, by causes which there is every reason to believe may be removed; that in the succeeding quarter—namely, the quarter ending the 30th of September—the number of deaths exceeded the number in the corresponding quarter of last year by Fifteen Thousand Two Hundred and Twenty-seven; that is to say, in the very last quarter upwards of 15,000 persons perished, in a part only of England, beyond the mortality of the corresponding quarter of last year.
From this same report it appears, further, that in many of our large towns and populous districts—that is, in the places in which you in great numbers carry on your daily toil—the mortality has nearly doubled; in some it has quite doubled, and in others it has actually more than doubled; that this is the case among other places in Sheffield and Birmingham; that in Sheffield, for example, the number of deaths in the last quarter are double those in the corresponding quarter of last year and 149 over; while in Birmingham they are double and 239 over.
“The causes of this high mortality,” says the Registrar-General, “have been traced to crowded lodgings, dirty dwellings, personal uncleanliness, and the concentration of unhealthy emanations from narrow streets without fresh air, water, or sewerage.”
We are further told by the Registrar-General that “the returns of the past quarter prove that nothing effectual has been done to put a stop to the disease, suffering, and death in which so many thousands perish; that the improvements, chiefly of a showy, superficial, outside character, have not reached the homes and habits of the people; and that the consequence is that thousands, not only of the children, but of the men and women themselves, perish of the diseases formerly so fatal, for the same reason, in barracks, camps, gaols, and ships.”
For every one of the lives of these 15,000 persons who have thus perished during the last quarter, and who might have been saved by human agency, those are responsible whose proper office it is to interfere and endeavour to stay the calamity—who have the power to save, but who will not use it. But their apathy is an additional reason why you should rouse yourselves, and show that you will submit to this dreadful state of things no longer. Let a voice come from your streets, lanes, alleys, courts, workshops, and houses that shall startle the ear of the public and command the attention of the Legislature. The time is auspicious for the effort; it is a case in which it is right that you should take a part, in which you are bound to take a part, in which your own interests and the wellbeing of those most dear to you require you to take a part. The Government is disposed to espouse your cause; but narrow, selfish, short-sighted interests will be banded against you. Petition both Houses of Parliament. Call upon the instructed and benevolent men in the legislative body to sustain your just claim to protection and assistance. Petition Parliament to give you sewers; petition Parliament to secure to you constant and abundant supplies of water—supplies adequate to the unintermitting and effectual cleansing both of your sewers and streets; petition Parliament to remove—for it is in the power of Parliament universally and completely to remove—the sources of poison that surround your dwellings, and that carry disease, suffering, and death into your homes. Tell them of the parish of St Margaret, in Leicester, with a population of 22,000 persons, almost all of whom are artisans, and where the average age of death in the whole parish was during the year 1846 only eighteen years; tell them that on taking the ages of death in the different streets in this parish, it was found that in those streets that were drained (and there was not a single street in the place properly drained) the average age of death was twenty-three and a-half years; that in the streets that were partially drained it was seventeen and a-half years; while in the streets that were entirely undrained it was only thirteen and a-half years.
You cannot disclose to them the suffering you have endured on your beds of sickness, and by which your wives and children have been hurried to their early graves—there is no column in the tables of the Registrar-General which can show that; but you can tell them that you know, and you can remind them that they admit, that by proper sanitary regulations the same duration of life may be extended to you and your families that is at present enjoyed by professional persons, and that it is possible to obtain for the whole of a town population at least such an average duration of life as is already experienced in some parts of it. In your workshops, in your clubs, in your institutes, obtain signatures to your petitions: get every labourer, every artisan, every tradesman whom you can influence, to sign petitions. Other things must also be done before your condition can be rendered prosperous; but this must precede every real improvement: the sources of the poison that infects the atmosphere you breathe must be dried up before you can be healthy, and uncleanliness must be removed from the exterior of your dwellings before you can find or make a Home.—I am your friend and servant,
1st January 1847.