[From Brown's Directory, 1881/2]

[Historical Chapter]

[Management of House of Industry]

Another point arising out of the rapid growth of Douglas was the increasing cost of the poor of the Island, and the growing inadequacy of the existing provisions for their relief. There has never been a poor law in the Island in the modern understanding of the term, and, since the absorption of the portion of the tithes anciently set aside for their maintenance, each parish voluntarily maintained its own poor, a proceeding rendered comparatively easy by the smallness of their number and their primitive habits. In the country districts, notwithstanding the increased cost of living, this is still done by the vicar and wardens out of the collections taken at the parish church, by means of legacies left for the purpose, and, when necessary, by voluntary contributions from the parishioners; and, so well is the work done usually, that few cases occur of neglect or unrelieved distress. But in the towns, and especially in the town of Douglas, the ancient machinery for the relief of their poor has been more severely tried, and at irregular intervals has been found very inadequate to its object. The existing arrangements for the relief of the poor of Douglas consist of, first, the House of Industry, established in 1834, for the reception of a certain number of the aged and infirm poor of the town, and for the distribution of outdoor relief. In addition to this, each religious denomination relieves to a greater or less extent its own poor members; and lastly, a certain amount of begging was permitted throughout the town and the adjoining country districts. Altogether, in ordinary times, the poor were fairly well provided for, and though there was undoubtedly a great amount of poverty and distress athong the lower classes, crowded closer and closer each year in the back streets and courts of the old town, there were no such extremes of destitution as are frequently met with in England, nor any known cases of death from want of the common necessaries of life. The House of Industry, the only institution of the kind in the Isle of Man, and the nearest approach to an English workhouse ever established in a Manx town, was founded by a donation of £500 out of the funds belonging to the minister and wardens of St. Matthew’s, Douglas, as trustees, for the poor of the town, and was vested in twenty-four trustees, who were also a committee of management; twelve of these trustees being the ministers and wardens of the various established churches in the town of Douglas, and the remaining twelve being elected from the body of subscribers to the funds of the institution of one pound and upwards, annually. This constitution thus placed the management and working of the institution entirely under the control of the clergy of the established church, and this preponderance of the church party was regarded by the Dissenters of Douglas as a real grievance, and led to their taking comparatively slight interest in it, and giving little towards its support. The contributions towards this noble institution, for noble it is in its aim and in its work, notwithstanding the one-sided character of its constitution, had from various causes fallen so low that, at a meeting of the Committee of Management, held on the 23rd of November, 1868, its position was painted in very gloomy colours by the High-Bailiff of Douglas, the chairman of the committee, and a poor-law was declared to be an absolute necessity unless the contributions to the funds of the institution were very greatly increased. These statements caused great excitement in the town, and on the 9th of December a great public meeting was held, presided over by the High-Bailiff (S. Harris, Esq.), at which a committee was appointed to canvass the town for additional subscriptions to the funds of the House of Industry so as to place them, if possible, in a more satisfactory condition, and remove the threatened danger of a compulsory poor-law. An attempt was also made at this meeting to carry a motion that this same town’s committee should negotiate w]th the trustees of the charity for the cancelling of that part of the Trust Deed by which the ministers and wardens of the churches of Douglas were ex-officio members of the Committee of Management, but this attempt to liberalise the constitution of the charity and remove the grievance which offended the Dissenters and prevented their heartily supporting it, was defeated by the clerical party, and the meeting adjourned for a fortnight amid great uproar and confusion. During the interval the town was filled with the angry controversy thus raised. All, except a very small minority, were opposed to the enactment of a poor-law, and were prepared to make sacrifices to ward it off; but here their unanimity ceased, and upon the other aspects of this question the town was divided into two parties bitterly opposed to each other. Of these, the most numerous and influential, was the church party, which, by the existing arrangements, possessed an irresistible influence in the management of the House of Industry, and were determined, voluntarily, to surrender none of their privileges or power; and the other, the Dissenting party, which contained in its ranks some of the most enlightened and liberal men in the Island, were equally determined to assert their right to an equal share in the control of the House of Industry and the distribution of the town charities. Upon the present occasion these opposing parties were represented by notable men, well known to the Insular community and thoroughly trusted and obeyed by their followers. The leaders of the Church party were the Rev. J. H. Gray, the incumbent of St. Barnabas, and G. W. Dumbell, Esq., banker. The leaders of the Liberal party were A. N. Laughton, Esq., of the Manx bar, and J. K. Greig, Esq., manager of the Bank of Mona. Animated by such strong party considerations, it was to be expected that the adjourned meeting, which was held on the 23rd, in the Victoria Hall. under the presidency of the High.Bailiff, would be as unsatisfactory and fruitless as the former meeting. Notwithstanding all the exertions of the chairman to preserve order and secure a hearing for the different speakers, the meeting was a noisy and disorderly one, the speakers, especially those belonging to the dominant party, repeatedly indulging in unseemly personalities, and it was at last adjourned a second time, at a late hour, to the 30th instant. The interval between the two meetings was occupied by both parties in making preparations for the final conflict, and at the appointed time the great hall was crowded with an eager and excited audience. This meeting was mainly occupied by the speech of Mr Laughton on the side of the Liberal party. During his speech Mr Laughton read a case which had been prepared for the opinion of counsel on the legal position of the House of Industry Trust Deed. The counsel to whom the case was submitted were (Messrs J. Gell, Insular Attorney-General, and R. Sherwood, a leading member of the Manx bar). Both expressed a decided opinion that the application of. the funds of the Douglas poor to the purposes expressed in the Trust Deed was illegal, and that the trustees of the poor’s fund could take proceedings in the Deemster’s Court, or in The Court of Chancery, to re-enter upon the possession of the property. The reading of this case, with its attached opinion, produced a great impression; and, though it irritated the adverse party for the moment, no doubt tended to make them more willing to entertain the compromise afterward agreed to. But the greater part of Mr Laughton’s address was taken up with futile attempts to read an anonymous letter which had been sent by one of the ex-officio members of the committee of the House of Industry to the managers of the City of Glasgow Bank (of which the Bank of Mona was a branch), with the intention of influencing them against their subordinate, Mr Greig. But as often as he tried to read this letter he was interrupted, and his voice drowned by the most uproarious cries from the party of the writer, who was on the platform during a part of the proceedings, followed by counter cries from the opposite party. Failing to obtain order for Mr Laughton to read this letter, the chairman himself attempted to read it, but with no greater success; and it was then handed to the reporters to publish. Finding it impossible to obtain a fair hearing for Mr Laughton. and the meeting becoming more and more ungovernable, the chairman abruptly brought it to a close and left the room in the midst of a tremendous uproar. Having thus failed to obtain that share in the management of a charity which they were forced to support, which they regarded as their right, the Liberal party, early in the ensuing spring, presented a memorial to the Lieut..Governor, in which they asked him to use his authority to place the management of the House of Industry on a satisfactory footing. In his answer to this memorial his Excellency declined to interpose in the dispute, on the ground that the House of Industry was a private institution supported by voluntary contributions, and that, therefore, he had no power or right to interfere in its internal arrangements. On the 7th of April, 1869, the annual meeting of the friends and subscribers to the charity was held, when it was decided to make no radical changes, but to continue to work under the existing constitution. Thus, for a time, ended this great dispute. The dominant clerical party had finally refused the concessions demanded by the Dissenting party as the price of its cordial support; and the Governor, when appealed to, had with equal positiveness declined to intermeddle. Nothing further could be done at present, and so, in view of the approaching "season," which annually absorbs all the time and energies of the people of Douglas, the matter was suffered to rest. Apparently, the Church party had gained a great victory. Subscriptions to the funds of the charity flowed in more freely than before, while they still retained all their ancient supremacy in the management of these funds; and they were satisfied. But, looked at calmly and in the light of later events, it is impossible not to feel regret that so fair an opportunity of doing an act of justice and of good policy was then lost. It is impossible, too, to assert justly, that this charity is in reality a Church institution, and even if in its origin it ware such, since the Church party need and ask the help of the Dissenters, it would have been an act of wisdom to have gracefully yielded to them a fair representation on the Committee of Management. As it was, the treatment which their demands have uniformly received at the hands of the ruling party has been such as to leave behind a rankling feeling of injustice which ultimately led to further troubles, the end of which has not yet been reached. A characteristic sequel to this injurious dispute was afforded by the anonymous letter which Mr Laughton endeavoured so hard to read at the great meeting of the 23rd of December. An ex-officio member of the committee of management, a Mr Moore, of Harris-terrace, afterwards acknowledged to have written it, and agreed to apologise for his indiscretion, and to pay Mr Greig’s legal costs to prevent legal proceedings.



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