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John Bone, "Tranquillity," and the Poor Laws

In late 1805 or perhaps early 1806, after what appears to be a long long series of unprofitable book- and print-selling enterprises, Hone entered into a partnership with the veteran reformer John Bone—a partnership that would dominate his professional life for the next several years, first in the "Tranquillity" project and later in a joint bookselling operation.

Little is known of Bone's early life, but it is clear that in the mid-1790s he was operating a small bookselling business at No. 8 Weston Street, Snow's Fields, Southwark, and that he was an active member—perhaps the founder—of the London Corresponding Society's twelfth division. It is equally clear that Bone was a prolific writer, a gifted intellectual, and by no means a party-line radical. In fact, Bone was one of two booksellers who were censured by the LCS for their refusal to sell Volney's Ruins and Paine's Age of Reason—works which attacked conventional religious belief.[1] In Bone's unpopular view, despite an acknowledged collusion between English ecclesiastical and political authority, radical scoffing at religious convention was inevitably counter-productive: it served primarily to enflame the enemies of reform and thus unnecessarily to draw attention and energy away from the social and political issues that ought properly to have been at the center of the reformers' agenda. The rift between Bone and his twelfth-division compatriots and the central organization of the LCS became so great in early 1795 that the division completely seceded from the umbrella radical organization (though they remained on friendly terms) and formed a new group called the London Reforming Society, for which Bone acted as Secretary. The LRS was a short-lived organization, at least as far as Bone was concerned, for later in 1795 he was once again active in the LCS, and by 1797 he was elected LCS Secretary and had expanded his bookselling and publishing activities in partnership with the elder Thomas Evans, an LCS operative (and, later, the energy behind the Spencean revival in 1814-17).[2] Together, Bone and Evans published and sold several key radical pamphlets, among them The Trial of John Binns, John Martin's Letter to the Honorable Thomas Erskine, and Paine's Agrarian Justice. In April 1798, Bone was arrested in a government crackdown on radical activity in which many LCS papers and documents were confiscated from his Southwark house. He languished in prison along with Benjamin Binns, Alexander Galloway, Colonel Despard, Evans, and other prominent radicals until the Habeas Corpus suspension act expired in 1801. After 1801, it seems likely that Bone spent some time on the continent, probably in the low countries and in France.[3] In late 1803 or early 1804, Bone returned to England and became deeply involved in a more mainstream political reform effort, this time with the aim of a complete overhaul of the British Poor Rates. It was in the pursuit of this object that Bone and Hone established the Tranquillity project early in 1806.[4]

The problem of poverty and the "pauper system" had for several years been at the forefront of domestic political debate; it was, as John Roach puts it, "the overmastering concern in men's minds between 1780 and 1830 . . . which men saw as the nerve centre of the whole social question."[5] It will be helpful therefore to linger here for a moment to get a clearer sense of just what ideas and ideologies were at stake in the Tranquillity scheme put forth by Bone and Hone.

In the late eighteenth century the so-called "Old Poor Laws" were still in effect throughout England. Devised over two centuries earlier during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the Old Poor Laws codified a system of rank and reciprocity that was the legacy of an even more ancient feudal society. In essence, they set responsibility for dealing with the problem of poverty at the level of the individual parish. The basic rationale seems to have been that local rather than national control would insure that even the most economically downtrodden persons were well cared for, since such persons were one's friends and neighbors. Clearly, the Old Poor Law system had developed with a kind of agrarian ideal in mind, and one can see it working in numerous aesthetic representations of the eighteenth-century country estate. The local peasantry provided the labor to work the fields and thus maintain the economic status of the estate, while in return their social, political, and spiritual well-being was tended to by the collective wisdom of a benignly patriarchal landlord and a pious and worthy parish priest. Of course, the conflicting intentions and conflicting cultures of the peasantry and the "ruling elite" assured that the system rarely worked so happily, and during the later decades of the eighteenth century, it was fast approaching a total collapse. A number of factors combined to precipitate the crisis, perhaps most prominently the shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy and the accompanying movement of persons out of the countryside (where, in theory, they would be looked after by the local parochial administration and landlord) and into the burgeoning new industrial centers. The inevitable result of this migration was the appearance in London and elsewhere of an unprecedented and utterly devastating form of urban poverty that quite simply overwhelmed the capacity of the local parishes' charitable efforts. The presence of such dire poverty generated the widespread concern for reform of the Poor Laws which were so self-evidently failing to sustain the general welfare.

The efforts undertaken to address the problem of poverty took several different shapes. Malthusian population theory, for instance, might well be seen as an effort to understand intellectually the root causes of the economic destitution that was so prevalent in England of the 1790s. (If it simultaneously allowed the privileged upper classes to absolve themselves of their responsibility for their less fortunate countrymen, well, so much the better.) Likewise, the famous Speenhamland system was an attempt to resolve regional inequities in the Poor Laws by applying a more or less fixed standard—the price of a loaf of bread—to the rates individual parishes would provide for their destitute constituents. But the Speenhamland system certainly did not solve the problem; in fact, it seems to have led to such troubling practices as expelling pregnant, indigent women from the parish so that their children would not become a drain on limited parochial funds. Finally, numerous "Friendly Societies" sprang up around the country throughout the eighteenth century, but, owing usually to problems in finanacial management and executive expertise, the successes of these organizations were rare and even then their effects were strictly local. In the early years of the nineteenth century, then, the problem of poverty seemed utterly intractible, and, what was more disturbing, after the French Revolution it also took on a menacingly political cast. One of the prime motivations for solving the problem was flatly political: it was felt, and not without cause, that large numbers of disaffected and hungry persons offered fertile ground in which revolutionary, democratic ideas might take root.

Undaunted by the sheer difficulty and complexity of the issue, Bone and Hone in 1806 took new premises in Albion Street, Blackfriars, and then published a short pamphlet announcing The Rules and Regulations of an Institution called Tranquillity.[6] Tranquillity was to operate something like a combination savings bank, employment agency, and annuity-pension plan. Members, after paying an initial five-pound fee to open an account, would continue to contribute, typically at the rate of two shillings per week. The Secretary of the organization—Hone—would keep careful track of all moneys received and would also calculate the annual interest of about 5%. Then, when a member was no longer able to work—at, say, 60 years of age—he would be entitled to receive an annuity, the amount of which would depend on the total amount contributed and the number of years the person had maintained his membership. Members of Tranquillity were entitled to a few other services as well: for instance, the rules provided for an automatic annuity to be paid to the widows of members, an employment registry for members who were out of work, and a kind of marriage bonus designed for younger members. To secure the financial workings of the whole enterprise, Bone and Hone enlisted several "Gentlemen of the first respectability and honor," including Sir Walter Stirling, to serve as trustees; and, by publishing these elaborate and specific "rules and regulations," they avoided the necessity of having frequent and expensive advisory committee meetings (a crippling problem for many "Friendly Societies").

Tranquillity seems, even today, like a most sensible operation, and indeed, Bone and Hone claim that it is so "eminently reasonable that there can be no real objection save in how most efficiently to put the plan into effect." John Venning, too, wrote to Hone to say that he held the "highest opinion of the system" and to suggest that "it does credit to those who are now labouring to do away the corrupted establishments and inefficient measures which have for such a length of time been borne for the maintenance and keep of the poor in this country."[7] (Venning is worried, however, that Hone might be spending too much time on altruistic ventures and neglecting his own fortunes—a criticism Hone would often hear from his friends.) On the whole, Tranquillity promised to fill a very great need in the economic lives of the "middling" classes who, in the early nineteenth century, did not have access to even the most basic of banking services.

A closer look at the Tranquillity scheme in its historical context also reveals something of the ideology that motivated its two principal founders. Perhaps the most evident aspect of the plan is that it is directed specifically at encouraging a kind of methodist thrift among the newly forming English middle class. Obviously, for persons whose employment was very unsteady or who had recently come into some grave economic adversity, even the rather moderate start-up fee and the two shilling per week contribution would have been prohibitive. The terminology of Patrick Colquhoun, a perceptive writer on the subject and a contemporary of Hone and Bone, might help to explain the point more clearly.[8] Colquhoun distinguishes between "poverty," which he sees as a positive condition because it motivates people to work industriously to overcome their economic wants, and "indigence," which which he sees as a negative condition—typically resulting from laziness, ill-health, or perhaps some personal economic catastrophe—that renders people incapable of maintaining themselves and can therefore lead them into crime. The Tranquillity plan would clearly have helped people in poverty to manage more effectively their own financial affairs, making it less likely that they would have to fall back on family or parish resources. It would, however, have done nothing to help persons who were indigent in Colquhoun's sense of the term. In fact, one of Tranquillity's less charitable aims was to enable members to stop paying Poor Rates altogether and thus wipe their hands of the problem of indigence. Article 22 in the "Rules" states

That as soon as convenient, application shall be made to Parliament, to effect the gradual abolition of the Poor's Rate, and to encourage the Poor to make provision for themselves, by exempting from parish assessments on account of the Poor, all those persons, who provide for themselves by this Institution.

As Venning saw, one consequence of the Tranquillity plan, should it succeed, would be to eliminate a notoriously corrupt and inefficient branch of governmental and ecclesiastical oversight. This was clearly on the minds of Bone and Hone as they tried to help the working poor become financially independent and thus avoid what they called the "beggar-teazing caprices of parish controulers." Exactly what would become of indigent people is not specified.

Though at the time it would not have been recognized in such terms by its founders, the Tranquillity project took part in and stands as evidence of a realignment of socio-economic classes that is everywhere present in the transition from eighteenth- to nineteenth-century England. The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson's now classic history of the period, acknowledges this realignment in its very title, and Bone and Hone clearly were aiming to enable a whole class of gainfully employed artisans and skilled workers to free themselves from the control of patriarchal hierarchies that were, in this view, ensconced in the Old Poor Laws. Certainly there is a conservative slant in the ideology underlying the Tranquillity project. For instance, it promotes personal discipline and self-reliance—qualities that hint at Hone's neo-Puritanical roots—and it assumes that indigence is a mark of the worker's misfortune or moral failing, and not a condition endemic to the economic system, what today would be called "structural unemployment." But at least Bone and Hone avoid the kind of anti-Jacobin paranoia and simple self-interest that is common among other social reformers of the day. Colquhoun, to offer a contrasting example to Tranquillity, proposed a kind of national bank to oversee the workings of local Friendly Societies; the idea was designed in part to maintain governmental surveillance over the "lower orders" and to stifle potential political threats. (Colquhoun, not surprisingly, was a great advocate of an English police force.) England has known many periods of political instability, says Colquhoun, and such a time

may come again, when numerous societies of ill-informed individuals, open to seduction, and heated by political frenzy, artfully worked up, and holding 164,424 public meetings [Colquhoun's calculation of the total number of friendly society meetings per year in England and Wales], under a benevolent and legal pretence, at 9672 different alehouses, may alarm and afflict the peaceful subject: and here a question arises, how far it may be practicable to organize these excellent institutions, so as on the one hand to render them productive of benefits infinitely more extensive to the parties interested, and on the other to divest them of their tendency to moral and political evil.[9]

Colquhoun's paranoia about "moral and political evil" was shared by most upper-class reformers who cared about the rising numbers of indigent persons not so much out of a disinterested concern for their countrymen, but rather because, in J. D. Marshall's terms, "the pauper was a potential Jacobin, lurking in incalculable numbers beyond every corner and making ready to 'prey on the property of . . . richer neighbours.'"[10] Tranquillity could, in theory, promote self-reliance among the working class without engaging overtly this political baggage, and without subjecting its members to some external parochial authority. In addition, it could potentially enable the industrious "working" or "middle" classes to differentiate themselves from the indigent or (in the Puritanical view) merely lazy. This class awareness would remain prominent in Hone's ideological thinking for years to come: an advertisement for his 1817 newspaper, Hone's Reformists' Register, announces specifically that

It is to the MIDDLE CLASS now, as at other times, in this country, the salvation of all that ought to be dear to Englishmen must be confided; it is amongst this class that the great improvement has been going on; it is from this clas [sic], now informed as no class in any country, at any time, ever were informed, that whatever of good may be obtained will proceed.[11]

Rarely does one find so bald a statement of class consciousness; in Hone's thinking such awareness is a crucial result of the early association with John Bone and his constellation of radical acquaintances.

But, whatever potential Tranquillity may have had, whatever it may have said about and however it might have influenced the prospects of a newly developing working/middle class, practically speaking the plan amounted to nothing. In June of 1807, just over one year after Bone and Hone had set the enterprise going in Albion Street, a dejected Bone reluctantly announced that Tranquillity was returning the few deposits it had managed to collect and was closing its doors. Bone had begun the scheme with the intent of eliminating the Poor's Rates, and this goal still seemed to him worthwhile. Likewise, the Tranquillity plan itself still seemed sound, though it proved too novel in 1807 to attract enough members: "it cost me much trouble, expense, and anxiety," writes Bone, "but I could not get the people to take the pains necessary to understand it, nor the newspapers to communicate any information about it without heavy charges."[12] In other words, the "Utopian" scheme (Bone's word) failed due to a lack of public "information." The failure weighed even more heavily on Hone, who, at this point, had four children and had—as Venning had predicted—spent more energy in chasing after this idealistic project than in looking after his own financial welfare. Even ten years later, Hone's description of the end of Tranquillity carries a rather regretful, wistful tone: "It was very Quixotic—we were mad; mad because we supposed it possible, if an intention were good, that it would therefore be carried into effect."[13] The concrete result of the failure was that, to meet his expenses, Hone had to sell everything he owned—including his furniture—and then had to scramble for employment once again.


 

Notes:

1.
Reid, William Hamilton, The Rise and Dissolution of the Infidel Societies in This Metropolis (London: J. Hatchard, 1800), p. 6. Bone's own religious background is also important here as it contrasted with the more typical atheism or deism of his LCS compatriots. According to Francis Place, "John Bone was a saint, and a busy man at times in attempting privately to make converts among the irreligious" (Add. MS 27808, ff. 115-16; qtd. in Mary Thale's Selections from the Papers of the London Corresponding Society, 1792-1799 [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983], p. 307n). This religious sensibility may well be one cause underlying the Hone and Bone friendship and partnership. [return]

2.
See Iain McCalman's Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840 (New York: Cambridge UP, 1988), pp. 9-10. [return]

3.
Hackwood (p. 73) claims Bone was himself a "Dutchman" who had earlier escaped from the Bastille, but this is unlikely--the error probably caused by Hackwood's ignorance that Cold Bath Fields prison was sometimes called "the Bastille." J. Ann Hone places Bone in Antwerp during his months on the continent ("William Hone, 1780-1842, Publisher and Bookseller: An Approach to Early 19th Century London Radicalism," Historical Studies 16 [Melbourne, 1974, pp. 55-70], p. 56); Bone himself claims in a paper of 1808 (The Reasoner, 9 April, 1808, col. 536) that he was in France at about the time Napoleon became sovereign. [return]

4.
It is not clear whether Hone knew Bone from his earlier days in the LCS--such an acquaintance seems quite possible given Hone's familiarity with the Southwark neighborhood of Bone's bookselling shop. Bone published three substantial works outlining his thinking on the Poor Laws: Outline of a Plan for Reducing the Poor's Rate . . . (London: James Asperne, 1805), The Wants of the People, and the Means of the Government . . . (London: Jordan and Maxwell, 1807), and The Friend of the People; or, Considerations, addressed principally to Persons of Small Incomes, and Members of Friendly Societies . . . (London: Printed by W. Day, 1807). [return]

5.
John Roach, Social Reform in England 1780-1880 (New York: St. Martin's, 1978), p. 56. For a reasonably sound account of the "pauper system" see J. D. Marshall, The Old Poor Law, 1795-1834 (London: Macmillan, 1968). [return]

6.
John Bone and William Hone. The Rules and Regulations of an Institution Called Tranquillity . . . . (London: Printed for the Use of the Members, 1806). [return]

7.
John Venning to William Hone, 8 June 1806, qtd. in Hackwood, p. 76. [return]

8.
See Patrick Colquhoun. A Treatise on Indigence; Exhibiting a General View of the National Resources for Productive Labour . . . . (London: J. Hatchard, 1806). [return]

9.
Colquhoun, Treatise on Indigence, pp. 116-17. [return]

10.
Marshall, The Old Poor Law, 1795-1834, p. 30. [return]

11.
Advertisement at end of Hone's Full Report of the Third Spa-Fields Meeting; with the Previous Arrests (London: William Hone, 1817). [return]

12.
The Reasoner, 1808, col. 141. [return]

13.
Three Trials, Third Trial, p. 20. [return]