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Nineteenth Century Poverty, Unemployment, Philanthropy and Stephen Garton

Stephen Garton’s book Out of Luck, Poor Australians and Social Welfare, 1788-1988 (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1990) is an engaging and helpful summary book and I have enjoyed and benefited from reading it. It was written in 1990 but is still often quoted and so it is appropriate to suggest an amendment to the view it expresses on poverty, unemployment and philanthropy.[1] In his introduction, Garton says:

The Gospels declare that the poor are always with us. If that is so then many commentators on Australia have ignored their existence. Opinion makers … have argued that poverty was negligible in Australia. Such men are part of a broad cultural stream which has perpetuated the image of Australia as a ‘workingman’s paradise’. But what of the man who could not find work? What of the women whose work was remunerated at lower levels than men or not at all if she worked at home? What of those too old or too ill to work and families without breadwinners to support them?[2]

At one point in his book, Garton contrasts the views of nineteenth-century philanthropists and the colonial political radicals and liberals on the question of poverty and its solutions. He says that

For philanthropists selective charity and moral reform were the means to overcome the evil of idleness which caused poverty. But for radicals and liberals, supported by the emergent labour movement, a prosperous economy, property ownership and a fair day’s pay were the best means to ensure that Australia was a ‘workingman’s paradise’ free of the poverty that plagued the ‘old world’.

The conflict between philanthropic solutions to poverty and the strategies of liberals, radicals and labour was most acute in the face of the 1890s depression. In 1891 leading philanthropist Rev J. D. Langley argued that widespread unemployment was best tackled by renewed emphasis on work tests to discourage pauperism. In the same issue of the Sydney Quarterly Magazine prominent liberal B.R. Wise put the opposing view: ‘the bulk of poverty cannot be traced to personal vices but are attributable to industrial causes for which the sufferer is not responsible’. The real solution, according to Wise, was trade unionism, land taxation, the minimum wage, and worker co-operatives. This view challenged the philosophy of philanthropy.[3]

Garton appropriately describes Langley[4] as a leading philanthropist and thereby positions him as representative in his philanthropic views on poverty. This presentation of the attitudes of philanthropists, such as those of Langley, paints for the reader a picture of the philanthropists as out of touch with reality in solely seeing unemployment and the resultant poverty as a product of moral failure. Whereas, by contrast, the views of political liberals and radicals provided a realistic diagnosis and solution to the issue. That a simple dichotomy and characterisation is given in this concise, brief (approximately 170 pages) but wide-ranging history is understandable. The summary is a neat, clear-cut contrasting summary, but it is overly simplistic and misleading. There was much more to the thinking and action of Langley the philanthropist than selective charity and moralism.

Archdeacon John Douse Langley

In response, Garton’s presentation invites several questions. Did Langley the philanthropist think that poverty was caused by idleness? Did Langley believe that ‘widespread unemployment was best tackled by a renewed emphasis on work tests to discourage pauperism’? What place did philanthropists, such as Langley, think that ‘industrial causes’ had in contributing to poverty?

From his hands-on experience in the parishes of Berrima, Surry Hills and St Phillips, Langley did believe that some poverty was due to idleness which promoted dependence on charity. He was concerned not to encourage such an attitude and that testing willingness to work was required to determine worthy recipients of assistance. However, a reading of Langley’s article entitled ‘The Unemployed’ reveals that Garton has focused on only one aspect of the article and in doing so has perhaps unintentionally misrepresented Langley. Langley’s views cannot be summarised by the statement that the ‘widespread unemployment was best tackled by a renewed emphasis on work tests to discourage pauperism’.

Langley’s focus in his article was far more restricted and less comprehensive than tackling the whole issue of ‘widespread unemployment’. He was simply arguing that there were in society two sorts of unemployed. There were those willing to work but unable to get a job and who had a ‘loathing from living on alms’. Then, there were those unemployed who did not want to work and avoided employment opportunities, but they were willing to exploit the generosity of the philanthropically inclined. To assist in dealing with the issue of unemployment, Langley was advocating the encouragement of those willing to work and the discouragement of developing among the unemployed an attitude and practice of dependence on charity known then as pauperism. He believed that such a dependant attitude was morally sapping and destructive of a person’s self-respect. This was not put forward by Langley as a total or the best approach to the problem of poverty but as one aspect of it.

Garton’s view of what Langley was advocating, reducing it to solving the unemployment problem by an emphasis on work tests, is only sustainable if the remainder of Langley’s article, and what he actually did about the unemployed, is ignored. Langley encourages charity to help the unemployed but says this is not enough:

But help for working men should go further than providing them with food and shelter. Efforts should be made to obtain for them permanent employment. By means of a Labour Bureau, or in some other way, communication should be established between employers of labour and the unemployed. When a man has proved his ability, and his willingness to work, he ought to have every possible help to find employment; and until a permanent situation be found, he should be provided with temporary work and furnished with the necessaries of life.[5]

Langley not only advocated for such help for the unemployed. He also devised and implemented plans to provide this assistance by setting up a Church Labour Home,[6] which gave shelter to the unemployed, gave temporary employment, provided an employment bureau to source jobs as well as developing a co-operative farm to provide work for the unemployed.

Unlike the parliamentarian B R Wise, with whose views Garton contrasts those of Langley, Langley dealt with the unemployed in the day-to-day of his work. In his views and actions he was concentrating on the plight of real unemployed people known to him, where they would sleep that night, what they would eat and what their children would eat. His main concern was the immediate relieving of suffering and not the analysis of its origins and providing a full solution for poverty and unemployment. His concern for the unemployed was an outworking of his Christian faith and deeply felt.  In discussing unemployment, Langley said that the injunctions of Christ in

the story of the good Samaritan applied to men and women in all time. They were a rebuke to any in the nineteenth century who professed and called themselves Christians, and yet failed to realise the character of their Master and the service He was seeking at their hands.[7]

A journalist met with him in his rectory and the reported interview shows Langley’s deep commitment:

I sometimes feel,” he said, and tears rose to his eyes as he spoke, “as if I could cut and run to some country parish, where poverty and trouble are unknown.[8]

Langley believed that for those willing to work a lack of jobs and not idleness was the significant issue. There was, he believed, a structural issue to be addressed. There needed to be some organisation to promote the linking of suitable workers with suitable employers and he suggested that this could be addressed through an employment bureau. That Langley, as a leading philanthropist, thought that unemployment was only a result of idleness, is shown in the following passage from Langley to be a simplistic analysis of his philanthropic attitudes:

They had in their midst men and women out of work. Was it not an anomaly that in a young country, with every industry languishing for want of labor, they should have men needing employment? He could not speak for other people and their experience; but for his own part he had abundant evidence of the want of employment. A very large portion of his time was taken up in dealing with cases, often heart rending, of people for whom he could practically do nothing, for the reason that there was no organisation in existence to supply their needs. As illustrating the quantity of labor available, he mentioned that in response to six advertisements which recently appeared in one of the daily papers there were no less than 212 applicants. Yet men told them there was no want of employment in Sydney. Personally he believed there was employment to be obtained for all respectable and deserving persons, but there was a need of some agency which would bring employers and employee together. … They could scarcely realise the full misery of a man out of work with wife and little ones dependent upon him going about to seek alms.[9]

B R Wise’s so-called opposing view was that ‘the bulk of poverty cannot be traced to personal vices but are attributable to industrial causes for which the sufferer is not responsible.’ That Langley, a former bank manager in Maitland and Newcastle was, as a philanthropist, unaware of ‘industrial causes for which the sufferer is not responsible’, is difficult to accept. He understood that unemployment had various causes, some of which we due to personal failure, such as alcoholism and criminality, but others were due to a lack of the availability of suitable jobs. This led him to advocate and to seek to implement retraining. Langley said:

All we have to do is to find employment for them, and if that can’t be done for all – well, then, we must train them into something else …Take a clerk, a man who can figure and write a good hand, but who has never done anything else; is not fit for it, in fact because he has a knowledge of one thing. He comes to me for work. I can’t give it to him, because the market is glutted. But if he really wants employment it is possible to teach him something else at which he can at once get an engagement.[10]

Langley supported the formation and acceptance of trade unions which were part of B R Wise’s solution to poverty. Addressing a meeting of clergy in 1890, Langley demonstrated his support of trade unionism by saying that ‘he thought employers ought to recognise the right of labour to join any union that was not illegal.’[11] Furthermore, in 1894, he gave his support to Wharf Laborers in their recruitment of members for their union and permitted them to hold a union meeting in the St Phillips School Room. He addressed their meeting and ‘gave the officers to understand that his sympathies were with the men, and that they could command him in whatever way they saw fit’.[12] Langley thought there was an ever-widening breach between wage earners and the Church. In 1918, and in his role as bishop of Bendigo, Langley advocated for the study of trade unionism so that clergy might intelligently understand its principles.[13]

J D Langley’s attitudes to unemployment and the resultant poverty do not fit the characterisation that Garton makes of him as a representative philanthropist. I doubt that this characterisation fitted the mindset of many of the nineteenth-century philanthropists who were employers. While they were often keen, as was Langley, to promote the importance of moral self-discipline, it was not seen as the total solution to a problem that was caused by factors far more complex than moral failure and idleness.

Dr Paul F Cooper

Research Fellow, Christ College, Sydney


The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper. Poverty, Unemployment, J D Langley and Stephen Garton Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, June 18, 2018. Available at https:/colonialgivers.com/2018/06/16/nineteenth-century-poverty-unemployment- philanthropy-and-stephen-garton


[1] For example Rae Dufty-Jones (2018) A historical geography of housing crisis in Australia, Australian Geographer, 49:1, 5-23, DOI: 10.1080/00049182.2017.1336968 [accessed 18/6/2018]

[2] Stephen Garton, Out of Luck, Poor Australians and Social Welfare, 1788-1988 (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1990), x.

[3] Stephen Garton, Out of Luck, Poor Australians and Social Welfare, 1788-1988, 62.

[4] John Douse Langley (1835-1930) was ordained deacon and later priest in 1873 and served as the incumbent of Berrima with Mittagong, 1873-75; St David’s, Surry Hills, Sydney, 1875-81; secretary of the Church Society, 1880-83; and rector of St Phillip’s Sydney, 1882-1907. He was elected the second bishop of Bendigo and consecrated in January 1907, resigned from the diocese in June 1919, retired to Melbourne and died 11 years later in 1930. Paul F Cooper.Church Labour Home Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, February 20, 2017. Available at  https://phinaucohi.wordpress.com/2017/02/20/the-church-labour-home/ ‎

[5] J D Langley, The Unemployed, Sydney Quarterly Magazine 1891, September, np.

[6] Paul F Cooper.Church Labour Home  https://colonialgivers.com/2017/02/20/the-church-labour-home/

[7] The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), January 26, 1891, 4.

[8] The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), January 12, 1891, 5.

[9] The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), January 26, 1891, 4.

[10] The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), January 12, 1891, 5.

[11] Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW), September 16, 1890, 4.

[12] The Australian Star (Sydney, NSW), November 6, 1894, 2.

[13] The Herald (Melbourne, Vic.), May 28, 1918, 12.

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