William Firth's response to Neild - Gentleman's Magazine, November 1805

Memorial to William Firth, St. George's ColegateIT was with a mingled emotion of indignation and contempt that I read in your last number a communication of a Mr. Neild respecting the Old Workhouse in this city, and the punishment of William Rayner, an incorrigible boy, a pauper in the house. Although this singular and injurious paper was transmitted [by] you through the medium of a respectable physician, Dr. Lettsom, yet it so seems both with the suggestio falsi [a statement of a falsehood], and the suppressio veri [suppression of the truth], that, as a magistrate, and one of the guardians of the poor, (who are indiscriminately calumniated therein,) I think it my duty to lay before the publick [sic] a short review of the facts of the case, and to make a few remarks upon the strange conduct of Mr. Neild. This philanthropic gentleman, I understand, affects to follow in the same path the dignified footsteps of the illustrious HOWARD (Proximus huic, longo fed proximus intervallo [Next to him, a long but close interval]), in visiting the ungrateful abodes of the unfortunate and flagitious in Prisons and Workhouses, and in correcting with a liberal hand the remaining abuses, wherever his susceptible heart feels that they exist, in the unwearied course of his pious missionary journeys. Indeed Dr. Lettsom, in all the wild exuberance of youthful fancy, and with all the generous ardour of the first impulses of a youthful friendship, bursts forth in the sublime and oracular exclamation of 'Surely an Angel from Heaven sent Mr. Nield hither,' as proceeding from the united and eloquent lips of the paupers “when they heard of the state of their work house!!!” If this borders on the Bathos, your readers must excuse Dr. Lettsom, for they are not my words.

Mr. Neild came to Norwich, and, as he has stated, visited the Duke's Palace or Old Workhouse with the mayor. He has then given us a coloured statement of the filthy condition he found it in, omitting no mention of any disgusting circumstance or impurity which his nice observation, and the more powerful aid of his heated imaginațion, could jointly suggest.

It is with considerable pain and reluctance I have to add a few facts, perfectly well known to Mr. Neild at the time of his visit, or rather visitation, which Mr. Neild in his public communication has had neither the honour nor the honesty to take the slightest notice of.

At the very moment Mr. Neild was putting down his invidious notes of the internal state of the Old Workhouse, of his own knowledge he was aware that a New Workhouse for the reception of the same paupers, whose situation he was then so piteously deploring, was actually erected and completed; except as to some internal accommodations, which were however fitting up, insomuch that in a few days it was inhabited by the paupers, permanently. Moreover, Mr. Neild him self visited this New Workhouse, and expressed his approbation of the construction of the building, &c. This being the case, I should think your readers will, at once concur with my opinion of Mr. Neild's honour, veracity, candour, and liberality of sentiment, in his irreverend [sic] condemnations and his unqualified, unfounded centures of the whole body of the Guardians of the Poor in keeping up and maintaining a foul establishment which was then (taking his exaggerated account as the truth) on the very eve of its dissolution.

In regard to the observations made by Mr. Neild respecting the small pox, and the alledged [sic] deaths which occurred in the house last summer by the spread of the natural disease by contagion through seven rooms, owing to the patients not being kept together in one room, I think them sinistrously [sic] urged with a view (by a kind of side-wind) of discouraging variolous inoculation.

However the fact may be, I am well persuaded that every possible attention under the directions of the guardians, been invariably paid to the care and treatment of the sick; it being at the same time perfectly in practicable to administer to large bodies of sick persons those thousand little comforts and kind attentions which may reasonably be expected in private life.

Mr. Neild, in his paper, has next thought proper to give to the publick [sic] a violent and mutilated account of the punishment of an incorrigible boy belonging to the house, as the Report of a Committee of the Court of Guardians, especially appointed for the purpose; most eminently evinces, and which I should have sent you, had I thought you would have printed so long and (to many of your readers) so uninteresting a memorial.

The philanthropic Mr. Neild has also favoured the world with a sketch of the vile instrument of torture! called “the pot-hooks,” which I then saw for the first time. He has carefully given in its dimensions, weight, &c.; but in this latter article, with his accustomed absence of every thing like candour, he has omitted the information that a large proportion of the weight of the whole instrument (viz. 22lbs.) is exclusively confined to the log, not an ounce of which 'could by possibility be sustained by the boy at the end of a long chain. The assertion of Mr. Neild, that the boy was to wear the pot-hooks for six months, is purely false; nor would he have worn it a day, had he shewn any care or contrition about the matter. So far also was the lad from being much annoyed by his punishment, that it was his sport and delight voluntarily to draw the little boys about the court-yard on the log on the ground, thereby (as he termed it) “giving them a ride.” The subsequent assertions also of Mr. Neild, that the ring made the boy's leg sore, and (by his artful insinuation) that it occasioned “some scabs and excoriation,” are false from beginning to end, as is proved by the Report of the Medical Committee appointed for the purpose of doing away the clamorous calumnies arising from Mr. Neild's misrepresentations, and composed of the first Medical Practitioners in the city. As their Report is in very concise terms I subjoin it.

“We the undersigned, having at the request of a Committee of the Court Guardians, examined William Rayner, a pauper in the workhouse, do find him in perfect health, without either wound, contusion, or excoriation, in any part of his body. (Signed)
Rich. Lubbock M. D., James Alderson M.D., P. M. Martineau, William Dalrymple."
“Norwich, Sept. 8, 1805.”

A certificate to the same effect had been made by the city surgeon, immediately after Mr. Neild's visitation; but injurious rùmours, to the great prejudice of the Court of Guardians, having been most wickedly circulated up and down the City, induced the Court, three days after Mr. Neild's happy departure, to order a second examination, the certificate of which is given ut supra.

It may be true (as Mr. Neild says) that the boy had been only once in Bridewell; but his incorrigibility was sufficiently established by the facts disclosed in the Report of the Committee, the particulars of which in detail I shall not condescend to enumerate for the individual satisfaction of Mr. Neild. I have been, made acquainted with all the facts of the boy's repeated and incorrigible irregularities, and I have no hesitation in fully approving of the conducț of the Court in the matter; and I trust that neither our City, nor any other Community acting to the best of its abilities for thę public good, will, in future, either be thwarted, or basely calumniated, or anywise interrupted, in the righteous of its duty, by the impertinent interferences, or the disingenuous libels, of Mr. NEILD. His strange conduct when viewing our County Gaol, by hiding himself up în the gaoler's bed-chamber on the approach of a most respectable visiting magistrate, Robert Fellowes, Esq. M.P. seems to start a doubt of Mr. Neild's intent being so pure and charitable, as the visiting the abodes of wretchedness would naturally infer.

I understand also, and I believe it to be true, that the conduct of Mr. Neild at Ipswich has induced the magistrates there actually to commence a prosecution against him on account of his false and libellous misrepresentations of the state and management of the Prisons, &c. of that place. I myself know that such a measure was in agitation.

To administer comfort to the afflicted or distressed in mind, body, or estate, is a most lovely attribute in the human character; but a querulous petulant sort of Philanthropy, which quarrels with every thing which is not perfect, and whose system, seems to be rather to overturn every institution which exhibits any trait of human frailty, than to raise up to excellence by gradual and temperate melioration, can never be exalted to the just character of Patriotism or Philanthropy properly so called.

Yours, &c. WILLIAM FIRTH.*

* William Firth was Steward of Norwich, in which he acted as legal counsel to the city authorities. In 1807 he was appointed Attorney General of Upper Canada.