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Chapter 1

THE BEADLE. THE PARISH ENGINE. THE SCHOOLMASTER

How much is conveyed in those two short words--'The Parish!' And
with how many tales of distress and misery, of broken fortune and
ruined hopes, too often of unrelieved wretchedness and successful
knavery, are they associated! A poor man, with small earnings, and
a large family, just manages to live on from hand to mouth, and to
procure food from day to day; he has barely sufficient to satisfy
the present cravings of nature, and can take no heed of the future.
His taxes are in arrear, quarter-day passes by, another quarter-day
arrives: he can procure no more quarter for himself, and is
summoned by--the parish. His goods are distrained, his children
are crying with cold and hunger, and the very bed on which his sick
wife is lying, is dragged from beneath her. What can he do? To
whom is he to apply for relief? To private charity? To benevolent
individuals? Certainly not--there is his parish. There are the
parish vestry, the parish infirmary, the parish surgeon, the parish
officers, the parish beadle. Excellent institutions, and gentle,
kind-hearted men. The woman dies--she is buried by the parish.
The children have no protector--they are taken care of by the
parish. The man first neglects, and afterwards cannot obtain,
work--he is relieved by the parish; and when distress and
drunkenness have done their work upon him, he is maintained, a
harmless babbling idiot, in the parish asylum.

The parish beadle is one of the most, perhaps THE most, important
member of the local administration. He is not so well off as the
churchwardens, certainly, nor is he so learned as the vestry-clerk,
nor does he order things quite so much his own way as either of
them. But his power is very great, notwithstanding; and the
dignity of his office is never impaired by the absence of efforts
on his part to maintain it. The beadle of our parish is a splendid
fellow. It is quite delightful to hear him, as he explains the
state of the existing poor laws to the deaf old women in the board-
room passage on business nights; and to hear what he said to the
senior churchwarden, and what the senior churchwarden said to him;
and what 'we' (the beadle and the other gentlemen) came to the
determination of doing. A miserable-looking woman is called into
the boardroom, and represents a case of extreme destitution,
affecting herself--a widow, with six small children. 'Where do you
live?' inquires one of the overseers. 'I rents a two-pair back,
gentlemen, at Mrs. Brown's, Number 3, Little King William's-alley,
which has lived there this fifteen year, and knows me to be very
hard-working and industrious, and when my poor husband was alive,
gentlemen, as died in the hospital'--'Well, well,' interrupts the
overseer, taking a note of the address, 'I'll send Simmons, the
beadle, to-morrow morning, to ascertain whether your story is
correct; and if so, I suppose you must have an order into the
House--Simmons, go to this woman's the first thing to-morrow
morning, will you?' Simmons bows assent, and ushers the woman out.
Her previous admiration of 'the board' (who all sit behind great
books, and with their hats on) fades into nothing before her
respect for her lace-trimmed conductor; and her account of what has
passed inside, increases--if that be possible--the marks of
respect, shown by the assembled crowd, to that solemn functionary.
As to taking out a summons, it's quite a hopeless case if Simmons
attends it, on behalf of the parish. He knows all the titles of
the Lord Mayor by heart; states the case without a single stammer:
and it is even reported that on one occasion he ventured to make a
joke, which the Lord Mayor's head footman (who happened to be
present) afterwards told an intimate friend, confidentially, was
almost equal to one of Mr. Hobler's.

See him again on Sunday in his state-coat and cocked-hat, with a
large-headed staff for show in his left hand, and a small cane for
use in his right. How pompously he marshals the children into
their places! and how demurely the little urchins look at him
askance as he surveys them when they are all seated, with a glare
of the eye peculiar to beadles! The churchwardens and overseers
being duly installed in their curtained pews, he seats himself on a
mahogany bracket, erected expressly for him at the top of the
aisle, and divides his attention between his prayer-book and the
boys. Suddenly, just at the commencement of the communion service,
when the whole congregation is hushed into a profound silence,
broken only by the voice of the officiating clergyman, a penny is
heard to ring on the stone floor of the aisle with astounding
clearness. Observe the generalship of the beadle. His involuntary
look of horror is instantly changed into one of perfect
indifference, as if he were the only person present who had not
heard the noise. The artifice succeeds. After putting forth his
right leg now and then, as a feeler, the victim who dropped the
money ventures to make one or two distinct dives after it; and the
beadle, gliding softly round, salutes his little round head, when
it again appears above the seat, with divers double knocks,
administered with the cane before noticed, to the intense delight
of three young men in an adjacent pew, who cough violently at
intervals until the conclusion of the sermon.

Such are a few traits of the importance and gravity of a parish
beadle--a gravity which has never been disturbed in any case that
has come under our observation, except when the services of that
particularly useful machine, a parish fire-engine, are required:
then indeed all is bustle. Two little boys run to the beadle as
fast as their legs will carry them, and report from their own
personal observation that some neighbouring chimney is on fire; the
engine is hastily got out, and a plentiful supply of boys being
obtained, and harnessed to it with ropes, away they rattle over the
pavement, the beadle, running--we do not exaggerate--running at the
side, until they arrive at some house, smelling strongly of soot,
at the door of which the beadle knocks with considerable gravity
for half-an-hour. No attention being paid to these manual
applications, and the turn-cock having turned on the water, the
engine turns off amidst the shouts of the boys; it pulls up once
more at the work-house, and the beadle 'pulls up' the unfortunate
householder next day, for the amount of his legal reward. We never
saw a parish engine at a regular fire but once. It came up in
gallant style--three miles and a half an hour, at least; there was
a capital supply of water, and it was first on the spot. Bang went
the pumps--the people cheered--the beadle perspired profusely; but
it was unfortunately discovered, just as they were going to put the
fire out, that nobody understood the process by which the engine
was filled with water; and that eighteen boys, and a man, had
exhausted themselves in pumping for twenty minutes, without
producing the slightest effect!

The personages next in importance to the beadle, are the master of
the workhouse and the parish schoolmaster. The vestry-clerk, as
everybody knows, is a short, pudgy little man, in black, with a
thick gold watch-chain of considerable length, terminating in two
large seals and a key. He is an attorney, and generally in a
bustle; at no time more so, than when he is hurrying to some
parochial meeting, with his gloves crumpled up in one hand, and a
large red book under the other arm. As to the churchwardens and
overseers, we exclude them altogether, because all we know of them
is, that they are usually respectable tradesmen, who wear hats with
brims inclined to flatness, and who occasionally testify in gilt
letters on a blue ground, in some conspicuous part of the church,
to the important fact of a gallery having being enlarged and
beautified, or an organ rebuilt.

The master of the workhouse is not, in our parish--nor is he
usually in any other--one of that class of men the better part of
whose existence has passed away, and who drag out the remainder in
some inferior situation, with just enough thought of the past, to
feel degraded by, and discontented with the present. We are unable
to guess precisely to our own satisfaction what station the man can
have occupied before; we should think he had been an inferior sort
of attorney's clerk, or else the master of a national school--
whatever he was, it is clear his present position is a change for
the better. His income is small certainly, as the rusty black coat
and threadbare velvet collar demonstrate: but then he lives free
of house-rent, has a limited allowance of coals and candles, and an
almost unlimited allowance of authority in his petty kingdom. He
is a tall, thin, bony man; always wears shoes and black cotton
stockings with his surtout; and eyes you, as you pass his parlour-
window, as if he wished you were a pauper, just to give you a
specimen of his power. He is an admirable specimen of a small
tyrant: morose, brutish, and ill-tempered; bullying to his
inferiors, cringing to his superiors, and jealous of the influence
and authority of the beadle.

Our schoolmaster is just the very reverse of this amiable official.
He has been one of those men one occasionally hears of, on whom
misfortune seems to have set her mark; nothing he ever did, or was
concerned in, appears to have prospered. A rich old relation who
had brought him up, and openly announced his intention of providing
for him, left him 10,000l. in his will, and revoked the bequest in
a codicil. Thus unexpectedly reduced to the necessity of providing
for himself, he procured a situation in a public office. The young
clerks below him, died off as if there were a plague among them;
but the old fellows over his head, for the reversion of whose
places he was anxiously waiting, lived on and on, as if they were
immortal. He speculated and lost. He speculated again and won--
but never got his money. His talents were great; his disposition,
easy, generous and liberal. His friends profited by the one, and
abused the other. Loss succeeded loss; misfortune crowded on
misfortune; each successive day brought him nearer the verge of
hopeless penury, and the quondam friends who had been warmest in
their professions, grew strangely cold and indifferent. He had
children whom he loved, and a wife on whom he doted. The former
turned their backs on him; the latter died broken-hearted. He went
with the stream--it had ever been his failing, and he had not
courage sufficient to bear up against so many shocks--he had never
cared for himself, and the only being who had cared for him, in his
poverty and distress, was spared to him no longer. It was at this
period that he applied for parochial relief. Some kind-hearted man
who had known him in happier times, chanced to be churchwarden that
year, and through his interest he was appointed to his present
situation.

He is an old man now. Of the many who once crowded round him in
all the hollow friendship of boon-companionship, some have died,
some have fallen like himself, some have prospered--all have
forgotten him. Time and misfortune have mercifully been permitted
to impair his memory, and use has habituated him to his present
condition. Meek, uncomplaining, and zealous in the discharge of
his duties, he has been allowed to hold his situation long beyond
the usual period; and he will no doubt continue to hold it, until
infirmity renders him incapable, or death releases him. As the
grey-headed old man feebly paces up and down the sunny side of the
little court-yard between school hours, it would be difficult,
indeed, for the most intimate of his former friends to recognise
their once gay and happy associate, in the person of the Pauper
Schoolmaster.

Charles Dickens