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Chapter 4

THE ELECTION FOR BEADLE

A great event has recently occurred in our parish. A contest of
paramount interest has just terminated; a parochial convulsion has
taken place. It has been succeeded by a glorious triumph, which
the country--or at least the parish--it is all the same--will long
remember. We have had an election; an election for beadle. The
supporters of the old beadle system have been defeated in their
stronghold, and the advocates of the great new beadle principles
have achieved a proud victory.

Our parish, which, like all other parishes, is a little world of
its own, has long been divided into two parties, whose contentions,
slumbering for a while, have never failed to burst forth with
unabated vigour, on any occasion on which they could by possibility
be renewed. Watching-rates, lighting-rates, paving-rates, sewer's-
rates, church-rates, poor's-rates--all sorts of rates, have been in
their turns the subjects of a grand struggle; and as to questions
of patronage, the asperity and determination with which they have
been contested is scarcely credible.

The leader of the official party--the steady advocate of the
churchwardens, and the unflinching supporter of the overseers--is
an old gentleman who lives in our row. He owns some half a dozen
houses in it, and always walks on the opposite side of the way, so
that he may be able to take in a view of the whole of his property
at once. He is a tall, thin, bony man, with an interrogative nose,
and little restless perking eyes, which appear to have been given
him for the sole purpose of peeping into other people's affairs
with. He is deeply impressed with the importance of our parish
business, and prides himself, not a little, on his style of
addressing the parishioners in vestry assembled. His views are
rather confined than extensive; his principles more narrow than
liberal. He has been heard to declaim very loudly in favour of the
liberty of the press, and advocates the repeal of the stamp duty on
newspapers, because the daily journals who now have a monopoly of
the public, never give verbatim reports of vestry meetings. He
would not appear egotistical for the world, but at the same time he
must say, that there are SPEECHES--that celebrated speech of his
own, on the emoluments of the sexton, and the duties of the office,
for instance--which might be communicated to the public, greatly to
their improvement and advantage.

His great opponent in public life is Captain Purday, the old naval
officer on half-pay, to whom we have already introduced our
readers. The captain being a determined opponent of the
constituted authorities, whoever they may chance to be, and our
other friend being their steady supporter, with an equal disregard
of their individual merits, it will readily be supposed, that
occasions for their coming into direct collision are neither few
nor far between. They divided the vestry fourteen times on a
motion for heating the church with warm water instead of coals:
and made speeches about liberty and expenditure, and prodigality
and hot water, which threw the whole parish into a state of
excitement. Then the captain, when he was on the visiting
committee, and his opponent overseer, brought forward certain
distinct and specific charges relative to the management of the
workhouse, boldly expressed his total want of confidence in the
existing authorities, and moved for 'a copy of the recipe by which
the paupers' soup was prepared, together with any documents
relating thereto.' This the overseer steadily resisted; he
fortified himself by precedent, appealed to the established usage,
and declined to produce the papers, on the ground of the injury
that would be done to the public service, if documents of a
strictly private nature, passing between the master of the
workhouse and the cook, were to be thus dragged to light on the
motion of any individual member of the vestry. The motion was lost
by a majority of two; and then the captain, who never allows
himself to be defeated, moved for a committee of inquiry into the
whole subject. The affair grew serious: the question was
discussed at meeting after meeting, and vestry after vestry;
speeches were made, attacks repudiated, personal defiances
exchanged, explanations received, and the greatest excitement
prevailed, until at last, just as the question was going to be
finally decided, the vestry found that somehow or other, they had
become entangled in a point of form, from which it was impossible
to escape with propriety. So, the motion was dropped, and
everybody looked extremely important, and seemed quite satisfied
with the meritorious nature of the whole proceeding.

This was the state of affairs in our parish a week or two since,
when Simmons, the beadle, suddenly died. The lamented deceased had
over-exerted himself, a day or two previously, in conveying an aged
female, highly intoxicated, to the strong room of the work-house.
The excitement thus occasioned, added to a severe cold, which this
indefatigable officer had caught in his capacity of director of the
parish engine, by inadvertently playing over himself instead of a
fire, proved too much for a constitution already enfeebled by age;
and the intelligence was conveyed to the Board one evening that
Simmons had died, and left his respects.

The breath was scarcely out of the body of the deceased
functionary, when the field was filled with competitors for the
vacant office, each of whom rested his claims to public support,
entirely on the number and extent of his family, as if the office
of beadle were originally instituted as an encouragement for the
propagation of the human species. 'Bung for Beadle. Five small
children!'--'Hopkins for Beadle. Seven small children!!'--'Timkins
for Beadle. Nine small children!!!' Such were the placards in
large black letters on a white ground, which were plentifully
pasted on the walls, and posted in the windows of the principal
shops. Timkins's success was considered certain: several mothers
of families half promised their votes, and the nine small children
would have run over the course, but for the production of another
placard, announcing the appearance of a still more meritorious
candidate. 'Spruggins for Beadle. Ten small children (two of them
twins), and a wife!!!' There was no resisting this; ten small
children would have been almost irresistible in themselves, without
the twins, but the touching parenthesis about that interesting
production of nature, and the still more touching allusion to Mrs.
Spruggins, must ensure success. Spruggins was the favourite at
once, and the appearance of his lady, as she went about to solicit
votes (which encouraged confident hopes of a still further addition
to the house of Spruggins at no remote period), increased the
general prepossession in his favour. The other candidates, Bung
alone excepted, resigned in despair. The day of election was
fixed; and the canvass proceeded with briskness and perseverance on
both sides.

The members of the vestry could not be supposed to escape the
contagious excitement inseparable from the occasion. The majority
of the lady inhabitants of the parish declared at once for
Spruggins; and the quondam overseer took the same side, on the
ground that men with large families always had been elected to the
office, and that although he must admit, that, in other respects,
Spruggins was the least qualified candidate of the two, still it
was an old practice, and he saw no reason why an old practice
should be departed from. This was enough for the captain. He
immediately sided with Bung, canvassed for him personally in all
directions, wrote squibs on Spruggins, and got his butcher to
skewer them up on conspicuous joints in his shop-front; frightened
his neighbour, the old lady, into a palpitation of the heart, by
his awful denunciations of Spruggins's party; and bounced in and
out, and up and down, and backwards and forwards, until all the
sober inhabitants of the parish thought it inevitable that he must
die of a brain fever, long before the election began.

The day of election arrived. It was no longer an individual
struggle, but a party contest between the ins and outs. The
question was, whether the withering influence of the overseers, the
domination of the churchwardens, and the blighting despotism of the
vestry-clerk, should be allowed to render the election of beadle a
form--a nullity: whether they should impose a vestry-elected
beadle on the parish, to do their bidding and forward their views,
or whether the parishioners, fearlessly asserting their undoubted
rights, should elect an independent beadle of their own.

The nomination was fixed to take place in the vestry, but so great
was the throng of anxious spectators, that it was found necessary
to adjourn to the church, where the ceremony commenced with due
solemnity. The appearance of the churchwardens and overseers, and
the ex-churchwardens and ex-overseers, with Spruggins in the rear,
excited general attention. Spruggins was a little thin man, in
rusty black, with a long pale face, and a countenance expressive of
care and fatigue, which might either be attributed to the extent of
his family or the anxiety of his feelings. His opponent appeared
in a cast-off coat of the captain's--a blue coat with bright
buttons; white trousers, and that description of shoes familiarly
known by the appellation of 'high-lows.' There was a serenity in
the open countenance of Bung--a kind of moral dignity in his
confident air--an 'I wish you may get it' sort of expression in his
eye--which infused animation into his supporters, and evidently
dispirited his opponents.

The ex-churchwarden rose to propose Thomas Spruggins for beadle.
He had known him long. He had had his eye upon him closely for
years; he had watched him with twofold vigilance for months. (A
parishioner here suggested that this might be termed 'taking a
double sight,' but the observation was drowned in loud cries of
'Order!') He would repeat that he had had his eye upon him for
years, and this he would say, that a more well-conducted, a more
well-behaved, a more sober, a more quiet man, with a more well-
regulated mind, he had never met with. A man with a larger family
he had never known (cheers). The parish required a man who could
be depended on ('Hear!' from the Spruggins side, answered by
ironical cheers from the Bung party). Such a man he now proposed
('No,' 'Yes'). He would not allude to individuals (the ex-
churchwarden continued, in the celebrated negative style adopted by
great speakers). He would not advert to a gentleman who had once
held a high rank in the service of his majesty; he would not say,
that that gentleman was no gentleman; he would not assert, that
that man was no man; he would not say, that he was a turbulent
parishioner; he would not say, that he had grossly misbehaved
himself, not only on this, but on all former occasions; he would
not say, that he was one of those discontented and treasonable
spirits, who carried confusion and disorder wherever they went; he
would not say, that he harboured in his heart envy, and hatred, and
malice, and all uncharitableness. No! He wished to have
everything comfortable and pleasant, and therefore, he would say--
nothing about him (cheers).

The captain replied in a similar parliamentary style. He would not
say, he was astonished at the speech they had just heard; he would
not say, he was disgusted (cheers). He would not retort the
epithets which had been hurled against him (renewed cheering); he
would not allude to men once in office, but now happily out of it,
who had mismanaged the workhouse, ground the paupers, diluted the
beer, slack-baked the bread, boned the meat, heightened the work,
and lowered the soup (tremendous cheers). He would not ask what
such men deserved (a voice, 'Nothing a-day, and find themselves!').
He would not say, that one burst of general indignation should
drive them from the parish they polluted with their presence ('Give
it him!'). He would not allude to the unfortunate man who had been
proposed--he would not say, as the vestry's tool, but as Beadle.
He would not advert to that individual's family; he would not say,
that nine children, twins, and a wife, were very bad examples for
pauper imitation (loud cheers). He would not advert in detail to
the qualifications of Bung. The man stood before him, and he would
not say in his presence, what he might be disposed to say of him,
if he were absent. (Here Mr. Bung telegraphed to a friend near
him, under cover of his hat, by contracting his left eye, and
applying his right thumb to the tip of his nose). It had been
objected to Bung that he had only five children ('Hear, hear!' from
the opposition). Well; he had yet to learn that the legislature
had affixed any precise amount of infantine qualification to the
office of beadle; but taking it for granted that an extensive
family were a great requisite, he entreated them to look to facts,
and compare data, about which there could be no mistake. Bung was
35 years of age. Spruggins--of whom he wished to speak with all
possible respect--was 50. Was it not more than possible--was it
not very probable--that by the time Bung attained the latter age,
he might see around him a family, even exceeding in number and
extent, that to which Spruggins at present laid claim (deafening
cheers and waving of handkerchiefs)? The captain concluded, amidst
loud applause, by calling upon the parishioners to sound the
tocsin, rush to the poll, free themselves from dictation, or be
slaves for ever.

On the following day the polling began, and we never have had such
a bustle in our parish since we got up our famous anti-slavery
petition, which was such an important one, that the House of
Commons ordered it to be printed, on the motion of the member for
the district. The captain engaged two hackney-coaches and a cab
for Bung's people--the cab for the drunken voters, and the two
coaches for the old ladies, the greater portion of whom, owing to
the captain's impetuosity, were driven up to the poll and home
again, before they recovered from their flurry sufficiently to
know, with any degree of clearness, what they had been doing. The
opposite party wholly neglected these precautions, and the
consequence was, that a great many ladies who were walking
leisurely up to the church--for it was a very hot day--to vote for
Spruggins, were artfully decoyed into the coaches, and voted for
Bung. The captain's arguments, too, had produced considerable
effect: the attempted influence of the vestry produced a greater.
A threat of exclusive dealing was clearly established against the
vestry-clerk--a case of heartless and profligate atrocity. It
appeared that the delinquent had been in the habit of purchasing
six penn'orth of muffins, weekly, from an old woman who rents a
small house in the parish, and resides among the original settlers;
on her last weekly visit, a message was conveyed to her through the
medium of the cook, couched in mysterious terms, but indicating
with sufficient clearness, that the vestry-clerk's appetite for
muffins, in future, depended entirely on her vote on the
beadleship. This was sufficient: the stream had been turning
previously, and the impulse thus administered directed its final
course. The Bung party ordered one shilling's-worth of muffins
weekly for the remainder of the old woman's natural life; the
parishioners were loud in their exclamations; and the fate of
Spruggins was sealed.

It was in vain that the twins were exhibited in dresses of the same
pattern, and night-caps, to match, at the church door: the boy in
Mrs. Spruggins's right arm, and the girl in her left--even Mrs.
Spruggins herself failed to be an object of sympathy any longer.
The majority attained by Bung on the gross poll was four hundred
and twenty-eight, and the cause of the parishioners triumphed.

Charles Dickens