In this first of a series of ‘chapters’ chronicling the history of the SVP in this country, we look at its inception in 1844, eleven years after Frederic Ozanam established the first conference in Paris, and the socio-political context in which it was to work.
The first Conference of the Society in England and Wales
One of the members of Frederic’s Conference was a young Englishman called George Wigley who planned to set up the Society in England. Frederic’s advice was to contact as many influential people as possible in English public life.
Wigley contacted Frederick Lucas, editor of The Tablet and an influential Catholic. As a result, Lucas published a series of articles entitled “French Charity”. The whole series of articles had considerable influence, and a meeting was arranged at the Sablonniere Hotel, Leicester Square, in London.
The hotel was owned by Mr Pagliano, who attended the meeting with Wigley, Frederick Lucas, George Blount (later to become prominent as a long-serving National President) and eight others. This led to the foundation of a Conference on 12 February, 1844. Brother Pagliano became the first English SVP President. Before 1845 dawned, there were five separate Conferences in London. Five years later in 1849, there were fourteen Conferences in England and Wales with a membership of 274 ‘brothers’.
One of the articles in The Tablet, written by Lucas, described the desperate conditions of the poor in general. He also referred specifically to the apathy of the State towards them, and to the indifference of influential Catholics, expressing the view that they could have done much more:
“Who except the clergy visit the poor? As far as we laity are concerned, the approved plan seems to be to manage all by a secretary, to avoid all dirty work whenever it can be avoided and to labour by a committee. We have already endeavoured to introduce to the favour of our readers a French society for lay persons. We refer to the Society of St Vincent de Paul.” Although Frederick Lucas simply used the word “poor”, a new expression had come into use during the 1830s and 1840s. The word “pauper”, which meant “the poor who need to turn to others for help”.
When Frederic Ozanam visited The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851, some SVP brothers arranged for him to visit the London slums where, amongst the teeming poor, lived many of the Irish Catholics. Later he wrote of these visits, aware of how the well-off could be snubbed by polite society if they were foolish enough to help the poor, person-to-person:
“What courage the English brothers need to shake hands with down-and-outs, in an aristocratic land, where contact with the poor is thought to declass and degrade”.
Poverty in General
In the early part of the 19th century, large workhouses were built with the resources of a number of smaller areas acting in union – Union Workhouses resulted, and were, generally speaking, forbidding places. Members of families were segregated. Workhouse clothes were provided; meals were often spartan and eaten in total silence; visitors were not allowed, and smoking and drinking alcohol were forbidden. Yet, although it is easy to criticise the workhouse system, it did at least provide shelter, clothing, a regular, if meagre, diet and burial when people died. Outside the workhouse, conditions for the poorest were often appalling.
In 1801 some £4 million had been spent on a population of 900,000. By 1832, the cost had risen to £6 million for a population of 1.5 million. A Royal Commission in 1832 concluded that too much money was being spent on the poor and that the cost was ruining the country. The resulting Poor Law of 1834 was designed to discourage people from claiming relief.
By 1844, when the infant SVP was set up in England, relief was refused to people except in exchange for work. However, those already in work complained that if work was given to the inmates of the workhouse, there was a loss of employment outside. As a result, the only work available to workhouse inmates was stone-breaking or oakum-picking (untwisting thick old ropes to use for waterproofing ships).
In the next ‘chapter’ we will see how the SVP brought practical aid and support to the poor during times of epidemic illness, including the cholera outbreaks.