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Debate On Cleansing The City Of Westminster

Title:     Debate On Cleansing The City Of Westminster
Author: Samuel Johnson [More Titles by Johnson]

HOUSE OF COMMONS, FEB. 24, 1740-1.

Lord TYRCONNEL made a motion for bringing in a bill for the better cleansing and paving the streets of Westminster, and the liberties thereof; in support of which motion he spoke to the following purpose:--

Sir, though the grievance which I am about to lay before the house is not of the most formidable or dangerous kind, yet as it is such as grows every day greater, and such as every day endangers the lives of thousands, I hope it will not be thought useless or improper to propose it to the consideration of this assembly, to offer my thoughts on the methods by which it may be most easily removed, and to endeavour to incite others to the same considerations.

It is impossible, sir, to come to this assembly, or to return from it without observations on the present condition of the streets of Westminster; observations forced upon every man, however inattentive, or however engrossed by reflections of a different kind.

The warmest zeal for publick happiness, the most anxious vigilance against general dangers, must, I believe, sometimes give way to objects of immediate, though of less importance, nor will the most publick-spirited senators deny, that they have often been in the streets alarmed with obstructions, or shocked with nuisances.

The filth, sir, of some parts of the town, and the inequality and ruggedness of others, cannot but in the eyes of foreigners disgrace our nation, and incline them to imagine us a people, not only without delicacy, but without government, a herd of barbarians, or a colony of hottentots.

The most disgusting part of the character given by travellers, of the most savage nations, is their neglect of cleanliness, of which, perhaps, no part of the world affords more proofs, than the streets of the British capital; a city famous for wealth, and commerce, and plenty, and for every other kind of civility and politeness, but which abounds with such heaps of filth, as a savage would look on with amazement.

If that be allowed which is generally believed, that putrefaction and stench are the causes of pestilential distempers, the removal of this grievance may be pressed from motives of far greater weight than those of delicacy and pleasure; and I might solicit the timely care of this assembly for the preservation of inuumerable multitudes, and intreat those, who are watching against slight misfortunes, to unite their endeavours with mine, to avert the greatest and most dreadful of calamities.

Not to dwell, sir, upon dangers, which may, perhaps, be thought only imaginary, I hope that it will be at least considered, how much the present neglect of the pavement is detrimental to every carriage, whether of trade, or pleasure, or convenience, and that those who have allowed so much of their attention to petitions, relating to the roads of the kingdom, the repair of some of which is almost every session thought of importance sufficient to produce debates in this house, will not think the streets of the capital alone unworthy of their regard.

That the present neglect of cleansing and paving the streets is such as ought not to be borne, that the passenger is every where either surprised and endangered by unexpected chasms, or offended or obstructed by mountains of filth, is well known to every one that has passed a single day in this great city; and that this grievance is without remedy is a sufficient proof that no magistrate has, at present power to remove it; for every man's private regard to his own ease and safety, would incite him to exert his authority on this occasion.

I humbly propose, therefore, that a bill may be brought into the house, to enable his majesty's justices of peace for the liberties of Westminster, to inspect the publick ways of this city, and punish the neglect of cleansing and paving them; or that a new officer be appointed, and vested with full authority for the same purpose.

Mr. SANDYS spoke next, to this effect:--Sir, I believe the grievance, so much complained of by the right honourable member, is not difficult to be removed without a new act of the legislature, being, perhaps, more properly to be imputed to the negligence of the justices, than a defect of their authority; for they have already sufficient power to regulate this disorder: and I may be allowed to hope, sir, that they do not want leisure to observe it, for their number is so great, that if we suppose them to be wholly engaged by the common business of their office, a foreigner would have occasion of reproaching us with defects more important than want of delicacy, and might justly censure us as a people corrupt beyond the common rate of human wickedness, a nation divided only into two classes, magistrates and criminals.

But they, in reality, abound so much among us, that most of them are only nominal magistrates, vested with authority which they never exert, or exert to bad purposes, and which it were well if they were obliged to employ in the real service of their country, by superintending the paviers and the scavengers.

For this reason it is unnecessary to erect a new officer, as an inspector of our streets, since every office that is not necessary is pernicious. Were the consequences of this grievance such as they have been represented, I should, perhaps, willingly erect a new office, though I should not be surprised to hear the wisest man declare rather for a pestilence than an increase of officers.

As I neither think the grievance insupportable, nor the methods proposed for removing it necessary or proper, I declare myself against the motion.

Lord GAGE spoke in the following manner:--Sir, as the grievance cannot be denied to be real, and the motion, therefore, may reasonably be imagined to have been made without any other intention than of benefiting the publick by an useful law, I cannot discover any sufficient reason for a rejection so peremptory and contemptuous.

That every man is disgusted, and almost every man daily endangered in our streets, has not been denied; nor will any man, I suppose, question what, if he has not yet experienced it, he may, perhaps, be fully convinced of, in his next visit or excursion.

Those evils, which every man feels, though slight, are worthy of the attention of the legislature; and that danger that threatens multitudes, though distant, ought to be averted: for a small disorder, like a small expense, when it extends to multitudes, becomes a national affair.

But though this motion may, perhaps, be liable to some objections, there is, certainly, no such absurdity to be found in it, as may justify us in rejecting it without examination; to reject a motion when it is first offered, is a proof of prejudice, next to that of rejecting it unheard; it is to determine a question, before it is discussed, or can be fully understood.

Mr. SANDYS replied, in substance as follows:--Sir, I cannot but differ very widely in opinion from the right honourable member that spoke last, with regard to the propriety of opposing a motion when it is first made; a practice, which I can by no means think inconsistent with either decency or prudence, and which would, perhaps, be of use to the publick, if it was more frequent.

When any motion is made, it is subjected to the consideration of this assembly, and every member is at full liberty to examine and discuss it. If it appears to deserve farther attention, it may be admitted, but if the subject be either improper or unseasonable, or the measures proposed injudicious or dangerous, it is then to be rejected; and if it is at last to be rejected, it is apparent that no time ought to be thrown away upon it.

The hours, and days, and weeks, that have been improfitably spent upon bills which after all our endeavours could not be passed; the delays of real benefits to the publick, which have been produced by long pursuits of shadowy advantages, have inclined me to a more expeditious method of proceeding, and determined me speedily to reject what I cannot hope to amend.

[The question being put, passed in the negative, 142 against 109.]

[The end]
Samuel Johnson's Writing: Debate On Cleansing The City Of Westminster