What Is A Beggar

On Saturday, 11th of February, 1911, The Illustrated London News issued the following article, written by the author G. K. Chesterton, which was a response to a recent case in which a magistrate had suggested that, mot only should beggars be prosecuted, but so to should those who gave alms to beggars.


“The other day, a British magistrate placidly proposed, apparently in so many words, that not only beggars should be punished, but also anyone who gives to beggars.

Legally, this may be stated in the following two judgments: (1) that every poor man may be presumed to be deceiving; (2) that every rich man may be presumed to be wilfully deceived. The first opinion, if not quite logically clear, is quite legally established. The second is new, and seems even slightly improbable.

I wish I knew what that magistrate meant. Does he mean that it is a crime to give help where it is needed? Or does he mean that it is a crime to make a mistake about where it is needed? On either line of thought, I should enjoy watching him draft the Act of Parliament.

This is a moral matter, on which we must get our ideas clear; and I propose to clear my own ideas and yours, whether you like it or not.


What is a beggar? A beggar is a man who asks help from another man solely in the name of something extraneous but common – as kinship or charity, the Fatherhood of God, or the brotherhood of man.

He does not ask for the bread because he can at once give you the money, as in commerce. He does not ask for the bread because he will soon be able to pass you the mustard, as in Society. He asks you for the bread because you are supposed to be under an ancient law of pity, by which (as it is written) if a man ask you for bread you will not give him a stone.

That is what a beggar is. He is a man who begs. That is, he is a man who asks without any clear power of return, except the opportunity he offers you to fulfil your own ideals.

Thus, a man drowning in midocean is a beggar; a man hailing wildly from a desert island is a beggar; a total stranger cast up on an alien coast (as any of us who like yachting might be any day) is a beggar. That is to say, any help extended to them must rest solely on the fact that they have the human form or the appearance of agony.


It cannot possibly rest on any assumption that they will pay it back in service to the State.

The man drowning in the sea might be Jack the Ripper. The man hailing from the desert island might be Peter the Painter.

As for the man wrecked from the yacht  – well, really, if you think of some of the people who go about in yachts, you will feel that Jack the Ripper and Peter the Painter are pillars of the commonwealth in comparison.

Briefly, any person, in any position, is beggar who has nothing but thanks to give for a service.


It is unnecessary to say what we do to such people when they are poor that is, when we are practically sure – that they will never have anything to give but the thanks. We jail them like thieves.

To anyone who really respects our modern law (if there is anyone who respects it) the phrase must sound strangely and even weirdly optimistic.

The sacred text takes for granted that a common man, if asked for bread, will not give a stone. But when a man asks for bread, we pelt him with stones. Nay, we do more than pelt him, we surround him with stones; we brick him in and bury him with stones.


When next you or I pass one of our great modern prisons, let us lift up our eyes to those polished, flat interminable walls. Let is admit the calm enormity and the calm weight of those serried and cemented rocks.

And then let us remember that many men must be sealed inside them simply because they asked for food.

It has the horrible felicity of some Scriptural prophecy. They aske for bread; and they received –  these stones.


So far, all is simple.

A beggar is any man who asks in the name of charity, like a drowning man, or a man on a desert island.

But the first man may be a drowning Duke; the second man may own many other islands, by no means desert.

In big civilisations, however, crowded and full of familiar custom, we come to know pretty quickly when a man is really poor, when he will probably never be able to repay us other than with gratitude.

Then, we put him in jail.


That is all quite simple,  if scarcely with a Christian simplicity.

But what is far from simple is this new, portentous proposal that the rich man should share with the poor man the same pulverising punishment; justly due to both because they have both been equal partners in the act of Christian charity.

Hitherto our law has given a special and hideous meaning to the sentence, “It is better to give than to receive.”

In the slums of London or Glasgow this has, indeed, been true. To give only meant being blamed by economists. To receive meant being walked off by policemen.

But if the alms-giver is to be punished too, we shall really see tremendous larks.

As far as I can see, all the generous rich will be put in jail, leaving only the mean rich to govern the State, a condition to which we have, indeed, through many causes, been tending, but which we never thought would be completed and crowned by such a coup – d’ etat as this.


Already to ask is a crime, though it is not a sin. Now, apparently, to give is a crime, though it is actually a virtue. But, indeed, any such nonsense can be stopped and answered by one quite simple question.

All this cold, fishy philosophy about the wrongness of giving prompt and personal help to the poor arose nearly a century ago, when people really believed in “science” and scientific keys to social life.

Before that time, philanthropy had been mainly personal, and perhaps excessively so.

About that time men began to enrich hospitals and soup-kitchens and organised charities generally; so that when they said, “do not give to beggars,” they also meant (to do them justice), “do give to hospitals, soup – kitchens, etc.”

If a man refused a penny to a starving vagabond, at least there was a box somewhere into which he could drop it safely.

Is there a box now into which he can drop it safely? The answer is, unfortunately, that there are very few.

The red box with Remember The Poor's Box written in white lettering on its front.
The 18th century Remember The Poor’s Box, St Bartholomew’s Hospital.


Of course, just as there are honest beggars there are honest charities. Of course, there are settlements that have genuinely settled, as there are tramps that have genuinely tramped. But we are talking about confidence, as in Consols or the Derby favourite.

And the plain fact is that some modern men have as much difficulty in believing in organised charity as they have in believing in their own personal charity. Why should a man send five shillings to the secretary of a society, instead of giving it to a navvy asking for a bed? He has seen the navvy. He has never seen the Secretary.

Some schemes of organised charity declare that every other scheme does more harm than good. There are stupid organisers as well as stupid alms-givers.


I therefore ask the magistrate quite simply, “What am I to do?” Before I go to prison for the many occasions upon which I have given money in the street, let him tell where I ought to have given the money.

I shall continue to keep my money for anyone I meet who looks as if he required it.”