Israel Mattuck, 30 June 1917

“Is it well with the child?” (II Kings 4:27)

This question, one of three addressed by the prophet to the Shunammite in the well-known story, is put to the nation today by the circumstances produced by the war and the concern they naturally cause for the nation’s future. The great destruction of the nation’s young men naturally impels consideration as to how this great expenditure of life can in some measure be compensated for for the future. And the thought naturally leads to a consideration of ordinary mortality, its extent and its causes and the possibilities of its reduction. A large percentage of death is among very young children (28.2% of 0-5 in 1911-14). The loss of life among infants within their first year in 1915 is greater than that among the British soldiers in France. Whereas among the latter there were nine lives lost every hour, among infants there were twelve.

To concentrate the nation’s thought upon the matter, the need for saving infant life, to establish an alert public opinion for the recognition of the need to work in this direction, to inculcate zeal and a desire to support such work, are the aims for which the organisation of Baby Week has been planned. We are most of us without that contact with a close view of the conditions affecting the lives of the poor which would themselves stimulate a desire to do something in the direction of amelioration. In other ways, therefore, the facts must be brought to our notice. It is part of our duty as members of society to know what these facts are, and further to do what lies in each one’s power to contend against the evils which are in these facts or underlie them.

The conditions can be briefly described. Of every hundred children born in this country only have a chance of living through the first year and beyond it, and only have any prospect to live after five years. To put it differently, one fifth of the children who are born, die before they even attain to the school age. In the large industrial centres where naturally poorer people live, the conditions are, as might be feared, even worse than these figures depict. The death rate in such boroughs and centres is often times twice as great as in that of more favoured sections. (Shoreditch) Another illuminating but very sad comparison is that in the years 1911 to 1915, upon which all the figures that I have given or will give are based, there were almost as many deaths among infants as among men and women of seventy years or more, so that a child of one has no better chance of life than a man of seventy.

Even this bare statement of a few details is sufficient without argument to indicate that there is something wrong. That inference is further emphasised by a glance at the nature of the diseases which are responsible for a large part of this mortality. They are found to be such as are produced by infection, and if there is one thing medical science has taught us in the past few decades more insistently than anything else, it is that infection is very largely avoidable, and that the incidence of disease can be largely reduced.

On the face of things, therefore, it becomes evident that human neglect is in a large measure responsible for the distressing conditions in the lives of the children. There is firstly the ignorance of the mother. In this respect there is not, we are told, and I think almost everyone of us can substantiate that statement from our own experience, much difference between the poor mother and others. The only difference is that the poor mother cannot afford to buy the necessary advice, so that her ignorance becomes a great element of danger. It were indeed ridiculous, if it were not so sad, to recall some incidents in which this ignorance reveals itself. But I do not think that this, lamentable as itis, is the chief cause. A more prolific source of disease all round, and therefore more dangerous to the health and life of the child, is to be found in those hovels where men, women and children live crowded together without proper sanitation, without anything like an adequate amount of pure air or bright sunshine, without, in short, any measure of those good things which God and man have prepared for the building of human constitutions and the strength in human lives. The poor people live in such hovels because very often there are no better places where they could live with their means. The need for living near their factory pushes them all in one district, which contributes an opportunity for the greedy landlord who, in his eagerness to make as much as he can out of such properties, neglects the arrangements making for health, because he feels that even if he does not make the necessary expenditure he will still find tenants for his disease-breeding rooms. No man who lays claim to the possession of decent morals can be the owner and make money out of such things. The money that is earned from them is coined out of the lives and health of men and women and children. I have been told that not far from us here there are such hovels; they are even so bad that they have been condemned by the County Council; yet people go on living in them, that are owned by Jews. No man has a right to call himself in any sense a good Jew who has any share in such property. More true to Judaism is the case which came to my knowledge recently of some houses bought in South London by a well-known firm whose members are Jews. These houses were all occupied, and the property was bought with the purpose of ultimately erecting a new building. The carrying out of the purpose had to be postponed, but when the new owners saw of the wretched, filthy and insanitary conditions of these houses, they refused to allow anyone to continue to live in them, and were prepared to sacrifice all that that involved. That is an example of loyalty to the moral and social teachings of our faith.

Even a short account and a partial one of the causes of infant mortality cannot end before mention has been made of the general industrial conditions which are responsible for many evils and are directly responsible for a good part of the evils of which I am speaking. I mention only one, a direct way in which the evil affects the welfare of the child. We know that at present industry is so organised that very often a man, even if he gives all that he is capable in work, does not receive a wage adequate to supply even bare necessities for himself, his wife and his children. The result of this is that every member of the family capable of working must take a share in the wage earnings. The mother, whose final function is to take care of the children, who in this way can render her best service to the state, and one in which the state stands ever in constant need of, is forced by these conditions, to leave her home and children and go into the factory or the shop to help earn the family’s daily bread. There is something wrong with the state of society when mothers have to forsake the true function of motherhood and become mere hands in the machine of industry. Part of that evil avenges itself in the loss of infant life and of strength after birth and before birth. The mother, or expectant mother, who has to go out to work cannot take the necessary care of herself and even of very young children; and the results are partly to be read in the appalling figures of infant mortality.

The ultimate remedy or remedies for these conditions lie very deep, and the application of them in full measure, even if we all come to acknowledge these remedies and have begun to move in the direction of them, would be far removed. So that for the present more superficial remedies, perhaps they are only palliatives, must be adopted. They have been adopted and with very good results. There are classes for mothers where ignorance is combatted by instruction in all laws which make for a mother’s and a child’s health. There are infant welfare centres where the poor mother can obtain that advise which her sister who is better off can get for herself. And the band of zealous workers have given much towards the establishment and success of these works and they have the satisfaction of seeing the good fruit of their labour and a great reduction as a result of them has come already in the rate of infant mortality. They have worked to save infant lives and they have done so. The Jews have always been noted for the care, both physical and spiritual of our children. If we have erred, it has not been in the direction of too little care, but too much. And to us the appeal or interest in infant welfare, on behalf of the work to save infant life, for support of these various centres and activities –we have some, as you know, which are especially Jewish- such an appeal must touch their responsive hearts.

If then this organised effort to rouse interest in infant welfare will succeed in obtaining their interest and support for the work now being done in the interests of the child, it will have done much. But we cannot stop here. It will not for the present have achieved its full purpose unless at the same time it rouses the public conscience, to make men and women realise that the death of a child in Shoreditch, through causes that are due to human neglect, and therefore avoidable, must be laid at the door of the state and nation. We want the establishment and the growth of a public opinion that shall become so mightily imbued in the sense of righteousness, that before its power all that is unjust in our society manifesting itself in the heaping of physical and moral and spiritual evils shall be swept away. Then when the nation shall be asked “Is it well with the child?” it will be able to answer “Yes, it is well”.