Charles Dickens: prison reformer, scourge of capitalists, champion of the poor

Rosalind Crone highlights four ways in which righteous anger fuelled Charles Dickens’ social crusades

Charles Dickens used his novels as a platform from which to attack the injustices that he believed blighted 19th-century Britain. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)


1

At war with the workhouse

From the pages of novels such as Oliver Twist, Dickens savaged the injustices meted out to the impoverished – and at the top of his hit-list was the infamous New Poor Law

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“Please, Sir, I want some more.” Charles Dickens’ portrayal of Oliver Twist approaching the master and asking him, timorously, for a second helping of gruel is surely one of the most famous scenes in all of 19th-century literature.

When Dickens wrote these words in the 1830s, huge celebrity and vast fortune still lay in the future. Instead the author was thinking of the here and now – in particular, the plight of the most impoverished Britons. Dickens was determined to savage the terrible injustices he saw unfolding around him, and did that so effectively that he soon secured a reputation as a spokesman for the poor.

Dickens’ righteous anger, voiced so elegantly in his second novel, didn’t spring from nowhere; it was brought bubbling to the surface by the New Poor Law. Passed in 1834, at a time of expanding poverty, this legislation curtailed the provision of outdoor relief, giving those who fell on hard times the starkest of choices: to enter the workhouse, where they would be provided with food and shelter but subjected to a harsh regime, or to take their chances outside without assistance.

Dickens’ writings on urban slum life exposed the rich to the poverty that existed in their midst

Via a series of articles, Dickens launched a scathing attack on the cruelties inflicted by this system through the story of a child systematically mistreated in the workhouse simply for being orphaned and unwanted. The articles evolved into a serialised novel that even captured the attention of Queen Victoria. One journalist claimed that Oliver Twist had made such an impression that promoters of the New Poor Law had to go “about lecturing for the purpose of counteracting the effect”.

Too tainted for squalor

Dickens’ writing also contained vivid descriptions of urban slum life, which exposed affluent Britons to the poverty that existed in their midst. Readers of Oliver Twist were shocked to discover that Jacob’s Island, a south London neighbourhood crammed with houses “so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor”, actually existed!

At the same time, Dickens sought to humanise the poor, to elicit the sympathy of readers. Few could fail to be moved by the plight of the Cratchit family in A Christmas Carol, struggling to survive on meagre wages, yet still full of warmth and affection.

Dickens warned readers of the consequences of poverty. He was fearful of the potential for revolution (the devastation of which he dramatised in A Tale of Two Cities) and of an upsurge in crime.

Oliver Twist asks for more gruel, in one of the most famous scenes of 19th-century literature. Dickens’ second novel laid bare the cruelties of workhouses in the 1830s. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)
Oliver Twist asks for more gruel, in one of the most famous scenes of 19th-century literature. Dickens’ second novel laid bare the cruelties of workhouses in the 1830s. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

Government intervention was essential, he contended. Dickens campaigned for the provision of state schooling to prevent crime, and for the establishment of reformatories to save juvenile offenders. “Woe, woe! Can the state devise no better sentence for its little children?” he wrote, when he heard that two boys had been whipped for stealing a loaf of bread. “Will it never sentence them to be taught?”

Dickens had less sympathy for adult offenders. Once criminal propensities had been formed, he argued, they should be “crushed like savage beasts and cleared out of the way”. Not everyone agreed with this uncompromising stance. As early as 1851, even the poor were questioning Dickens’ support for their cause. “Mr Dickens was a favourite,” an itinerant street seller told the social investigator Henry Mayhew, “but he has gone down sadly in the scale.”

2

Writing in the shadow of death

Dickens was in the thick of an intense debate about the punishment of Britain’s criminals

No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness, nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness and flaunting vice in 50 other shapes.” When, in July 1840, Dickens attended the public execution of François Courvoisier for the murder of Lord William Russell, the reaction of the crowd that gathered to gawp at the spectacle left the author both shocked and appalled.

The punishment of criminals was transformed during Dickens’s lifetime. His condemnation of capital punishment for minor offences in Barnaby Rudge (1841) was published at the end of the dismantlement of the notorious ‘Bloody Code’. By the 1840s, the capital sanction remained for just a handful of serious offences, and in practice only murderers were hanged.


Listen: Historian Emma Griffin, author of the new book Bread Winner, explores how economic changes in 19th-century Britain affected family life for working class Victorians


But as Dickens discovered when he, along with some 30,000 others, gathered outside Newgate Prison to watch Courvoisier hang, the relative rarity of a public execution only increased its appeal.

Despite the “particular detestation” that he felt towards Courvoisier, Dickens concluded an editorial letter penned for the Daily News with a plea for the “total aboli- tion of the Punishment of Death, as a general principle, for the advantage of society, [and] for the prevention of crime”.

Just three years later, Dickens had changed his mind. His letters to The Times on the execution of the murderers Frederick and Maria Manning pressed for the privati- sation of hanging, rather than its total abolition. While his new position attracted the ire of campaigners, Dickens was not out of step with his contemporaries, many of whom had retreated from a position of complete abolition in the hope of achieving a change in the law.

Suffering in silence

Dickens also become embroiled in a controversy over prison discipline that erupted in the late 1830s. The desire to exert greater control over prisoners through the elimination of contact between them led to the emergence of two rival systems: silence and separation. In late 1842, Dickens published his account of a visit to Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia, where the purest form of separate confinement was practised. Inmates were locked in solitary cells, sometimes for years, with their Bibles and work, the slow march of time punctuated only by occasional visits from moral agents. “I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong,” he wrote. Solitary confinement was a mental torture which led to insanity.

Dickens was among the crowd at the hanging of François Courvoisier in 1840 (depicted here in a contemporary newspaper) and was appalled by his fellow spectators’ behaviour. (Photo by Bridgman)
Dickens was among the crowd at the hanging of François Courvoisier in 1840 (depicted here in a contemporary newspaper) and was appalled by his fellow spectators’ behaviour. (Photo by Bridgman)

Dickens’ travelogue American Notes (1842) appeared in the months before the opening of Pentonville Prison, which shared Eastern Penitentiary’s faith in solitary confinement and religious instruction. Dickens’ opposition to such practices remained undimmed. An intensive focus on the soul of the individual, he observed, encouraged a “strange, absorbing selfish- ness – a spiritual egotism and vanity”. Prisoners were either deceiving themselves, or hoodwinking chaplains.

Dickens’ critique reached a climax in the final instalment of his serialised novel David Copperfield, when the hero pays a visit to a thinly disguised Pentonville and encounters Uriah Heep, performing the role of the penitent prisoner. The “rattling fun of the caricature told powerfully on the British public”, prison reformer Walter Clay later wrote, hastening the demise of the obsession with solitary confinement.

3

Industrialised misery

Dickens reserved some of his most scathing attacks for capitalists who put profits over people

By the 1830s, northern England had become home to a new, industrial landscape. Factories dominated the skylines of towns that were rapidly expanding with the influx of new workers. Long hours, dangerous working conditions and the unregulated employment of women and children created anxiety among social elites.

In 1838, Dickens signalled his support for legislation restricting the labour of women and adolescents to 10 hours a day. After visiting several factories in Manchester, which “disgusted and astonished me beyond all measure”, he wrote of his intention to “strike the heaviest blow in my power” against the factory system. One of his next novels, The Old Curiosity Shop (serialised from 1840), included a frightening account of an industrial town through which Nell and her grandfather were forced to travel.

Dickens wrote of his intention to “strike the heaviest blow in my power” against the factory system

However, Dickens’ tour of America in 1842 fostered ambivalence. Seduced by scenes of well-dressed and prosperous female factory workers, who had pianos in their boarding houses and subscriptions to a circulating library, he praised the factories he encountered in Lowell, Massachusetts in his American Notes. Subsequent public speeches also expressed pride in the achievements and potential of British industry.

Metal is processed with a steam-hammer, in an 1842 engraving. In his novel The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens painted a grim picture of the impact of industrialisation on workers’ lives. (Photo by Mary Evans)
Metal is processed with a steam-hammer, in an 1842 engraving. In his novel The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens painted a grim picture of the impact of industrialisation on workers’ lives. (Photo by Mary Evans)

When Dickens finally produced an ‘industrial novel’ – Hard Times – in 1854, he attacked the cultures of industrialism rather than factory work per se. Coketown – its ugliness and monotony, and the lack of individuality of its inhabitants – was the product of crude utilitarianism and laissez-fair capitalism, philosophies embodied in the novel’s two villains. The factory owner Mr Bounderby is a despicable self-made man who views his workers solely as commodities, or ‘hands’. For the local businessman Mr Gradgrind, there is nothing of value in life but facts and figures.

Dickens also expressed little sympathy for the striking workers – like other middle-class writers, he feared their revolutionary potential. They did not, he suggested, need better wages, but more fulsome lives. They needed, in other words, to have some fun.

4

Getting serious with the fun police

The author vigorously opposed the new social elite that turned up its nose at traditional, working-class entertainments

Dickens revealed his tremendous love of entertainment in his first popular serial, Sketches by Boz, which contained vignettes of the various amusements available in London for those in search of fun. But Dickens was living through an age of significant change in the leisure world, occasioned by the shift from an agrarian to an urban and indus- trial society. This transformation limited the spaces and opportunities for traditional entertainments – thanks, in large part, to the new, respectable social elite’s conviction that popular amusements were vulgar and debasing.

This George Cruikshank illustration for Dickens’ Sketches by Boz shows actors in a ‘private theatre’. The writer argued that the march of industrialisation had made popular entertainments more important than ever. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
This George Cruikshank illustration for Dickens’ Sketches by Boz shows actors in a ‘private theatre’. The writer argued that the march of industrialisation had made popular entertainments more important than ever. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

In 1836, Dickens attacked the Sabbatarian movement – which aimed to dramatically restrict the availability of leisure on Sundays to enforce religious observance – with his pamphlet Sunday Under Three Heads. Four years later, The Old Curiosity Shop captured the plight of itinerant showmen – Punch and Judy men, stilt walkers, conjurors, freaks and waxworks proprietors – who, with precarious incomes and under the threat of suppression, were fighting for survival. “Many’s the hard day’s walking in rain and mud,” explained Short, the Punchman, “and with never a penny earned.”

Yet, as Sleary, the circus proprietor, explained to Gradgrind and Bounderby in Hard Times, “People must be amuthed… they can’t be alwayth a working, nor yet they can’t be alwayth a learning. Make the betht of uth; not the wurtht.” The monotony of factory life and industrial culture, Dickens argued, made popular entertainment more essential than ever. Amusement provided an outlet for the imagination, the suppression of which would be destructive to humanity.

Heap of nonsense

Quality mattered too. As old forms of entertainment declined, new ones emerged to fill the gap, but Dickens was critical of their content.

He attacked those who wanted to restrict leisure on Sunday in favour of religious observance

Articles published in his periodicals Household Words and All the Year Round during the 1850s and 1860s described the theatrical entertainments frequented by the labouring classes as “an incongruous heap of nonsense”. New showmen exploited the people’s need for entertain- ment, offering them nothing that was uplifting or educative. At the same time, alternative “rational recreations” left the people unsatisfied. “There is a range of imagination in most of us, which no amount of steam-engines will satisfy; and which The-great-exhibition-of-the-works-of-industry-of-all-nations, itself, will probably leave unappeased.” In short, society was singularly failing to provide the masses with the quality of entertainment that their imaginations demanded – and deserved.

Rosalind Crone is a senior lecturer in history at the Open University

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This article was first published in the July 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine