Did Charles Dickens really save poor children and clean up the slums?

By Matthew Davis
BBC News Magazine


From the orphan begging for more in Oliver Twist to the heartless Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens highlighted poverty and squalor. But did he really help change things?

It's an adjective that still echoes down the ages. Need to emphasise the filth and squalor of a rundown housing estate or prison? It's Dickensian.

Children's trust abused or criminal underclass exposed? Invoke Oliver Twist and Fagin.

The law is an ass? No need to reach for the dictionary, Dickens has it covered.

His books have not been out of print since the 1830s and his characters and causes continue to live large in contemporary imaginations. If you assumed Dickens's effect on reform matched his renown, you might imagine he single-handedly dragged Victorian Britain up by its bootstraps.

But - perhaps surprisingly to the layman - the generally accepted view from historians is that while Dickens's was a mighty voice, he did not influence social reform as much as he is widely assumed to have done.

"Although in his journalism and novels he attacked specific targets - Poor Law legislation in Oliver Twist, the brutal Yorkshire schools in Nicholas Nickleby, the law [Pickwick Papers and Bleak House], government bureaucracy, lethargy and nepotism in Little Dorrit, extremist utilitarianism in Hard Times - it's hard to trace any direct consequences on reformist legislation in any of those areas to Dickens's influence," argues Prof Malcolm Andrews, editor of the Dickensian, journal of the Dickens Fellowship.

Charles Dickens was born in 1812 into a volatile period often referred to as the Age of Reform, where industrialisation was rapidly reshaping Britain, and legislators were - more than ever - struggling to adapt to the demands of a changing population.

He was born in the era of the stagecoach, but when he died in 1870 had witnessed the birth of the railways, the telegraph and the steamship.

During that time the population of London alone had exploded from one million, to three times that figure, with all its attendant social ills.

Dr Heather Shore, a social history expert at Leeds Metropolitan University, describes the period of the 1830s and 1840s as one in which a great deal of "big society"-type activity was undertaken.

Image caption,
Crime, social class and ambition are recurring themes in Dickens's novels

During those years a raft of legislation governing everything from child labour, working conditions in factories, the treatment of the poor, to public health and sanitation was passed.

From 1831-32, Dickens was a reporter for the Mirror of Parliament - an early Hansard competitor - and witnessed much of the national debate that led to the Great Reform Act of 1832, which is said to have opened the door to modern democracy.

A few years later he burst onto the literary scene - first with The Pickwick Papers (1836) but then with Oliver Twist (1837) where his attack on the workhouse system and realistic portrayal of a criminal underclass "captured the zeitgeist", Dr Shore says.

"You've already got a debate going on about juvenile crime, you've already got quite a lot of reform happening on the ground and attempts to establish a juvenile justice system - but all of a sudden he moves the debate on because now people, when they want to talk about criminal children they can think about the Artful Dodger - they know who these children are through Dickens's fiction."

Oliver Twist also highlights the rank poverty of the inner cities - particularly when the plot moves to Jacob's Island, " the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London " where the houses were "so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor".

There was uproar when it emerged this was not mere fiction, but a dismal place that actually existed on the south bank of the Thames.

Hugh Cunningham, professor of social history at the University of Kent, argues that while Dickens "helped create a climate of opinion", he did not articulate a "coherent doctrine" of how society should be reformed - and that the author was at times as much in danger of being seen as a conservative as a radical.

With Hard Times (1854) - a critique of the political theory of utilitarianism which holds that the proper course of action is the one that seeks the greatest good for the greatest number of people - Dickens set himself against thinkers like Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Malthus and Adam Smith and their influence on government policy.

Likewise, argues Cunningham, Dickens shared the Victorian establishment's fear of the mob - publishing Barnaby Rudge (1840) as a critique of mob action.

The author had no sympathy for the working class Chartist labour movement and he was certainly no trade unionist. He favoured "strong prison discipline for those who broke the law".

His contribution to the education debate was less on the role of the state and more on "the way in which the ethos of a school and the quality of teaching could make or mar a child".

"[He was] certainly alive to the issues posed by child labour in the new work situation of the industrial revolution, but it is striking that none of his child heroes or victims was directly involved in such work," Prof Cunningham suggests.

Media caption,
Dickens's novels were influenced by the people and places he encountered in Southwark, south east London.

Dickens may not have had an overarching vision of how to reform society, but he was a philanthropist, spending more than a decade on a project to help destitute girls and young women in mid-19th Century London.

Supported by the banking heiress Angela Burdett Coutts, he established Urania Cottage - a safe house for young women in Shepherd's Bush where they were taken from lives of prostitution and crime and trained for useful employment.

Dickens's brother-in-law was one of the founders of the Health of Towns Association, and in his journalism Dickens argued passionately for the reform of housing and sanitation of the poor.

His own schooling was interrupted by his family's financial plight, and he saw education as a vital ingredient in the fight against crime, vociferously supporting the Ragged Schools - charitable institutions set up to educate destitute children.

A Christmas Carol began - says Andrews - with Dickens's idea of issuing a pamphlet in response to horrific accounts of child labour in mines and factories.

But he put that aside in favour of a Christmas story, "a fable to highlight the callous indifference of the rich towards what should be their social responsibilities - the idea that we are all one family and should care for others", says Andrews.

Lord Jeffrey, austere editor of the Edinburgh Review, is typical of the powerful response people had to the work.

He wrote: "Blessings on your kind heart... you may be sure you have done more good by this little publication, fostered more kindly feelings, and prompted more positive acts of beneficence, than can be traced to all the pulpits and confessionals in Christendom."

"That," suggests Andrews, "is the measure of Dickens's appeal to the heart for the cause he stood for."

It is a sentiment too that reverberates today.

Amid celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Dickens's birth, the actor Simon Callow wrote of him this week: "The reason I love him so deeply is that, having experienced the lower depths, he never ceased, till the day he died, to commit himself, both in his work and in his life, to trying to right the wrongs inflicted by society, above all, perhaps by giving the dispossessed a voice.

"From the moment he started to write, he spoke for the people, and the people loved him for it, as do I."

Additional reporting by Lauren Everitt

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