14th January 1834. Hard Times.

Dickens could have have described the horrors if Victorian England in a series of radical polemics. But he chose to encourage social reform in some of the finest novels ever written.

In education for example where children are exposed to the remorseless grind of early Victorian education as portrayed in Hard Times, where the antidote to Gradgrind‘s ‘facts, facts and facts’ was Slearys Circus with its freedom and a chance to ‘fancy’, a need then as now.


The utilitarian nature of education was parodied in Hard Times (1854) with Coketown’s Gradgrind who says to Cecilia Jupe that ‘she mustn’t fancy: ’Facts, Facts Facts!’ was all that was required.

One scandal exposed was the existence of Yorkshire schools where the wealthy discarded children as Nicholas Nickleby were condemned to Dotheboys School and the ministrations of the malevolent Wackford Squeers.

Regarding workhouse conditions he exposed the iniquitous 1834 Act in Oliver Twist where we read of Fagin’s welcome of Oliver Twist: ‘We are very glad to see you’, then given sausages, hot gin and coffee and was probably the only person to have played with him, despite its being a game of how to steal handkerchiefs.

A moving fictional account, but only reflecting the way waifs and strays were ‘used’ and employed and reflecting real life as recorded in The Times Today in 1834.

This recorded the case of Edward Trabshaw, ‘An intelligent boy aged 10 years’ who had run away and taken up by Murphy’s son a ‘copper coloured lad’ about 13 years old-who met the youngster and took him to his father’s ‘Fagin’s Den’.(1)

Articles such as this would have inspired Dickens’ Artful Dodger, Jack Dawkins who introduced Oliver to the Jewish, Fagin, a leader of boys who stole watches and handkerchiefs.

Dawkins was also the agent for the burglar Bill Sikes, an associate of Nancy who like many at the time, was forced into prostitution, and murdered for siding with Oliver.

Children then would have been inveigled into many ‘specialisms’: foysters (pickpockets), nyppers (cutpurses), hookers (theft via windows), abtams feigned lunacy, then there were fingerers, cross-biters, cozeners.

Many would have been children cast out onto the streets for whatever reason, becoming like Oliver, a charge on the parish.(2)

Chapman and Hall . 1885 Edition.

Chapman and Hall . 1885 Edition of Oliver Twist.









Dickens after the publication of the Children’s Employment Commission 1843 thought to write an ‘Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child’, instead he wrote The Christmas Carol exposing the miserly wages paid to Bob Crachit, the effect on the family at a time when the average mortality was 22 year for the poor and half the funerals in London were for the under ten year old.

Young children were employed in many unregulated areas as on the stage, particularly in Pantomime and Millicent Fawcett was behind legislation to ensure protection from exploitation.

Here again Dicken’s takes up the cudgels with his ‘Infant Phenomenon’ in ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ (1838). It was an exploitation which Fawcett said was ‘as much as in the mines, and exposed children to spiritual risk from working in an unhallowed profession’.

The SPCA, now RSPCA was founded in 1824: the NSPCA was founded in 1883, a timely reminder of how we value animals and humans.

Many, as Margaret Thatcher, talked about a desire of returning to Victorian values, a romantic idea more reminiscent of the polite drawing room than the slum, multi-tenanted cellar.

(1) Fagin is the name of a boy who worked with Dickens in the blacking factory and was Irish rather than Jewish (as Riah was in Our Mutual Friend).

(2) Dickens’ subtitle of Oliver Twist (1838), was ‘A Parish Boy’s Progress’, in a novel which describes the horrors resulting from the repressive Poor-law Act 1834 and its workhouses.

Ref: victoriannovels.org/authors/dickens.

Ref:BBC-h2g2-A Christmas Carol.

Ref:A Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission 1842.

Ref: inkpellett/Pic of Hard Times.

Ref: Alamy/Pics.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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