When Scrooge asked, “Are there no prisons?” the men replied, “Plenty of prisons.” There were plenty, with more on the drawing board. Between 1842 and 1877, two to three prisons a year were either built or enlarged through a dedicated construction initiative.
But in the courts, due process was multilayered, often unevenly, in how it dealt with the accused. Judith Flanders in The Invention of Murder makes the case that the wealthy upper and middle classes generally received preferential treatment from the courts when compared to the poor who were all too often more harshly treated.
General Victorian attitudes about wealth and poverty are indicated in the third verse of the Anglican hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, written in 1848 by Cecil Frances Alexander, the wife of the Archbishop of Armagh, to wit:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high, or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
This verse, which tacitly supported social stratification, was frequently criticised. However, it must be acknowledged that social and political hierarchies have always, to a lesser or greater degree, been inextricably entwined within all cultures and ages of mankind.
And in regard to the “high or lowly” being “ordered” by God, Mrs. Alexander may have taken her cue from St. Ignatius who avowed: “Even in the angels there is subordination of one hierarchy to another, and all the bodies that are moved, the lowest by the highest, and the highest in their turn, unto the supreme mover of all.”
Until this verse was replaced, omitted or banned (the Inner London Education Authority banned it in 1982) from hymnals, it was fervently sung in Sunday schools and churches for many generations.
But all that aside, punitive measures dispensed to felons included transportation to several of Britain’s colonies or confinement on hulks, floating prisons which presented an entirely different form of incarceration. Between 1782 and 1875 at least 66 hulks were used to house convicts both beyond and within England’s waters, which included the River Thames and the ports of Portsmouth and Plymouth.
Over a span of decades, at least eight were anchored in Bermuda where their prisoners engaged in quarrying and construction until this was temporarily halted by a series of yellow fever outbreaks. Transmitted by a mosquito bite, the illness derives its name from jaundice that results when the virus invades the liver.
Infected convicts lay listlessly in their bunks on the HMS Dromedary. Masts had been dismantled and replaced by a roof to cover the upper deck. It now sat anchored near Ireland Island. The mood of the prisoners was sombre, silence broken by groans of victims in profound distress. The stench was as oppressive as the stifling heat of a Bermuda high summer. The men were terrified. Some repented their sins loudly. “Old Scratch” hovered nearby, eager to transport their souls to the bowels of hell. Scores of convicts had already died, spewing blood which also dripped from their noses and eyes. Hope had abandoned them.
Originally named Howe before being rechristened Dromedary in 1808, it had been converted in 1819 to a convict ship before transformation into a prison hulk moored off the island in 1825. From 1814 to 1875, a series of hulks in Bermudian waters quartered thousands of convicts, particularly those serving seven-year sentences or longer.
The Illustrated London News of June 17, 1848, noted that while Bermuda’s climate was salubrious, the island frequently had outbreaks of yellow fever, and that in 1843 it claimed a significant number of convicts on the hulks. In addition to prisoners who succumbed to yellow fever, arising from outbreaks in 1843, 1853, 1858 and 1864, more than a thousand Bermudian civilians and military personnel based on the island also perished. The Dromedary remained in the island’s waters for almost 40 years until broken up in 1864 and sunk.
Following the 1853 Penal Servitude Act, only long-term transportation continued. Four years later the practice was abolished. But it would take another decade before it truly ceased. Transportation was another method utilised to punish miscreants and flush criminal elements from civil society. Begun in the eighteenth century, it was considered cheaper than incarcerating criminals in homeland prisons. Convicts were turfed out of Britain and sent to various British colonies to serve their sentences. Many were shipped to penal colonies in America, but at the end of the American War of Independence (1775-1783) the newly-minted nation turned both thumbs down to accepting British criminals. New South Wales in Australia was chosen as an alternative.
Between 1788 and 1868 more than 100,000 convicts and undesirables, including women of so-called dubious nature, were transported to Australia, many for trivial offences. Only a handful would see England again. (Various felons sentenced to transportation to Australia appear in several of Dickens’ novels, among them the brutal Wickford Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby and Uriah Heep in David Copperfield.)
No matter how harsh the measures adopted by the penal system, unsavory elements continued to plague Victorian society. Their crimes etched a widening stain on the complex tapestry of British life. With little education, no prospect of employment, a diminishing light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, and indeed for many no tunnel at all, the desperate felt little recourse but to take by force or stealth what they were unable to legally earn.
A kind and pleasant time
The Victorian era was in great measure the mother of Christmas as we know it today. Two features—Christmas trees and Christmas cards—are cultural offsprings of adaptations to yuletide festivities.
Dickens describes Christmas as a “kind, forgiving and pleasant time”. Across much of the English-speaking world, as Christmas Eve beckons, movies of A Christmas Carol erupt on television with various actors playing the miserly skinflint (the
one starring Alistair Sim is superb). They comfortably fill a niche in our Christmas élan.
But there is one living thing that occupies a centrepiece in Christmas celebrations, the Christmas tree. Much revolves around it: gifts and toys placed beneath, a star or angel set on its pinnacle, colourful decorations and lights creatively arranged on and around its branches. For many families it is the decorating that helps bring their members together. It is a pleasant time.
In A Christmas Carol, at the Christmas party thrown by old Fezziwig, the warehouse was cleared, and as Dickens writes, “every movable was packed off, as if it were dismissed from public life for evermore; the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug, warm, and dry, and as bright a ballroom as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.”
As a fiddler played, the more than 40 attendees conversed, laughed and danced. There was negus (a hot mixture of port, lemon, sugar, and spice), meat, mince pies and “plenty of beer”. But there was no tree or thought of one.
Although British royalty and wealthy nobles were not unfamiliar with bringing trees indoors as part of their Christmas celebrations, it would take many years before this icon of yuletide became integral within the general populace. Most Britons were accustomed to decorating with holly and mistletoe, and burning a “yule log” for warmth.
While Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, is credited with the introduction of Christmas trees (a German custom) to England in the 1840s, Queen Charlotte, the consort of King George III who ascended the throne in 1760, is reputed to have brought yew trees indoors at Christmas. The yew tree, associated with the Druids—ancient Celtic priests—was regarded not only as a protector against evil, but also as a symbol of renewal and transformation.
Greeting cards were also unfamiliar to the English masses although popular in many European countries. In 1843, entrepreneur Sir Henry Cole discussed with illustrator John Calcott Horsley the feasibility of creating a Christmas card. Collaborating, they designed a triptych, the centre panel portraying a Victorian family at Christmas celebrations, the outer panels revealing non-Scroogelike personages caring for the destitute. At least a thousand black-and-white and colour cards were lithographed and sold. Today only about a dozen or so are believed to exist, their worth valued in the thousands of British pounds or Bermuda dollars.
Not until later in the nineteenth century did Christmas and greeting cards achieve widespread use in England, their popularity influenced in no small part by their comparative novelty and the introduction of cheaper mailing costs.
Shun the path I tread
Christmas, a melting pot of pagan and religious customs, is not only a time for gifts, Christmas trees and greeting cards, it is also a time for feasting. So it was with the Victorian upper and middle classes, the Cratchits included. Dickens’ lens offers some insight into a typical lower- middle-class family of his period.
The Cratchits were not destitute, but had just enough to get by. Bob was employed and “had a situation in his eye for Master Peter”, the elder son. This job prospect, if realised, would bring in “five-and sixpence weekly”. Not much, but any addition to the family coffers would have been welcomed.
And there is Martha, the elder daughter, who was “a poor apprentice at a milliner’s”. The apprenticeship system allowed young boys and some girls to be placed with a “master” or “mistress” for training in a specific discipline. With England’s burgeoning population, expanding desires for a wider range of products and services opened new opportunities for apprentices.
Millinery and dressmaking were among the few occupations open to female apprentices (usually aged between 14 and 20). Having Martha taken under the wing of a professional would have cost Bob anywhere up to £40. Whatever the amount, he obviously paid it, but not without sacrifice. His own clothes were “thread bare”, thanks in part to boss Scrooge who guarded his sterling like a human equivalent of Fort Knox.
The Cratchits “were not a handsome family. They were not well-dressed; their shoes were far from being waterproof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very well likely did, the inside of a pawnbrokers…but they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time.”
Dickens may arguably have stretched romantic license just a tad when he paints the family as “happy, grateful, and contented”, particularly when one considers that Tiny Tim’s illness forced him to need “a little crutch” with “his limbs supported by an iron frame”; he spoke “feebly” and had a “withered little hand”. And Bob feared his son would not see another Christmas.
But Tiny Tim, in regard to those who saw him in church, stated that “It might be pleasant for them to remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”
Crippled Tim clung steadfastly to hope.
In the company of the Ghost of Christmas Present, who had conveyed him to the Cratchits’ four-room house as they celebrated, Scrooge witnessed his clerk’s family and their appreciation for the goose that held pride of place on their dinner table.
Roasted goose was popular for Victorians at Christmas. Londoners like the Cratchits were familiar with goose clubs through which a person would each week render a few pence to an innkeeper, butcher, landlord or even a salesman at Covent
Garden Market as described in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
By Christmas they would have earned a goose, a number of which were raised in Norfolk, slightly more than a hundred miles from London. The geese, unbelievably, were walked the distance from Norfolk to London, their feet protected by tar, their destination the London poultry markets. Turkeys as well had to endure the long march, feet covered with leather.
Most city folk did not have the capability to cook big birds, so their goose or turkey was taken to bakers who had large ovens equipped to cook a customer’s fancy. When Mrs. Cratchit cut into the goose, “Tiny Tim beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried, Hurrah!”
Of note, Dickens had considered other names—Puny Pete, Little Larry, Small Sam—before settling on Tiny Tim. A wise decision. Imagine, Puny Pete?
When Scrooge was taken from the scene, he had begun the transformation desired for him by Marley’s ghost, who had earlier informed him to expect the three spirits.
“Without their visits,” Marley had said, “You cannot hope to shun the path I tread.”
Laid down by brutal ignorance
In part of his speech at the Athenaeum, Dickens pointedly chastised the inclination of many of the fortunate to castigate criminal elements without considering what fomented their transgressions. Uppermost was his contention that the educationally deprived poor, not necessarily through their own volition, were forced into a life of hardship.
“How often have we heard…as an allconvincing argument, that a little learning is a dangerous thing? Because a little learning was dangerous, we were to have none at all. I should be glad to hear such people’s estimate of the comparative danger of ‘a little learning’ and a vast amount of ignorance. When I see thousands of immortal creatures condemned, without alternative or choice, to tread, not what our great poet calls the ‘primrose path’ to the everlasting bonfire, but one of jaded flints and stones, laid down by brutal ignorance, and held together, like the solid rocks, by years of this most wicked axiom.”
In A Christmas Carol, Dickens elaborates on this message, providing a visceral example of children he had described as treading a path of “brutal ignorance”.
When the second of the three spirits brought two youth from under the folds of its robe, it commanded Scrooge to “Look, look down here!”
Dickens writes, “They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish, but prostrate too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stake and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds.”
The Old Miser was appalled. “‘Are they yours?’ he enquired anxiously.
‘They are Man’s’ the Spirit replied. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. The boy is Ignorance. The girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is doom unless the writing be erased.’
‘Have they no refuge or resource?’ cried Scrooge.
‘Are there no prisons?’ asked the Spirit, ‘Are there no workhouses?’” Before Scrooge could stutter a reply, the spirit withdrew.
A concerted attempt at “erasure” of which the spirit had spoken, began shortly after Dickens’ 1843 speech. The extent to which his words had taken root in the consciences of many of his Athenaeum brothers, and by extant other public and private figures, cannot be known. In any case, acknowledgment that neglected and impoverished children should be offered an education gained momentum. Petitions were made to the British parliament for grants to open Ragged Schools.
In 1844 the Ragged School Union was formed, chaired by Lord Shaftesbury. Initially, fewer than 20 schools formed the Union, but 17 years later the number had risen to more than 170.
Although churches had endeavoured for some time to provide some semblance of schooling for thousands of poor children, they, along with various charities, had their fingers in the dike.
In the Ragged School effort Dickens played a hand. In 1843 he had approached 1st Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts to persuade her to support one of the schools. She welcomed the idea, offered to help, and did so. Dickens himself contributed funds toward a London school.
The Ragged School Union, in its first year of operation, provided a list of children whom they sought to reach: children of convicts who had been transported; children of convicts in prisons in London; children of thieves not in custody; children of the lowest mendicants and tramps; children of worthless drunken parents, a large class; children of those who, although suitable objects for a workhouse, prefer leading a vagrant life, pilfering when they can; children of honest parents too poor to pay for schooling or to clothe the children so as to enable them to attend an ordinary school; orphans, deserted children and runaways who live by begging and stealing. The sweeping categories underlined the monumental challenge required to address a mountainous problem.
In time, the Ragged Schools would grow to more than 350, representing a bulwark that although far from seamless, was positioned to forestall many reachable children from sliding into the pits of “Ignorance and Want”.
London throughout the century remained a city of contrasts. Affluent housing developments and ubiquitous slums often lay a stone’s throw from each other. But increasing migration to the more prosperous West End suburbs by wealthier classes, combined with developers razing run-down tenements housing the poor, replacing them with commercial buildings, helped create neighbourhoods and districts more distinctly defined by social parameters.
The destitute had little choice but to move to some of the worst slums imaginable, many of them found in London’s East End.
Dickens illuminates the squalor that embraced the poverty stricken when the last spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, ferries him to one of the seedier parts of town.
“The ways were foul and narrow, the shops and homes wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets, and the whole quarter reeked with crime, filth, and misery.”
The above description can aptly be applied to The Rookery, an area described by Thomas Beames in The Rookeries of London (1850), as “the worst sink of iniquity”. It was a somewhat triangular district that was abode not only to thieves, prostitutes, and vagrants, but also the law-abiding impoverished who, broken under daily struggles merely to survive, cowered in the corners of a wretched world from which it was excruciatingly difficult, if not impossible, to escape.
A Christmas Carol gently endeavours to soften the hearts of readers, the majority far from poor. The book’s success speaks to its possible influence, certainly not across the spectra of society, but to some degree among individuals and institutions positioned to respond favourably and decisively toward introducing significant improvements within a systemic social problem.
In the last paragraph of Dickens’ speech, he said, in part, “I am quite certain that long after your institution, and others of the same nature, have crumbled into dust, the noble harvest of the seed sown in them will shine brightly, in the wisdom, the mercy, and the forbearance of another race.”
Within the bosoms of each Cratchit lay not merely seeds, but flowers of irrepressible hope, love and commitment. And within Scrooge, the cold and rancid pudding of his sour and miserly temperament was usurped by the redemptive power of compassion and charity.
In this, lies the spectral magic of A Christmas Carol. It is a resonant song for the heart.