In Part One of this two-part series, Bermudian writer James A. Ziral gets between the words and behind the lines of Dickens’ classic tale.
Ribbons of black-tinged smoke curled from scores of Manchester’s factory chimneys to stitch ragged quilts that defied the sun. Shadows collapsed over buildings and stretched wide fingers across streets bustling with men unloading wagons piled high with cotton bales from America, courtesy of the South’s slave plantations.
Within dozens of mills, the cotton would be spun into thread and woven into endless yards of cloth destined for world markets. Hundreds of human bees in these hives of industry maintained a disciplined working
cadence as spindles whirred, looms shrieked and furnaces roared.
Haphazardly scattered around and below the mills, many of which were built on low hilltops, lay hovels of the poor. And near many of these dwellings, stagnant and muddy pools of water reeked of dung and refuse.
Yet, Manchester was undeniably vibrant; its political and cultural vitality, twinned with thriving factories and high employment, had burnished it into one of England’s favoured industrial gemstones.
A manufacturing powerhouse that was becoming known by the sobriquet “Cottonopolis”, this town, which would become a city in 1853, was the pack leader among Lancashire’s textile towns.
French historian Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) wrote in Journey to England and Ireland that an “inky” smoke pervaded the town, and despite being a “foul drain”, industrial Manchester reached out and “touched the entire world”.
Touch the world it did, offering a panoptic glimpse of an industrial revolution growing ever brasher and more demanding, a revolution led by invention and innovation, and fed by robust stimuli for profit.
Britannia’s relentless quest toward assuming the mantle of the world’s preeminent economic engine had thrust her into full stride, with London her financial hub and Manchester an indispensable industry partner.
Although urban Manchester was a model of manufacturing ascendance, its outlying rural vistas sketched portraits of farmhouses, pastures and river valleys that framed gentle streams that ran cool and clear. Fields were rimmed with hawthorn hedgerows where fragrant white flowers bloomed in spring and dark-red berries enticed birds in autumn.
This postcard serenity may have enticed with its charm, but the business of Manchester was the business of cotton. Children played significant roles, but their working conditions inevitably attracted official scrutiny.
The Second Commission into Children’s Employment report, dated 1842, shed light on child workers in the trades and factories, which included the cotton mills.
Its revelations were unsettling. Hundreds of testimonies garnered from employers as well as children, exposed the incredibly long days—often as much as 18 hours—and brutal conditions confronting the juvenile labourers.
Many were as young as 10, with some only five years old because they could be paid less. With no access to education and dubbed “scavengers” or “piecers”, they bent and crept around and beneath machinery to retrieve loose and fallen cotton even while drawing frames and shafts were operating. Accidents often included crushing injuries and dismemberments.
Friedrich Engels, in his cogent chronicle Condition of the Working Class in England, written between 1844 and 1845, noted that within Manchester’s population were so many “limbless” people they reminded him of soldiers returned from war.
On October 5, 1843, when Charles John Huffam Dickens addressed members at the Manchester Athenaeum he was aware of these horrendous circumstances. Earlier that year he had visited a mine in Cornwall and a cotton factory in Manchester.
Shortly after his speech, he conceived the idea behind A Christmas Carol. Initially intending to write a pamphlet attacking the startling realities associated with poverty and child labour, he decided to turn his attention to a novelette.
He would later reveal that as the story took life in his head, he “wept and laughed and wept again” as many a night he strolled several miles along the London streets when everyone was asleep. Prodding him, he would say, was Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim who constantly looked over his shoulder.
The result is literary history. Six thousand copies of A Christmas Carol were printed, released and sold out within a week. A second printing quickly followed, and Dickens had little doubt that most of his readers would understand what simmered behind the words and between the lines of his “ghostly” narrative.
“Ghost of an Idea”
In the preface to A Christmas Carol, Dickens writes, “I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”
It might appear odd to have launched a spectral Christmas tale near the apex of an era when scientific and technological advances had seized the world’s, and indeed, England’s imagination, catapulting thought into spheres of economic potential.
But England has for centuries embraced spectral entities, with Christmas long affiliated with ghosts, according to Roger Clarke in A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof.
Proof notwithstanding, reported sightings indicated many believed the ghost of Anne Boleyn appeared each Christmas at Hever Castle, nestled sedately 30 miles southeast of London in Kent’s countryside.
Her apparition apparently revealed itself not only ambling across a bridge which spans the River Eden near the castle’s grounds, but also manifested near an oak where she supposedly had been wooed by Henry VIII before becoming his second wife.
Unfortunately for Anne, Henry became disenchanted with her. Accusing her of adultery and having instigated a plot to have him assassinated, he had her beheaded at the Tower of London in 1536. Here too, according to witnesses, her ghost has appeared at this site of her execution.
When Dickens chose to accentuate the avarice and lack of concern among the well off, like Scrooge, a character whom he describes as a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, covetous old sinner”, he used this allegorical vehicle to portray how such a man could change “the cold within him”.
Interestingly, John Foster, a great friend and fellow writer whom Dickens selected to be his official biographer, revealed that Dickens had a fondness for ghost stories. He would go on to state that only Dickens’ s intellect restrained him from falling into the clutches of spiritualism.
Attributed to Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), spiritualism is the belief that the dead can speak to the living.
Dickens may have forgone drinking deeply from the cup of spectral communication, but he rode the tide of the social zeitgeist with his “Ghostly little book”, at the same time appeasing a personal penchant. And Marley, “dead as a doornail”, does speak to Scrooge.
London in the nineteenth century was a cynosure of art, theatre and literature in tandem with being a paramount commercial city. The instruments of Britain’s economic power lay in this metropolis, its banking enterprises and private financial investments the fuel behind opportunists whose grasps spanned oceans and continents. London had morphed
into a major port city whereby shipping and trading furthered its dominance.
Through the ages, London was also home to literary giants from Chaucer to Shakespeare. This city was the hearth that nourished.
Notable painters were similarly inspired. J. M. W. Turner in his watercolor of Dudley, Worcestershire (1832), in Britain’s “Black Country”, presented a vivid snapshot of that town’s environmental challenges.
The appellation “Black Country” emerged in the nineteenth century and referenced industrialised counties in the West Midlands, among them Staffordshire and Worcestershire where coalfields and iron ore smelters reigned.
A portrait of Dickens by Daniel Maclise in 1839 shows him seated at his writing desk, and some have hinted that Dickens inspired several British artists through his portrayals of Victorian life, an inference that the writer’s pen influenced the painter’s brush.
But life in the great city had sharp edges. In 1819, while vacationing in Italy, Percy Bysshe Shelley, in Peter Bell, a parody of Wordsworth’s Peter Bell, wrote, “Hell is a city much like London—a populous and a smoky city. There are all sorts of people undone; And there is little or no fun done; Small justice shown, and still less pity.”
This unflattering poke at London held largely true a quarter of a century later.
London in 1843 was haunted by fog, crime and grime. Horse droppings lay underfoot, soiling the boots and shoes of wealthy and poor alike. Streams of raw sewage flowed in gutters that vomited into the Thames. Chimneys expelled coal smoke so profuse it invaded myriad nooks and crannies, playing havoc with the eyes and nose of every inhabitant.
Bankers, beggars, “dollymops” (prostitutes) and genteel ladies, shoplifters, “dippers” (pickpockets) and street vendors hawking various wares on street corners, along with cattle often driven through the streets to meat markets, jostled with coaches and carriages for space.
If Manchester, the archetype of the textile towns, was characterised by factories with a forest of smokestacks belching effluvium skywards, London, with all its eccentricities and dichotomies, was a city of impressive buildings and cathedral spires soaring grandly toward the heavens.
This was Dickens’ city. A First World city. It was also Ebenezer Scrooge’s city, a city of boundless opportunities and plethora of disappointments. A city about to celebrate Christmas.
“Little of what is called fancy”
Christmas to Scrooge was a time for fools.
“Every idiot who goes about with merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”
One such “idiot” was his nephew Fred, the son of his only sibling, Fan. And when Fred tries to persuade Uncle Ebenezer to join him and his wife for Christmas he refuses, remonstrating about the stupidity of celebrating Christmas.
When Fred departs, exchanging season’s greetings with Bob Cratchit, boss Ebenezer cannot resist muttering, “There’s another fellow, my clerk, with fifteen shillings a week, and a wife and family, talking about merry Christmas. I’ll retire to Bedlam.”
Bedlam conjures its own spectre of disquiet. The word that tripped off Scrooge’s lips referred to a London hospital originally intended for the ailing poor, but which had become a domicile for vagrants. Named Bethlehem, the “house of bread” in Hebrew, it was abridged to Bedlam in slang vernacular during the Jacobean era (1603–1625) at which time it sheltered a significant population of the mentally disturbed
(Literature and theatre thrived during the Jacobean era. Shakespeare penned, among other plays, Hamlet, Othello and The Tempest. A number of Frances Bacon’s superb essays were written during this epoch of fertile literary output.)
A little over a century before A Christmas Carol seized public consciousness, A Rake’s Progress (1732–33), a series of eight paintings by William Hogarth, portrays Tom Rakewell, the scion of a wealthy merchant. Each painting captures in sequence the life and downward spiral of this heir who dissipated his inheritance on gambling and prostitutes.
Through these depictions—the second showing him surrounded by artists and professors—the viewer is presented with scenes of an increasingly debauched life, with Rakewell eventually imprisoned in Fleet Prison for debt, followed by his end in Bedlam. The final painting reveals him semi-nude and surrounded not by the elite, but by fellow inmates who are solicitous but equally distressed.
Dickens nudges readers when, in response to the efforts of two gentlemen trying in vain to wrest a contribution from Scrooge because “many thousands are in want of necessaries, and hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts,” Scrooge rhetorically inquires: “And the Union workhouses, are they still in operation…and the treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour?”
Assured that all are intact, Scrooge replies, “I’m very glad to hear it.”
When they remind him that “It is a time when Want is keenly felt,” and “many would rather die” before crossing workhouses’ thresholds, he dismissively responds, “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
This mention of surplus population indicates Dickens was familiar with the writing of Thomas Robert Malthus, a British economist and demographer whose An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) postulated that overpopulation threatened the food supply. There were grains of truth in this argument, and Malthus’s book became influential in many circles and controversial in others.
London’s population had grown prodigiously. Migrants arrived from many of England’s hinterlands. The metropolis was also a beacon for various races, ethnicities and nationalities that descended on the city in
droves, all yearning for employment. In 1841, almost a third of the city’s inhabitants had been born beyond England’s shores.
How homegrown and foreign migrants eked out a living or found themselves destitute was of no concern to Scrooge. He states unequivocally, “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly.”
As Dickens writes, “It was the very thing he liked…warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.”
If the two men assumed that Scrooge, the surviving partner of the counting house of Scrooge and Marley, lived in spacious and opulent surroundings, they were greatly mistaken. Scrooge lived simply, achingly simple for a man who daily provided accounting services for wealthy clients and loaned money to businessmen.
Formerly inhabited by Marley, Scrooge’s rooms consisted of “sitting room, bedroom, and a lumber room that contained a washing stand, fire guard, two fish baskets, old shoes and a poker.”
Dickens describes them as “a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building…nobody lived in it but Scrooge…He had little of what is called fancy about him.”
A miserly nature, a mean spirit and a bleak lifestyle characterised the way Scrooge “edged his way along the crowded paths of life.”
“Are there no Workhouses?”
The union workhouses, about which Scrooge had enquired, were doing a brisk business,
if such may be said. Though the term “workhouse” originated in the seventeenth century, those early institutions were not
initially residential. This would come later.
But their intercession in providing relief—food, clothing, a little money—to paupers was such that by the nineteenth century their numbers had swelled to well over a thousand throughout England and Wales. And the provision of money had become increasingly rare.
Following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, they came under the administration of a grouping of parishes—called unions—and were overseen by an elected Board of Guardians.
Widely referred to as the New Poor Law, passed by the Whig government led by Prime Minister Earl Grey, it replaced earlier legislation and was directed toward improving poverty relief. There were supporters and critics. Dickens, among the critics, assessed this new law as overly stern, and despite being well intentioned, it tended to penalise the destitute.
Within the workhouses, men and women were given separate rooms except for couples over 60 who could room together. Those healthy enough to work were compelled to do so, the men often assigned labour such as breaking rocks and picking oakum. Old ropes removed from ships were cut, unravelled and picked into fibres which when mixed with tar created oakum, used to caulk gaps between wooden planks of ships. Women cleaned, laundered and cooked.
Gaining admittance into workhouses was difficult. Hopeful entrants were examined by a doctor and the sickly shunted to a special ward. Once each week the Board of Guardians met with applicants who had to justify being granted formal admission.
Interviews could be exacting, highlighted by Frances Trollope (mother of Anthony Trollope) in her 1844 novel Jesse Phillips—A Tale of the Present Day, wherein Jesse fainted under the stress of answering continuous probing questions.
Conditions within the workhouses shredded any assumptions of being cozy and welcoming. Comfort was not their intent. They were deliberately made as foreboding as possible to deter a relentless flood of applicants. But the destitute still came.
The very existence of workhouses and their expanding numbers indicated a burgeoning population in dire need. But those entering the arch of the Birmingham Union Workhouse dubbed it the “Archway of Tears”. And the Chell, built in 1838, was colloquially called “The Bastille”.
However, a few were not quite as grim. And at least on Christmas Day, administrators made some effort to foster a little cheer among those ensconced.
And then there were the prisons.
Click here for part two of Ziral’s A Christmas Carol, which appeared in the winter 2016 issue of The Bermudian.