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

Charles Dickens

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.

Start Quote

Every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch”

End Quote Oliver Twist, chapter 50

"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.

Stratford Johns as Magwitch and Graham McGrath as Pip in dramatisation of Charles Dickens' classic novel Great Expectations 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".

Start Quote

This is the Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard”

End Quote Bleak House, chapter one

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.

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.

Start Quote

A prison taint was on everything there. The imprisoned air, the imprisoned light, the imprisoned damps, the imprisoned men, were all deteriorated by confinement”

End Quote Little Dorrit, chapter one

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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  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Greg Heath

    'So called child poverty today' ?

    Poor outlook.

    If you want to see it,it is there in reality,not in some dusty tome.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    11 Agree with yellowsanydog @ 11. In Dickens time change for the good was yet to come. It started off as charity & concern by a wealthy minority but paved the way for government to play a role in ensuring the sick & vulnerable were cared for & children schooled. Currently it feels as though we're about to take a backwards step.

  • Comment number 27.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    The age of reform you refer to is where place like india are right now as a country.

    The issue of 'did Dickins change anything?' - yes he did but not alone. Afterall social opinion takes tiem to form and he was one of many who highlighted the grim reality of the age of reform. ie: real Child poverty - unlike 'so called' child poverty today

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Dickens had many demons of his own. I particularly liked his back handed swipes at 'charity' - which still seems to be the Tory preferred method of dealing with poverty.
    However, Charles Kingsley's book 'The Water Babies' - written as a fairy tale still haunts me 40+ years after I read it. Unfortunately it has gone out of fashion but it hits home more than all the Dickens I have read.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Forget Victorian fear of the mob.

    Civilisation has always been about the many keeping a check on the parasites by uniting.

    If we didn't ,we really all would be slaves to them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Dickens wrote to a confidant "I wish I were Commander in Chief in India... The first thing I would... proceeding , with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution, to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the earth." Dickens' continued popularity is a sign of the Western desire to demonise, dominate, destroy and digest the Other.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    #15 "the rich think they are above every one else"

    Do they?

    "Philanthropy and Philanthropist as the rich seem to have forgotten the meaning of these words"

    Have they?

    Once again you project only the prejudice of your subjective judgement, something Dickens did not do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    People forget that in Oliver Twist, Oliver is only saved because he turns out to be from a rich family, and is rescued by a rich man. The rest of Fagins gang are left where they are. There is no sense of wider reform, just the idea that a posh background will somehow show in the end. It's standard Victorian melodrama, written by a genius

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Dickins writes about the sorts of things still relevent today; poverty, injustice,gap between rich & poor, love, overcoming adversity.Writers like him would have helped engender a greater awareness of the plight of those born poor,helping to hasten the Reform Acts & paving the way for our modern education system,welfare state & NHS.Ministers should read Dickens to ensure their cuts aren't too deep

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    A writer writes what he knows. Dostoevsky was writing about alcoholism, urban poverty, addiction, mock executions, and child prostitution. It's for society to decide what it makes of all this.

    People who write books with the aim of changing the world rarely sell many copies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    12 Nearly there, he'd be radically on the far left and so wouldn't deserve any press coverage. Good try though.

    Dickens was a fairly unpleasant character who deserted his wife and left her desitute. Think focusing on his skills as a writer is the best course of action, rather than trying to retrospectively elevate him as a moral figure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    It may not be possible to DIRECTLY link the works of Dickens to social change but it is inconceivable that his writing - read at the time by many in a position to make a difference - did not have an impact on attitudes and values. In order to bring about change first you must create awareness and Dickens did that superbly. Not forgetting his wonderful literary legacy of course!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Er no he didn't. He made society look in the mirror which is just as effective. Maybe making bankers et al take back their bonuses is some form of modern equivalent. Now time to reform the reward system in the UK. like the Victorians reformed the slums.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    @7.Paul J Weighell

    Whos ordering, pricking a conscience is about making people think, not ordering. Sadly the rich think they are above every one else becuase they value the size of thier bank balance over everything else.

    I would suggest you look up the words Philanthropy and Philanthropist as the rich seem to have forgotten the meaning of these words.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I say, lob another urchin on the fire would you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Sadly, Dicken's great love of humanity did not extend to Mrs Dickens, to whom he behaved with abominable callousness. He is not a man who should be admired for anything other than, perhaps, his skill as a writer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I'd say Dickens would be a radical on the far left if he lived today, and hence wouldn't get any press coverage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    This article says there was a lot of 'Big Society' type activity going on. I would say it was the opposite to Cameron's Big Society. In Dicken's time social change was started by voluntary organisations but then taken up by the government and the legal system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Nothing destroys the pleasure of reading more than analysing it. Dickens wrote some good stories for money. He used the extremes of his time as a backdrop as it was easy on hand material. No more.


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