"A Christmas Carol"

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The "Dickens" Calendar for 1896

Just in time for the Christmas of 1843, Charles Dickens published his best-loved book - A Christmas Carol. At that time, few knew that the background to this story was based on his personal experience. Shortly after his 12th birthday, Dickens' father was sent to prison for debt and the other members of the family went to live alongside him in the prison, as was the custom of the time. Charles himself had been at work in a shoe-blacking factory since he was 10 in an attempt to stave off this disaster; after his father was arrested, he was left to fend for himself on the streets of London.

He never forgot what he saw there and returned to the theme of poverty again and again in his books. He was particularly concerned about the fate of poor children; in one of the scenes with Scrooge in this book, he wrote: "This boy is Ignorance.-this girl is Want", marking the start of his great contribution as a social reformer.

The "Dickens" Calendar for 1896


In 1601, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, an "Act for the Relief of the Poor" was passed, which required every parish to levy local taxes for poor relief. If their parents could not support them, children over the age of seven were to be put out to work as "apprentices". All able-bodied men could be compelled to work and freedom of movement from place to place was removed.

It may surprise many readers to know that the men and women returning home after the end of  World War 2 in 1945 found their countrymen still subject to the same Act of Parliament. It had been amended in small details over the centuries but its effect was much the same as in the original version and it was not until 1950 that it was finally repealed.

There are plenty of people still alive who remember the old Workhouses and the stigma attached to those who were forced to go to live there. But the Union Workhouses were not the beginning and they were not the worst of the shelter provided for the sick and the needy - before them came Poor Houses.

The winters of the early 1830s had some of the severest weather ever recorded in the British Isles. After the Christmas break during one of these winters, a family of four - man, woman and two children - were discovered dead in a village Poor House. They were all naked, having sold the last of their clothing for bread just before the holiday; they had no fuel and the building had no windows or doors - four starving people had frozen to death. For the agricultural labourer, these were extremely hard years and the villagers charged with caring for this hapless family were little better off themselves but public conscience was at last stirred into some activity; parishes were amalgamated into Unions and funding was provided from central sources so that this could never happen again.


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