Cuts, cuts and cuts in the age of austerity. We now have governments which feel little responsibility for the most vulnerable or at the worth view their citizenry in terms of profit and loss. This book presents a range of articles on the subject and a comparison of our standards in the UK now vs the victorian age as a snapshot and warning of where we could be heading..
Charles Dickens’ second book, Oliver Twist (1838) contained the classic Victorian themes of grinding poverty, menacing characters, injustice and punishment. These were all live issues at the time Dickens was writing the novel, especially with the introduction of the1834 New Poor Law – an Act which, for many liberal Victorians, appeared to criminalise the poor. Dickens was a vigorous critic of the New Poor Law and he relentlessly lampooned the harsh utilitarian ethics behind it – the belief that the workhouse would act as a deterrent so fewer people would claim poor relief and thereby the poor rate would reach its ‘correct’ level.
Over London by Rail, by Gustave Doré, shows the cramped living conditions in Victorian London slums, similar to those in Portsea at the time.
In Oliver Twist, Dickens employs sarcasm to ridicule the utilitarian men on the Poor law boards as they were ‘very sage, deep, philosophical men’ who had determined that the old poor law system failed to encourage the work ethic. In its place ‘they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they) of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it’. Inmates would receive ‘periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays’. Charles Dickens revisited the workhouse debate in the 1850s, making several investigations into the conditions of the poor for his journal Household Words. What he witnessed confirmed to him the inadequacy of the workhouse system which at worse was perpetuating misery, poverty, starvation and ultimately death. In ‘a Walk in the Workhouse’, he described the scenes in a Marylebone workhouse:
In a room opening from a squalid yard, where a number of listless women were lounging to and fro, trying to get warm in the ineffectual sunshine of the tardy May morning – in the “Itch Ward,” not to compromise the truth – a woman such as HOGARTH has often drawn, was hurriedly getting on her gown before a dusty fire. She was the nurse, or wardswoman, of that insalubrious department – herself a pauper – flabby, raw-boned, untidy…But, on being spoken about the patients whom she had in charge…sobbing most bitterly, wringing her hands…Oh, “the dropped child” was dead! Oh, the child that was found in the street, and she had brought up ever since, had died an hour ago, and see where the little creature lay, beneath this cloth! The dear, the pretty dear!…
Dickens likened another section of the workhouse to a prison, commenting that the meagre rations for inmates had created a primitive and bestial youth who had little to offer civilised society:
In one place, the Newgate of the Workhouse, a company of boys and youths were locked up in a yard alone; their day-room being a kind of kennel where the casual poor used formerly to be littered down at night. Divers of them had been there some time. “Are they never going away?” was the natural inquiry. “Most of them are crippled, in some form or another,” said the Wardsman, “and not fit for anything.”
They slunk about, like dispirited wolves or hyenas; and make a pounce at their food when it was served out, much as those animals do