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English Society in the 1840s
England, December 1843
The Spirit of Christmas Immediately Past
For most of their history, the English lived in rural areas and rarely left the place where they grew up. "Christmas" was a twelve-day festival taking place in the manor of the local "lord," and included burning the Yule log, playing traditional games, and feasting on traditional foods.
In the mid-seventeenth century, the Cromwellian Revolt abolished Christmas as well as the monarchy. However when the monarchy was subsequently "restored," the traditions of the winter holiday never recovered. But religious prescription was not the only cause of the decline of Christmas. Even by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution, especially in the north, was changing the communities that still tenuously kept the customs of their ancestors.
By the time the Carol was written in 1843, the lavish celebrations of the past were a distant, quaint memory. Some still remembered them, and even before Carol a few popular books attempted to record the celebrations of the past, such as The Book of Christmas by T. H. Hervey (1837) and The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall by Washington Irving (1820). But social forces beyond simple nostalgia were at work, rekindling the need for winter celebrations.
Better employment prospects in the cities prompted many people to leave their homes for jobs in the cities. More and more boys were being sent away to school, and their winter homecoming inspired celebrations that drew upon what traditions could be remembered.
Dickens was one of the first to show his readers a new way of celebrating the old holiday in their modern lives. His Christmas celebrations of the Carol adapted the twelve-day manorial feast to a one-day party any family could hold in their own urban home. Instead of gathering together an entire village, Dickens showed his readers the celebration of Fred, Scrooge's nephew, with his immediate family and close friends, and also the Cratchits' "nuclear family": perfectly happy alone, without the presence of friends or wider family. He showed the urban, industrial English that they could still celebrate Christmas, even though the old manorial twelve-day celebrations were out of their reach. Dickens's version of the holiday evoked the childhood memories of people who had moved to the cities as adults.
A Christmas Carol without Christ
Although A Christmas Carol is generally associated with the Christian winter holiday season, for it does contain references to the Christian Jesus; its themes are not exclusive to Christianity and it inspired a tradition for decades in Christmas books and celebrations that appealed to many non-Christians.
Victorian Family Values
The Cratchit family, although quaint and sentimental to modern readers, was a familiar portrait of the lower-middle class families who read the Carol, familiar in fact to Dickens himself, who modeled the Cratchits' lifestyle on his own childhood experience. Dickens demonstrates that even in poverty, the winter holiday can inspire good will and generosity toward one's neighbors. He shows that the spirit of Christmas was not lost in the race to industrialize, but can live on in our modern world.
Great debates over the plight of the poor and other social issues were beginning to be the focus of much political discussion during the 1840s. When the Spirit of Christmas Present warns of impending doom for "Man's Children," the symbolic "Want and Ignorance," Dickens's readers could instantly identify these symbols. They were the offspring of a new industrial society, who filled the new industrial cities.
Source: Linda Rosewood Hooper, A Little Book About A Christmas Carol
If in the first half of the nineteenth century it was Manchester, not London, which was regarded as the prototype of the unplanned industrial city. But in the second half of the century London fascinated the West as the first example of the "world city."
I. The "world city."
The dispersion of the poorer classes was made feasible first by the underground railroad in 1865, and then in the 1880s by the laying down of rails in the streets themselves for horse drawn trams and later for electrically powered cars.
Secondly, the world city's population was drawn from the whole world. London's population was constantly augmented by the influx of great numbers of migrants, from within Britain and abroad. The railroads brought into London the dispossessed and the ambitious of the countryside and the northern cities, as well as the poor and politically oppressed from the South and East of Europe; the steamship brought migrants from the empire, Indians and Chinese above all.
Thirdly, the world had direct industrial and commercial ties to the rest of the planet. The steamships brought into the Port of London eight million tons of goods in 1880, compared with only 800,000 at the beginning of the century; and Baedeker was sending visitors to see the warehouses that could store 200,000 tons of foods. "Nothing will convey to the stranger a better idea of the vast activity and stupendous wealth of London," he wrote, "than a visit to the warehouses, filled to overflowing with interminable stores of every kind of foreign and colonial products."
Fourthly, the world city was deeply involved in the internal affairs of the other nations of the world. For Victorian London, this involved a dual responsibility. It was the administrator of a growing colonial empire and the undisputed leader of a group of self-governing dominions; and as its industrial supremacy and its naval might made it, at least until about 1870, the major power in the world, it was a necessary participants in all important world affairs. Indeed at times its attitude seemed well summed up by the popular music hall song:
The change in London in the nineteenth century was due to the conversion of an industrial, commercial and administrative capital to a new world role; and its physical adaptation was made possible by the application of a new technology to the needs of urban life.
II. Social Tensions
In the 1830s and 1840s, bad harvest combined with the tariff on imported wheat to keep food prices high; downturns in the business cycle, uncontrolled by government action, produced severe unemployment; and there was even a fall in the real wages of those who had jobs. The reform measures that were finally passed in the 1840s, such as the Factory Acts and the repeal of the Corn Laws, were little more than palliatives. Only higher wages and more secure employment could end working-class misery.
Discontent with the country's political institutions had been focused on the method of electing the House of Commons. The Reform Bill of 1832 had at last spread representation to the industrial cities, and had given the wealthier middle classes suffrage. But only one man in five had the vote; and no women had the privilege. The general discontent with the nature of parliamentary representation and even, in the early part of the century, extended to include the monarchy itself.
George III had been totally insane in the last years of his reign. His son George IV (reigned 1820-1830) was, in the words of The Spectator, "a weak, ignorant, commonplace sort of person." Little more was expected of Victoria when she ascended the throne at the age of eighteen, unprepared by education or background for her new responsibilities. The people of London, as The Times commented, "saw the monarchy in Queen Victoria, and pledged themselves that for their own sakes they would uphold it, with the help of their Sovereign, so - if not, they would preserve the monarchy, in spite of an ill-advised monarch."
As for the empire, which was to become the chief source of national pride by the end of Victoria's reign, only the working classes showed any interest. In the 1830s, over 100,000 persons emigrated annually; in the 1840s, over 200,000. Their destinations were Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and also the United States. The government fought small wars, like the Opium War in China, to increase trade facilities, and permitted both governmental and private agencies to expand their territorial hold in India and south Africa. But for the general public the disillusionment that had followed the loss of the American colonies persisted.
III. Character of Victorian Age
Capital accumulated in the earlier phases of the industrial revolution now sought new openings for profitable investment in new forms of industry and in overseas investment. Britain became the world's banker as well as its manufacturer. Even the farmers found that they could profit from the growing home market by capital investment in land or mechanical improvements, and ceased to regret the repeal of the Corn Laws. Free trade was welcomed as the common philosophy of both industrial and agricultural classes, and a climate of opinion thus came to exist that was favorable to the capitalist expansion.
Even working-class wages rose faster than the rising prices that were themselves acting as an inflationary stimulus to the economy. Money wages probably rose fifty-six percent between 1850 and 1874. Taken in relation to the rise in prices, the average working-class family probably received about ten percent more in real wages. The rise was sufficient to blunt the discontent of the poorer people.
One important factor strengthening faith in Britain's political institutions was the sense of relief at having avoided the upheavals that rocked the continental capitals in 1848. British governments, even if elected by a minority of the country's population, had answered demands for reform with bills ranging from the abolition of slavery in the British empire (1833) to the institution of a ten-and-a-half-hour working day in the factories (1847). Moreover the predominant liberal ethic was against the increase in state controls, and hence minimized the significance of widespread political participation. London itself lacked an effective local government, and even an adequate water supply and sanitary system, and efforts to provide them received little public support. "We prefer to take our chance of cholera and the rest," wrote The Times, "than be bullied into health." Even minor attempts at parliamentary reform in the 1850s died for lack of interest.
To this renewed acceptance of the validity of Britain's political institutions, Victoria herself had contributed substantially. From the moment of her accession, Victoria showed the qualities that were to remain with her throughout her reign: a sense of duty, a conviction of moral righteousness, and a deep feeling for her country. "since it has pleased Providence to place me in this station," she wrote in her diary, "I shall do my utmost to fulfill my duty towards my country; I am very young, and perhaps in many, though not in all things, inexperienced, but I am sure, that very few have more good will and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have."
Her marriage in 1840 to the earnest young German prince, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, helped her find her political role. Albert was well-educated and intelligent. He had grasped the significance of the monarchy's new functions, which combined a small amount of political manipulation with an unlimited responsibility as the emotional and ceremonial focus of a people in social turmoil. It was Albert whose growing domination over his wife forced Victoria to take an interest in matters that had previously bored her, such as science and literature and even industrial progress. As Victoria accepted the necessary transition of power to men with whom she had little personal sympathy, she pursued family interests with her nine children, visits to the seaside and the country with the family, and admiration of Albert's plunge into the world of British industry.
IV. The Crystal Palace
Out of 234 plans submitted, the commission, urged by the prince, eventually picked the most original design of all, a massive greenhouse designed by the head gardener of a northern duke. Joseph Paxton, however, was no mere gardener, but an engineer, railroad director, newspaper promoter, and imaginative architect in glass and iron. He offered a building 1,848 feet long, 308 feet broad, and 66 feet high, tall enough to cover the old elm trees already occupying the chosen site in Hyde Park. It was composed of mass-produced and standardized parts, including over 6,000 15-foot columns and over one million square feet of glass. It could be erected in seventeen weeks; and it could be, and was, dismantled and re-erected in another part of London when the exhibition was over. In spite of many fears expressed over the building's durability, it survived until 1936.
The completed building found few detractors. All of the thirteen thousand exhibitors had ample space; and so did six million visitors from all over the world, who gazed in fascination, as described by Lord Tennyson, on
To Victoria, it was Albert's greatest triumph, "the greatest day in our history, the most beautiful and imposing and touching spectacle ever seen, and the triumph of my beloved Albert." The Queen was right in thinking that the exhibition summarized the aspirations of her time. She had little idea how diverse would be the judgments of later ages on the contents of her Crystal Palace and on the state of mind and taste that they epitomized.
Source: Professor Gerhard Rempel, Lectures in Western Civilization, Western New England College.
Dicken's London: The East End
Long after the last traces of the Crystal Place had been removed from the lawns of Hyde Park, and a memorial to Albert, dead in 1861 at the age of forty-two, was erected on its site. This statue was in Victorian Gothic and consisted of a canopy 175 feet high covering Albert among some 178 life-size figures. Albert was to look forever over the scene of his greatest triumph.
Albert died of typhoid fever, a reminder that even the highest in society could not ignore the debased conditions of sanitation and housing in which the mass of London's population lived. Buckingham Palace was connected with the poorer districts of London by its sewers and it shared their water supply. So, the aristocracy of the new mansions of Belgravia or Regent's Park were prey to the epidemics of typhus, cholera, typhoid, and febrile influenza that swept the poorer districts.
In the 1840s, a tough-minded reformer called Edwin Chadwick dramatized the plight of the poor by publication of a large number of official reports on the state of public health in the unsanitary cities and especially in London. Chadwick's studies were followed over the next half-century by a large number of detailed, well-documented exposés, of which the most influential was the seventeen-volume Life and Labour of the People in London (1886-1903) of Charles Booth, a philanthropic Liverpool shipowner.
During the same time, some of England's novelists, with Charles Dickens preeminent among them, found among the teeming poor of London the subject matter for their stories. The problems of urban growth were thus approached in a unique, double-barreled way: in the reports, the problems were analyzed in meticulous depth and feasible solutions, proposed, while the novelists prepared the public for acceptance of these solutions by making the problems comprehensible in human terms.
I. The slums of London
Better medical care, including vaccination and hospitals, accounted for some of the rise. New employment opportunities were provided by huge new docks and by the expansion of London's own industries like foodstuffs, drink, building materials, and soap. Service industries grew to supply the growing numbers in commerce and administration. The bulk of the new population lived in the boroughs to the east of the City, down both sides of the river from the Tower of London in what came to be called the East End. While the aristocracy were building their town houses in the elegant squares and crescents near Westminster in the West End, about one-third of London's population lived in Stepney, Poplar, Bethnal Green, Bermondsey, and Southwark in the oppressive squalor that Chadwick described in 1842 in his Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Classes.
The contrast of West and East ends, which increased during the century, fascinated both English and foreign observers. The reason was obvious. "I was yesterday . . . over the cholera district of Bermondsey," the novelist Charles Kingsley wrote his wife in 1849. "And, oh God! what I saw! people having no water to drink - hundreds of them - but the water of the common sewer which stagnates full of . . . dead fish, cats and dogs, under their windows." Owing to an almost total lack of public administration in the newer areas - London did not get a city government until 1888 - there were few public services. Water, often polluted, was supplied by nine private companies at a profit, and usually was turned on only a few hours a day three times a week. Drainage was inadequate; uncovered ditches emptied the cesspools into the river Thames, which became, in Punch's words, a "foul sludge and foetid stream."
Cemeteries were overcrowded, and bodies buried above street level; shallow graves were inadequately provided, in pest fields and plague pits, for victims of the epidemics. No controls were extended to housing contractors, who threw up the slums called rookeries. the author of one report found 1,465 families in an area near London's most fashionable church, living in 2,174 rooms with only 2,510 beds among them. But it was Dickens, in Bleak House (1853), who permitted the London bourgeois to follow Kingsley's advice: "Go, scented Belgravian, and see what London is."
II. Working Conditions
Henry Mayhew, in his very influential book London Labour and the London Poor (1861) estimated that there were 13,000 street traders, many of whom he interviewed. They included the children called mud-larks, who scraped the Thames mud for scraps of coal dropped by the bargers; sellers of sheeps' trotters, ham sandwiches, flowers, and birds' nests; and costermongers, who sold fish, fruit, and vegetables. There were also the dredgers, who went into the river for dead bodies, and the sewer hunters, who searched for bottles or iron that could be sold. Mayhew's books became a mine for novelists like Kingsley and Dickens; but Mayhew's own fear for the language of the interviewed and the illustrations he published were as effective as any novel in waking the conscience of London. His twenty-two-year-old birds'-nest seller told him:
It was hardly surprising then that crime, especially theft, was rampant. The police believed that some 20,000 children were being trained in thieving in the 1860s, in the way Dickens described in Oliver Twist (1838). Prostitution was widespread. Gambling was a full-time profession for 10,000 people. By the 1880, it was common for reformers to compare the London slums unfavorably with the jungles of central Africa being described contemporaneously by England's explorers and missionaries. General Booth's In Darkest England and the Way Out began with the comment, "The lot of the Negroes in the Equatorial Forest is not, perhaps, a very happy one, but is it so very much worse than that of many a pretty orphan girl in our Christian capital?"
III. Metropolitan Reform
Slowly the reformers gained their way. In the 1850s, there was established a Metropolitan Board of Works, which began a large-scale building program and sanitary improvements. Parks were purchased. Burial boards, an asylums board, a school board, and finally in 1888 a London Country Council were created. Life was still hard for the London poor, as the riots known as Bloody Monday in 1886 and Bloody Sunday in 1887 demonstrated. But a start at least had been made in remedying the most blatant grievances.
IV. The English Novel
With Henry Fielding (1707-1754), who was a magistrate in the Bow Street law court and head of the equivalent of the London police, the great variety of the London underworld first entered the English novel; and in his masterpiece Tom Jones, after the rollicking scenes of bucolic life in the West Country, we are thrown into the rough slums of London that satirist William Hogarth depicted in Gin Lane. By 1836, when Charles Dickens had swept his way to fame by depicting the meeting of Mr. Pickwick and his inimitable valet, Sam Weller, in the fifteenth number of the serialization of The Pickwick Papers (1837), the novel had won a vast public among the middle-class patrons of the monthly magazine and the lending library. With Jane Austen, it had explored the art of showing subtleties of character through the niceties of conversation; with Walter Scott, it has spread itself over vast panoramas of time and space, becoming the instrument for the Romantic movement's re-creation of the imagined dramas of medieval life; with Disraeli, it had begun to explore the nature of English class distinction. But Dickens was able to create a world in his novels that for many of his readers had a greater reality and coherence, and thus a more poignant message, than the necessarily restricted sphere of their own daily lives.
V. Dickens's London
VI. The Londoners of Dickens
Unscrupulous lawyers abound in his pages. It is through the machinations of the firm of Dodson and Fogg that Mr. Pickwick finds himself in the Fleet prison. In Bleak House, the trial of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce has been prolonged for years, the symbol of the profitable legal procrastination of the court of chancery, "which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard." The bureaucrats who froze an army to death in the Crimean War appear as the Tite Barnacles of the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit. There is the cheap, hypocritical crook, like Uriah Heep in David Copperfield; and in Oliver Twist the violent, unthinking thief, like Bill Sikes, and Fagin, the almost likable trainer of pickpockets and psychological master of outcast children. Only occasionally is there an oasis of quiet and good will, like Pickwick's Christmas with the Wardles at Dingley Dell.
Usually Dickens's characters cannot avoid the great swelling tide of social injustice and the human malice that grows in such a system. For all his humor, Dickens's London was a place where the sufferings of human beings needed remedy. His method, which was to create innumerable scenes of the great macrocosm of metropolitan life, and then to multiply the effect by showing those scenes through the eyes of a large number of characters, was perfect for this task.
Dickens was able to bring alive the different worlds of London, and especially those in need of reform - the prisons, hospitals, mortuaries, slums, poorhouses, schools, countinghouses, law courts, hustings, ministries, factories, shipyards, cab stands, fishmarkets. "Heart of London," he wrote, "I seem to hear a voice within three that sinks into my heart, bidding me, as I elbow my way among the crowd, to have some thought for the meanest wretch that passes, and, being a man, to turn away with scorn and pride from none that wears the human shape." In spite of his sentimentality and sensationalism, or perhaps because of them, Dickens impressed on his huge reading public his own vision of a London in which the mechanism of society had not kept up with the needs of its diverse humanity. He was the reformers' finest ally.
Source: Professor Gerhard Rempel, Lectures in Western Civilization, Western New England College.
Collections of Christmas Carols & Poetry
Other Books by Doug Anderson
A Psalter – A Book of the Psalms Arranged by Luther's Categories
Betbüchlein: A Personal Prayer Book, a recreation of Luther's 1529 prayer book
Luther's Writings on Prayer: A Selection
Devotions for the Advent – 2009
The Lenten Sermons of Martin Luther, Second Edition
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Christmas is a wonderful, cheerful holiday. Whether we spend it by a real tree or some Balsam Hill artificial Christmas trees, at the end of the day what matters is that we enjoy our time together with our loved ones.
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