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The Other Half
Victorian England has been dramatized into a blissful time of prosperity and great discovery, for the rich, but then there was the other half. Victorian England grew to fast said Patrick Rooke, it had no laws to cope with its increase in technology and so it fell back upon itself and the class gap widened. (39) Before the Victorian era there was an immense growth in factory production and disease. The later having a profound effect on medical discoveries. Laws could not keep up with new factories and after they became strong parts of the government there was nothing that politicians could do to stop them from making 3 year olds work ten-hour days. Sanitation was also a big problem in London, there was no personal hygiene, disease was the number one killer (Out of eight people seven of them would die of disease and the other one would die of natural causes including violence.) Crime was an outlet for many poverty-stricken families who taught their kids how to steal at a very young age and for a living the whole family went out every day and robbed people on the streets. The courts also needed some help catching up with society, if you stole a loaf of bread you were given the same punishment as a murderer, Death. This unequal way of judging people came around because the only people in courts were nobles who would gladly exterminate any poor person with out second thoughts. Charles Dickens used this as a common theme in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. He talks about verdicts that are set before the trial takes place and nobles who refer to the poor as ‘rats’ and ‘dogs.’ Not until the end of the 1800s did the upper class recognize that the poor had problems and with out them England could never become the most dominant country in Europe. Finally reforms began to be made as the courts got more power from the nobles and made some changes involving children and working, schools, and voting, Dickens who was a major reformist, but only through his books, died as England was finally coming out of its ‘dark age.’ Dickens represents the poors rise from oppression to having rights, through his books he criticized the government and the nobles and then just as things started to happen he died, so it was as if his whole life was dedicated to getting rights for the poor.
As new factories began springing up all over London working conditions slowly deteriorated until women and children were working twelve-hour days every day. Poor, incoherent laws inhibited the poor because they’re factory workers could treat them however they wanted and make them work for pennies. In the factories whole families worked in joint efforts to make it out of poverty, but with no avail. A constant risk of accidents, a result from uncovered machines, debilitated people and caused them to be very prone to disease and sometimes put them out of work. When someone lost a body part it was a sure sign that you would never be anything more than poor because with a 50 % chance of dying in surgery people were usually stuck being a cripple for the rest of their lives. (Rooke 113) Workers usually worked until twelve p.m. and then went home for an hour-long diner, usually running the whole way because they sometimes lived hours away. They came back in an hour and worked until eight or nine, they then stumbled home in a trance like state only to come back to the dreaded factory in four hours. To top of the conditions the poor had to work in there were their employers. They sometimes beat employees or changed the time on the clocks so that everyone had to work longer. James Leach wrote a book about his experiences in the factories. He said that once his employer turned the clock forward fifteen minutes and then when everyone showed up late by his clock he fined them all 3 pence. (Rooke 42)
Children in Victorian England were often worse off than the animals that were almost nonexistent in London because of the lack of food the poor got. Very few kids ever got proper educations, which was one of the main reasons that the poor people stayed poor and never could rise in class like in Dickens, Great Expectations. Instead of going to school many children went to work, often before they were six. They worked along side their parents all day and many went on later in life to have back problems and lung failure from improper stature and breathing bad air in the factories. Sometimes children were so tired that they fell asleep after everyone had left still doing their jobs in a deep stupor. (Rooke 43) Jobs that children were especially numerous in because of their size and agility were often the jobs that were most dangerous and life threatening. Mining was the most popular occupation because there was no shortage in spaces available and their size let them fit into cracks full-grown men couldn’t. Sometimes children were sent into mines first and if they didn’t come out in fifteen minutes they knew that there was poisonous gas inside and that no one should enter them. Chimney sweeping was another popular one that kids were common in because of their agility. They had to climb up steep roofs and often fell to their deaths below.
Workhouses were the scourge of London, occupants would rather die than be forced to work there. Workhouses were the equivalent to jail, if someone did a petty crime they would be sent there not unlike a slave. Once you were inside one you almost never came out, you ate, slept and worked there so if one person got a disease everyone else in the workhouse got it. In one of Dickens books he creates a character called Betty Higden that is hiding from the police so she will not be put into a workhouse. Through his work Dickens is criticizing the horrible conditions people had to live and work in, he is opening up the riches eyes to the way the poor have to live.
Nothing compares to how the poor had to live in Victorian England, their struggles that are so meaningless because we can’t relate to the brutality of them, simple things such as getting medical attention, or getting pots and water to clean with. All these things that are so reachable now were only a sliver of a dream to people as brief as one hundred years ago. Their houses were falling down left and right because of hurried building or incompetent workers, the windows were covered with rags, and the basements were inhabited by bootleggers and drug dealers. There were Irish in the halls, starvation in the attics, and clothes drying across the street. The Irish were the racial scourge of the Victorian Era; they always inhabited the worst slums and were looked down upon by everyone. (Trevelyan 476) The roads were elevated a foot from garbage and sewage. When it rained all the garbage turned to mud and the roads were unnavigable for weeks on end. After all that there were the diseases that tenants shared their buildings with. Most of them were water borne and once they got into the village well that was it for most of the town.
School inspectors that went to visit schools were amazed at the complete lack of books and other materials. Schools were compared to day care because of the lack of enthusiasm and complete indifference that teachers had. Teachers who taught at some of the poorer schools usually had no experience teaching and wormed their way in for the extra money. They believed that if the students weren’t getting beat enough they were neglecting their jobs. There was also a complete disregard for absences, many students left half way through the day because they had to work, or sometimes they brought lunch to their parents at work if the worked a long way away. The prep schools of the time were a different matter, they had well educated, well taught teachers who actually cared about their students’ education. The exact opposite to the prep schools were what Ashley Shaftsbury called the Ragged Schools; they were more like prisons for juvenile offenders. Ashley Shaftsbury was a leading reformist for schools and she invented the first ragged schools, she took in all the poor, delinquents and put them in a kind of temporary home so they stayed off the streets. Dickens respected her efforts towards children, but he thought she was doing it all the wrong way. He referred to her as a, “Kind of amiable bull in a china shop of good intentions.” (Rooke 50)
As an outlet to the mediocrity of the poor they had to turn to stealing as a way of life. Children were, at a young age, taught the art of stealing from their parents and withheld it through their lives. There was a game that Dickens observed and wrote a short essay about, it is as follows. There is a man who puts on a watch, fake diamond pin, and other riches, then proceeds to walk down the streets with two small boys that are so furtive he can’t see them no matter how fast he turns around he will never see them. Then the two boys seem to accidentally knock him over and while he is on the ground they steal all his accessories and if he feels their fingers at all the game is over and they start over. This shows how involved parents were in the demise of their own children into a pit of inescapable poverty. The most common crimes were thefts; anything from pick pocketing to house breaking. Then there were some more serious ones like murders, unfortunately the late government had no idea to control this new wave of crime and so they went with the easy way out, they killed everyone who broke the law. There were two types of crimes; misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanors were trivial offences, everything from drunkenness to minor breaches of the peace; usually the culprit was fined and spent a night in prison. Then there were the more serious crimes, felonies, these were everything from theft to murder and were punishable by death. Dickens had little sympathy for criminals because he said that they were the ones that took the easy way out with little work. He also despised the new prison called Pentonville, it was for criminals that were in for life, their cells were spacious and large, there were very little diseases, and there was fresh air. In general the inmates lived better than the poor outside its’ walls.
At the end of the eighteenth century a great many social reforms took place because of the immediate discovery that the poor were in fact England and they out numbered the rich by a lot. The rich didn’t yet accept the poor but the government began to see the poor as a definite part of their country. So with this newfound class of people the government decided that they needed to have some laws that helped the poor or they’d have no one left. “So by the 1890s manners were gentler, streets were safer, life was more humane, sanitation was improving fast, and the working class housing, though still bad, was less bad than before.” (Trevelyan 558) The first reform was the Parliament Act of 1833 and it regulated the labor of children in mills and factories. The next Parliament Act happened in 1844 and it again concerned with children, this one reduced the working hours of children under thirteen. By the Factory Act of 1891 the hours of labor for women were limited to twelve a day. (Petrie 216) The poor had no voting rights until 1832 when a small amount of the poor were allowed to vote. Dickens scoffed at this feeble attempt to calm the poors cries for rights; he was disgusted at all politicians and portrayed them as corrupt people in his novels. It took over thirty years for another significant voting law to be passed, this one in 1867 increased the voters by one million and gave the vote to most urban male workers. It was the most radical reform England had ever seen, soon after this reform Dickens died. His death shaped people all over the world but mostly shocked England. It was as if he had been fighting for rights his whole life and then when he saw them completed he could finally rest in peace. The reforms weren’t all good though, the Poor Law, which was passed in 1834, forced beggars to go to work in workhouses. It was much opposed, but had its’ plusses, it did reduce the possibility of death from starvation. (Clark 96)
Dickens childhood greatly influenced him as a writer, and a reformist through his writing. When he was very young his mother taught him to read and he immediately loved it, he spent all his free time reading everything he could. His father was very prone to spend more than he had, so it wasn’t long before he was shipped off to debtors’ prison. Dickens was sent to work in Warrens Blacking Factory when he was twelve and worked there until his father paid back his debts. He was the first person to write about the poor because he was poor when he was young and he could understand what they went through. It would have been hard to write about the rich because he had no background in being affluent. He was a major reformist because of what he had to go through at the Blacking Factory when he was young. Dickens though happy in so many ways was not invulnerable to unfortunate circumstances, his marriage was tragically unhappy and he was obsessed with bankruptcy. This made him even close to the suffering poor because even he had problems and he could relate better to their lives. (Himmelfarb 219) This quote is everything about Dickens work and childhood all rolled into one short quote, “In Dickens work there is a confusion of mind, which reflects the perplexity of his time.” (Young 50)
Poverty in Victorian England was the worst the world had ever seen, not only was it disgusting and polluted, but the government didn’t even care about what was happening. They let people die in the prisons and children work twelve-hour day; they felt no obligations towards the poor. There were no schools for the poor, meaning they could never amount to anything in life because they were trapped in the pit of poverty. The few that survived infancy were killed off by diseases like cholera, typhoid, and diphtheria, then those who lived through that went on to live until a ripe old age of twenty-seven which was the average age of life expectancy in London. The working conditions were even worse than the conditions at their homes; they were beaten, got killed by machines, and were cheated into paying fines by unscrupulous employers. Many people turned to a life of crime instead of working; they were often caught and hung for stealing a few shillings. Social Reforms was the one thing that kept the poor going, it gave them something to look forward to and strive for. Dickens, who was very close to the poor because he was once, wrote the way he did because of his childhood. Now you know how the other half lived.
Rooke, Patrick. The Age of Dickens. Toronto: Wayland, 1970
Clark, Kitson. The Making of Victorian England. Harvard University: Kitson Clark, 1962
Young, G.M. Portrait of an Age. London: Oxford University Press, 1936
Trevelyan, G.M. English Social History. London: David McKay Company, 1942
Petrie, Charles. The Victorians. West port, CT: Greenwood Press, 1895
Himmelfarg, Gertrude. Victorian Minds. Gloucester, MA: Alfred A Knopf, 1952
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