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Dickens, Scrooge and the Victorian poor

A Christmas Carol

Facsimile title page from A Christmas CarolFacsimile title page of A Christmas Carol, first published 1843In Charles Dickens's famous story A Christmas Carol, two charitable gentlemen call upon the businessman Ebenezer Scrooge for a contribution to the annual Poor Box.

Despite the benevolence of their mission and the freezing mid-winter weather outside, his reaction to them is harsh and abrasive.

Scrooge receives their compassionate enquiry with exceedingly bad humour. 

He doesn't merely reject their solicitations, but repudiates any human concern for those suffering hunger and cold at Christmas:

"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.

"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

"And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"

"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."

"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" said Scrooge.

"Both very busy, sir."

"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge ... Those who are badly off must go there."

"Many can't go there; many would rather die".

"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and reduce the surplus population."

A Christmas Carol was the first of Dickens's Christmas books, written in 1843 for publication in time for the Christmas market. It was not a cheap book: beautifully produced for the genteel market, it sold at five shillings, equivalent to more than £20 today.

The entire decade of the 1840s was an era of great hardship and dearth, and indeed is still known as 'The Hungry Forties'. Dickens's story was designed to promote Christian goodwill, and to foster a kinder understanding of the hard lives of the working poor among the better-off reading public at a time of serious polarization between the social classes in Britain.

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