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Dickens, Scrooge and the Victorian poor

Scrooge and Malthus

Title page from Malthus' Essay on the principle of populationTitle page from Malthus' Essay on the principle of populationScrooge's reference to 'surplus population' was a catchphrase for the poor and hungry, and stood for an attitude of carelessness towards their fate.

This attitude gained theoretical comfort from the work of the Revd Thomas Malthus, who had argued in his famous Essay on population, that without some check - like famine or pestilence - human populations naturally grew faster than food production. No help should be given the hungry, because to help them allowed further breeding, and made matters worse by increasing surplus population. Famines and epidemic diseases accomplished natural population control, and man should not intervene.

Reproduction of Cruikshank's watercolour depicting Oliver asking the master for more gruel'Oliver asking for more!' watercolour by George CruikshankOnly a few years before he created Mr Scrooge, Dickens had addressed the issue of the workhouse poor in his great novel Oliver Twist (1837-8). The workhouse orphan Oliver, 'desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery' asks for a bit more gruel, and is institutionally victimised for his temerity: confined for a week in a dark, cold and solitary room, caned by the Beadle, flogged before an audience of paupers, and preached against at prayer-time (Chapter 3).

It is well-known that when Dickens was a child, his own father had been imprisoned for debt, and Dickens's mother and younger siblings had joined Mr Dickens inside the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison. The stark choice for the whole family at that time had probably been between the prison and the workhouse, and luckily, the family managed to enter the prison – at least there the family would not be forcibly separated.

Dickens himself had already started work (at the age of 11) in a blacking factory. He worked long hours six days a week bottling shoe polish for a small wage, and slept in lodgings, first in Camden Town, and then nearer the prison, in Southwark. He was often hungry.

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