1843 A Christmas Carol


My favorite story of all time is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The story revolves around Ebenezer Scrooge, a stingy old man of business who is worth a fortune but will not spend any of his money, not even on himself. He lives in his dead business partner’s home and eats gruel or oatmeal for dinner. On Christmas Eve, he is visited by four ghosts who come to persuade him to change his ways, and of course, he does. There is so much more to this story and the time period in which it was written (1843), but at this time, I am focusing on what Dickens was talking about when he wrote the words: Bedlam, Treadmill, Poor Law, and Surplus Population.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens 1843

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens 1843

“There’s another fellow,” muttered Scrooge; who heard him: “my clerk, with fifteen shillings a week and a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas. I’ll retire to Bedlam.”

The character Scrooge, along with political economists of 1843, felt that poor people had no right to marry. “Bedlam. A corruption of ‘Bethlehem,’ referring to the Hospital of St. Mary’s of Bethlehem in London, which was founded as a priory in 1247 but became a hospital for the insane as early as 1402. In 1547, after the dissolution of church property by Henry VIII, it was incorporated as a royal foundation as a madhouse. The term was current as early as the late sixteenth century…” (2)

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“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. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoice. What shall I put you down for?’
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge.” Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Coldbath Fields Treadmill - Wikipedia

Coldbath Fields Treadmill – Wikipedia

I found a reference to a treadmill while searching for historical information on my own hometown of Rochester, Monroe County, New York.

The Treadmill or Treadwheel resembled a giant water wheel and served no purpose other than to punish the inmates of the prisons and workhouses. The inmates would walk on the rotating steps for hours at a time. “As the village grew in size it seems to have become more immoral, for the Telegraph of February 10th, 1824, after making the rather rash assertion that “probably no place in the Union of the size of Rochester is so much infested with the dregs and outcasts of society as this village,” speaks of a meeting that had been held during the previous week, at which a committee was appointed to draft a petition to the legislature for the passage of a law to erect a tread-mill, or ‘stepping-mill’ as it was called. Although the journal applauded the scheme as being likely to inspire non-resident criminals with such terror that they would stay away from this region, the law was never passed, public sentiment being then, and ever since then, too strongly opposed to it in this country, though Great Britain retained that form of torture until five years ago.” (1)

The Treadmill-The Victorian Dictionary

The Treadmill-The Victorian Dictionary

The Poor Law of 1834 in England
 was different than the New York State Poor Law of 1824 but the basic premise was the same; you had to pull your own weight. No one was allowed to be idle. No one received their food and shelter unless they worked for it. In New York State, we had county poor houses where families were required to work on the farm and in the house in order to survive, in addition to workhouses or penitentiaries. It appears that in Victorian England, they had only union workhouses.

In 1853, a workhouse was built in Rochester, NY. Its purpose was to segregate the minor offenses of vagrancy, prostitution, drunkenness, and indebtedness, from the hardened criminals. This was a place for short-term confinement of at least three months but not over six months. Before this time, all prisoners were held in the county jail with no distinction as to their misdemeanors or crimes. In 1858, The Workhouse changed its name to The Penitentiary. The county poorhouses, workhouses, and penitentiaries were deplorable, filthy places, and were phased out with the Social Security Act of 1935 in the U.S., and modern social welfare in the 1940s in England.

The Poor Law of 1834 provided that two or more parishes unite to provide a home for the destitute where they might labor in exchange for their room and board. It divided England and Wales into twenty-one districts and empowered in each a commissioner to form ‘poor law unions’ by grouping parishes together for administrative purposes and to build workhouses to contain the poor. The able-bodied were worked in penury, and their dependents were kept in the house where as little as possible was spent on food and shelter. They were characterized by strict discipline; the sexes were segregated and classified, and preliminary inquiries into the private lives of the inmates were generally conducted. It was considered a disgrace to go to such a place. Dickens fiercely attacked these institutions…” (2)

The Last of the Spirits by John Leech 1843

The Last of the Spirits by John Leech 1843

An Essay on the Principle of Population
, by Thomas Robert Malthus, first published in 1798, foretold of the catastrophe that would occur when overpopulation caused a shortage of food supplies. The Surplus Population was the poor producing large families that they could not afford. I have mentioned Reverend Malthus, an economist, in a previous blog post about social welfare and eugenics. Although the term eugenics wasn’t coined until 1883 by Sir Francis Galton, it was definitely in use during the early nineteenth century in England and in the U.S. The whole point of rounding people up, dumping them in a union workhouse or a county poorhouse, and separating them, was done so that they could not breed. These places were intentionally made uncomfortable so that people would leave and seek employment. The problem was there were not enough jobs to go around. Many people would rather have committed suicide than to live in one of these places.

“This economist made clear ‘What the surplus is, Where it is’ when he wrote: ‘A man who is born into a world possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents, on which he has a just demand, and if society do not want his labour, has no claim of right of the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At Nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone…” (2)

1. Peck, William F., History of Rochester and Monroe County, New York, New York and Chicago, The Pioneer Publishing Company, 1908, Pages 165-180.

2. Hearn, Michael Patrick, The Annotated Christmas Carol, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Illustrated by John Leech, Avenel Books, New York, 1976, Pages 64-65.

History of Rochester and Monroe County – Crime and Punishment – by William F. Peck 1908.

Thomas Malthus

The Victorian Dictionary

The Victorian Dictionary – The Mysteries of London, Volume II