"It was agreed that Mr. Battens 'ought to take it up,' and Mr. Battens was communicated with on the subject." by Edward G. Dalziel. Wood engraving. From Dickens's "Titbull's Almshouses," chapter 27 in The Uncommercial Traveller. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Passage Realised

Before three weeks were out, the Pensioner reappeared. Again he knocked at Mrs. Mitts's door with the handle of his stick, and again was he admitted. But not again did he depart alone; for Mrs. Mitts, in a bonnet identified as having been re-embellished, went out walking with him, and stayed out till the ten o'clock beer, Greenwich time.

There was now a truce, even as to the troubled waters of Mrs. Saggers's pail; nothing was spoken of among the ladies but the conduct of Mrs. Mitts and its blighting influence on the reputation of Titbull's. It was agreed that Mr. Battens 'ought to take it up,' and Mr. Battens was communicated with on the subject. That unsatisfactory individual replied 'that he didn't see his way yet,' and it was unanimously voted by the ladies that aggravation was in his nature.

How it came to pass, with some appearance of inconsistency, that Mrs. Mitts was cut by all the ladies and the Pensioner admired by all the ladies, matters not. Before another week was out, Titbull's was startled by another phenomenon. At ten o'clock in the forenoon appeared a cab, containing not only the Greenwich Pensioner with one arm, but, to boot, a Chelsea Pensioner with one leg. Both dismounting to assist Mrs. Mitts into the cab, the Greenwich Pensioner bore her company inside, and the Chelsea Pensioner mounted the box by the driver: his wooden leg sticking out after the manner of a bowsprit, as if in jocular homage to his friend's sea-going career. Thus the equipage drove away. No Mrs. Mitts returned that night.

What Mr. Battens might have done in the matter of taking it up, goaded by the infuriated state of public feeling next morning, was anticipated by another phenomenon. A Truck, propelled by the Greenwich Pensioner and the Chelsea Pensioner, each placidly smoking a pipe, and pushing his warrior breast against the handle. [Chapter 27, "Titbull's Almshouses," p. 135]

Commentary

In the latter part of the nineteenth century it seems incredible that almshouses — foundations in which mendicants were to pray for the souls of their dead benefactors — should still be a subject of the popular press — but the modern social welfare state as we know it had yet to emerge, and the impoverished elderly had to be cared for and warehoused somewhere. According to Slater and Drew, "a Post Office map of 1860 shows at least five almshouses on or near the Mile End Road" (315). Dickens, the crusading social reformer, is surprisingly uncritical here of the mediaeval institution of the almshouse. At the conclusion of Hard Times for These Times (1854), Dickens engages in a little satire of the motivation for establishing such an institution in the nineteenth century as he resolves the Josiah Bounderby plot line by having the childless (and wifeless) apoplectic millionaire-industrialist establish in his will a vehicle for asexual reproduction: he will in effect "clone" himself by leaving an endowment in his will for the establishment of an almshouse, hardly a Malthusian/Utilitarian institution consistent with his "no nonsense," anti-sentimental world view:

whereby five-and-twenty Humbugs, past five-and-fifty years of age, each taking upon himself the name, Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, should for ever dine in Bounderby Hall, for ever lodge in Bounderby Buildings, for ever attend a Bounderby chapel, for ever go to sleep under a Bounderby chaplain, for ever be supported out of a Bounderby estate, and for ever nauseate all healthy stomachs, with a vast amount of Bounderby balderdash and bluster? Had he any prescience of the day, five years to come, when Josiah Bounderby of Coketown was to die of a fit in the Coketown street, and this same precious will was to begin its long career of quibble, plunder, false pretences, vile example, little service and much law? [Book Three, "Garnering," Chapter 9,"Final," p. 228]

In his 24 October 1863 article in All the Year Round, which became the twenty-seventh chapter in both the American and British Household Edition volumes, Dickens does not elaborate upon the tradition of the almshouse, which precedes the Reformation, and is enshrined in the Elizabethan Poor Law (1601); he simply assumes that his reader is generally aware of the origins and function of this type of charitable institution (which English society translated to its American colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), and is not identifying a particular London institution as the basis for the fictional "Titbull's," nevertheless identified by Slater and Drew as "Vintners'" in Whitechapel:

Sometimes, these Alms-Houses belong to a Company or Society. Sometimes, they were established by individuals, and are maintained out of private funds bequeathed in perpetuity long ago. My favourite among them is Titbull's, which establishment is a picture of many. Of Titbull I know no more than that he deceased in 1723, that his Christian name was Sampson, and his social designation Esquire, and that he founded these Alms-Houses as Dwellings for Nine Poor Women and Six Poor Men by his Will and Testament. I should not know even this much, but for its being inscribed on a grim stone very difficult to read, let into the front of the centre house of Titbull's Alms-Houses, and which stone is ornamented a-top with a piece of sculptured drapery resembling the effigy of Titbull's bath-towel.

Titbull's Alms-Houses are in the east of London, in a great highway, in a poor, busy, and thronged neighbourhood. [Chapter 27, "Titbull's Almshouses," p. 131]

Introducing the geriatric romance of the nautical Greenwich pensioner and Mrs. Mitts, Dickens throws strict journalistic objectivity out the door of Titbull's, a name suggestive of an improbable tale in which the narrator "pulls the legs" of his auditors. This is undoubtedly a fabrication, but a delightful one. The two ex-military men from the government-run Chelsea and Greenwich Hospitals for veterans of the army and navy respectively extend Dickens's consideration of life after retirement.

Dalziel's illustration focuses not on the December romance which is illustrator W. M.'s point of interest in the second edition of The Uncommercial Traveller (Chapman and Hall's Library Edition of 1874). Whereas W. M. has chosen to realise in "A Phenomenon at Titbull's" the moment at which the two retired military men depart from Titbull's with Mrs. Mitts, shortly to become "Mrs. G. Pensioner" (135). Rather, Dalziel, attempts to capture the intense social life of the inmates of the almshouse as seven of the nine elderly female residents petition the "chairman," the unofficial authority among the establishment's "Six Poor Men" (131), the oldest and most sardonic, Mr. Battens, to upbraid Mrs. Mitts for her "blighting influence on the reputation of Titbull's" (135). Wisely, Battens tries to avoid acting in the capacity of a moral judge. His gesture implies, "You mean that I should raise the issue of conduct unbecoming with one of you ladies on behalf of all the residents?" The leader of the ladies, Mrs. Saggers (centre, "the oldest but one" among the ladies"), is not distinguished by her pail, but clearly is the spokesperson as she gestures towards Mr. Battens, habited as Dickens describes him: "This old man wore a long coat, such as we see Hogarth's chairmen represented with" (131), a garment indicative of the wearer's advanced age, since it is the fashion of the previous century, and perhaps even his former occupation.

Other urban scenes

Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

References

Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller, Hard Times, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Il. Charles Stanley Reinhart and Luke Fildes. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876.

Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller. Il. Edward Dalziel. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1877.

Scenes and Characters from the Works of Charles Dickens; being eight hundred and sixty-six drawings, by Fred Barnard, Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz); J. Mahoney; Charles Green; A. B. Frost; Gordon Thomson; J. McL. Ralston; H. French; E. G. Dalziel; F. A. Fraser, and Sir Luke Fildes; printed from the original woodblocks engraved for "The Household Edition." New York: Chapman and Hall, 1908. Copy in the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.

Slater, Michael, and John Drew, eds. Dickens' Journalism: 'The Uncommercial Traveller' and Other Papers 1859-70. The Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism, vol. 4. London: J. M. Dent, 2000.


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