Charles Kingsley’s concern for social reform resulted from his belief in Christian Brotherhood and intense sympathy towards the unprivileged labouring classes. In his numerous lectures, sermons, pamphlets and novels Kingsley called for co-operative enterprise and morality in social action. Albert C. Baugh wrote that Kingsley’s “books express the stirring social conscience of the mid-century”. (1368) Kingsley derived from Thomas Carlyle his notion of the social responsibility of the privileged classes. Like Carlyle and Benjamin Disraeli, Kingsley opposed the laissez-faire system and believed that the improvement of social relationships could be done by a natural aristocracy, i.e. an aristocracy which arises out of work and education rather than birth or special privilege. Kingsley, who used fiction as a springboard for his religious and social opinions, made his narratives extensions of the tracts and pamphlets he wrote for The Politics of the People (1848-1849) and The Christian Socialist (1850-1851). He was deeply convinced about the need for social reform under the auspices of the Church of England. He strongly believed that moral and educational reform of the working class would eventually disable the militant radicalism of some of its members. Kingsley’s commitment to social reform is expressed emphatically in his three novels, Yeast, Alton Locke, Two Years Ago, and the classic fairy tale, The Water-Babies.

“Workmen of England!”

When the Chartist movement collapsed in 1848, Kingsley wrote an anonymous poster addressed to the working men of England, assuring them that they were not alone; they were supported by the Anglican clergy who “ sympathized with their plight and believed that their goals were right, even when their means were wrong” (Jones, 172). Kingsley urged the Broad Church to be more committed to social work because England was threatened by a popular revolution if the conditions of the working class were not improved. Kingsley declared readiness of part of the Anglican clergy, whom he called the “working clergy”, to be engaged not only in religious but also in social outreach services for the working class.


You say that you are wronged. Many of you are wronged: and many besides yourselves know it. Almost all men who have heads and hearts know it — above all, the working clergy know it. They go into your houses, they see the shameful filth and darkness in which you are forced to live crowded together; they see your children growing up in ignorance and temptation, for want of fit education; they see intelligent and well read men among you, shut out from a Freeman’s just right of voting; and they see, too, the noble patience and self-control with which you have as yet borne these evils. They see it, and God sees it.

WORKMEN OF ENGLAND! You have more friends than you think for. Friends who expect nothing from you, but who love you because you are their brothers, and who fear God, and therefore dare not neglect you.

You think the Charter would make you free — would to God it would! The Charter is not bad; if the men who use it are not bad! But will the Charter make you free? Will it free you from the slavery to ten-pound bribes? Slavery to beer and gin? Slavery to every spouter who flatters your self-conceit, and stirs up bitterness and headlong rage in you? That, I guess, is real slavery; to be a slave to one’s own stomach, one’s own pocket, one’s own temper. Will the Charter cure that? Friends, you want more than Acts of Parliament can give.

Englishmen! Saxons! Workers of the great cool-headed, stronghanded nation of England, the workshop of the world, the leader of freedom for 700 years, men say you have common sense! Then do not humbug yourselves into meaning “license” when you cry for “liberty”; who would dare refuse you freedom? For the Almighty God, and Jesus Christ, the poor Man, who died for poor men, will bring it about for you, though all the Mammonites of the earth were against you. A nobler day is dawning for England, a day of freedom, science, industry.

Workers of England, be wise, and then you must be free, for you will be fit to be free. [Maclear, 240-241]

Kingsley understood well that mere benevolence and charity were not adequate remedies for the appalling conditions of the working class. In one of the “Letters to the Chartists” published in Politics for the People, Kingsley, using the pseudonym of Parson Lot, recalled Carlyle’s demand: “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”. (136) Kingsley called for a public inquiry the abhorrent working conditions in sweatshops where workers were denied living wages.


Yeast, published in Fraser’s Magazine in 1848 and in book form in 1851, is more of a tract than a novel, in which Kingsley described rural England in the time of Chartist agitation. The plot describes the fate of Lancelot Smith, a wealthy young man, who changes his religious and social views under the influence of Tregarva, a philosophical game-keeper, who acquaints Smith with the social, economic and moral conditions of the rural poor. In the course of educating and converting Smith, Tregarva tells him

“But what makes me maddest of all, sir, is to see that everybody sees these evils except just the men who can cure them — the squires and the clergy.”

“Why surely, Tregarva, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of clergymen and landlords working heart and soul at this moment, to better the condition of the labouring classes!”

“ Ay, sir, they see the evils, and yet they don’t see them. They do not see what is the matter with the poor man; and the proof of it is, sir, that the poor have no confidence in them. They’ll take their alms, but they’ll hardly take their schooling, and their advice they won’t take at all. And why is it, sir ? Because the poor have got in their heads in these days a strange confused fancy, maybe, but still a deep and a fierce one, that they haven’t got what they call their rights.”[. . . ]

“ What, in Heaven’s name, do they want?” asked Lancelot.

“They hardly know yet, sir; but they know well what they don’t want. The question with them, sir, believe me, is not so much, How shall we get better fed and better housed, but whom shall we depend upon for our food and for our house? Why should we depend on the will and fancy of any man for our rights? They are asking ugly questions among themselves, sir, about what those two words, rent and taxes, mean, and about what that same strange word, freedom, means. Right or wrong, they’ve got the thought into their heads, and it’s growing there, and they will find an answer for it.” [207-208]

Although poorly plotted, Yeast contains a strong social commentary and, therefore, it can be regarded as a Condition-of-England novel. Kingsley, who condemned revolutionary ideas within the Chartist movement, called for reforms that would bring about social improvement. Above all, he called for an inner moral reformation which England needed. The novel ends with a utopian and religious stance because Kingsley could not provide a feasible solution to the Condition-of-England Question. A mysterious businessman Barnakill takes Lancelot to the country of mythical Prester John, where he finds answers to his social and religious doubts.

It should be noted that Yeast is the first English novel which deals with the problem of unsanitary conditions and disease in the English countryside. In the mid-nineteenth century, the sanitary conditions were deplorable in both urban and rural areas. Few counties had proper clean water supply and sewer drainage, but gradually sanitation became a growing public concern.

Alton Locke

Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet: An Autobiography (1850) is a denunciation of a social order based on ruthless economic competition and laissez-faire policies. Despite the novel's weak plot and confusing social message, it nonetheless provides a wide-ranging critique of contemporary society, sharply divided by industrial relations. It also suggests that England will overcome the political unrest thanks to a consensus and co-operation between the capitalists and workers. In terms of literary merit Alton Locke is much inferior to Charles Dickens’s Hard Times or Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, but its social message was important. It expressed the ideas of Christian Socialists, who promoted social reforms based on an active commitment of the Broad Church. However, as Rosemarie Bodenheimer asserts:

Alton Locke oscillates wildly between its commitment to the circumstances of working-class life and its yearning for a pastoral world, until it finally collapses into a dream vision that resolves the conflict by changing the meanings of its original terms. In the process Kingsley inadvertently deconstructs the ideological opposition between social conflict and pastoral harmony, producing versions of pastoral that reveal on the one hand its reliance on aristocratic society and on the other its evolutionary connection with human drives to lust and power. [135]

Alton Locke makes a major departure from the tradition of the Condition-of-England novels with its emphasis on the ideas of Christian socialism. The focus of the novel is rather on moral issues than economic ones. Following Carlyle’s sartorial metaphors in Sartos Resartus, Kingsley attempts to turn Alton Locke into a parable about the Condition of England. Kingsley, who was well aware of working-class radicalism and even sympathised with it, was very concerned about its possible outcome. Although he scoffed at the upper classes and clergy who led sheltered lives and cared little or nothing about the lower classes, Kingsley presented a conciliatory and conservative tone in his novel, arguing that attempts had already been made to reduce the “two nation” divide. The 1862 Preface to Alton Locke is explicit about it:

There is no doubt that the classes possessing property have been facing, since 1848, all social questions with an average of honesty, earnestness, and good feeling which has no parallel since the days of the Tudors, and that hundreds and thousands of “gentlemen and ladies” in Great Britain now are saying, “Show what we ought to do to be just to the workman, and we will do it, whatsoever it costs.” They may not be always correct (though they generally are so) in their conceptions of what ought to be done; but their purpose is good and righteous; and those who hold it are daily increasing in number. The love of justice and mercy toward the handicraftsman is spreading rapidly as it never did before in any nation upon earth; and if any man still represents the holders of property, as a class, as the enemies of those whom they employ, desiring their slavery and their ignorance, I believe that he is a liar and a child of the devil, and that he is at his father’s old work, slandering and dividing between man and man. [xxvi]

Alton Locke refers to the days of 1848, when the Chartist movement had for the first time brought the Church of England into direct contact with the industrial problem and with real workingmen. The narrative is full of religious and social rhetorics, which reflect Kingsley’s beliefs and views. Kingsley’s working class sympathies were shaped mostly by Thomas Carlyle, who is embodied in the novel as Mackay, a working-class Scottish philosopher and bookseller. Kingsley’s other significant influence was Frederick Denison Maurice, particularly his book, The Kingdom of Christ (1838), which argued that because religion and politics are interconnected, the church should therefore commit itself to social questions.

At the end of the novel Kingsley suggests that Christianity provides the solution to all social troubles. Alton is fully transformed from an atheist and radical Chartist to a Christian socialist. However, this transformation hardly solves the Condition-of-England Question because Alton dies. It only enables his soul to enter the gates of heaven with God’s grace.

Two Years Ago

The years from 1830 to 1850 were particularly distressing because typhus, cholera, small-pox and influenza spread over England in epidemic waves. Edwin Chadwick’s Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (1842) drew the attention of the reading public to the degrading environment of the urban poor and the mutual relationship between disease and poverty. “The Report” showed that working-class districts were full of “ filth and disease”.

Kingsley became active in the diffusion of sanitary knowledge in his sermons, pamphlets and novels. In 1857, he published his third Condition-of-England novel, Two Years Ago, in which he described the cholera epidemic in a fictitious West Country fishing village of Aberalva, which had very poor sanitary conditions. He criticised the laissez-faire system which left the locality unassisted by the central government during the outbreak of the epidemic, but praised the commitment of the inhabitants. The title refers to two significant events in the novel: a cholera epidemic and the Crimean War. The main hero of the novel, Tom Thurnall represents Kingsley’s idea of “muscular Christianity”, which promoted cleanliness, personal hygiene, sport and physical fitness as the functional prerequisites of modern British society.

Although the novel had an obscure title, a complex and confusing plot, and interruptions by lengthy authorial comments, Kingsley managed to bring to public conscience a conviction that sanitary reform was not only a medical issue, but also a national one, which would significantly improve the living conditions of England and, consequently, her welfare.

The Water Babies

Kingsley believed in the didactic value of fiction, and therefore, his novel for children, The Water Babies (1863) carries an important message about child labour and social justice. The book, being a nursery fairy tale, was primarily designed for young readers but it also reflected Kingsley’s favourite theme: the working conditions of the poor. Besides, it also revealed Kingsley’s keen interest in aquatic life and Darwin’s theory of evolution. The novel’s central character, Tom is employed as a chimney sweep by the brutal Mr Grimes. Tom is illiterate, badly treated and receives no religious or moral upbringing. However, at a certain point the boy undergoes a spiritual regeneration in his contact with nature. After he has fallen from the chimney, Tom finds himself in the bedroom of a beautiful girl called Ellie, and he confronts his own dirty, sooty body with her cleanliness and neatness. Chased out of Ellie’s house, he falls into the clear stream where he enters a fairy underwater world and is eventually turned into a water-baby, an evolutionary form between sea invertebrates and humans.

At the outset Kingsley’s social commentary concerns child labour, education and the lack of the provision of basic infrastructure, including clean water and sanitation, to the homes of the working class. The first part of the tale describes grim Victorian realities:

Once upon a time there was a little chimney sweep, and his name was Tom. That is a short name, and you have heard it before, so you will not have much trouble in remembering it. He lived in a great town in the North country, where there were plenty of chimneys to sweep, and plenty of money for Tom to earn and his master to spend. He could not read nor write, and did not care to do either; and he never washed himself, for there was no water up the court where he lived. He had never been taught to say his prayers. [1]

The subsequent narrative takes the form of a mystic fantasy addressed to young readers, which explores the possibilities of an alternative world and an afterlife. Although Kingsley criticises child-labour as immoral, he does not show how poor and victimised children could be taken care of. The end of the fable is optimistic. Tom returns to the real world with a great physical and moral strength and a lot of know-how which he has acquired in the fairyland. Again he meets Ellie, who is now a beautiful young woman.

So Tom went home with Ellie on Sundays, and sometimes on week-days, too; and he is now a great man of science, and can plan railroads, and steam-engines, and electric telegraphs, and rifled guns, and so forth; and knows everything about everything [....] And all this from what he learnt when he was a water-baby, underneath the sea. [326-327]

The finale suggests that Tom will find his place on the sunny side of Victorian life. He will contribute to the development of science and technology for the general welfare of the nation within the framework of muscular Christianity.

It should be also remembered that the popularity of The Water Babies helped to pass the 1864 Act for the Regulation of Chimney Sweepers, which imposed on any master-sweep who sent a child to climb a chimney a penalty of ten pounds, a considerable sum of money at that time.

Related Material


Charles Kingsley, a disciple of Carlyle, was a keen social commentator. In his Condition-of-England pamphlets and novels he made a peculiar contribution to the contemporary debate about the laissez-faire system, the relations of employer and employee, child labour and the improvement of sanitation and hygiene. Kingsley was deeply concerned with the Condition of England, and, as Alan Rauch remarks,

Kingsley used fiction as a soapbox for his sometimes radical, but always deeply felt, convictions. His work exuded an optimism that transcended all of the ills facing England and that seemed to suggest that, through all its difficulties, the indomitable English spirit could survive if allowed to meet the challenge of progress in the spirit of tradition. [196]

Like Carlyle, he did not want to upset the social and political order of his time, but he called the socially privileged to solve the question of acute poverty, which he felt was at the heart of England’s problems. Unlike the earlier Condition-of-England novelists, Disraeli, Gaskell and Dickens, Kingsley saw solution to the “two nation” divide in the ideas of Christian Socialism, which called for reconciliation between the upper and lower classes through co-operation and effective social service. Kingsley urged the members of the broad Church of England to show a more active concern for the plight of the poor. Although Kingsley was rather vague in his proposals how the excesses of Victorian capitalism could be curtailed by new Christianisation and humanisation of society, an increasing number of people began to look upon social work, community service and humanitarian reform as the manifestation of their faith.


Baugh, Albert C. A Literary History of England. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts, 1999.

Birch Pope-Hennessy, Una. Canon Charles Kingsley. New York: Macmillan, 1949.

Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. The Politics of Story in Victorian Social Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Jones, Tod E. The Broad Church: a Biography of a Movement. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2003.

Kingsley, Charles. Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet: An Autobiography. Cambridge and London: Macmillan, 1862.

--. Yeast. A Problem. Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1851.

--. Two Years Ago. London: Macmillan and Co., 1857.

--. The Water Babies. 1863. Harmondsworth: Penguin Popular Classics, 1995.

Maclear, J. F., ed. Church and State in the Modern Age: A Documentary History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Politics for the People. London: John W. Parker, West Strand, 1848.

Rauch, Alan. “The Tailor Transformed: Kingsley’s Alton Locke and the Notion of Change”, Studies in the Novel, vol. 25, No. 2, 1993.

Last modified 22 April 2010