"Are There No Prisons . . . Are There No Workhouses?" — Scrooge in Dickens's A Christmas Carol

Scanned images and caption by Philip V. Allingham from a copy in the Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Formatting and image correction by George P. Landow. [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

Left: Refuge for the Destitute — Ward for Females. Right: Refuge for the Destitute — The Male Ward, both from the Illustrated London News (23 December 1843): 417. [Click on images for larger pictures for larger pictures.]

When Dickens wrote in 1859 "It was the worst of times, it was the best of times" (A Tale of Two Cities, Chapter One, Book One, "The Period"), he could easily have been commenting on the period of the early 1840s, which began — if one may judge from the illustrations in the Extra Christmas Supplements of The Illustrated London News — with a burst of confidence in the future and nostalgia for the Christmas traditions of the eighteenth century and quickly deteriorated into the "Hungry Forties" that serve as the background for the first two Christmas Books, A Christmas Carol and The Chimes. London, that metropolis that The Illustrated London News proclaimed in its initial Christmas Supplement "The City of the World," with a supremely comfortable British lion supine against the great dome of St. Paul's and the Houses of Parliament on the Thames, within a year was having to open gender-segregated shelters for the destitute as unemployment soared.

Left: A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Middle: Old Christmas Right: A Christmas 'At Home, all from the Illustrated London News. [Click on images for larger pictures.]

The general jollity of Kenny Meadows' full folio page "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year" (20 Dec. 1845) and Alfred Crowquill's illustration of the Spirit of Old Christmas (1843), anticipating the formulation of Father Christmas in the coming decade, is undercut by the stark misery of the London refuges ("wards") for the indigent and unemployed. "A Christmas 'At Home'" and the Eliza Cook song "An English Christmas at Home" (1845) celebrate the reunion of an upper-middle class family around the dinner table, but there is not even smoking permitted into the shelters which divide the men from their wives and children. In its positive images The Illustrated London News celebrates throughout these Christmases of the Hungry Forties an uncharacteristic superfluity and conviviality. Even such realistic pieces as "Prize Meat" showing that some families in the 1840s enjoyed comfortable affluence while others huddled under London's bridges and in the wards of the Union poor houses.

Now, observe the starkly contrasting scenes in urban "refuges" for men and women of the lower classes. In "Refuge for the Destitute — Ward for Females," no food is evident, but a more fuel efficient source of heat — a furnace, rear centre, fenced off — renders the warehouse for the surplus population at least habitable, its metal chimney running through the hall to spread the heat further, but contributing to the factory-like quality of the cavernous dormitory. Instead of the elegant taper in the former illustration, a gas lamp (left rear) provides illumination, assisted in daylight hours by the partially boarded up windows to the left. Only two children (lower left) are evident in a room with twenty-two adults, six of whom are sleeping in the narrow institutional boxes to the right, their shawls hanging above them. The only decoration provided the bare wooden beams of the hospice is the prominent sign prohibiting smoking.

Conditions for indigent males are no better. In "Refuge for the Destitute — The Male Ward," of the thirty-two figures in the shelter perhaps five are children, but again none of these is active or even individualised. Aside from the absence of sleeping boxes, this cavernous space resembles that for the females: the same gigantic beams, the same kind of furnace, the same type of gassolier, the same admonition against smoking — and the same air of lassitude and apathy. The general presence of hay for bedding, including large bales stored upstairs, and the greater number of occupants are the only distinguishing features as the disastrous year of 1843 closes upon London's mean streets.

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Last modified 21 July 2011