This illustrated front-page of The Poor Man’s Guardian uses the advent of Christmas as an opportunity to compare the living conditions of prize pigs with those of the poor. The pigs, it would seem, come off much the better. Making reference to the famine then raging in Ireland, the author writes: ‘[The prize pigs] have been fed on “middlings, barley, meal, and milk,” and do no discredit to such a generous diet, the mere recapitulation of which would, no doubt, make many mouths water in Skibbereen’. By contrast, in Charles Cochrane’s dispatch from the workhouses of London, he finds ‘nineteen persons lying on the pavement, in the steet, unable to obtain shelter within the establishment. They consisted of one man, fifteen women, and three children’.
This article appeared in The Poor Man’s Guardian, the weekly newspaper of The Poor Man’s Guardian Society, a campaigning organisation dedicated to exposing examples of neglect and cruelty towards the poor. The Society was founded in response to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which restricted the freedom of charities and local governments to aid the poor of their districts as they saw fit. The Act was fundamental in the construction of new workhouses throughout Britain: giant labour factories with attached dormitories, in which the poorest were obliged to live and work rather than remain illegally in the streets. Being moved to a workhouse meant long hours of menial labour in poor and unsanitary conditions, very often miles from home and family.
Charles Dickens agreed to be listed as an 'officer' of the Poor Man’s Guardian Society. He was also a staunch opponent of the new Poor Law. In Oliver Twist (1838), he writes of ‘the deep, philosophical men’ who established the new workhouses, dedicated to ‘the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they) of being starved by a gradual process in the [work]house, or by a quick one out of it.’
- Article by:
- Ruth Richardson
- Poverty and the working classes, The novel 1832 - 1880, London
The hardships of the Victorian workhouse led to Oliver Twist utter the famous phrase ‘Please Sir, I want some more’. Here Ruth Richardson explores Dickens’s own experiences of poverty and the social and political context in which he was writing.