This is an angry defence of the charitable provision of food to the poor, which was an intermittently controversial issue in Victorian Britain. Giving poor people food was held by certain parts of the conservative middle-class to be unethical and even dangerous: it encouraged the poor into dependency and also attracted vagrants and criminals to otherwise pleasant areas. Soup kitchens such as this one had actually been outlawed by the 1834 Poor Laws, but the rapid industrialisation of Britain during the period – and the concentration of the general population on urban centres – meant that paying work was often in short supply, and well-paying work non-existent. But with public starvation refusing to die down, parliament and the police gradually relaxed their attitude to soup kitchens.
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 was a founder member of the Poor Man’s Guardian Society and sometime vice-president of the organisation. 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’.