Dickens’s Oliver Twist: Poverty, the Poor Laws and the Workhouse

Lesson rationale

In this lesson, students will explore aspects of the social and economic background underpinning Oliver Twist and discover Charles Dickens’s preoccupations with these subjects not only as a novelist, but also as a campaigner. Students are encouraged to draw comparisons between Dickens’s works of journalism and his fiction, and to discover the similarities Dickens exposes between workhouses and prisons.

Key questions in this lesson:

  • What was new and revolutionary about the Act in terms of provision for the poor?
  • What were the main social and economic developments that dominated the early 19th century and how were ordinary working people affected in terms of housing and budgeting?
  • Why were the workhouses such hated institutions?
  • How did critics, like Dickens, explore the reality of the poor and their treatment at the hands of both the authorities and the criminal class?