Social Justice and Poverty in England

Social justice was an issue Dickens held extremely close to his heart. In essence, 'social justice' contains a huge range of more specific issues Dickens wished to tackle, such as education and institutions for pensions, specific professions, and support of the working class. In this segment we will first explore Dickens' attitude towards class inequality in Victorian England, looking at where his public advocacy for social change fit within his contemporary political framework. We will also touch upon how he expressed these views to his wealthy peers. We will then explore how Dickens actually saw and described the living conditions of England's urban poor. We will look at how he describes the process of actually growing up surrounded by such poverty (and unavoidably, criminality), and again explore the similarities between Dickens's observations and those of his contemporaries, notably Frederick Engels.

Class-consciousness and Educating the Privileged 

Dickens’s speech delivered at the Polytechnic Institution, Birmingham, 1844 is a perfect example of the author's passion for improving social welfare and justice, as well as showing off his elegant speaking skills. In this speech, he argues for the necessity of extending educational access to the working and lower classes of Birmingham, which the Polytechnic Institution was attempting to do:

the resolutions about to be proposed do not contain in themselves anything of a sectarian or class nature...they do not confine themselves to any one single institution, but assert the great and omnipotent principles of comprehensive education, everywhere, and under each and every circumstance. I beg leave to say that I can concur heart and hand in those principles, and will do all in my power for their advancement.

He also praises the work of the Church and its associated charities for aiding this cause. Dickens would often call upon Christian sentiments as a means of connecting with his audiences on a spiritual level. This brought them face-to-face with the beliefs of equality, generosity, and forgiveness which they claimed to uphold. (More information on Dickens’s use of Christianity will come later in this exhibition.)

Difficult and demanding factory labour was a reality of life for much of the working class in Victorian England. Later in this speech, Dickens expresses his criticism of factory labour and the negative effects it has on workers. His words closely echo those of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, two famous Communists who wrote about the conditions of the working class in Europe. In the same speech given in Birmingham (1844):

For surely it cannot be allowed that those who labour day by day, surrounded by machinery, shall be permitted to degenerate into machines themselves; but on the contrary, they should be able to assert their common origin in that Creator from whose wondrous hands they came, and unto whom, responsible and thinking men, they will return.

The particular choice of words made by Dickens here immediately grabs the attention of the twenty-first century reader. Whether Dickens knew it or not, he was perfectly expressing the essence of Marx and Engels’s fears of industrial labour: that workers become alienated and machine-like when they spend too long in the factory. Marx's works had not yet been widely translated from German into English, so there is no way Dickens could have been directly exposed to his ideas at this early stage, yet the parallels between the language they both used is striking. This is an insightful reflection of the growing awareness of factory workers' suffering amongst the intelligentsia in Europe.

Marx and Engels's observations of the shockingly intolerable living conditions which so plagued Victorian England inspired them in a similar way to Dickens. Engels embarked on several expeditions throughout Europe in order to gather first-hand experience, and understand the squalid conditions developing under industrialisation. For further reading on this topic, you could read Engels's famous work The Condition of the Working Class in England.

There were various arguments used by the Victorian upper classes to either excuse or ignore the blatant exploitation and suffering of the poor. Often, poor people were dismissed as criminals, or said to have low moral standards, which placed them on a lower moral plane than the rich. Dickens strongly disagreed with this view, and remained an outspoken humanist throughout his life. At a Banquet in his honour in Boston, 1842, he stated that:

These creatures [the poorest of the poor] have the same elements and capacities of goodness as you yourselves… and though ten times worse than you, may, in having retained anything of their original nature amidst the trains and distresses of their condition, be really ten times better.

Here, Dickens directly calls into question the morality of his audience. Dickens was no stranger to such a confrontational approach, frequently criticising inherited wealth and ignorance in a manner at once poignant, eloquent, and disarming.

His novels serve a similar purpose. The destitution and squalor of working conditions which Dickens fought against were vividly reflected in his literature.

Despite holding the beliefs we have just discussed, it would certainly be a stretch to label Dickens a socialist. Yet what remains clear throughout his life is his awareness of socialist thought, and his role in bridging the gap between the rich and the uneducated poor in Victorian society. Dickens worked to consistently draw the attention of his contemporaries to the dire conditions of the English working class, and to the shared humanity which he felt should unite all people, regardless of their class.

Living Conditions of the Poor in Victorian England

Dickens does not shy away from drawing attention to the squalor of working class living conditions in Victorian cities. He uses particularly striking and descriptive language in his novels, of starving children, filthy streets, and rife criminality. In this extract from Oliver Twist, where Oliver first arrives in London, Dickens paints a vivid picture:

A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen… the air was impregnated with filthy odours… drunken men and women were positively wallowing in the filth; and from several of the doorways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging: bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands.

The kind of place described here most likely had never been visited by tjhe majority of those reading Dickens’s novels, or attending his speeches and readings. Dickens attempts to transport his readers into the conditions of exploitation and suffering experienced by England’s working class. His descriptions are by no means exaggerated, either. Engels painted London’s poorer districts in a similar light, and these similarities reinforce the credibility of their writings:

Dore, G. 1872. Orange Court.

Here live the poorest of the poor, the worst paid workers with thieves and the victims of prostitution indiscriminately huddled together, the majority Irish or of Irish extraction, and those who have not yet sunk in the whirlpool of moral ruin which surrounds them, sinking daily deeper, losing daily more and more of their power to resist the demoralising influence of want, filth, and evil surroundings.

It is interesting to note the emphasis both authors place upon the corrupting effect of poverty on the soul. This idea implies two key points. First, that no soul is born corrupted; second, that no soul is incorruptible. They both emphasise the misfortune of circumstance which has condemned the poor to their lives of misery and crime.

This idea of circumstance is a common theme within many of Dickens's speeches. In these speeches, he fosters sympathy amongst his privileged peers for the poor, who he sees as victims of circumstance. He also chastises his audience for their ignorance of the privilege they posess, and their feeling of incorruptibility due to their total lack of want.

There is further in-depth discussion on Dickens's views about the poor on our page entitled 'Workhouses, and The Victorian Poor'.