Institutions in Dickens's England

Speaking at Institutions

Throughout his career, Dickens spoke in a wide variety of institutional settings. He was often invited to speak at fundraising dinners, honorary banquets for authors (including himself!), and at opening ceremonies for new institutions. Some of these establishments held deep social, moral or political importance – the Charitable Society for the Deaf and Dumb; the Metropolitan Sanitary Association – whilst some perhaps held more personal significance, such as the Metropolitan Rowing Club (1866), or the Playground and General Recreation Society (1858).

Nevertheless, regardless of how important or light-hearted the cause might appear at first glance, Dickens always took great pains to eloquently represent the institution in the best possible light, and to find the deep virtue that lay behind their endeavours.

Professor Michael Slater spoke to us about Dickens's approach to his speeches:

I think Dickens knew his speeches would be very widely reported and quite influential, so I think he would have [... taken] them very seriously. He was obviously a very gifted [...] speaker, partly because he was a very good actor I suppose, and by all accounts his speeches were very funny, very moving. He was very eloquent, very effective, and, of course, he was bombarded with requests to give speeches for this charity, or that charity, or so on.

For Dickens, it was most important to lend his assistance to those institutions which he felt could take an active, practical role in helping solve the issues of public life – such as poverty, ignorance, crime, and ill-health. Fielding notes that:

as far as possible, Dickens kept away from mere charities and confined his help to provident societies and hospitals.1

The invitations to speak at a wide array of public institutions gave Dickens an opportunity to publicly express his opinion at length in ways which were playful, eloquent and insightful, neither unwarranted nor obtuse. He also held some moral influence due to his professional esteem.

We know that Dickens took his moral responsibility as an author very seriously; his humility in the face of great public-serving institutions is evident throughout his speeches. For example, a report of his speech at the first anniversary dinner of the Royal Hospital of Incurables in 1856 relates that Dickens approached the toast:

with some trepidation, because he felt he could scarcely do justice to an institution which had for its object the finding a permanent home for a most deserving and afflicted class of the community. He had the high privilege to give a toast which recognized the immense social importance and the great Christian humanities of a hospital designed for the permanent care and comfort of those who, by disease, accident, or deformity, were hopelessly disqualified for the duties of life.2

Wellcome Library. 1875. Royal Hospital for Incurables.

We can glean from these speeches a deeper understanding of Dickens's personal sentiments towards both these institutions and society at large. We can also learn how he harnessed his excellent rhetorical, performative literary style – refined as both an amateur actor and author – to make passionate pleas in service of these great public bodies.

Visiting Institutions

But Dickens’s interactions with these institutions didn’t merely take the form of after-dinner speeches. He often made visits to public institutions in both a personal and professional capacity. He took great interest in touring prisons, schools, workhouses, and hospitals, and had almost unlimited access to many institutions, by virtue of his background as a Parliamentary reporter and his success as a high-profile author. He was friends with managers of Coldbath Fields and Tothill Fields prisons, both in London, which he visited regularly.

Wellcome Library. 1862. Coldbath Fields Prison.

He often reflected about his experiences afterwards in his writing; the places and people he interacted with deeply informed his literary work, including a plethora of journal articles, and, most notably, novels such as The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist.

That Dickens invested so much of his time and energy into understanding these social institutions from the inside proves to us that his interest was far more than merely literary. The impassioned way that he both wrote and spoke about the plight of the common person reveals how deeply intertwined were his personal and public interests.

Alongside his many moralistic writings, his speeches were another way for him to meet his commitment to morally educate the public, and fulfil his desire to serve the world as a literary master.

In this section of the exhibition, we will focus on his interaction with three broad types of public institutions: the Political, the Educational, and the Social.

  1. Fielding, K.J. 1960. The Speeches of Charles Dickens. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p.xxii

  2. In: Fielding, K.J. 1960. p.223