Dickens and Educational Institutions

The Victorian era was a time of great transformation in social education. As a literary man, Dickens was a tireless advocate for the power of good education to transform society. So strong was the purity of this belief that, on multiple occasions, he turned down the opportunity to run as a Member of Parliament, in favour of his literary career. He felt that his task was to educate the public, believing that a good education appeals to the best in human nature, helping people avoid a life of crime and degradation.


Dickens’s lifelong passion for creating positive educational institutions came in part from his own experiences as a child. As a young boy, he was taken out of school to work in a factory – a secret which he guarded very closely throughout his life – and he did not hold very positive memories about the schools he did attend. In a speech given at the fourth anniversary dinner for the Warehousemen and Clerks’ Schools (1857), he recollected:

I don’t like, to begin with – and to begin, as charity does, at home – I don’t like the sort of school to which I once went myself, the respected proprietor of which was by far the most ignorant man I have ever had the pleasure to know, who was one of the worst-tempered men perhaps that ever lived, whose business it was to make as much out of us and to put as little into us as possible… I don’t like that sort of school, because I don’t see what business the master had to be at the top of it instead of the bottom…a pernicious and abominable humbug altogether.

For Dickens, schools were not just merely places to learn Facts: he abhorred the idea of an institutionalized education in which the individuality and imagination of the child was squashed. He satirised this idea in his novel Hard Times (1854).

Coltilde de Stasio writes how Dickens held "an aversion to the evangelical, stern attitude to childhood and life in general" which was a large feature of Victorian life.1 This aversion is repeatedly expressed throughout Dickens’s speeches and writing. This extract comes from the same speech to the Warehousemen and Clerks’ Schools in 1857:

I don’t like that sort of school – and I have seen a great many such in these latter times – where the bright childish imagination is utterly discouraged, and where those bright childish faces, which it is so very good for the wisest among us to remember in after life, when the world is too much with us early and late, are gloomily and grimly scared out of countenance; where I have never seen among the pupils, whether boys or girls, anything but little parrots and small calculating machines. 

Dickens’s ideal schools are to be places where the child can learn, play, gather social skills, increase their empathy and understanding of others, receive a good moral education, and gain a rounded education which can produce good citizens.

Consider next the presentation of young Scrooge’s schoolhouse in the Second Stave of A Christmas Carol. First, The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge across the vibrant fields of his childhood, to meet the happy memories of his old classmates:

All these boys were in great spirits, and shouted to each other, until the broad fields were so full of merry music, that the crisp air laughed to hear it!... The jocund travellers came on; and as they came, Scrooge knew and named them every one.

Why was he rejoiced beyond all bounds to see them! Why did his cold eye glisten, and his heart leap up as they went past! Why was he filled with gladness when he heard them give each other Merry Christmas, as they parted at cross-roads and bye-ways, for their several homes! What was merry Christmas to Scrooge? Out upon merry Christmas! What good had it ever done to him?

But we soon meet young Scrooge himself, sat all alone in his schoolhouse, with no friends, and a dark air hanging about the room:

There was an earthy savour in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up by candle-light, and not too much to eat. They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.

Not a latent echo in the house, not a squeak and scuffle from the mice behind the panelling, not a drip from the half-thawed water-spout in the dull yard behind, not a sigh among the leafless boughs of one despondent poplar, not the idle swinging of an empty store-house door, no, not a clicking in the fire, but fell upon the heart of Scrooge with a softening influence, and gave a freer passage to his tears.

Scrooge’s schoolhouse is presented as residing in a comfortable rural setting, near a small, vibrant village – worlds away from the miserable atmosphere of crowded, urban workhouse schools. But despite this idyllic setting, we are invited to consider how Scrooge’s social isolation as a schoolchild led to his miserly attitude as an old man. Here, Dickens’s belief in the need for a holistic, social education is subtly but clearly expressed.

Adult Education

In addition to new schooling systems for children, Victorian England also witnessed the birth of many new institutions for general adult education. In these places – polytechnics, Mechanics’ Institutes, public libraries, and Athenaeums – adults were invited to improve their education for free.

After his speech at the First Annual Soirée of the Athenaeum: Manchester (1843), Dickens spoke regularly at events in support of these institutions. From this speech, we receive an eloquent expression of Dickens’s beliefs regarding general education, and his wholehearted support for the diffusion of knowledge to the general public:

This I know, that the first unpurchaseable blessing earned by every man who makes an effort to improve himself in such a place as the Athenaeum is self-respect – an inward dignity of character which once acquired and righteously maintained, nothing, no, not the hardest drudgery, nor the direst poverty, can vanquish…

The more a man who improves his leisure in such a place learns, the better, gentler, kinder man he must become…he will become more tolerant of other men’s belief in all matters, and will incline more leniently to their sentiments when they chance to differ from his own.

Urania Cottage

One particular episode in Dickens’s life allows us to further understand his unwavering commitment to reformist education as a tool for social betterment. This is the home founded by Angela Burdett-Coutes for the redemption of fallen women, called Urania Cottage.

Though he never discussed this work in his speeches, we can learn a lot about his beliefs from understanding how strongly he advocated for these women. For example, he wrote a passionate but stern pamphlet, called An Appeal to Fallen Women, which he distributed directly to women on the street who he thought could benefit from living at Urania Cottage.

There is a lady in this town, who, from the windows of her house, has seen such as you going past at night, and has felt her heart bleed at the sight...she has looked after you with compassion, as being of her own sex and nature; and the thought of such fallen women has troubled her in her bed. She has resolved to open, at her own expense, a place of refuge very near London...and to make it a HOME for them.

In this Home they will be taught all household work that would be useful to them in a home of their mown, and enable them to make it comfortable and happy. In this Home, which stands in a pleasant country lane, and where each may have her little flower-garden, if she pleases, they will be treated with the greatest kindness; will lead an active, cheerful, healthy life; will learn many things it is profitable and good to know; and, being entirely removed from all who have any knowledge of their past career, will begin life afresh, and be able to win a good name and character.

With this project, Dickens was able to practically implement a system of sympathetic and moral education. He oversaw every aspect of the home’s creation, including its physical layout, and the form of education the women living there would receive.

The Cottage welcomed prisoners from Coldbath Fields and Tothill Fields prisons in London, on the recommendation of the governors there (who were Dickens’s friends) as well as prostitutes, the homeless, and the unemployed. The Cottage aimed to treat the women with respect and a kind-hearted discipline, intending that they would form "habits of firmness and self-restraint".2 

Click here for more on Dickens and Urania Cottage on The Victorian Web.

There is not a lot of information about Urania Cottage, so it is difficult to know to what extent the Cottage influenced the women who stayed there, but a source quoted by Rogers in Dickens and Urania Cottage, The Home For Fallen Women, claims that more than half of the women left the institute, relapsed, or were sent away for misconduct; the rest appear to have fared well and "acquired a good character".3  

His lifelong work both within and in support of institutions looking to provide better standards of education give us a greater sense of the man as one of commitment, integrity, and creative wisdom.

  1. De Stasio, C. 2010. Starving vs Cramming: Children's Education and Upbringing in Charles Dickens and Herbert Spencer. Dickens Quarterly. 27(4), pp. 299-306.

  2. Dickens, C. Cited in: Rogers, J. 2003. Dickens and His Involvement in Urania Cottage. Available from: The Victorian Web

  3. https://spartacus-educational.com/DICurania.html