Workhouses and The Victorian Poor

Mr. Bumble

As we have seen, Dickens used both his speeches and novels as a way of commenting on important social issues of his time. Professor Michael Slater told us how Dickens used his novels as a way of trying to galvanise social action from his audiences:

Both A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist are written to stir the reader up to some kind of reaction, some kind of response, even action, about the state of the workhouses. They're polemical.

The character of Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist is a great example of this. In the novel, Mr. Bumble embodies the controversial ideas which lay behind the creation of the workhouses – institutions formed after the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Each district in England was legally required to build a workhouse, and the living conditions were often very poor and dirty. Many people who were unable to work, as well as the poor and elderly, lived together in awful, cramped conditions.

In Oliver Twist, Mr. Bumble expresses the political ideas which underlay the awful conditions of the workhouses: the idea, for example, that the poor are to blame for their own social conditions, and should therefore not be given any real help to improve their lives. Dickens employs his sense of humour, irony, and sarcasm to highlight this to the reader through Mr. Bumble’s conversations. The following two instances from Oliver Twist highlight this effectively.

In Chapter 7, after Oliver has been locked away for attacking Noah at the Sowerberry’s house, Mr. Bumble is called upon to help the situation. But instead of sympathising with Oliver, he immediately exclaims that the boy has been ‘overfed’ with too much meat, suggesting:

You’ve overfed him, ma’am. You’ve raised a artificial soul and spirit in him ma’am, unbecoming a person of his condition… What have paupers to do with soul or spirit? It’s quite enough that we let ‘em have live bodies.

Here, Mr. Bumble’s views are unfiltered. He believes that in order to create obedient and grateful poor people, they must be underfed and kept hungry.

This theme returns again in Chapter 23, during a discussion with Mrs. Corney. Mr. Bumble recounts a tale about a homeless man who knocked at the workhouse door seeking scraps of food to eat. In his story, the pauper is ungrateful for being given "a pound of potatoes and half a pint of oatmeal" (which isn’t very much food at all) and therefore gets it taken away from him. He later dies of hunger in the street, to which Mr. Bumble calls him "a obstinate pauper" – blaming the poor man for his own death!

Then, after Mrs. Corney enquires into Mr. Bumble’s views on giving food to the homeless, he expresses the workhouse ideology, saying:

the great principle of out-of-door relief, is, to give the paupers exactly what they don’t want; and then they get tired of coming… and that’s the reason why, if you look at any cases that get into them owdacious newspapers, you’ll always observe that sick families have been relieved with slices of cheese.

This final comment regarding cheese shows the absurdity of this whole system of belief. Dickens here contrasts the real plight of the Victorian poor with the inhumanity of those who are meant to care for them, revealing the contradictions of the workhouse. 

Dickens’s Views on the Poor

These instances from Oliver Twist can be further understood by looking at Dickens’s speeches. He often used his after-dinner speeches as a forum to express his compassionate views regarding the poor. In expressing these beliefs, he directly invited his audiences to sympathise with the lower classes, attempting time and again to spread stories of their humanity and good-nature.

In a speech at a Banquet in His Honour at Hartford, Connecticut, Dickens used the opportunity of having an audience of adoring fans to express his strong feelings regarding the poor.

Gentlemen, my moral creed – which is a very wide and comprehensive one, and includes all sects and parties – is very easily summed up. I have faith, and I wish to diffuse faith in the existence – yes, of beautiful things, even in those conditions of society which are so degenerate, degraded, and forlorn that, at first sight, it would seem as though they could not be described but by a strange and terrible reversal of the words of Scripture – God said, Let there be light, and there was none.

I take it that we are born and that we hold our sympathies, hopes, and energies in trust for the many, and not for the few. That we cannot hold in too strong a light of disgust and contempt, before the view of others, all meanness, falsehood, cruelty, and oppression, of every grade and kind. Above all, that nothing is high, because it is in a high place; and that nothing is low, because it is in a low one.

Dickens here passionately asks his audience to see the good and beautiful in all people, and not to judge the poor just because they happen to have been born into a desperate situation.

Anon. 1878. Able-bodied Inmates at Leeds Workhouse. In: Bedford, P. & Howard, D.N. 1985. St James’s University Hospital, Leeds: A Pictorial History.

Dickens was also keenly perceptive of the way in which power, social class, and prejudice is passed down from one generation to another: no one is able to choose the conditions into which they are born. This, he felt, made it all the more important that the poor should be educated and supported out of poverty, rather than being left to squalor on the streets, (as Mr. Bumble might have believed). He expressed these sympathies at a speech given to the Polytechnic Institution of Birmingham in 1844:

I do not believe the working class were ever the wanton or mischievous persons they have been so often represented to be; but I rather incline to the opinion that some wise men took it into their heads to lay it down as a matter of fact, without being particular about the premises; and that the idle and prejudiced, not wishing to have the trouble of forming opinions for themselves, took it for granted.

In 1850, he expressed to the Metropolitan Sanitary Association his positive belief in the patience and sympathy of the poor, and their willingness to help one another, saying:

No one who had any experience of the poor could fail to be deeply affected by their patience, by their sympathy with one another, and by the beautiful alacrity with which they helped each other.

Overall, it seems that Dickens really held sympathy for the poor, believing that they weren't to blame for their own conditions. He devoted a lot of energy throughout his life into changing social perceptions and conditions of the working class.

But despite this, he still had held a strong belief in the British class system; these two beliefs often seem quite contradictory. In Oliver Twist, for example, the titular character is represented as being out of place in the dark backstreet gangs of London, precisely because he was born into a family which originally had wealth and money. Oliver is understood to be undeserving of his awful fate, and he continually triumphs against a background of working class characters who seem to be in their rightful place.

What does this contradiction tell us about Dickens's beliefs? Were there some blind-spots in the way that he represented the poor in his work? How do you think this affects the moral messages in his novels?


We can see, in Stave One of A Christmas Carol, another example of how Dickens uses his novels to express the disparity between the rich and the poor in Victorian society. We are shown how the miserly Scrooge refuses to give money to charity collectors when they turn up at his door. He tries to argue that they should all be send to the prisons and workhouses instead of receiving charity.

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”