Newsvendors' Benevolent Institution Annual General Meeting


Speech at the Newsvendors' Benevolent Institution Annual General Meeting (21 May 1855).


Dickens, Charles


Bibliographic Citation

Dickens, Charles. 'Speech at the Newsvendors' Benevolent Institution Annual General Meeting' (21 May 1855). Dickens Search. Eds. Emily Bell and Lydia Craig. Accessed [date].


Before proceeding with the business of the general meeting, it occurs to me that we should all refresh our memories as to what this institution is, what it wants, and why we have reason for hoping that its wants will, in the long run, be realized. In the first place your institution is a society – a benevolent and provident society – ‘for granting temporary relief and permanent assistance to masters and servants engaged as vendors of newspapers, who from age, infirmity, or distress may require assistance.’ As I understand the society, although it grants temporary relief to those who are not members, it reasonably, as a matter of justice and right, only grants pensions to the persons and widows of those who are members. It appears one of the great merits of this institution that the qualification of membership is made so extremely small and easy, and within the access of everybody belonging to the trade, the subscription being five shillings annually, or a fraction more than a penny a week.

Everybody knows, on the authority of ‘the wisdom of our ancestors’, that ‘early to bed and early to rise, make a man healthy, wealthy, and wise’; and although the newsmen as a class are compelled to rise extremely early, which implies extremely early going to bed, still the financial operations of the newsmen do not materially affect the money market. The society provides a qualification within the reach of all poor men, and therefore you commence with the very strong leverage of going upon a perfectly practicable plan. The management of the society is remarkably economical; its expenses are particularly small; it has three pensioners upon its list; and it has saved from its small beginnings £1,500.

Then we come to the question of what your infant struggling society wants? It wants, in the first place, as we all do, more money; it wants, as very few of us do with our current Parliamentary experience, more members. This latter want I regard as by far the more important want of the two; for it is only by the support of the newsvendors themselves; it is only by your zealous exertions and devotion to your own cause; it is only, in short, by your uniting together for the benefit of your common calling, that this society can ever be raised into an extended sphere of usefulness; in fact it is only by your thoroughly helping yourselves that the public can ever be got to help you. You may rely upon it that there is no principle more certain than this, that every man who becomes a member of your society communicates a moral support to it which is worth his five shillings a year fifty times told. Every man owes a duty to the calling in which he is engaged no less than to himself, and it is only by this sense of double duty being diffused among the whole trade that your society can ever succeed. Even if there be a man in your trade so sanguine as to believe that he himself will never want help in age, infirmity, or distress, you must inspire that man with the ambition to help his brothers all round, and to elevate the whole family by the brightness of that laudable example.

Well then, we come to the question, what grounds the society has for believing that it will ultimately come to the accomplishment of those wants which I have stated? Now, foremost in the future which is opening before you, I cannot but put the intelligence and enterprise of the principals engaged in the newsvending trade, and the business habits, the good sense, and the good feeling of their assistants. If certain gentlemen whom I see about me tonight– if Mr. Wild, for example, who is close to me, were a distributor of news for the two reasons that his great grandmother, the Dowager – dowager Mrs. Wild had been a distributor of news, that he himself had not the slightest knowledge of his own business, I should have slight hope of him. Or if he had selected for his assistant a man who left me the Morning Post for last Christmas Day twelve months, instead of The Times of this morning, sent my copy of the Examiner to Bengal instead of to Tavistock Square, and insisted in serving me with publications I never wished to see, while keeping back those I am dying to read, I should have very small hope of him; and I should take the liberty of saying of such a master and man – as I have taken the liberty of saying pretty often lately of another master and man: ‘It is perfectly clear that no good whatever can come out of these people; they are a scarcely animated heap of confusion and imbecility, and they can no more become better than roses can bloom in the Great Desert, or than the Great Pyramid can stand on its head.’

But newsmen cannot proceed in this manner. They must be steady, attentive, active, industrious, and efficient. The master, to succeed in his trade, must watch and be wary and attentive to every minute detail; and the assistant, to be an assistant worthy of his money – whether he be a man of middle age with a large family, or whether he be an undersized boy who gets a larger-sized boy to hold his oilskin portfolio while he refreshes himself by ‘overing’ all the posts on his beat – must do his appointed task of work within his appointed time, or he must come out of the Cabinet altogether, and go to the father of all confusion and false principles. And although the checktaker at a theatre never sees the play, and similarly it is possible a newsman may never read the paper – though I have seen him at it often when he goes along the street – I cannot but believe that he derives some intelligence and instruction from the article in which he deals; and so long as he discharges his duties faithfully and efficiently, I cannot think it likely his trade will remain a peculiar or exceptional case in not having its own thriving provident institution, supported by the very best men.

Then, lastly, if the members of the trade be only true to the trade itself and to themselves – which I again insist on, with your leave, to be the one thing needful in this business, and the solid ground on which alone your house can stand – we have to ask whether there is a reasonable hope that the public will be glad to help them? I am strongly of opinion that there is, since no one can doubt that the newsman is in his degree a public servant, and that the pack he carries up and down is of vital importance to the public interest. There are near Westminster, at this very moment while I speak, some gentlemen – certain howling Dervishes, who are observed to be particularly attentive at their devotions at the shrine of my friend Mr. Layard, whose honesty of purpose stands unimpeached – who would hamstring every newsman in London, if they could do so with impunity. Why? Because the newsman, though he is humbly associated, still is usefully and necessarily associated with that great engine which puts a girdle round the earth in every twenty-four hours, and because the newsman, going upon his daily way, lights up the whole country, as the bearer of a flaming cross used to call the Highland clans together. 

We have had lately a strike among the gasworkers, and a strike among the cab-drivers; but consider what were those inconveniences compared with the light that would be dimmed, and the progress that would be stopped, by a strike of newsmen. Humbly associated, I say again, but necessarily associated with that wonderful engine, that great result of civilization which is the terror of all humbugs, and the natural enemy of everyone and everything that cannot bear the light, the newsman is undoubtedly in his degree a good public servant, and the public never forgot a good public servant yet, if he took his right place.

And when I remember that this trade has grown to what it is from the days when some little, mean, poor broadside was issued occasionally, giving an account of certain wonderful appearances observed in the air by eighteen persons of credit down in Northamptonshire; when a dozen country gentlemen subscribed to a newsletter written by a person of learning, the news of which, seldom true to begin with, was six months old when they got it; when a copy of The Times would scarcely have made one night's curl papers for a young lady with a very moderate crop; and when I look to the present day when the same newspaper is large enough for a carpet for a dining-room; and when I reflect that the daily press is the portal through which men of great ability, intelligence, and energy pass to win their way to distinction in every quarter of the world; I say – when I see all this – I cannot believe that an institution belonging to the trade, and plainly tending to its benefit, does not contain within it the capacity of being developed to a state of usefulness and credit worthy of the service in which newsmen were enlisted.