Every reader of Christmas tales is familiar with the wonderful scene in Dickens' A Christmas Carol where two "portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold" enter Ebenezer Scrooge's business premises and seek to get Scrooge's contribution to a fund "to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth."
|Portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold|
"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."Scrooge's response is all too often taken as the response of Victorians generally.
"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.Fortunately, attitudes such as Dickens ascribed to Scrooge were the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, in a society where the governing powers did little to aid the poor and what they did was, at best, dubious, help for the poor was likely to come from benevolent organisations set up to assist them including such well known bodies as Barnardo's Homes and the Peabody Trust. There were also many smaller organisations established by local groups and church bodies.
"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."
"Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude," returned the gentleman, "a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?"
"Nothing!" Scrooge replied.
"You wish to be anonymous?"
"I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge. "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned--they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there."
"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."
"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides--excuse me--I don't know that."
"But you might know it," observed the gentleman.
"It's not my business," Scrooge returned. "It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!"
Many of these charitable bodies were, however, aimed at the "deserving" poor, leaving a significant number of those in the lower and labouring classes to suffer the direst poverty. As well, there were some organisations which, like the churches, had their own particular agenda. During the latter half of the century hundreds of charities sprang up and in 1869 the Charity Organisation Society which was to act as an overarching administrative body was created in London. The COS was in favour of only limited government intervention and supported private charity and particularly the "self help" model espoused by Samuel Smiles in his book of that name.
Among the smaller organisations which sprang up in the latter years of the century, one of the most interesting was the Cinderella Club, founded about 1889, but which took much of its support from the Labour Church movement. This movement of Christian Socialists was founded by John Trevor in Manchester in 1891 as a reaction to the failure of the more traditional churches to support the working classes. The movement was centred in the industrial North of England and numerous churches seemed to spring up, remain active for a few months, and then cease to exist. Yet their short-term popularity attracted many. According to Mark Bevir, "in the first four months of 1894, four new churches spring up in Lancashire alone," and there were probably fifty active churches at the peak of popularity in 1895. By the end of the century, the movement was in decline but one of the legacies that it left was its strong support of Cinderella Clubs.
The idea of the Cinderella Clubs seems to have originated with Robert Blatchford, a journalist with the Sunday Chronicle. According to the Leeds Mercury of 18 April 1890, the Cinderella Club Movement, which was founded in Manchester, aimed "to shed an occasional ray of light and cheer upon the dull lives of the slum children." The Chronicle had "asked for helpers in other towns," and appears to have had little difficulty in securing these from the middle and working classes as well as patrons from the better classes. In Leeds, for example, the Cinderella Club could count amongst its patrons the Mayor and Lady Mayoress and at least one local Member of Parliament.
|Birmingham Cinderella Club Children|
|Cinderella Club boys collecting for the Club|
They were admitted in batches, a sufficient number at a time to fill the committee-room. Each child was served with a metal basin of steaming hot soup, and a spoon with which to eat it. After they had had their suppers they filed off into the Town Hall, receiving a bun each on the way, and then another detachment took their places. Supper commenced at six o'clock, and by seven the whole of the children had been fed; but as the last detachment entered the room it was seen that a very large number of cold shivering little ones were at the door without tickets looking wistfully at the more fortunate ones. That was a pitiable sight, but their hearts were soon cheered and their faced brightened, as they too were allowed to enter, for there was plenty of soup left.
There are numerous descriptions of such benevolence. Sadly, there was never enough food and drink for all of the needy and there was a continuous process of selection for the dinners. The success of the Cinderella Clubs cannot detract from the greater failure of the government and the churches in their duty toward those unable to provide for themselves. Certainly there were those who abused the system, but even the most cursory glance at England in the '90s shows that the children of many in the working class and those who fell below that class, into the "undeserving" poor, were living in bleakest poverty.
A number of studies, including Charles Booth's examination of London in the late '80s and early '90s and Seebohm Rowntree’s study of York at the end of the century, bear out the view that over all poverty levels, at least in those two urban areas were in the range of 25 to 30 per cent. Booth's data determined that in lower-class districts of London, over 30 per cent of the population lived in dire poverty but unlike the common mythology only 15 per cent could be classified (to use the popular terminology) as "undeserving." The remainder were trapped in a cycle of unemployment, illness and too many children.
The Cinderella Clubs provided some comfort for the children of the very poor but did little or nothing to address the broader issues facing England during a period which saw the great dock strike and other forms of labour unrest. Undoubtedly, though, their supporters, the "portly gentlemen, pleasant to behold" were able to remaincomplacent in the knowledge that they had done their bit to better the lives of their inferiors.