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Charles Dickens

"To Working Men"



It behoves every journalist, at this time when the memory of an awful pestilence [a cholera outbreak in London, August and September 1854] is fresh among us, and its traces are visible at every turn in various affecting aspects of poverty and desolation, which any of us can see who are not purposely blind, to warn his readers, whatever be their ranks and conditions, that unless they set themselves in earnest to improve the towns in which they live, and to amend the dwellings of the poor, they are guilty, before God, of wholesale murder.


The best of our journals have so well remembered their responsibility in this respect, and have so powerfully presented the truth to the general conscience, that little remains to be written on the urgent subject. But we would carry a forcible appeal made by our contemporary the Times to the working people of England to a little further, and implore them - with a view to their future avoidance of a fatal old mistake - to beware of being led astray from their dearest interests, by high political authorities on the one hand, no less than by sharking mountebanks to banks on the other. The noble lord and the right honourable baronet and the honourable gentleman and the honourable and learned gentlemen and the honourable and gallant gentleman and the whole of the honourable circle have, in the contest for place, power, and patronage, loaves and fishes, distracted the working man's attention from his first necessities quite as much as the broken creature - once a popular Misleader - who is now sunk in hopeless idiocy in a madhouse. To whatsoever shadows these may offer in lieu of substance, it is the first duty of The People to be resolutely blind and deaf; firmly insisting, above all things, on their and their children's right to every means of life and health that Providence has afforded for all, and firmly refusing to allow their name to be taken in vain for any purpose by any party until their homes are purified and the amplest means of cleanliness and decency are secured to them.


We may venture to remark that this is most momentous of all earthly questions is one we are not now urging for the first time. Long before this journal came into existence, we systematically tried to turn fiction to the good account of showing the preventable wretchedness and misery in which the mass of people dwell, and of expressing again and again the conviction, founded upon observation, that the reform of their habitations must precede all other reforms; and that without it, and the other reforms must fail. Neither religion nor education will make any way, in this nineteenth-century of Christianity, until a Christian government shall have discharges first obligation, and secured the people homes, instead of polluted dens.


Now, any working man of common intelligence knows perfectly well that one session of parliament zealously devoted to this object would secure its attainment. If he does not also know perfectly well that government or parliament would of itself originate nothing to save his life, he may know it by instituting a very little inquiry. Let him inquire what either power has done to better his social condition since the last great outbreak of disease five years ago. The to inquire what amount of attention from government, and what amount of attendance in parliament, the question of that condition has ever attracted, until one night in this last August, when it became a personal question and a facetious question, and when Lord Seymour, the member for Totnes, exhibited his fitness for ever having been placed at the head of a great public department by cutting jokes, which were received with laughter, on the subject of the pestilence then raging. If the working man, on such a review of plain facts, be satisfied that without his own help he will not be helped, but will be pitilessly left to struggle at unnatural odds with disease and death; then let him bestir himself to set so monstrous a wrong right, and let him - for the time at least - dismiss from his mind all other public questions, as straws in the balance. The glorious right of voting for Lord This (says Seymour, for instance) or Sir John That; the intellectual state of Abyssinia; the endowment of the College of Maytooth; the paper duty; the newspaper duty; the 5 per cent; the 25 per cent; the 10,000 hobby-horses that are exercised before him, scattering so much dust in his eyes that he cannot see his own hearth, until the cloud is suddenly fanned away by the wings of the Angel of death: all these distractions let him put aside, holding steadily to one truth - "Waking and sleeping, I and mine are slowly poisoned. Imperfect development and premature decay are the lot of those who are dear to me as my life. I bring children into the world to suffer unnaturally, and to die when my Merciful Father would have them live. The beauty of infancy is blasted out from my sight, and in its stead sickliness and pain looks at me from the wan mother's knee. Shameful deprivation of the commonest appliances, distinguishing the lives of human beings from the lives of beasts, is my inheritance. My family is one of tens of thousands of families are set aside as food for pestilence". And let him then, being made in the form of man, resolve, "I will not bear it and it shall not be".


If working men will be thus true to themselves and one another, there never was a time when they had so much just sympathy and so much ready help at hand. The whole powerful middle-class of this country, newly smitten with a sense of self-reproach - far more potent with it, we fully believe, then the low motives of self-defence and fear - is ready to join them. The utmost power of the press is eager to assist them. But the movement, to be irresistible, must originate within themselves, the suffering many. Let them take the initiative, and call the middle class to unite with them: which they will do heart and soul! Let the working people, in the metropolis, and in any one great town, but turn their intelligence, their energy, their numbers, their power of union, their patience, their perseverance, in this straight direction in earnest - and by Christmas they shall find a government in Downing Street and a House of Commons within hailing of it, possessing not the faintest family resemblance to the indifferents and incapables last heard of in that slumberous neighbourhood.


It is only through a government so acted upon and so forced to acquit itself of its first responsibility that the intolerable ills arising from the present nature of the dwellings of the poor can be remedied. A board of Health can do much, but not nearly enough. Funds are wanted, and great powers are wanted; powers to override little interests for the general good; powers to coerce the ignorant, obstinate and slothful and to punish all who, by any infraction of necessary laws, imperil the public health. The working people and the middle-class thoroughly resolved to have such rules, there is no more choice left to all the Red Tapes in Britain as to the form in which it shall tie itself next, than there is option in the barrel of a barrel-organ which tune it shall play.


But, though it is easily foreseen that such an alliance must soon incalculably mitigate, and in the end annihilate, the dark list of calamities resulting from sinful and cruel neglect which the late visitation has - unhappily not for the first time - unveiled; it is impossible to set limits to the happy issues that would flow from it. A better understanding between the two great divisions of society, a habit of kinder and nearer approach, and increased respect and trustfulness on both sides, a gently corrected method in each of considering the views of the other, would lead to such blessed improvements and interchange among us, that even our narrow wisdom might within the compass of a short time learn to bless the sickly year in which so much good blossomed out of evil.


In the plainest sincerity, in affectionate sympathy, in the ardent desire of our heart to do them some service, and to see them take their place in the system which should bind us all together, and to bring home, to us all, the happiness of which our necessarily varied conditions are all susceptible, we submit these few words to the working men. The time is ripe for every one of them to raise himself and those who are dear to him, at no man's cost, with no violence or injustice, with cheerful help and support, with lasting benefit to the whole community. Even the many among them at whose firesides there will be vacant seats this winter, we address with hope. However hard the trial and heavy the bereavement, there is a far higher consolation in striving for the life that is left, then in brooding with sullen eyes beside the grave.



Originally published in Household Words, October 7 1854.