Fast Changing Society, Slow Changing Law: A Look at Victorian Work Legislation in the Time of A Christmas Carol

In “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens presents some insights into the life of the Victorian work force in the 1800’s through two characters:  Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit.  In “A Christmas Carol,” readers are introduced to the story of a miserly man, Scrooge, who abuses his employee (Cratchit) and does little to help his fellow man until a Christmas Eve visit from three ghosts helps him to change his perspective.   When readers are introduced to Cratchit and Scrooge in the office, the conditions there are harsh for Bob.  He is given only one coal for a fire and often very cold.  Bob is forced to work many hours for a basic compensation (with no discernible overtime or holiday pay).

The legislation being introduced during this time fought to keep up with the fast paced changes introduced by the industrial age.  Most were to regulate factories (textile factories in particular) but can be viewed as impactful to most workers of the time.  There were Factory Acts introduced into legislation that were updated throughout the 1800’s.  In 1834 (9 years prior to the publication of A Christmas Carol), the initial Factory Act covered the working age of children (no children under 9), how many hours children could work, and the prohibition of children working at night.  In 1844, updates to the act regulated conditions for women and reduced the working age for children to under the age of          8 but limited the hours that children under 13 could work.  1847 saw anther amendment to how many hours both women and children could work but neglected to mention men.  In 1867, a master and servant act was introducted to limit the ability of workers to violate contracts (mostly to prevent striking and union picketing) but was later revised so workers could petition their employers for violations as well.  And in 1897 (more than 50 years after “A Christmas Carol”) the Compensation Act was introduced to regulate wages, overtime earning, and holiday hours for workers.

Another hot topic of the Victorian time period and of “A Christmas Carol” was charitable giving and the poor.  In the story, Scrooge is confronted by two charity workers gathering money to help provide food and other items to the poor at Christmastime.  Scrooge’s reply to the gentlemen is “are there no prisons . . . and the union workhouses?”  (Dickens 1380).  Scrooge is referring to the Poor Law Amendment Act that was introduced in 1834.

This law was supposed to help with the number of people in debt and unable to make ends meet but instead did more to harm the poor.  Conditions were intentionally kept harsh in workhouses to discourage people from seeking the help of the workhouses.They were also set up in every parish and led to the separation of many families at the time (since most were like prisons and the poor treated like criminals).  In fact, those who went to the workhouse were made to wear a distinctive uniform to identify them as poor or debtors in another move to discourage people from seeking help.  The Poor Law Amendment Act was not formally abolished until 1948 with the introduction of the National Assistance Act which set up insurance for the homeless and single mothers but also provided for elderly citizens of the time.  Although change happened fast during the Victorian period, legislation failed to keep up with the times and didn’t catch up until many years later.

Works Cited

“1833 Factory Act.” The National Archives. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2013.

Bloy, Marjie. “The Poor Law Amendment Act: 14 August 1834.” The Poor Law Amendment Act: 14 August 1834. N.p., 23 Sept. 2002. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.

Bloy, Marjie. “Victorian Legislation: A Timeline.” Victorian Legislation: A Timeline. N.p., 20 Dec. 2006. Web. 30 Nov. 2013.

Dickens, Charles. “A Christmas Carol.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. By David Damrosch, Heather Henderson, and William Sharpe. New York: Longman, 1999. 1376-425. Print.

“National Assistance Act 1948.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Oct. 2013. Web. 01 Dec. 2013.

Simkin, John. “1834 Poor Law.” 1834 Poor Law. Spartacus Educational, n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.