Understanding the Plight of Victorian England’s Poor
The Clerk—a Short Job Description
Can you imagine spending your entire school day, plus all of your homework time, copying words from a textbook? Add a freezing room and one candle as your only source of light, and you have Bob Cratchit’s working conditions—and he had a good job by Victorian standards! Since there were no printers or copiers in the 1800s, businesses hired clerks to copy documents all day by hand. Scrooge expected Bob to keep copying documents word by word for the entire workday—that’s 8 to 10 hours per day, six days a week!
And how much did Bob make at this “good” job?
Scrooge paid Bob 15 shillings a week, just 5 shillings short of a pound, or 39 pounds a year. Experts disagree on today’s dollar equivalent of the Victorian pound, but they consistently place the value between $20 and $200. That means that in the best-case scenario, Bob brought home just under $200 a week, while in the worst-case scenario, Bob earned less than $20 a week. Rent on a decent house would have been about 9 shillings a week, leaving just 6 shillings to feed and clothe a family of six. A loaf of bread cost about a shilling. So things were very, very tight for the Cratchits!
What is a workhouse, anyway?
A workhouse was a building where the homeless, jobless and starving could go to live, work and eat. Even though homelessness was a very common problem in Victorian England, many rich people like Scrooge feared that the poor were just too lazy to work and would take advantage of tax-funded shelter and food. To ensure that their tax money did not “go to waste,” the rich insisted that the government make the workhouses as miserable as possible.
Families were separated into large groups of men, women and children. Family members could not even see each other at meals, and certainly could not sleep near each other at night. Each person had to wear a drab gray uniform. The work was mandatory and menial—a common workhouse task was to spend all day breaking larger stones into smaller pieces. The “free” food was no more than one meager portion of gruel per day. On the rare occasion that a person had free time, he or she was forbidden to play cards or any other games, and could rarely visit family in other parts of the workhouse.
Why does Scrooge suggest prison as a resource for the poor?
In Victorian England, if a man could not pay his bills, the government could send him to prison! There, the wardens treated him like a common criminal. The government designed purposefully useless tasks for prisoners to perform so that debtors would realize the pointlessness of their crime. For example, prisoners had to walk the treadmill, a large metal cylinder with evenly spaced steps attached to it. The cylinder spun around and around while the prisoner walked for hours, struggling not to miss a step and to keep pace with the other prisoners suffering the same fate. The task was exhausting, and the government eventually banned the treadmill, but not before thousands of debtors had walked its steps.
Why does Tiny Tim need a crutch?
Many researchers, pediatricians, and literary scholars have attempted to diagnose Tiny Tim. Here are some of their arguments:
a) Tiny Tim had rickets, a Vitamin D deficiency.
The Case for it: Vitamin D is found in milk, which the Cratchits could not afford, and in sunlight, which would have been scarce in the poorer, smog-filled area of London where the Cratchits lived. Without Vitamin D, kids don’t build healthy bones, and their legs can bow under the weight of their own bodies—just like Tiny Tim’s leg!
The Argument against it: Rickets was not usually fatal, and the Ghost of Christmas Present insists that Tiny Tim will die if Scrooge does not help him. And if the Cratchits did have a problem getting enough Vitamin D, the other children in the family would have had rickets too.
b) Tiny Tim had TB, or Tuberculosis, a very common disease of the time.
The Case for it: Though TB was generally a respiratory disease in adults, it could appear in children under 10 as a crippling illness that also caused fatigue (Bob says that Tim is tired.) and weight loss (“Tiny” Tim). Left untreated, TB would have eventually killed Tim. But a little help from Scrooge – good nutrition, rest, and a back-brace – could have saved Tim’s life and put his disease into remission.
The Argument against it: At the end of the story, Tiny Tim is cured. TB never would have been completely cured, and Tim never would have been well enough to run into Scrooge’s arms.
c) Tim had Renal Tubular Acidosis, a type of Kidney Disease.
The Case: Doctors would have thought Tim had TB, and they would have given him a medicine that contained excess acids. In fact, many “tonics” or medicines of the day contained acids and other harmful toxins that would have hurt Tim’s kidneys. The extra acids in Tim’s kidneys would have affected his bone production, and his short stature would have been an early sign of the disease. Then, one side of his body would have become considerably weaker than the other, causing him to walk with one crutch. And RTA is completely curable – Scrooge could have saved Tiny Tim simply by taking him to better doctors who knew what to do!
The Argument: What do you think? Which diagnosis do you think fits Tim the best?