What the Dickens!

Back in the year 1857, life wasn’t so good as it is now.

For example, according to manchestergalleries.org, Manchester in 1857 had no sewerage system or clean water supply, resulting in a high death rate thanks to diseases such as cholera and dysentery. I recently wrote about the infant death rate in Congleton; overcrowding meant infections such as tuberculosis spread rapidly and consequently life was hazardous; it was often short and grim for the poor.

Life expectancy in Manchester was 26, the lowest of any UK city; in Congleton it would be a bit higher, bearing in mind that both figures are skewed by horrendously high infant death rates. The average Mancunian would live only to 43, but we’d guess that if you made it past the teenage years you’d probably live into your 50s or beyond; 10% of children died before their fifth birthday.

Back in Manchester, up to 250 people would share a privvy, a pit in the ground used as a toilet. Only 32% of Manchester’s five to 14-year-olds went to school, the fourth lowest percentage in the country. In Congleton they at least fined people who sent their nippers out to work.

At work, the average person was expected to work around 56 hours a week, and health and safety did not exist. Boys would be doing men’s jobs, and dying doing them.

Even in the kitchen, it wasn’t safe: until 1875 there was little in the way of control on food quality. Bakers added alum and chalk to the flour, while plaster of Paris, pipe clay and even sawdust could be added to increase the weight of loaves. People were poor and hungry, and just wanted filling with food.

Brewers often added mixtures of bitter substances, some containing poisons such as strychnine, to improve the taste of the beer and save on hops. A court case in Congleton in 1914 showed this still went on.

So you get it: life 150 years ago was brutal and hard, unless you lived in Downton Abbey.

And we’re all glad we’ve left all that behind, right? Wrong.

The year also saw Mr Charles Dickens publish Little Dorrit, a tale about a poor girl living in the pauper’s prison, during which story he described life in London in general. I’m currently listening to it on Audible (owned by those tax-dodging rascals Amazon, but a wonderful thing).

And here goes Dickens, talking about Bleeding Hearts Yard, one of the locations outside the debtors’ house that he used.
He’s reflecting on the average working man’s attitude towards foreigners, and obviously did not approve, mocking as he did the narrow minded stupidity of the yard’s simple residents.

He wrote: “It was uphill work for a foreigner, lame or sound, to make his way with the Bleeding Hearts.
“In the first place, they were vaguely persuaded that every foreigner had a knife about him; in the second, they held it to be a sound constitutional national axiom that he ought to go home to his own country.
“They never thought of inquiring how many of their own countrymen would be returned upon their hands from diverse parts of the world if the principle were generally recognised; they considered it particularly and peculiarly British.
“They entertained other objections to having foreigners in the yard. They believed that foreigners were always badly off; though they were as ill off themselves as they could desire to be, that did not diminish the force of the objection.
“They believed that foreigners were dragooned and bayoneted; though they certainly got their own skulls promptly fractured if they showed any ill-humour, it was with a blunt instrument, and that didn’t count.
“They believed that foreigners were always immoral; though they had an occasional assize at home, and now and then a divorce case or so, that had nothing to do with it.
“They believed that foreigners had no independent spirit, as never being escorted to the poll in droves by Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle, with colours flying and the tune of Rule Britannia playing.
Not to be tedious, they had many other beliefs of a similar kind.”

Do parts of that sound familiar?

Yup, depressingly similar to the current debate on immigration, where some politicians try to win votes by proclaiming that we don’t want foreigners over here, while not mentioning what would happen if Europe in turn sent all its British ex-pats home.

There’s the tabloid newspapers peddling hateful myths about foreigners, into whose heads pop no other ideas but criminal, ignoring the fact that we have home-grown shoplifters, doorstep callers who regard pensioners as fair game and men who can burn five of their children to death to make a point.

The Bleeding Heart yarders eventually tolerate the Dickens’ foreigner, when it becomes apparent he’s not got a knife or immoral habits — “tolerate” as in “treat like a baby”, conversing in staccato sentences and shouting loudly so he can understand them. Sound familiar?

It’s sad that everything that was part of the harsh daily life in 1857, from deaths by dysentery to sending small boys up chimneys, has been improved upon.

But when it comes to tolerance, some parts of the nation’s psyche have not moved on at all. With the grey, dreary influence of UKIP forcing immigration to the fore as the next General Election approaches, it’s clear that our leaders, of whatever party, have no intention of changing this.

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