An echo of Oliver Twist in Bethnal Green

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If you are familiar with the plot of Oliver Twist you will remember that young Oliver is bound as an apprentice to Mr Sowerberry, an undertaker, by the magistrate (who takes pity on the boy and saves him from the clutches of the brutish chimneysweep, Mr Gamfield). Of course Oliver is far from safe at the Sowerberrys, because of the callous nature of the undertaker’s wife and the other apprentice, Noah Claypole. Eventually Oliver runs away and tramps to London.

Dickens published the first chapter of Oliver Twist in 1837 (the year Queen Victoria came to the throne) and – as a former court reporter himself – he drew upon his experiences and those of the people he observed in the courts, debtors prisons, and workhouses of early Victorian London.

At the every end of 1839 the sitting justice at Lambeth Street Police Court, Mr Hardwick, heard an application to apprentice a pauper boy (just like Oliver) to a silk weaver in Spitalfields. The application was made by the Beadle of St George’s in the East whose name was not Bumble, but Overton. He wanted the boy off the parish books (and therefore its costs) and apprenticed to a weaver so he could earn a useful trade.

However, the Beadle of Bethnal Green, a man named Christie, appeared in court to object to the application. He told Mr Hardwick that the local silk weavers (the descendants of the Huguenot refugees that had fled persecution in France after 1685 when Louis XIV revoked  the  Edict of Nantes) were in a parlous state. The weavers had prospered in the East End until their monopoly on trade began to unravel in the second half of the 18th century. By the 1830s many of them were facing desperate times.

Christie told the court that in the last few weeks the Bethnal Green Poor Law Guardians had been forced to offer relief to 200 families, ‘and of those upwards of 150 were silk weavers’.  The weavers simply could not afford to take on apprentices at this time as there was not enough work to support their families as they were, let alone to feed more hungry mouths. Even if a weaver worked 15 or 16 hours a day he was unable to earn more than 7 or 8 shillings a week (about £17 in today’s money).

The beadle confirmed that the Worship Street magistrates had stopped binding apprentices in the area because of the hardship. Mr Hardwick agreed to the objection and refused to bind the lad, sending him back to the workhouse. The poor law guardians would have to wait for an improvement in the local economy if they were going to get their ‘Olivers’ off the books.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, January 1, 1840]

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