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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > Christmas 2016 > Dickensian Christmas

Dickensian Christmas

When family fortunes took a turn for the worse, a 12-year-old Charles Dickens was put to work in a factory. His experiences would inspire one of the greatest Christmas stories of all time


Charles Dickens – a name as synonymous with Christmas as roast turkey or plum pudding. His popular novella, A Christmas Carol, remains a firm favourite with audiences today, and has been in print continuously since its publication in December 1843. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from greedy miser to charitable gent has been adapted for film, television, ballet, musical and even opera. Actors from Bill Murray to Kermit the Frog have taken on the roles of the story’s most well- known characters, and the novel has been translated into dozens of different languages. Yet Dickens’s tale is more than simply a feel-good Christmas story; it sheds light on the dark world of the Victorian poor and the daily struggle to survive, as well as offering a glimpse into the mind of Dickens himself.


The idea for A Christmas Carol came to Dickens during a trip to Manchester in October 1843, where he had been asked to give a speech at the first annual general meeting of the Manchester Athenaeum, an institute that provided adult education to the city’s manufacturing workers. Staying with his elder sister, Fanny, who had settled in the city after her marriage in 1837, Dickens saw firsthand the hardships borne by Manchester’s working classes as they struggled to scrape a living, and his speech reflected the terrible sights he had witnessed both in Manchester and in London.

POOR LORE: Children sleeping rough in a London slum

Manchester had experienced phenomenal growth in the 18th and 19th centuries, boasting a population of more than 235,000 by 1841 – three times the number of people at the beginning of the 19th century. Tousands of men and women poured into the city every year, eager to find employment in the new factories and mills that had sprung up during the Industrial Revolution. But with the huge, unchecked population increase came overcrowding, poor sanitation, deplorable living conditions and disease. A thick smog hung over the city from coal-burning fires and factories, and respiratory diseases such as pneumonia and bronchitis were rife. Workers at the bottom of the employment ladder lived in damp houses, often ten or 12 to a bedroom, with up to 100 houses sharing a toilet.

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The Christmas 2016 issue of History Revealed.