‘A Christmas Carol’: Sending the Poor to Prison

December 22, 2017 | Matthew Caruchet

Illustration of the Gosht of Christmas Present by John Leech from the 1800s.

Illustration of the Ghost of Christmas Present by John Leech from the 1800s.

When he was 12 years old in 1824, Charles Dickens worked 10-hour days in a rat-infested shoe-polish factory for six shillings a week. That’s the equivalent of £30.68 or $41.06 in 2017 currency.

It was all the money he had to get by. His father, mother, and five siblings aged 2-11 were in prison because the family was in debt. This is what Western society did with the poor in the mid-1800s. If you fell behind on your bills or couldn’t pay legal fines, you and your family went to flea-ridden government workhouses where you would labor to earn your keep.

Your work did not, however, pay off your debts – you could spend the rest of your life there. If you died in a debtor’s prison, your body was given to anatomists to dissect in the name of science.

Needless to say, Charles Dickens grew to hate the system and rail against it in his works. In his seminal novella “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by two portly men raising money for the poor.

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the [one of the gentlemen], taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Interpretations of “A Christmas Carol” have often tried to turn it into an assault on the wealthy, critiquing capitalism’s effect on society. It is not. There is nothing wrong with being very wealthy in Dickens’ book. The two good men raising money for the poor are capitalists and entrepreneurs. They are “portly” in a time when food was scarce and people starved on the streets.

The evil in society comes from indifference towards fellow people and a reliance on a governmental system that does more harm than good.

Take for instance the “Treadmill” and “Poor Law” mentioned above.

A treadmill at Brixton Prison in London in the 1800s.

A treadmill at Brixton Prison in London in the 1800s.

The treadmill was a feature in prisons where inmates would walk endlessly, pushing a huge wheel while holding bars at chest height. With every step, the wheel would turn, grinding corn. Prisoners were allowed 12 minutes of break every hour. It was meant to be a form of “preventive punishment” so difficult that that nobody exposed to it would ever risk reoffending.

The Poor Law is a reference to the popular economic theories of Thomas Malthus. Malthus argued that ruinous poverty and starvation were necessary ills, as society could not possibly provide for everyone and death would remove the undesirables from the population. He supported the Poor Law to create workhouses for the poor, as people who were unable to sustain themselves did not have the right to live.

In the fevered haunting of the second night, Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present visit the holiday celebration of Bob Cratchit, with its tiny pudding to serve a family of seven. Bob works 60 hours a week and earns 15 shillings – £89.78 or $120.19 in 2017 dollars.

His son, Tiny Tim, would have died under the Poor Law system. That’s why, of all the Christmas spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Present has the most disdain for Scrooge, mockingly spitting his words back at him.

“God bless us every one!” said Tiny Tim, the last of all.

He sat very close to his father’s side upon his little stool. Bob held his withered little hand in his, as if he loved the child, and wished to keep him by his side, and dreaded that he might be taken from him.

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

It’s easy for Scrooge to feel sorry for Tiny Tim. It’s someone he knows – a single instance with a face and a personality. But it’s harder to feel compassion for large swathes of people, faceless segments of the population hidden away in debtor’s prisons and workhouses. That’s why the Ghost of Christmas Present has more words to throw back as he dies.

“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw!”

“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

Note that Ignorance is worse than Want. Want is an immediate need – food to eat, a bed to sleep in. But Ignorance keeps you from ever improving your situation. Without education, children are condemned to a lifetime of poverty, creating a permanent underclass that dooms society as a whole.

As we all know, Scrooge awakes from his last ghostly visit a new man. He buys Bob Cratchit a turkey and pays the two portly men hefty sums to help the poor. Then he goes to celebrate Christmas at a sumptuous party thrown by his wealthy nephew Fred.

Again, “A Christmas Carol” is not an attack on wealth. Scrooge remains wealthy in the end, and the ideal Christmas is a celebration filled with excesses of food, drink and gifts. But it condemns the violence of looking away, ignoring the evils foisted on people who cannot afford to survive in society, and the political structure that keeps mortifying poverty in place.

It’s easy to believe we don’t live in a society with the sheer injustice of Victorian England. But there are many similarities.

A debtor's prison in London.

A debtor’s prison in London.

Two hundred years ago, the United States banned debtors’ prisons, but they still exist today. State and local courts raise money by charging fees to people convicted of crimes. In Washington State, people who are unable to pay parking tickets and fines for low-level offenses are jailed, without options for alternatives or community service.

In prison, people often have to pay for their own incarceration, a debt that follows them when they are freed. Prisons have also become workhouses, paying inmates paltry wages for work while incarcerated. In Washington, inmates earn $0.36 an hour working for private industry, and up to $2.70 an hour working for state-owned industries.

We have a tax system in Washington reliant on property and sales taxes, which affect the poor more than the rich. While the poorest in our state pay 16.8 percent of their income in state and local taxes, the rich pay only 2.4 percent.

Our education system is chronically underfunded, with one of the highest student-teacher ratios in the country. Increasing amounts of money are being funneled out of public schools and into charter schools – cementing Ignorance in the children of families who can’t afford a private education.

In Seattle, we have the third-highest homeless population in the country, even though Seattle is the nation’s 18th-largest city. Black people are being priced out of the city. Seattle is now at a level of income inequality rivaling San Francisco.

Dickens wasn’t against wealth; he was against greed. He was against income inequality so stark that the people at the bottom could barely survive, and that people who could not work were better off dead.

Dickens also believed it’s never too late for redemption. “A Christmas Carol” teaches that people who turn a blind eye to suffering are still inherently good in their deepest heart. They are just unable to put themselves in the shoes of the less fortunate. Or, as I would like to believe happens to many of us, they are so overcome with the enormity of society’s problems that they are stricken with paralysis.

To that, the story provides an elegant solution – enjoy your life, help those around you that you can have an immediate effect on, and work to change a system that propagates destitution.




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Posted in A Fair Deal at Work, An Inclusive Economy, Educational Opportunity


  1. Carol Isaac says:

    Thank you for this analysis. It makes less sense to me to agree that wealth is okay if intentions are good than to think that wealth is a dangerous distraction. It distracts those who have it, and those who pursue it. Until we successfully alleviate hunger and suffering and manage resources such that the climate is stable and the planet’s human population doesn’t come to threaten its own existence, private wealth is a source of ignorance as much as is a lack of schooling.

    “We have a tax system in Washington reliant on property and sales taxes, which affect the poor more than the rich. While the poorest in our state pay 16.8 percent of their income in state and local taxes, the rich pay only 2.4 percent.” This seems a decent focus along with the spotlighting the practice of hiding major corporate profits outside of the country beyond the reach of taxation. The latter, in fact, needs greater identification due to its magnitudes of deception, absolute amount, and potential approbation of the community for its righteous targeting.

    There is another number for concomitant consideration that indicates a new and timely acceleration of societal chaos: 90 deaths in 2017 compared to 56 deaths in 2016 of the outside homeless in King County. The causes of death, as provided by the King County Medical Examiner, show that drug over dose is not the reason. A cursory review shows that they are mostly dying of “natural causes”, suicide, hypothermia, and being hit by motor vehicles. This is mostly death by biological stress that is the result of poverty.

    An epidemic needs a cure, part of which is the reduction of poverty. Chief Executive Constantine and Mayor Durkan, a few days into her term, jointly announced an “Open Table” task force and a regressive sales tax. This serves to further increase the inequity, that in turn, serves the impoverishment of the lower quintiles of the population those from whose ranks are drawn the accelerating numbers of deaths. This needs a full campaign of exposure.

    The task force at the City Council that purports to be about studying the creation of an Employee Head Task yielding the suggested $25 to $75 million per year is a fair start, but perhaps too modest, and not quite the right target.

    Offshore profits need to be brought home. We all know that. We fear the giant. We need to get started anyhow.

  2. Dick Burkhart says:

    Actually, wealth is a problem in itself. It means that a significant fraction of a society’s resources are going to benefit the few, not the many. It means that a great many of us are working, directly or indirectly, for the benefit of those few (who have the money to pay us), instead of for each other. In my perfect world, with no rich people, we’d all be in solidarity with each other and working for each other, even feeling “rich”, without being rich.

    It means that the bottom half of our society could roughly double their real income if we had the same income distribution as 40 years ago. Instead, only the 1% have kept pace, with all that has been taken from the 99% going to the top echelons of the 1%. To me, this is the real crime of our multitudes of Scrooges, one that charity will not fix.

    Our Scrooges must be willing to change the system that made them rich, making themselves much poorer in the process. “Fat chance”, which is why Bernie told us it would take a “political revolution”. Count our selves lucky if it doesn’t get too bloody.

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