Christmas 1843 – The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Christmas

Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

A great deal of history occurred in the year, 1843.  On January 2nd, Wagner’s opera, “Der Fliegende Holländer” premiered in Dresden. On May 4th, Great Britain annexed Natal.  May 22nd, the first wagon train departed from Independence Missouri for Oregon.  On July 2nd, newspapers reported that an alligator plummeted to earth during a thunderstorm in Charleston, South Carolina.   August 15th, the Tivoli Park opened in Copenhagen.  August 25th the typewriter was patented by Charles Thurber. November 13th saw the eruption of Mt Rainier in Washington State. November 28th, Great Britain and France officially recognized Hawaii as an independent nation.  What happened on these dates changed our world and the lives of many who were involved these events. (although I really wonder about the alligator story even though it has been recorded by several reputable sources).

There is one day that stands out in particular: December 19, 1843.  That was the day when Christmas was given a gift that continues to keep on giving.   “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens was published in London by Chapman and Hall.  To be clear, others had written stories and poems about Christmas, but “A Christmas Carol” was different; for in those marvelous staves, Charles Dickens spoke to the heart of poverty, despair and the plight of young children.  Best of all, he offered redemption to a world longing for fairness and compassion.

For it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens wrote from bitter experience.  In 1824, when only 12 years old, he saw his father, along with his mother and young siblings, incarcerated in the dreaded Marshalsea Prison for debt to a baker.  To support his family and pay for his lodgings, Charles left school to work 10-hour days in a boot-blacking factory. Outside of work without the benefit of family, he roamed the street, exposed to danger and exploitation.  These traumatic events left an indelible influence that would later be validated in his brilliant characters and narratives.  The strength and endurance of his message was embedded within the struggles of ordinary people.

“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?”   Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol changed the conversation by allowing readers to see a different pathway – one that allowed for transformations rather than defeat and despair.  If a greedy, unfeeling miser could be changed into a “a good friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew…” then it was possible to vanquish the horror of poverty and injustice.

As we celebrate this holiday season, may we seek hopeful outcomes and look for conversations that allow us to envision life-affirming and joyful possibilities.  May we join Ebenezer Scrooge in saying:

“I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Joy

 

Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?

Blantyre

Dr. Livingstone’s birthplace in Blantyre

“I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward.”

Dr. David Livingstone

Words hold power by generating an emotional response.   For me, the word “resilience” has become one of my favourites; whenever it comes up in my readings and conversations, my thoughts become engaged on positive outcomes.  Defined as the capacity to recover rapidly from difficult and complex situation, resilience helps us overcome adversity, adapt to loss, even embrace challenges. Resilience is acquired over a lifetime, and comes from being connected within a supportive and compassionate community.  One of the factors that strengthens and builds resilience is helping others and looking for ways to better the world.

Spinning Machine

Spinning Machine

Children who worked in the cotton mills and coal mines  suffered neglect and abuse; many died. But despite the grim circumstances, there was evidence of resilience and courage.

Dr. David Livingstone embodies the attributes of resilience.   His birth was recorded on March 19, 1813, in the mill town of Blantyre, Scotland. His parents, Neil and Agnes Livingstone lived in a tenement building that housed cotton mill workers. At the age of 10, David entered the H. Monteith’s Blantyre cotton mill factory, working twelve-hour days as a “piecer.”  His task was to tie broken cotton threads on large spinning machines called spinning mules.  The breaks occurred frequently which required nimble fingers to repair the thread without any let-up on the machine.

David spent sixteen years in the Blantyre cotton mile to sustain his impoverished family.  Even though he was promoted to the position of a spinner, the work was gruelling and monotonous.  But it was those years that focused his efforts on moving forward in life.  Every day he learned endurance, tenacity, and empathy for those who laboured with him.  At 26, he left the cotton mills and went on to attain the legendary status of national hero.  His titles were many: explorer, botanist, social reformer, anti-slavery crusader to name a few.   Those years in the cotton mill were well-spent for they fostered a need and compassion within him to pursue a worthy goal.

 “I determined never to stop until I had come to the end and achieved my purpose.”

Dr. David Livingstone

 

Blantyre

David Livingstone’s birthplace which is run by The National Trust

Outliers & The Man from Wales

“To train and educate the rising generation will at all times be the first object of society, to which every other will be subordinate”.

(The Social System, 1826) From the Foundation Axioms of Owen’s “Society for Promoting National Regeneration”

Scotland

In statistics, an outlier is simply an observation that is situated a significant distance from the expected range of values.  When you apply the term outlier to an individual, this definition comes alive with expressions such as: maverick, eccentric, nonconformist, and outsider.  We like to belong to a group, a community, an organization, working together in harmony with others for a common cause. Very few would choose to stand apart from the group, to be an outlier.  It is the outliers, however, that make us re-examine prevailing standards and trends, motivating us to set course in a new direction.

Robert Owen was an outlier, a change agent, by words and actions.  Born on May 14, 1771, in Newtown, a small market town in Montgomeryshire, Wales, he became a social reformer and one of the founders of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement. He believed that when people cared about each other it would generate extraordinary outcomes for society

At the young age of 29, Robert was part-owner of a Manchester cotton mill.  While on a visit to Glasgow, he fell in love with Caroline Dale, the daughter of David Dale, proprietor of the New Lanark cotton mills in Scotland.  These mills had been opened in 1785 by David Dale and Sir Richard Arkwright.  After his marriage to Caroline, Robert became manager and part-owner of New Lanark

Robert’s priority was the workers whose livelihoods depended upon employment within his mills.  He enhanced their housing and sanitation, provided medical supervision, and set up a cooperative shop that sold provisions near cost.  His greatest dream was to educate children.  He established the first infant school in Great Britain based on his deeply held belief that improved circumstances would act as a beacon of hope.

“Women will be no longer made the slaves of, or dependent upon men…They will be equal in education, rights, privileges and personal liberty.”

Robert Owen, (1771-1858) Book of the New Moral World: Sixth Part, 1841
Scotland

Robert’s life was dedicated to building a fairer society where all could live without fear of hunger or want, secure in the knowledge that their children would be educated and that their efforts would be valued.  Both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels paid tribute to Robert, as the man who gave them the basis for their theories. Even in today’s world, Robert Owen’s ideas remain remarkably relevant.

It has been said that when Robert Owen was on his deathbed, a minister asked if he regretted wasting his life on fruitless projects.  His response was simply:

“My life was not useless; I gave important truths to the world, and it was only for want of understanding that they were disregarded. I have been ahead of my time.”

All the Children

The smallest child in the factories were scavengers……they go under the machine, while it is going……….it is very dangerous when they first come, but they become used to it.”

Charles Aberdeen worked in a Manchester cotton factory, written in 1832.

A Child's Place

Men of business and creative inventors are lauded for their contribution to the rise of the Industrial Revolution, but their success, esteem and wealth was built on the sweat and tears of the most vulnerable of society.  The strength and force of the Industrial Revolution was brought about by tiny hands with courageous hearts. They worked in squalid conditions and suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of employers, overseers and co-workers who lacked compassion and common decency.   Illness and death, ever present within the walls of the cotton mills and the deep pits of the coal mines, visited the youngest most often.

The Industrial Revolution did not give birth to child labour, for children have been involved with work throughout history.  Rather, industrialization was the fertile milieu that nurtured a dramatic increase in the use of children.  Factories and mines required workers to complete relatively simple tasks that could easily be accomplished by children.  Poverty and want produced a workforce susceptible to exploitation.

When there is progress in one area, there is progress in many areas.  Where there is injustice there are those who stand firm in their commitment to humanity.  For if one suffers, do we not all suffer?  The plight of the child workers did not go unnoticed.  Public outcry reached the ears of Queen Victoria and gave way to Parliamentary enquiries which culminated in two important pieces of legislation – the Factory Act (1833) and the Mines Act (1842).

A society is defined by individual choices, the most important being how to care for the next generation.

“Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.”
Fred Rogers

Mighty Machines

Shop Floor

The Shop Floor, Masson Mills

Mark Frauenfeder, Editor-in-chief, Make, wrote the “The spinning wheel made England into a powerhouse.”  The spinning wheel in question, however, was not a home-style spinning wheel that resided in a rustic cottage in the country. The textile machines of the eighteenth century transformed a nation.  Great Britain’s dominance in the textile industry was safeguarded because of laws that prohibited the export of textile machinery and anything that could lead to another country gaining a competitive advantage. These inventions belonged to Britain. No machinery, machinery drawings or written specifications were to leave the country.

These mighty machines were complicated, noisy, and extremely dangerous to operate.  The two main “mighty machines” were the power-loom, a steam-powered, mechanically operated version of a regular loom for weaving. And the spinning frame which produced stronger threads, quickly and efficiently.

Beyond the borders of Great Britain, rumours of what these mighty machines could do stirred up envy in other countries. In 1786, the secret left the country with two Scots who immigrated to the United States.   Claiming to be well-versed in Richard Arkwright’s spinning frame, the U.S. government invested a goodly sum into their inventing endeavours. Alas, the machines were sub-standard.  But the race for a home-grown American textile industry was set in motion.

Richard Arkwright’s factory system would be exported to America. A young man from Milford, England would become known as the Founder of American Industrial Revolution.  Progress cannot be contained, despite all attempts to limit possibilities.   John Galsworthy (The Forsyte Saga) once wrote, “Men are in fact, quite unable to control their own inventions; they at best develop adaptability to the new conditions those inventions create.” 

Next posts:

  • All the Children
  • The Man from Wales
  • Coming to America