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Oliver Twist | Context

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The first installment of Oliver Twist was published in February 1837. Four months later 18-year-old Princess Victoria ascended to the throne of England. It was a time of flux in Britain. The Industrial Revolution was at its peak, and despite the loss of the North American colonies in what had become the United States, the British Empire was expanding. Both these events prompted sweeping fundamental changes in British society.

The Industrial Revolution

In the early 18th century, Britain's domestic economy was structured on agriculture and cottage industries making cloth, glass, metalwork, and other products. But in the middle of the century, everything changed. A series of inventions led to the mechanization of processes previously done by hand. Entrepreneurs opened factories in towns and cities with good rail and canal transport for bringing in the needed resources and shipping out the manufactured goods. People left the country and flooded these industrial centers to find work.

British society rearranged itself. The ranks of the upper class, which had formerly drawn wealth from inheritance and land ownership, were swelled by men with new fortunes made in manufacturing and trade. The middle class changed character and grew, too. The skilled workers on whom the cottage industry system had depended were no longer needed. The new and growing middle class comprised businessmen and other professionals—doctors and lawyers, bankers and insurance agents, shopkeepers and merchants, managers and clerks.

The largest and fastest-growing segment of society was the working class, which accounted for approximately 80 percent of Victorian England. This class included a variety of workers ranging from street sellers and casual laborers to skilled workers. Factory workers, including children, labored for long hours under unregulated and often dangerous conditions. Interested in promoting economic growth, the government espoused policies that supported manufacturing and trade. In the first quarter of the 19th century, for instance, the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 made it illegal for workers to unionize. As the century progressed, however, conditions gradually improved.

And then there were the poor. As the cities swelled, poverty grew. Whenever possible poor people of all ages found a way to earn a few pennies—selling newspapers, carrying packages for passersby, scavenging, or begging. The truly destitute relied on charity. In 1834 Parliament passed the Poor Law Amendment Act. This law restyled the old poorhouses, which had already been in use for several centuries as "workhouses," and required inmates to work for their keep in much the same way as inmates sentenced to hard labor in prison. Typical employment included breaking up granite rocks and picking oakum, a loosely twisted fiber used in caulking seams and filling joints. Workhouse paupers received minimal wages, a place to sleep (though families were broken up and housed separately), some clothing, and a limited amount of bread. Some starved to death. The concept was intended to make the workhouses as unappealing as possible so that the poor, who were perceived as lazy, would be dissuaded from applying. And if they did apply, it was by no means guaranteed that they would be accepted; they might be told to go out and get a job.

In desperation the poor sometimes saw no choice but to turn to crime, usually theft. In the cities crime rates soared. Child crime, especially pickpocketing, was prevalent. Many poor women turned to prostitution, often hoping to save money so that they might use it to start a business later on.

London: Capital City of the British Empire

As the capital of a powerful nation, London had always been a populous city, but during the Industrial Revolution, its population boomed:

  • 1650: 350,000–400,000 (world's 3rd most populous city)
  • 1715: 630,000
  • 1760: 740,000
  • 1801: 1.1 million
  • 1815: 1.4 million (becomes the world's most populous city)
  • 1860: 3.2 million
  • 1901: 6.5 million

London's population was diverse; the city was home to immigrants from Europe, Ireland, and around the world, including China, India, and Africa. By 1851 foreigners accounted for 38 percent of the population.

London's neighborhoods reflected not just the city's varied population but also its history. One particularly defining event was the Great Fire of London in 1666. In the early 17th century, London was a city of narrow streets lined with wooden terraced houses. One Sunday morning in September 1666, a fire started in a baker's shop in Pudding Lane. With winds raking the city, the fire quickly spread. It raced down to the Thames near London Bridge, where it found fuel in the wooden warehouses, which were stocked with oil and other combustible materials. The fire was blown eastward along the Thames and north into the city, burning thousands of houses, churches, and official structures. It was still burning the following Tuesday, when the Royal Navy set charges around it, hoping to starve it of fuel. Fortunately the wind dropped, and the strategy worked.

It took more than 30 years to rebuild the city using noncombustible brick. This process lent the central part of the city a very different character from those sections that had been untouched by the fire. In the 18th century, the growing middle and upper classes tore down more of the old wooden houses and replaced them with brick and, where possible, stone terraces. In the 19th century, such constructions were often stuccoed and painted, adding even more variety to the visual character of the city. The remaining pre-fire structures were centuries old, dilapidated, uncomfortable, and unsafe; they became the homes of the poorest Londoners.

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