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As for the people of Dickens and the people he knew so well, they were mostly of the lower middle classes, though he himself had, by the time his career was well defined, been able to surround himself with the society of the leading literary lights of his time.

Surely, though, the Cockney pur sang never had so true a delineator as he who produced those pen-pictures ranging all the way from the vulgarities of a Sykes to the fastidiousness of a Skimpole. It is a question, wide open in the minds of many, as to whether society of any rank is improving or not; surely the world is quite as base as it ever was, and as worthily circumspect too. But while the improvement of the aristocracy in general, since mediaeval times, in learning and accomplishments, was having its untold effect on the middle classes, it was long before the immense body of workers, or perhaps one should say skilled labourers, as the economists call them, partook in any degree of the general amendment. Certainly we have a right to assume, even with a twentieth-century standpoint to judge from, that there was a constantly increasing dissemination of knowledge, if not of culture, and that sooner or later it might be expected to have its desired, if unconscious, effect on the lower classes. That discerning, if not discreet, American, Nathaniel Parker Willis, was inclined to think not, and compared the English labourer to a tired donkey with no interest in things about him, and with scarce surplus energy enough to draw one leg after the other. He may have been wrong, but the fact is that there is a very large proportion of Dickens’ characters made up of a shiftless, worthless, and even criminal class, as we all recognize, and these none the less than the other more worthy characters are nowhere to be found as a thoroughly indigenous type but in London itself.

There was an unmistakable class in Dickens’ time, and there is to-day, whose only recourse, in their moments of ease, is to the public house, great, strong, burly men, with “a good pair of hands,” but no brain, or at least no development of it, and it is to this class that your successful middle-Victorian novelist turned when he wished to suggest something unknown in polite society. This is the individual who cares little for public improvements, ornamental parks. Omnibuses or trams, steamboats or flying-machines, it’s all the same to him. He cares not for libraries, reading-rooms, or literature, cheap or otherwise, nothing, in fact, which will elevate or inspire self-respect; nothing but soul-destroying debauchery and vice, living and dying the life of the beast, and as careless of the future. This is a type, mark you, gentle reader, which is not overdrawn, as the writer has reason to know; it existed in London in the days of Dickens, and it exists to-day, with the qualification that many who ought, perforce of their instincts, to be classed therewith do just enough work of an incompetent kind to keep them well out from under the shadow of the law; these are the “Sykeses” of a former day, not the “Fagins”, who are possessed of a certain amount of natural wit, if it be of a perverted kind.

An event which occurred in 1828, almost unparalleled in the annals of criminal atrocity, is significantly interesting with regard to Dickens’ absorption of local and timely accessory, mostly of fact as against purely imaginative interpolation merely:

A man named Burke (an Irishman) and a woman named Helen M’Dougal, coalesced with one Hare in Edinburgh to murder persons by wholesale, and dispose of their bodies to the teachers of anatomy. According to the confession of the principal actor, sixteen persons, some in their sleep, others after intoxication, and several in a state of infirmity from disease, were suffocated. One of the men generally threw himself on the victim to hold him down, while the other “burked” him by forcibly pressing the nostrils and mouth, or the throat, with his hands. Hare being admitted as king’s evidence, Burke and his other partner in guilt were arraigned on three counts. Helen M’Dougal was acquitted and Burke was executed.

This crime gave a new word to our language. To “burke” is given in our dictionaries as “to murder by suffocation so as to produce few signs of violence upon the victim.” Or to bring it directly home to Dickens, the following quotation will serve:

“‘You don’t mean to say he was “burked,” Sam?’ said Mr. Pickwick.”

With no class of society did Dickens deal more successfully than with the sordidness of crime. He must have been an observer of the most acute perceptions, and while in many cases it was only minor crimes of which he dealt, the vagaries of his assassins are unequalled in fiction. He was generally satisfied with ordinary methods, as with the case of Lawyer Tulkinghorn’s murder in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, but even in this scene he does throw into crime something more than the ordinary methods of the English novelist. He had the power, one might almost say the Shakespearian power, of not only describing a crime, but also of making you feel the sensation of crime in the air. First and foremost one must place the murder of Montague Tigg.

The grinning Carker of “Dombey and Son” is ground to death under the wheels of a locomotive at a French railway station; Quilp, of “The Old Curiosity Shop,” is dramatically drowned; Bill Sykes’ neck is broken by the rope meant for his escape; Bradley Headstone and his enemy go together to the bottom of the canal; while the mysterious Krook, of “Bleak House” is disposed of by spontaneous combustion.

Certainly such a gallery of horrors could not be invented purely out of an imaginative mind, and must admittedly have been the product of intimate first-hand knowledge of criminals and their ways.

Doubtless there was a tendency to improve moral conditions as things went on. Britain is not the dying nation which the calamity howlers would have us infer.

In the year 1800, there were notwithstanding the comparative sparseness of population eighteen prisons in London alone, whereas in 1850, when Dickens was in his prime and when population had enormously increased, that number had been reduced one-third.

In the early days the jailor in many prisons received no salary, but made his livelihood from the fees he could extort from the prisoners and their friends; and in some cases he paid for the privilege of holding office. Not only had a prisoner to pay for his food and for the straw on which he slept, but, if he failed to pay, he would be detained until he did so.

In Cold Bath Fields prison, men, women, and children were indiscriminately herded together, without employment or wholesome control; while smoking, gaming, singing, and every species of brutalizing conversation obtained.

At the Fleet Prison there was a grate or iron-barred window facing Farringdon Street, and above it was inscribed, “Pray remember the poor prisoners having no allowance,” while a small box was placed on the window-sill to receive the charity of the passers-by, and a man ran to and fro, begging coins “for the poor prisoners in the Fleet.”

At Newgate, the women usually numbered from a hundred to one hundred and thirty, and each had only eighteen inches breadth of sleeping-room, and all were “packed like slaves in the hold of a slave-ship.”

And Marshalsea, which Dickens incorporated into “David Copperfield” and “Little Dorrit,” was quite as sordid, to what extent probably none knew so well as Dickens, pere et fils, for here it was that the father fretfully served out his sentence for debt.

Of all the prisons of that day it may be stated that they were hotbeds of immorality, where children herded with hoary criminals; where no sanitary laws were recognized; where vermin swarmed and disease held forth, and where robbery, tyranny, and cruelty, if not actually permitted, was at least winked at or ignored.

In 1829 Sir Robert Peel brought into force his new police establishment, an event which had not a little to do with the betterment of social life of the day.

“The whole metropolitan district was formed into five local divisions, each division into eight sections, and each section into eight beats, the limits of all being clearly defined and distinguished by letters and numbers; the force itself was divided into companies, each company having one superintendent, four inspectors, sixteen sergeants, and one hundred and forty-four police constables, being also sub-divided into sixteen parts, each consisting of a sergeant and nine men.” Incalculable as the boon was in the repression of crime, the Corporation of the City of London could not be persuaded, until several years afterward, to follow such an example, and give up their vested interests in the old system of watchmen. The police system, as remodelled by Sir Robert Peel in 1829, was, of course, the foundation of the present admirable body of constabulary, of which the London “Bobby” must be admitted by all as ranking at the very head of his contemporaries throughout the civilized world. Certainly no more affable and painstaking servants of the public are anywhere to be found; they are truly the “refuge of the inquiring stranger and timid women.”

The London policeman, then, is essentially a product of our own times; a vast advance over the peripatetic watchman of a former day, and quite unlike his brother on the Continent, who has not only to keep the peace, but act as a political spy as well. Perhaps it is for this reason that the London policeman is able to exhibit such devotion and affability in the conduct of his duties. Surely no writer or observer has ever had the temerity to assail the efficiency of the London “Peeler” or “Bobby,” as he now exists.

No consideration or estimate of middle-class London would be complete without mention of that very important factor in its commissariat beer, or its various species, mild or bitter, pale or stale. Your true Cockney East-Ender, however, likes his ’arf and ’arf, and further admonishes the cheery barmaid to “draw it mild.” Brewers, it would seem, like their horses and draymen, are of a substantial race; many of the leading brewers of the middle nineteenth-century times, indeed, of our own day, are those who brewed in the reigns of the Georges.

By those who know, genuine London ale (presumably the “Genuine Stunning ale” of the “little public house in Westminster,” mentioned in “Copperfield”) alone is supposed to rival the ideal “berry-brown” and “nut-brown” ale of the old songs, or at least what passed for it in those days.

The increase of brewers has kept pace with London’s increase in other respects. Twenty-six brewhouses in the age of Elizabeth became fifty-five in the middle of the eighteenth century, and one hundred and forty-eight in 1841; and in quantity from 284,145 barrels in 1782 to 2,119,447 in 1836. To-day, in the absence of any statistics to hand, the sum total must be something beyond the grasp of any but the statistician.

Without attempting to discuss the merits or demerits of temperance in general, or beer in particular, it can be safely said that the brewer’s dray is a prominent and picturesque feature of London streets, without which certain names, with which even the stranger soon becomes familiar, would be meaningless; though they are, as it were, on everybody’s tongue and on many a sign-board in nearly every thoroughfare. As a historian, who would have made an unexceptionable literary critic, has said: Beer overflows in almost every volume of Fielding and Smollett. Goldsmith was not averse to the “parson’s black champagne;” Hogarth immortalized its domestic use, and Gilray its political history; and the “pot of porter” and “mug of bitter” will go down in the annals of the literature, art, and history of London, and indeed all Britain, along with the more aristocratic port and champagne.