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Victorian Britain, Dr Sarah Richardson

For people studying the Victorian period, Charles Dickens’ novels may not be the first source they turn to for information. There are enough academic texts out there to transport budding historians and students back to the era, each describing what Victorian Britain looked like and what it was like to live through the period. But, a leading historian at The University of Warwick is encouraging people to read Charles Dickens’ novels to help get a better overall picture of life under the reign of Queen Victoria.

In all of his stories and novels Dickens thrives when he is painting a picture of his characters and their surroundings, often going into fantastic detail to make the reader feel like they are right there where the action is taking place. It is this attention to detail that makes Dr Sarah Richardson, who specialises in 18th and 19th century Britain, believe his classic novels are a rich source of information for anyone studying the era.

She said, “I use Dickens a lot in my teaching. I teach a course on the Victorian city and I find that you can keep going to his novels and finding new layers of interest and new ways to look at the city. It is a very useful source for historians. Granted, he is writing for a particular audience and it is a work of fiction but he often bases his character or descriptions of cities on particular cases. Therefore it is that intersection with his novels and other more formal reports that help my students build up a richer picture of Victorian Britain.”

A recurrent topic in Charles Dickens book is one of child labour. It is something Dickens had firsthand experience of, going to work at Warren’s Shoe Blacking Factory at the age of 12 when his father was imprisoned for debt. In both Oliver Twist and David Copperfield Dickens’ main character is made to work. When most people think about the Victorian era it is the image of boys scrabbling up chimneys or squeezing down mines that comes to mind. Indeed, in today’s society the thought of sending children out to work is abhorrent and there is plenty of legislation to stop it happening. Contrary to popular belief, it was the Victorians that started the road to ending child labour, albeit half-heartedly.

Sarah added, “Children were seen as quite a valuable commodity and in fact in some settings, particularly textile factories, children or adolescents could earn more money than men. They were the right size, they could get under the machinery, so in some ways child labour was highly prized at a time then everyone’s income was important.

“By the 1840s there are royal commissions and legislation to stop children working down mines, although interestingly they can still work in factories. The only concession is that they have to work half a day so that they can be educated for half a day.

So the period does change but you have to see children as valuable economic actors and contributors, and that is why there is a reluctance to stop child labour.”

In this podcast Sarah Richardson takes us back in time to explore the various levels of growing, and thriving, Victorian Britain.