"after his beloved father died, when he was eight years old, his mother, too, could pinch a bit, as it was her duty and her pleasure and her pride to do it, to help him out in life, and put him 'prentice."

In other words, as a young boy Bounderby was sent to work as an apprentice, a common means of training less-well-off children to a useful trade. (Recall that early in the novel, Bounderby and Gradgrind asked why Sissy Jupe had not been apprenticed.) Apprenticeships were also common in some of the professions; lawyers and doctors, for instance, underwent apprenticeships for their training. Parents wishing to apprentice their children had to find a master for them and sign a contract stating that the child was "articled" (bound) to the master, who received a fee. The child then usually lived and worked with the master for a period of at least seven years. It is not clear here what trade Bounderby was learning.

"though his mother kept but a little village shop, he never forgot her, but pensioned me on thirty pound a year—more than I want, for I put by out of it"

Compare this small pension—barely more than half a pound a week—to Mrs. Sparsit's salary of £100 per year. To live on this sum and put some money aside, Mrs. Pegler must be extremely frugal or else must still earn some small income from her shop.

As Coketown cast ashes not only on its own head but on the neighbourhood's too—after the manner of those pious persons who do penance for their own sins by putting other people into sackcloth

The image of the ashes here is taken from the Catholic custom (also practiced among High Church members of the Church of England) of sprinkling ashes on the heads of those who have confessed on Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of Lent. The aside concerning putting other people into sackcloth is most likely a sly jab at strict Sabbatarians, who sought to put a stop to all amusements on Sundays as well as to railroad travel on Sunday.

It was customary for those who now and then thirsted for a draught of pure air, which is not absolutely the most wicked among the vanities of life, to get a few miles away by the railroad, and then begin their walk

Weekend "excursion trains," which were quite inexpensive, were very popular in the industrial areas so that workers could get to the countryside on their one day off per week, Sunday. Manchester and other industrial towns, though highly urbanized at this period, were nevertheless surrounded by pretty and much cleaner countryside. This railway map of South Yorkshire and Lancashire shows the extent of the open country surrounding the great cities, as well as the railroad connections and spur lines in the area.

Click on image for larger view

Mounds where the grass was rank and high, and where brambles, dock-weed, and such-like vegetation, were confusedly heaped together, they always avoided, for dismal stories were told in that country of the old pits hidden beneath such indications.

The industrial areas in the north of England, as well as the midlands, had been heavily used as mining areas and were dotted with old, disused mines, many of them unmarked or poorly indicated. As Rachael and Sissy know—and as we see all too clearly in the course of the chapter—these deep, disused mine shafts could be extremely dangerous. On April 15, 1843, the Illustrated London News published this illustration of a mine shaft that was still in use. Note how the light just barely filters down, indicating that the vertical shaft is quite deep.

a candle was sent down to try the air

One of the many dangers of mining was that poisonous gases could collect in underground shafts. Sending a candle down the shaft tested for the presence of oxygen. If the candle stayed lit, then breathable air was present. However, since some of these gases were combustible (as in the later reference to "fire-damp," safety lamps were used for lighting in the mines.

"I ha' fell into th' pit, my dear, as have cost, wi'in the knowledge o' old fo'k now livin', hundreds and hundreds o' men's lives…. I ha' fell into a pit that ha' been wi' the' fire-damp crueler than battle. I ha' read on ‘t in the public petition, as onnyone may read, fro' the men that works in pits, in which they ha' pray'n and pray'n the lawmakers for Christ's sake not to let their work be murder to ‘em…"

Fire-damp, a combustible gas, caused deadly explosions in coal mines. Stephen here refers to the movement in the 1840s, which Dickens had strongly and publicly supported, to improve safety measures in coal mines. Dickens also referred to mining safety in several Household Words articles.

Rescued by a savage old postillion who happened to be up early, kicking a horse in a fly

A postillion is a guide for a coach or other hired conveyance; a fly was a one-horse carriage, available for hire.

A Grand Morning Performance by the Riders, commencing at that very hour

A "morning performance" did not necessarily mean that it took place before noon; at the time, "morning" often was used informally to mean the part of the day before dinner, and thus a morning performance took place in the afternoon. The word now used for such a performance is matinee, derived from the French word matin (morning).

The Emperor of Japan, on a steady old white horse stenciled with black spots

At the time that Hard Times was written, Japan was entirely closed to foreigners. The Emperor of Japan was thus a suitably exotic and unknown personage for the subject of a circus act. Several such performances at the time made reference to Japan and the Japanese. Later in the century, as Japan opened somewhat and the British became more interested in trade with the country, a craze for Japanese art and design would take place, but in the 1850s this was still years away.

if you don't hear of that boy at Athley'th, you'll hear of him at Parith.

Astley's Royal Amphitheatre was the best-known circus of the day in England, having been established in 1768. Although it changed venues and names several times, it was extremely influential in changing the modes of performance in the English circus, incorporating entertainment of all sort, from clowns to equestrian acts. There were several well-known circuses in Paris, among them the Cirque d'Été and the Cirque d'Hiver.

Our Children in the Wood, with their father and mother both a-dyin' on a horthe—their uncle a-retheiving of ‘em ath hith wardth, upon a horthe—themthelvth both a-goin' a-blackberryin' on a horth—and the Robinth a-coming in to cover 'em with leavth, upon a horthe

This horseback act is a faithful rendition of the plot of a traditional English ballad, the story of the Babes in the Wood, which was the basis for pantomime and circus acts throughout the nineteenth century.

"Thath'th Jack the Giant-Killer—piethe of comic infant bithnith"

"Jack the Giant-Killer" was a popular fairy tale and thus the basis for an act in Sleary's Circus.

"Your brother ith one o' them black thervanth."

Performances in blackface, considered comic at the time, were fairly common in nineteenth-century circuses and other entertainments.

"There'll be beer to feth. I've never met with nothing but beer ath'll ever clean a comic blackamoor."

Beer was indeed used to clean the faces of those who worked in blackface. Originally burnt cork was used for blackening the face, but by the mid-nineteenth century boot-blacking was frequently used. The derogatory term "blackamoor" dates from the sixteenth century and derives from the use of the term Moor for a black person.

Had he any prescience of the day, five years to come, when Josiah Bounderby of Coketown was to die of a fit in the Coketown street, and this same precious will was to begin its long career of quibble, plunder, false pretences, vile example, little service and much law?

Lawsuits and disagreements over wills were often extremely protracted in the nineteenth century, owing to the intricacies of the Court of Chancery, which handled estate law. Dickens had made this problem the major theme of his previous novel, Bleak House. At the time he wrote, however, Chancery was undergoing a series of reforms that simplified court procedure in an attempt to address the problem.