Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!

The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room…

In the opening passage of Hard Times, we meet one of its central characters, Mr. Gradgrind, and hear his own description of his philosophy, as applied to child-rearing and education. Gradgrind's emphasis on "nothing but Facts" signals his adherence to Utilitarianism, which is a major target for Dickens in Hard Times. Nineteenth-century Utilitarian thinkers, the best known of whom was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), privileged empiricism and reason, focusing on quantifying human behavior to produce "the greatest good for the greatest number." The character of Thomas Gradgrind takes these tendencies to an extreme. In the school he sponsors, he prohibits all speculation, fancy, and play, and the driest of lessons are given to the pupils. In the period before the 1854 composition of Hard Times, Victorian society struggled with the question of how to provide comprehensive elementary education to all children. Private schools such as Gradgrind's were common. Early plans for widespread education, undertaken without government sponsorship, resulted in competing plans such as the Lancasterian schools, run on the monitorial system, and Samuel Wilderspin's infant schools, which emphasized play and freedom for young children. The Lancasterian system had a strong influence on later nineteenth-century education. A classroom that strongly resembles the "plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room" that Dickens describes in the passage above is pictured below:

This illustration, "The School at Borough Road, Arranged According to the Lancasterian Plan," from C. Birchenough's History of Elementary Education in England and Wales from 1800 to the Present Day (1914).

Samuel Wilderspin's infant schools, on the other hand, were a freer, more playful environment, as shown in this very different illustration from Birchenough's History of Elementary Education:

In 1846—eight years before Dickens wrote Hard Times—the British government assumed a more active role in education. Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth (1804-77), a Utilitarian educator in Manchester, proposed and became the director of a new government-supported system that emphasized factual education and standardized teacher training. The principles described in the opening of Hard Times may be modeled to some degree on Kay-Shuttleworth's work. Although Dickens admired some of Kay-Shuttleworth's achievements, he disliked his emphasis on Utilitarian education.

This 1862 portrait of James Kay-Shuttleworth is taken from Frank Smith's Life and Work of Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth (1923).

with a system to force down the general throat like a bolus…

A bolus is a large pill.

To continue in fistic phraseology, he had a genius for coming up to the scratch

Before the Queensberry Rules were introduced in 1867, boxing was conducted bare-knuckled, according to the London rules. The "scratch" was a line drawn in the ring, from which the fighters started. If the fighter could not get to the scratch without help at the beginning of each round, he lost the fight.

He would go in and damage any subject whatever with his right, follow up with his left, stop, exchange, counter, bore his opponent (he always fought All England) to the ropes, and fall upon him neatly.

All England or London rules for boxing permitted fighters to push their opponents up against the ropes, using their own weight. "Bore" is thus used in a double sense here, as a boxing metaphor and in the literal sense of the "third gentleman" making dull, boring speeches to defeat "all England"also used in a double sense.

You are not, Mary Jupe…

Dickens considered naming Sissy "Mary," and the inconsistency here stands in the Household Words text. It was corrected in later editions.

You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don't walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don't find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery…. This is fact. This is taste.

In these declarations on taste, Dickens is satirizing the Department of Practical Art, established as part of the Board of Trade in 1852, which made similar pronouncements on the role of realism in tasteful interior design. Dickens had no objection to using flowers and other "contradictions in fact" in decoration—a penchant that he shared with Victorian culture as a whole.

Despite the best Gradgrindian efforts of the Department of Practical Art, representational decoration flourished at the time. Just three years before Dickens wrote Hard Times, for instance, the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace had afforded manufacturers the opportunity of showing off their vast range of patterned carpets, furniture, and other items both useful and decorative. Engravings of some of the exhibits in the Illustrated London News show a number of flower-patterned carpets.

This engraving of a "patent power-loom printed carpet by Messrs. Bright and Co." appeared in the September 6, 1851, issue of the Illustrated London News.

This engraving of another carpet pattern, also by Bright and Co., appeared in the August 2, 1851, issue.

Mr. M'Choakumchild

The teacher Mr. M'Choakumchild is essentially a briefly seen caricature, as indicated by his unrealistic name, but aspects of his name and personality refer to contemporary figures and philosophical debates. The Scottish "M'" (more familiarly rendered as "Mc") at the beginning of his name underscores the degree to which educational theory at the time, as well as Utilitarian thought, was derived from Scottish thinkers.

Moreover, Dickens may have had two Scotsmen—both named McCulloch—in mind as loose models when he chose the name. The lesser-known, J.M.M. M'Culloch, was a headmaster at an Edinburgh school and wrote practical and dry textbooks. The second, J. R. McCulloch, was a well-known political economist and statistician. In the wake of the public dismay after the publication of Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population (1806), McCulloch "embarked on a lifelong campaign to improve the public image of political economy," according to Mary Poovey in A History of the Modern Fact. Poovey continues:

By rewriting the history of the discipline, creating a canon for political economy, making reliable texts of the Wealth of Nations available for the first time, and placing political economy at the center of countless educational schemes, McCulloch sought to popularize the science that Malthus had rendered so disagreeable. McCulloch was not completely successful in resuscitating political economy, of course; opponents of the manufacturing system, like Dickens and Carlyle, simply turned their venom from Malthus to McCulloch and continued to lament the end of moral knowledge.

Stone Lodge was situated on a moor within a mile or two of a great town—called Coketown in the present faithful guide-book.

"Coketown" is Dickens's substitute for a northern manufacturing town, generally assumed to be Manchester, but probably combining aspects of that city with Birmingham and other cities as well. Dickens's decision to fictionalize the setting of the novel was an unusual one for him; the novels he set in London are characterized by a great specificity of place. But Dickens did not know the industrial north well, and he wished to avoid offending the denizens of any one city. The mention of Stone Lodge's situation "on a moor" clearly places the city in the north of England. It was common for well-to-do businessmen from such towns to live slightly out of town, in order to escape the smoky air and poor sanitation of the town center.

This view of Manchester from Ordsall, a short distance away, is a detail taken from an 1824 map of the city center; the small view illustrates a corner of the map. By 1824, 30 years before the publication of Hard Times, Manchester was already well established as an industrial center.

The little Gradgrinds had cabinets in various departments of science, too. They had a little conchological cabinet, and a little metallurgical cabinet, and a little mineralogical cabinet; and the specimens were all arranged and labelled…

Collecting and arranging specimens from natural history, such as shells, or metals and minerals, was a popular pursuit for the scientifically minded in the nineteenth century, though it was usually associated with educated gentlemen rather than children.

the highly novel and laughable hippo-comedietta of the Tailor's Journey to Brentford

A hippo-comedietta is a short circus comedy, performed on horseback. "The Tailor's Journey to Brentford," first performed in 1768, was actually performed at Astley's Royal Amphitheatre in 1853-4.

Phenomenon almost incredible though distinctly seen, what did he then behold but his own metallurgical Louisa, peeping with all her might through a hole in a deal board, and his own mathematical Thomas abasing himself on the ground to catch but a hoof of the graceful equestrian Tyrolean flower-act.

Dickens takes the opportunity here, as Mr. Gradgrind discovers his children trying to watch the circus, for a sly jab at Utilitarian lingo: Mr. Gradgrind, much against his will, is forced to believe the "distinctly seen" evidence of his own eyes. The circus's "graceful equestrian Tyrolean flower-act" (performed, as we are told earlier, by Miss Josephine Sleary) may be based on various equestrian acts, many performed by one Louisa Woolford, that Dickens saw and enjoyed in his youth.

Harry French depicts Sleary and Josephine, in her costume as an equestrienne (but not on horseback) in a plate from the Household Edition of Hard Times. The flowers in her costume may refer to the "Tyrolean flower-act."

This illustration, taken from the Illustrated London News of September 13, 1845, shows a female equestrian, Madame Klatt, performing at Astley's Royal Amphitheatre.

Not being Mrs. Grundy, who was Mr. Bounderby?…. He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh. A man made out of a coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him…. A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man…

Mr. Bounderby—"banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not"—is Dickens's representative in Hard Times of the wealthy industrialists of the northern manufacturing towns of England. Many of the manufacturers of the era were involved in a number of ventures, including banking, as a way to consolidate their wealth and improve their business. Bounderby's very name, incorporating as it does the suggestion that he is a "bounder" or man on the make, is indicative of his character.

Despite Bounderby's wealth, it would have been well understood by Victorian readers that he ought not to be considered a gentleman—even before they were to see the depiction of him bragging of his humble origins. Manufacturers, being "in trade" rather than university-educated men who practiced a profession (or had no need to do so), were not seen as particularly genteel. (This point also comes up in Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, another of many industrial novels of the 1840s and 1850s.) Nevertheless, the idea of the self-made man, which Bounderby exploits in his bragging, was an important Victorian myth, famously expressed in Samuel Smiles's Self-Help, published in 1857. Although Bounderby has climbed the social and economic ladder far above his self-proclaimed origins, Dickens's depiction leaves readers in no doubt as to his vulgarity.

that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his

A speaking-trumpet was a megaphone, used to increase the sound of the voice. It was often used on board ships.

"She kept a chandler's shop," pursued Bounderby, "and kept me in an egg-box."

Chandler's shops were originally places that sold candles, but had gradually become small general grocers, usually kept by women and found especially in poorer areas.

studying the steeple clock of St. Giles's Church, London, under the direction of a drunken cripple

In the early nineteenth century—the period of Bounderby's youth—the district surrounding St. Giles's Church in London, near Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue, was a criminal haunt and slum. (St. Giles is the patron saint of the poor and crippled.) Much of the parish was demolished between 1844 and 1847, and the infamous Seven Dials area was reconstructed as New Oxford Street. Bounderby is thus using a reference to this notoriously disreputable area to underscore his reverse pedigree.

Mrs. Gradgrind's stock of facts in general was woefully defective; but Mr. Gradgrind, in raising her to her high matrimonial position, had been influenced by two reasons. Firstly, she was most satisfactory as a question of figures…

Dickens is here implying that Mrs. Gradgrind comes from a wealthy background, and brought plenty of money to her marriage with Mr. Gradgrind. Under Victorian law, all of the wife's property automatically became the husband's upon marriage. (Under some circumstances, the family of a wealthy bride could and did skirt this law by creating trusts that provided some financial security for the wife or her children in case of the husband's death.) A wife could not legally own any property, retain money for her own use, or keep wages she earned until after the passage of the Married Women's Property Act in 1870.

Adam Smith and Malthus, two younger Gradgrinds

The two little Gradgrinds are both named for well-known political economists. Adam Smith (1723-90) was the author of The Wealth of Nations and is often considered the father of laissez-faire capitalist thinking. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) is best known for his work on the question of overpopulation, the 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, a controversial work that caused a public reaction against political economy.

Coketown, to which Messrs. Bounderby and Gradgrind now walked, was a triumph of fact… It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long…

Dickens's Coketown, a northern cotton-manufacturing city, is generally assumed to be Manchester, but he was somewhat more familiar with Birmingham than with the former city. Although Dickens toured Manchester and other northern towns—and had visited the town of Preston during its long strike, just months before the publication of Hard Times began—he did not have the intense knowledge of and identification with any of the northern cities that he did with London. An 1824 map of Manchester and a nineteenth-century map of Birmingham (exact date unknown) give a sense of the layout of each city.

Click on map for larger view


Click on map for larger view

The general description of an industrial Hell that Dickens creates for Coketown are, however, based on an amalgam of the several such cities Dickens had visited, and have a good deal of allegorical power, as in the image of "interminable serpents of smoke." The industrial towns were certainly smoky, as shown in this view of Manchester from the Illustrated London News of August 20, 1842.

they lived upon the best, and bought fresh butter, and insisted on Mocha coffee, and rejected all but prime parts of meat, and yet were eternally dissatisfied and unmanageable.

Although in this passage the "gentlemen" of Coketown assert that the working class had access to the best foodstuffs and were dissatisfied in spite of it, the truth is quite different. Many workers could afford little to eat besides bread. Fresh butter, for instance, was all but unobtainable for the poor; instead, when they could afford it, they bought cheaper (and older) salted butter, preserved in casks. Mocha coffee is a high-quality type that was also unaffordable for the working classes; imports of coffee were highly taxed, and as a consequence the poor drank coffee that was mixed with the cheaper chicory.

Moreover, the adulteration of food was common in Victorian times. Coffee, for instance, might be cut with various burnt or roasted items, such as corn. Tea was similarly meddled with or the leaves resold after being used. Flour for bread was eked out with chalk or alum. Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861) offers a rather casual aside: "The commonest adulterations of milk are not of a hurtful character. It is a good deal thinned with water, and sometimes thickened with a little starch, or coloured with yolk of egg, or even saffron; but these processes have nothing murderous in them." More harmful adulterations included the use of poisonous red lead to color certain foods.

People who lived in the country or who had access to fresh foods from farms were not as subject to the vagaries of the commercial food supply as Victorian city dwellers. But those who were less well off, in particular, could not be confident in the purity or quality of the food they ate.

"What have you got in that bottle you are carrying? "Gin," said Mr. Bounderby. "Dear, no, sir! It's the nine oils."

Gradgrind's question, and Bounderby's assumption that Sissy Jupe is carrying a bottle of gin for her father, are typical of certain middle-class stereotypes of lower- or working-class habits in the mid-nineteenth century. Gin was considered a distinctly lower-class drink, available in disreputable "gin palaces" and thought to go hand in hand with other vices of the poor. The middle and upper classes were more likely to drink wine and fortified wines such as port and sherry.

Sissy's reply that she is carrying "the nine oils" seems to imply that she is somewhat shocked at the idea that she might have gin with her. The nine oils was a preparation mainly used in veterinary medicine, for treating horses, but circus performers also used it to rub over bruises. According to one nineteenth-century druggists' book, oils used in the preparation included train oil, oil of turpentine, oil of bricks, oil of amber, spirit of camphor, Barbadoes tar, and oil of vitriol.