"Oh, my friends, the down-trodden operatives of Coketown! Oh, my friends and fellow-countrymen, the slaves of an iron-handed and a grinding despotism! Oh, my friends and fellow-sufferers, and fellow-workmen, and fellow-men! I tell you that the hour is come when we must rally round one another as One united power…"

Dickens's union orator, Slackbridge, whose words open this installment of Hard Times, is partly based on Dickens's own observations during the 1853-54 strike in Preston, a Lancashire cotton town. One of its leaders, Mortimer Grimshaw, inspired the portrayal of Slackbridge, which is notable for Dickens's air of hostility toward the union leader—despite his support for the workers' plight generally.

The lengthy Preston strike was heavily covered in the press at the time. Another prominent (and less inflammatorily radical) leader of the strike, George Cowell, was depicted speaking to the striking workers in the Illustrated London News of November 12, 1853, as shown below.

The illustration was titled "The Preston Strike—Mr. Cowell addressing an open-air meeting of factory operatives in the Orchard." A view of the town of Preston itself appeared in the Illustrated London News on September 10, 1842.

"Good!" "Hear, hear, hear!" "Hurrah!" and other cries, arose in many voices from various parts of the densely crowded and suffocatingly close Hall, in which the orator, perched on a stage, delivered himself of this and what other froth and fume he had in him.

The "hall" Dickens describes here is based on the Temperance Hall in Preston, which he saw on his stay in Preston. During the strike there, workers regularly held meetings of delegates in the hall on Sundays, and on Mondays the striking workers received their relief payments there. This depiction of Temperance Hall during the strike, showing the distribution of these payments, appeared in the Illustrated London News on November 12, 1853.

resolve for to subscribe to the funds of the United Aggregate Tribunal, and to abide by the injunctions issued by that body for your benefit, whatever they may be

At the time Dickens wrote, unions tended to be occupation-specific. In the Lancashire cotton industry, for instance, there were associations for power loom weavers, spinner, and so on, some of which were short-lived. During the Preston strike, however, the various trade unions of the area worked cooperatively and with efficiency to coordinate their demands. Here, the union organizer Slackbridge seems to be calling for a general union that would bring all the trades together into a "united aggregate tribunal." Dickens, who drew heavily on his observations of the Preston strike for this episode, may also have been thinking of a strike of engineers that took place in 1852. That strike was called by a large and prestigious union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, which was portrayed in the press as despotic.

The idea that smaller unions might combine into large and extremely powerful organizations across many trades, industries and regions fed bourgeois Victorian fears of a workers' revolt. Here, Slackbridge's rhetoric may underscore that fear, as he calls upon the workers to join and to "abide by the injunctions" issued by the union, "whatever they may be." Nevertheless, workers and organizers had from an early time seen the benefit in working cooperatively, and they would continue to do so. One large union meeting, which took place in Birmingham in 1832, is depicted in Robert Kirkup Dent's Old and New Birmingham (1880).

Castlereagh existed

Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, was Britain's Foreign Secretary from 1812-1822. He was seen as responsible for the decision to mobilize troops during a peaceful meeting of 80,000 people in favor of parliamentary reform outside Manchester in August 1819. Eleven people were killed and 400 injured in the Peterloo Massacre. His name thus became a byword for treachery and oppression among the working classes. Castlereagh committed suicide in 1822, and crowds followed his funeral procession through the London streets, cheering.

"…there'll be a threat to turn out if I'm let to work among yo."

To "turn out" is to strike. Stephen is here referring to the common practice of unions setting up a closed shop. The unions' demands to prevent unskilled, nonunion labor from working among them was a major issue and the cause of strikes in the 1850s, but Dickens—unlike many industrial novelists of the day—had no wish to portray an actual strike.

"I who ha worked sin I were no heighth at aw"

The Factory Act of 1819 (when Stephen would have been about five years old) made it illegal to employ children under nine in factories. However, as with other laws regulating industry, factory owners sometimes simply ignored such regulations. Further restrictions had been placed on child labor in 1833 and 1844, including the requirement that working children be given some schooling.

"Had not the Roman Brutus, oh, my British countrymen, condemned his son to death; and had not the Spartan mothers, oh, my soon to be victorious friends, driven their flying children on the points of their enemies' swords?"

Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic in 509 B.C. and first Consul of Rome, had his two sons put to death for conspiring against the state. The Spartans were notorious for being trained never to retreat in battle, so Spartan mothers would encouraged their sons to sacrifice themselves rather than retreat.


A soldier trained to march at the front of a regiment, to serve as an example or model to the troops.

sent to Coventry

Alienated or ostracized. The origin of the term is uncertain, but Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable gives the following explanation:

According to Messrs. Chambers (Cyclopedia), the citizens of Coventry had at one time so great a dislike to soldiers that a woman seen speaking to one was instantly tabooed. No intercourse was ever allowed between the garrison and the town; hence, when a soldier was sent to Coventry, he was cut off from all social intercourse.

"a set of rascals and rebels whom transportation is too good for!"

Transportation was the practice of sending convicted criminals to overseas penal settlements, most notably Australia. Dickens used transportation as a plot device in Great Expectations; the practice ended in 1868.

"fur to weave, an' to card, and to piece out a livin'"

Carding involved raking raw, partially cleaned cotton into parallel fibers, preparatory to spinning it into thread. Those who worked in carding rooms were often subject to lung complaints (see Issue 5). The phrase "piece out a livin" may allude to the practice of paying workers by the piece instead of by the hour.

"goes up wi' yor deputations to Secretaries o' State 'bout us…"

In January, 1854, mill-owners and manufacturers sent a deputation to Lord Palmerston, the Home Secretary, to protest new manufacturing regulations.

"we'll indict the blackguards for felony, and get 'em shipped off to penal settlements."

Union organizers and laborers were indeed transported for various trumped-up offenses. The so-called Tolpuddle Martyrs (six workers from the town of Tolpuddle, accused of trade unionism) were sentenced in 1834 under the 1797 Act against Unlawful Oaths. They were transported but subsequently pardoned and allowed to return to England. Closer to the time Dickens was writing, in March 1854, labor delegates in Preston had been arrested on charges of conspiracy, although the charges were subsequently dropped.

Norfolk Island

A particularly remote and harsh penal settlement, some 1000 miles off the coast of Australia. Transportation to Norfolk Island was reserved for the worst offenders (often those who had committed second crimes while in custody in Australia), and conditions there were dreadful. Its use as a penal colony was discontinued in 1855.

This illustration of Norfolk Island appeared in the Illustrated London News on June 12, 1847:

"The strong hand will never do 't. Vict'ry and triumph will never do 't. Agreeing fur to mak' one side, unnat'rally awlus and forever right, and toother side unnat'rally awlus and forever wrong will never, never do 't. Nor yet lett' alone will never do 't."

In February 1854, Dickens published an article called "On Strike" in Household Words, which concluded with words to similar effect: the gulf of separation it hourly deepens between those whose interests must be understood to be identical or must be destroyed, it is a great national affliction. But, at this pass, anger is of no use, starving out is of no use…. Masters right, or men right; masters wrong, or men wrong; both right, or both wrong; there is a certain ruin to both in the continuance or frequent revival of this breach. And from the ever-widening circle of their decay, what drop in the ocean shall be free!

the Travellers' Coffee House down by the railroad

Refreshment houses and waiting rooms in or near railway stations were commonplace by the 1840s, replacing coach inns.

The bread was new and crusty, the butter fresh, and the sugar lump, of course

In Victorian times, sugar was sold in hard loaves, not finely granulated. The foods mentioned—good bread, fresh butter, and more expensive white sugar—indicate that Stephen has access to (and money for) decent, though limited foods, particularly when he is entertaining guests. The adulteration of food and the poor quality of food sold to the poor—including rancid butter, heavy or adulterated bread, and tea that was reused or cut with other ingredients—was a problem in the nineteenth century, particularly in large cities.

so large a party necessitated the borrowing of a cup

It was commonplace for laborers to have no more dishes, cutlery, or furniture than would meet the immediate needs of their own households, because of the expense of such objects.