Her father was usually sifting and sifting at his parliamentary cinder-heap in London (without being observed to turn up many precious articles among the rubbish), and was still hard at it in the national dust-yard.

Heaps of dust-yards (that is, garbage dumps) surrounded London, largely composed of ashes from the many coal fires in the metropolis's homes. They were literally "sifted" by the very poor, who were looking for valuables as well as any saleable material. According to Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, a great amount of the city's trash was reusable and could be sold: old boots and shoes were sold to manufacturers of Prussian blue, bricks and oyster shells went to builders (for foundations) and road-builders, cinders went to brick-makers for burning bricks, and fine soil went to brick-makers. Mayhew includes this illustration, which shows the dust-sifters at work.


A hermit.


Alderney cattle were a breed of dairy cow from the Channel Islands, known for their milk (like the better-known Jersey cattle). This illustration of Alderney cattle appeared in the Illustrated London News on December 9, 1848.

under the rose

That is, secretly (a translation of the Latin phrase "sub rosa").

this new Giants' Staircase

This phrase refers to the staircase in the Doges' Palace in Venice; at the top of the steps are found the "giants"—statues of Mars and Neptune. Dickens visited Venice in 1844 and 1853 and wrote about the staircase in Pictures from Italy (1846): "Descending from the palace by a staircase, called, I thought, the Giant's—I had some imaginary recollection of an old man abdicating, coming, more slowly and more feebly, down it, when he heard the bell, proclaiming his successor…"

"a lamb chop and walnut ketchup, with a glass of India ale"

In Victorian times, ketchup was not exclusively a tomato-based condiment; walnut ketchup was a strongly flavored sauce of pickled walnuts with anchovies, shallots, and other seasonings. India ale was India Pale Ale, brewed in England for export to the Indian market but often sold domestically. This style of ale remains popular today.

Mrs. Beeton gives two recipes for walnut ketchup in her Book of Household Management:

"He is shooting in Yorkshire," said Tom. "Sent Loo a basket half as big as a church, yesterday."

Shooting at country estates was a seasonal hobby for the upper classes, who shot such game as grouse, partridges, and pheasant on the property of large land owners during the autumn and winter hunting seasons. Tenants on the estates were generally not allowed to hunt for such game; their leases reserved it for the squires and nobility who owned the land. Baskets of game, therefore, were a special treat for those connected with the upper class.

The Illustrated London News frequently marked the hunting season with an illustration of shooting. This engraving depicting a pheasant-shooting party appeared on February 4, 1843.

she was so quick in pouncing on a disengaged coach, so quick in darting out of it, producing her money, seizing her ticket, and diving into the train, that she was borne along the arches spanning the land of coal-pits past and present as if she had been caught up in a cloud and whirled away

Mrs. Sparsit's impromptu train journeys in this episode show the degree to which local as well as national travel had been speeded by the vast growth of the railways in the first half of the nineteenth century. Throughout this chapter, the plot of Mrs. Sparsit's pursuit of Louisa depends on the frequent availability of fast local transit.

A mid-nineteenth-century map drawn by J. Bartholomew, Jr., "Railway Map of the British Isles exhibiting all the Railways & Canals in England, Scotland & Ireland completed or in progress with their respective stations," shows the extent of the railway network in Britain at around the time Hard Times was writte

Click on image for larger view

The following detail from the same map shows the extent of the local railways surrounding Manchester.

A few years before the writing of Hard Times, on April 15, 1848, the Illustrated London News printed an illustration of the railway network in the same region, extending from Liverpool and Manchester to Sheffield to Lincolnshire.

Click on image for larger view

the electric wires which ruled a colossal strip of music-paper out of the evening sky

Electric wires lined the railways as far north as Glasgow by 1840; after the mid-1840s, telegraph poles became more and more common as well. Thus electrical lines were a common sight from train windows at the time of the novel's composition.

The national dustmen

That is, Members of Parliament. For more on the comparison of Parliamentary work to dust-heaps, see note above.