Ancestry UK

The Tooting Farm by Charles Dickens

The following article appeared on 27th January 1849 in the weekly journal The Examiner. Although not signed, it was written by Charles Dickens. It was the second of four articles Dickens wrote for The Examiner between January and April 1849, giving his critical appraisal of the events surrounding the cholera outbreak at Mr Drouet's school for pauper children at Tooting. After 180 children from the school died from the disease, Drouet was charged with manslaughter but subsequently acquitted.

The other articles in the series were The Paradise at Tooting (January 20th), A Recorder's Charge (March 3rd), and The Verdict for Drouet (April 23rd).


On Tuesday last the coroner's jury, after a long inquiry before Mr Wakley, returned a verdict of manslaughter against the Tooting Farmer, coupled with an expression of their regret at the defects of the Poor-law Act, and of their hope that establishments similar to that at Tooting would soon cease to exist.

Nothing came out in the further progress of the inquiry to soften those results of evidence which we summed up generally last week. The new testimony did anything but weaken the case against the person now criminally inculpated. On the contrary, the physical deterioration of the surviving children, as a body, was more affectingly and convincingly shown than before. What good legal assistance could do for the defence, was done, but it could do nothing. What deplorable shifts and attempts at evasion on the part of an educated witness could do on the same side, was also done. But it could do nothing either.

We observe that one metropolitan Board of Guardians considers itself ill-used by the public comments that have been made on this case, and is about to enter on a voluntary defence of itself. Any individual or body of individuals made the subject of uncomplimentary newspaper remark, is ill-used as a matter of course. It never was otherwise. The precedents are numerous. Mr Thurtell was very bitter on this point, and so was Mr Greenacre. But while we recognise a broad distinction between the culpability of those who consigned hundreds of children to this hateful place, too easily satisfied by formal, periodical visitation of it, — and the guilt of its administrator, who knew it at all hours and times, at its worst as well as at its best, and who drove a dangerous and cruel traffic, for his own profit, at his own peril, — we must take leave to repeat that the Board of Guardians concerned are grossly in the wrong. The plain truth is, that they took for granted what they should have thoroughly sifted and ascertained. A certain establishment for the reception of pauper children exists. One Board of Guardians sends its children there; other Boards of Guardians follow in its wake, like sheep. We will assume that the existing accommodation in their Unions was insufficient for the reception of these children. For aught we know, it may, in the case of the Saint Pancras workhouse for example, have been perfectly inadequate. But that is no reason for sending them to Tooting, and no ground of defence in having sent them there. The sending them to Norfolk Island, or the banks of the Niger, might be justified as well by the same logic.

We have no intention of prejudging a case which is now to be brought to issue before a criminal court. It will be decided upon the law, and upon the evidence, and there is not the least fear that the general humanity will unjustly prejudice the party impeached. That is not at all a common vice of such a trial in England. What we desire to do, is to point out in a few words why we hold it to be particularly desirable that this case, in all its relations, should be rigidly dealt with upon its own merits; and why that vague disposition to smooth over the things that be, which sometimes creeps into the most important English proceedings, should, in this instance of all others, have no pin's-point of place to rest upon.

In town and country, for some months past, we have been trying and punishing with necessary severity certain seditious men who did their utmost to incite the discontented to disturbance of the public peace. We have, within the last year, counted our special constables by tens of thousands, and our loyal addresses to the throne by tens of scores. All these demonstrations have been necessary, but some of them have been sad necessities, and, on the subsidence of the natural indignation of the moment, have not left much occasion for triumph.

The chartist leaders who are now undergoing their various sentences in various prisons, found the mass of their audience among the discontented poor. The foremost of them had not the plea of want to urge for themselves; but their misrepresentations were addressed to the toiling multitudes, on whom social inequalities impossible to be avoided, and complicated commercial circumstances difficult to be explained to them, pressed heavily. There is no doubt that among this numerous class, chartist principles are rife; that wherever the class is found in a large amount, there, also, is a great intensity of discontent. There are few poor workingmen in the kingdom who might not find themselves next year, next month, next week, in the position of those fathers whose children were sent to Tooting; and there are probably very few poor working-men who have not thought "this might be my child's case, to-morrow."

No opportunity of doing something towards the education of such men in the conviction that the State is unfeignedly mindful of them, and truly anxious to redress their tangible and obvious wrongs, could be plainer than that which now arises. If the system of farming pauper children cannot exist without the danger of another Tooting Farm being weeded by the grisly hands of Want, Disease, and Death, let it be now abolished. If the Poor Law, as it stands, be not efficient for the prevention of such inhuman evils, let it be now rendered more efficient. If it has unfortunately happened, though by no man's deliberate intention or malignity — as who can doubt it has? — that the children of sundry poor men and women have been carried to untimely graves, who might have lived and thriven, let there be seen a resolute determination that the like shall never happen any more. It is not only even-handed justice, but it is clear, straightforward policy. It is the correction of widely-spread and artfully-fomented prejudice, dissatisfaction, and suspicion. It is to challenge and to win the confidence of the poor man on his tenderest point, and at his own fire-side.

But to waste the occasion in play with foolscap and red tape; to bewilder all these listening ears with mere official gabble about Boards, and Inspectors, and Guardians, and responsibility, and non-responsibility, and divided responsibility, and powers, and clauses, and sections, and chapters, until the remedy is crushed to pieces in a mill of words; will be to swell the mischief to an extent that is incalculable. There are scores of heads in the mills of Lancashire and the shops of Birmingham, sufficiently confused already by something more perplexing than the rattling of looms or the beating of hammers. Such dazed men must be spoken to distinctly. They will hear then, and hear aright. Let the debtor and creditor account between the governors and the governed, be kept in a fair, bold hand, that all may read; and the governed will soon read it for themselves, and dispense with the interpreters who are paid by chartist clubs.

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