Dickens and the Poor Brothers of the Charterhouse

In the 1850s Charles Dickens commissioned two attacks against the Charterhouse, and specifically its Master, W.H. Hale.

Household Words was an English weekly magazine edited by Charles Dickens in the 1850s. It took its name from the line in Shakespeare’s Henry V: “Familiar in his mouth as household words,” and contained a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, of which a substantial portion focused on important social issues of the time.

The following essays highlight the conditions endured by the Poor Brothers of the Charterhouse, who were in those days provided with rent-free room and board in addition to a small pension. They were written by Henry Morley, a Professor of English Literature at King’s College London, and William Thomas Moncrieff, who had entered the Charterhouse as a Brother in 1844 after losing his sight the previous year. As a dramatist, Moncrieff was among the first writers to enter the Charterhouse; he felt strongly that the conditions it upheld were inappropriate for a man of his profession:

“I was totally out of place… the Brotherhood… for the major part, were illiterate men – worn out servants, Brokendown journey men… Pauperism in its most degraded sense was strictly incalcated, the main object seemed to be debasement.”

Although Moncrieff had been a prolific plagiarist of Dickens’s novels for many years, this did not stop the two men from becoming staunch allies in their campaign against the Charterhouse. Once admired by Daniel Defoe, who described it as, “The greatest and noblest gift that ever was given for charity,” the institution had by this time fallen to the standards whereby it was compulsory for a Brother to doff his cap in the presence of the Master, wear his livery robes at all times and attend chapel twice a day. In Dickens’s eyes, these conditions were proof of yet another hypocritical charity, and one no less that had received the support of the Queen Victoria, who had nominated several elderly writers for positions at the Charterhouse as part of her work with the Royal Literary Fund.

At the time of the first Household Words attack, there were six literary men in the Charterhouse. One of these, the author William Wickenden, was particularly disdainful of the institution and lasted only a year and half as Brother before handing in his resignation. Upon his leaving, he wrote a vitriolic pamphlet, listing “indifferent bread”, “tough beef” and “decayed vegetables” among his reasons for resigning, and insisting how he “could not possibly have remained longer [there] without encountering the horrors of inevitable madness.” Wickenden placed much of the blame for his experiences on the Master, W.H. Hale. He accused him of greed and corruption, and felt it wrong that, in addition to his salary as Master of £800 a year, Hale should earn a considerable sum as Rector of St Giles, Cripplegate, and Archdeacon of London:

“No one would imagine that, having the annual sum of £800 per annum, his board, and a house, work £350 per annum, rent free, the Master of the Charterhouse would do the requisite duties of his situation himself. This, however, he does not, but employs a subordinate, called a Manciple, to do it for him. Well, at all events, you may exclaim, he pays the Manciple out of his own Magnificent salary. Not so fast, Sir, he does no such thing: his salary is paid out of Charity… Is not this a system of vile jobbery?”

Hale responded to the charges in a pamphlet on the history of the Charterhouse. Writing anonymously, he challenged the right of the Brothers to regard themselves as gentlemen, and drew up a table to prove that many of them were former servants, tradesmen and lackeys. Dickens countered by commissioning a second attack on the Charterhouse, which he published in Household Words on 1 December 1855.

The Essays:

Household Words No. 116

Household Words No. 297

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