Queen Victoria (1837-1901)
The Great Baby : Charles Dickens rails at the way Parliament and do-gooders treat the public like an irresponsible child.
The Great Baby

Abridged from ‘Household Words’ No. 280 (August 4th, 1855), edited by Charles Dickens.

Respect for Sunday, the Lord’s Day, is a basic Christian custom. But when government decides to get involved, taking responsibility from individuals and enforcing a ‘one size fits all’ solution, things get messy. In 1855, a Bill to restrict Sunday trading provoked riots in Hyde Park; Charles Dickens hosted his own in ‘Household Words’.

THERE are two public bodies remarkable for knowing nothing of the people, and for perpetually interfering to put them right. The one is the House of Commons; the other the Monomaniacs. Between the Members and the Monomaniacs, the devoted People, quite unheard, get harried and worried to the last extremity.*

Is it because the People is altogether an abstraction to them; a Great Baby, to be coaxed and chucked under the chin at elections, and frowned upon at quarter sessions,* and stood in the corner on Sundays, and taken out to stare at the Queen’s coach on holidays, and kept in school under the rod, generally speaking, from Monday morning to Saturday night?

Is it because they have no other idea of the People than a big-headed Baby, now to be flattered and now to be scolded, now to be kissed and now to be whipped, but always to be kept in long clothes, and never under any circumstances to feel its legs and go about of itself? We take the liberty of replying, Yes.*

* For background, see The Brewery History Society. It was an age with no refrigeration (see How the British Invented Cool), and little fresh food in cities (see The Iron Horse and the Iron Cow). Wages were paid on a Saturday night, and wives had to spend them in shops before husbands spent them in the pub. And weekday hours could be long: for weeks on end Joseph Skipsey, a miner, saw the sun only on Sunday (see The Pitman Poet).

* The Quarter Sessions were courts traditionally held four times a year to hear all but the most serious criminal and civil cases. They were replaced in 1972 by the Crown Courts.

* Dickens is opposing only nannying state interference, not the principles of a day of rest or of Sunday observance. See our extract The Economic Case for Time Off, in which the great Scottish economist Adam Smith warmly encourages employers to impose their own generous working time limits.

Abridged from ‘Household Words’ No. 280 (August 4th, 1855), edited by Charles Dickens.

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Charles Dickens (20) Liberty and Prosperity (62) Victorian Era (65) History (415)

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The ‘Red Mall’ in the Metro Centre in Whickham, just across the Tyne from Newcastle.
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