Scrooge and the City of London: then and now
One might be tempted to think, particularly at this time of year, that the Tory Government, is following the sentiments in Charles Dickens Christmas Carol, published 1843, or at least some of them, to the letter.
Dickens wrote the book at speed in December 1843- it sold 5,000 copies before Christmas Day that year- in a decade that was known as the ‘Hungry Forties’. The similarities with modern Food Bank Britain are striking.
In Dickens’s book Scrooge runs a financial business in the heart of the City of London, off Cornhill, and the author takes us to his ‘counting house’ on Christmas Eve.
Scrooge is in one office and across the way is his clerk Bob Cratchit. The office is barely heated, Scrooge being frugal in all things.
Scrooge comes across people collecting for the poor at Xmas and asks them why this was necessary given that Workhouses existed.
The charitable collector tells Scrooge of the Workhouse that ‘many can’t go there, and many would rather die’. To which Scrooge responds ‘if they would rather die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population.
Scrooge only reluctantly allows Cratchit ‘the whole day’ off on Christmas Day, but when retiring to his nearby lodgings, after dining at a City hostelry, Scrooge finds himself confronted by the ghost of his late partner Marley.
Dickens regarded ghosts and the supernatural as an essential part of a good Christmas story, perhaps because they suggested the world could go on differently.
The ghosts that Marley conjured up to visit Scrooge on the night of Christmas Eve, those of Christmas past, present and future, did indeed suggest to him that unless he changed his ways his future was a bleak one.
Scrooge does change his ways and first thing in the morning orders a huge turkey for the Cratchit family and a cab to take it to their dwelling in Camden Town.
Later he joins his nephew for a Christmas celebration having the previous day declined to have anything to do with it.
It is a simple morality tale at one level
While the Christmas Carol was a best seller it was not universally well received. Liberal economists, these days known as neo-liberals, complained that while it was all very well making sure that the Cratchits got a Christmas dinner, there was a finite supply of turkeys and plum puddings.
‘If they got these items then someone else would not. Surely it should be up to the market to determine how these things work’ was the view of liberal ideologists in the 1840s.
Scrooge’s Counting House, although not directly identified by Dickens in terms of location, is thought to have been in Newman’s Court off Cornhill and opposite St Michael’s Church.
Cornhill is very close to the Mansion House and the Bank of England at the centre of the City of London’s financial district.
It remains a warren of passageways and alleys often with smart pubs and eateries where in the late afternoon City men in suits can be found starting an evening’s drinking or finishing a late lunch.
Newman’s Court is still there too. There is no plaque to indicate its likely role in Dicken’s book. Of all the passages and alleys off Cornhill it is the only one that remains a dark and dingy cul-de-sac. It is essentially a yard surrounded by offices.
You get the impression that 175 years on Scrooge would be quite at home there not only with the frugal buildings but with the ideological attitudes of the City men to be found in its environs as well.