Oliver Twist is, without doubt, the most famous of all paupers from the nineteenth century. Dickens' novel, first published in 1838, recounts the tale of the orphan Oliver, his sufferings within the formal welfare system of the baby farm and the workhouse, his short-lived apprenticeship and as part of Fagin's criminal gang, Throughout his life he encounters authority figures, the majority of whom show little or no genuine concern for his welfare, before he is eventually saved by the selfless acts of the motherly Nancy and the kindly Mr Brownlow. Oliver Twist has become a shorthand for Victorian cruelty, and Dickens' representation of the workhouse system and of life outside of workhouses has come to dominate the popular imagination.
But Dickens was writing in the immediate aftermath of the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, and during a period of considerable opposition to its implementation. It was intended as a polemic, a politically-motivated narrative designed to expose the inhumanity of a welfare system based on Utilitarian philosophical principles.
So what was the real experience of the nineteenth-century poor? Orphans, unmarried mothers, deserted women, abandoned children, the elderly, those suffering from physical and mental ill-health and disability, And what about those who were simply unable to find work, especially during times of economic hardship?