A Christmas Carol for Birmingham’s working men

Christmas Carol

George Alfred Williams

On Tuesday, December 27th, 1853, Charles Dickens famously gave his first public reading of A Christmas Carol in Birmingham’s Town Hall. The event was organised as a fund raiser for the proposed Birmingham and Midland Institute, of which Dickens was to be  president and which was established by act of parliament the following year. The audience for this first reading is reported to have numbered almost two thousand ‘notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather’ and only a few left before completion of Dickens marathon three hour reading.  Dickens rendition was lively and animated and received great acclaim in the press. On Thursday 29th December, Dickens again packed the Town Hall with a reading of The Cricket and the Hearth.

A second reading of  Christmas Carol was given by its author on the following Friday (30th December), also at the Town Hall. For this presentation, Dickens had requested that the majority of the audience should comprise of the local working men and women of the town.  Before commencing the reading, Dickens gave the following short speech:

My good friends, when I first imparted to the Committee of the projected Institute my particular wish that on one of the evenings of my  readings here, the main body of my audience should be composed of working men and their families I was animated by two desires: first by the wish to have the  great pleasure of meeting you face to face at this Christmas time and accompany you myself through one of my little Christmas books; and second by a wish to have an opportunity of stating publicly in your presence and in the presence of the Committee, my earnest hope that the Institute will from the beginning recognise one great principle – strong in reason and justice – which I believe to be essential to be essential to the very life of such an institution. It is – that the working men shall, from the first unto the last,  have a share in the management of an institution which is designed for his benefit, and which calls itself by his name. I have no fear here of being misunderstood – of being supposed to mean too much in this. If there was ever a time when any one class could of itself do much for its own good and for the welfare of society, that time is past. It is in the fusion of different classes without confusion; in the bringing together of employers and employed; in the creating of a better common understanding among those whose interests are identical, who depend upon each other, who are vitally essential to each other and who never can be in unnatural antagonism without deplorable results, that one of of the chief principles of a Mechanics Institute should consist. In this world a great deal of the bitterness among us arises from an imperfect understanding of one another. Erect in Birmingham a great Educational Institution – properly educational – educational of the feelings as well as the reason – to which all orders of Birmingham men contribute; in which all orders of  Birmingham men meet; wherein all orders of Birmingham men are faithfully represented – and you will erect a Temple of Concord here which will be a model edifice to the whole of England…You will judge for yourselves if I promise too much for the working man, when I say that he will stand by such an enterprise with the utmost of his patience, his perseverance, sense and support; that I am sure he will need no charitable aid or condescending patronage; but will readily and cheerfully pay for the advantages which it confers; that he will prepare himself in individual cases where he feels that the adverse circumstances around him have rendered it necessary; in a word, that he will feel his responsibility like an honest man, and will most honestly and manfully discharge it.

At the close of this reading, Captain Tindal took the stage to express the appreciation of the public for Dickens ‘delightful entertainment’, expressing also an awareness of Dickens ‘desire to do good for all classes’. During several rounds of applause a working man rose and proposed three cheers, with three times three, the call having been responded to with the utmost enthusiasm.

The information in this entry is taken from Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, January 2nd, 1854. Birmingham’s local newspapers are available at the Library of Birmingham on microfilm, in the Local Studies Centre.

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