Some Background for "A Christmas Carol" by Dickens

A lit Christmas tree with "A Christmas Carol" written. Background info to help understand Dickens's story will be shared. 


I provided audio description for "A Christmas Carol" yesterday afternoon (one of two describers). The Williamsburg Players has shown this production for six years, and the co-director (Brink Miller) has performed as Scrooge for almost 30 years (different venues). I’m familiar with the story. I read it in junior high and watched several adaptions – one of the black & white programs, Scrooged, “Duck Tales” (of course, they had a version since the main character is “Scrooge McDuck”), and several plays. Even if I hadn’t seen a show, it’d be hard to not hear of it since “being a Scrooge” has taken its own meaning.

But it was published in the mid-1800s. Of all the stories that were written during that time, why is that one so popular? What’s going on with the poor? What was going on with Tiny Tim that he needed a crutch and was in danger of dying? Why was Scrooge asking the people seeking the charity for the many poor citizens if there were workhouses and treadmills? What did that even mean?

In the playbill for the show, we were given a bit of backstory as well as some terminology of the time. For instance, “humbug” means nonsense. I shared some of the information with our patrons and decided to learn more.


Debtors’ Prison

Like many writers, the experiences of Charles Dickens influenced his work. His family was poor. By the time he was twelve, Dickens was working to help care for his family since his father had been sent to debtors’ prison. According to The Institutional History Society, prisons were privately owned. Inmates would stay until they worked off their debt, some charitable soul covered their bill, or the family paid. The debt continued to grow during prison time (which could stretch their time to life in prison), and people inside lived in filthy conditions, cramped quarters, and might starve.

Debtors’ prisons were not unique to England. In some areas, they continued under different names and rules thought legally banned by their legislation(s) by the mid-1800s.



What’s a treadmill if it’s not an exercise machine? It was meant to get inmates moving (punishment) if they were viewed as “lazy.” Prisoners sentenced to “hard labor” could be found here. In order to get the most production, inmates had to walk in step with each other. A handrail would eventually be introduced for balance, but there were still injuries (ex. missed step). Some of the illustrations online show people stepping on stairs that resemble the paddle wheel of a steamboat.

“The treadmill or ‘everlasting staircase’ was introduced into Britain’s prisons in 1818 by civil engineer Sir William Cubitt. Originally designed to occupy men’s time while serving their prison sentence, the power generated by the inmates was eventually put to better use for grinding corn or pumping water throughout the prison. 

A typical shift on the treadmill was between 7 am – 4 pm with prisoners expected to take 56 steps per minute in some instances, being allowed a five-minute rest every fifteen minutes. The treadmill was eventually abolished in 1902.” -

Imagine being forced to do a stair climb forty-five minutes of an hour at a moderate pace, four or more hours a day, every day, for months on end while not getting enough rest or nutrients to maintain that demand on your body.


The Poor Law of 1834

“The new law saw the massive expansion of workhouses where the destitute would be imprisoned. Operating on the assumption that the poor were responsible for their condition, the authors of the new law determined that the conditions of the workhouse would be so appalling that they would provide a deterrent to anyone seeking support.

Dickens expressed a widely held feeling about the workhouses when he had his charity worker in A Christmas Carol say that ‘many would rather die’ than enter them. People called them ‘Bastilles’ – which not only compared them to the symbol of tyranny that was torn down at the start of the French Revolution, but also suggested that they wanted to do the same thing to the workhouses.” -


What were workhouses?

“The Victorian Workhouse was an institution that was intended to provide work and shelter for poverty stricken people who had no means to support themselves. With the advent of the Poor Law system, Victorian workhouses, designed to deal with the issue of pauperism, in fact became prison systems detaining the most vulnerable in society.

The harsh system of the workhouse became synonymous with the Victorian era, an institution which became known for its terrible conditions, forced child labour, long hours, malnutrition, beatings and neglect. It would become a blight on the social conscience of a generation leading to opposition from the likes of the Charles Dickens.” -

As time progressed, instead of helping the poor, these added to their burdens. Families would be separated. Talking wasn’t permitted. Diseases spread easily. Imagine being a child, removed from your parents, unable to get enough to eat, not permitted to talk, forced to work difficult tasks in the dark, beaten by someone who does so because he can, etc.

In the play, Scrooge states that those who would rather die should go ahead and do so to “reduce the surplus population.” He holds the position that impoverished people are responsible for their conditions – although, based on the long hours we read of their labors, the years they did so, and how little time there was for any fun, it’s hard to walk away with the idea that laziness is the cause of their financial circumstances.


What was wrong with “Tiny Tim”?

We like mysteries, don’t we? It doesn’t look like we’ll have a clear answer because there are always critics who will say why an answer wouldn’t work. Some will say one disease, and others will say another. I’m going with a combination explanation because…why not?

“Tiny Tim's life in cramped, polluted London would have set him up for both rickets and tuberculosis, Chesney said. At the time, 60 percent of children of working-class London families had rickets, brought on by poor nutrition and lack of sunlight. (London's coal-choked skies blocked the sun's ultraviolet light that helps the body synthesize vitamin D.)

At the same time, half of working-class kids had signs of tuberculosis, Chesney reported Monday (March 5) in the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Tiny Tim's rickets could have been reversed — and his tuberculosis improved — by sunshine, a better diet and cod liver oil, a supplement rich in vitamin D, Chesney said.” -

The article continues and suggests that Dickens may have combined the conditions of two people he knew to create the character - one being a nephew who died of tuberculosis.

Here are some of the other conclusions -

The specific illness of Tiny Tim isn’t the point. We’re supposed to recognize that his condition exists, and Cratchit can’t afford to do anything to help his son recover and is forced to watch his son suffer until he passes away.


 All of this is the backdrop of A Christmas Carol. Having an understanding of the time and setting of the story makes it easier to understand why the characters respond the way they do and for readers/viewers to appreciate the hope given for a better ending.

Dickens had planned to write a political pamphlet but chose to write a novella to have a greater impact. Almost 200 years later, he’s still meeting that goal. I thought about the tombstone shown for Scrooge, the amount of pain his character caused, and the reactions of those around him. Upon the death of Dickens, the opposite response is recorded (although against his request for a simple burial).

“He was a sympathizer with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world.” -


I hope this clears some questions you may have had and helps with your next viewing or reading of the story. 

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