TREATS OF THE PLACE WHERE OLIVER TWIST WAS BORN AND OF THE
CIRCUMSTANCES ATTENDING HIS BIRTH
Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many
reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to
which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently
common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and
in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not
trouble myself to repeat, inasmuch as it can be of no possible
consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all
events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head
of this chapter.
For a long time after it was ushered into this world of sorrow
and trouble, by the parish surgeon, it remained a matter of
considerable doubt whether the child would survive to bear any
name at all; in which case it is somewhat more than probable that
these memoirs would never have appeared; or, if they had, that
being comprised within a couple of pages, they would have
possessed the inestimable merit of being the most concise and
faithful specimen of biography, extant in the literature of any
age or country.
Although I am not disposed to maintain that the being born in a
workhouse, is in itself the most fortunate and enviable
circumstance that can possibly befall a human being, I do mean to
say that in this particular instance, it was the best thing for
Oliver Twist that could by possibility have occurred. The fact
is, that there was considerable difficulty in inducing Oliver to
take upon himself the office of respiration,--a troublesome
practice, but one which custom has rendered necessary to our easy
existence; and for some time he lay gasping on a little flock
mattress, rather unequally poised between this world and the
next: the balance being decidedly in favour of the latter. Now,
if, during this brief period, Oliver had been surrounded by
careful grandmothers, anxious aunts, experienced nurses, and
doctors of profound wisdom, he would most inevitably and
indubitably have been killed in no time. There being nobody by,
however, but a pauper old woman, who was rendered rather misty by
an unwonted allowance of beer; and a parish surgeon who did such
matters by contract; Oliver and Nature fought out the point
between them. The result was, that, after a few struggles,
Oliver breathed, sneezed, and proceeded to advertise to the
inmates of the workhouse the fact of a new burden having been
imposed upon the parish, by setting up as loud a cry as could
reasonably have been expected from a male infant who had not been
possessed of that very useful appendage, a voice, for a much
longer space of time than three minutes and a quarter.
As Oliver gave this first proof of the free and proper action of
his lungs, the patchwork coverlet which was carelessly flung over
the iron bedstead, rustled; the pale face of a young woman was
raised feebly from the pillow; and a faint voice imperfectly
articulated the words, 'Let me see the child, and die.'
The surgeon had been sitting with his face turned towards the
fire: giving the palms of his hands a warm and a rub
alternately. As the young woman spoke, he rose, and advancing to
the bed's head, said, with more kindness than might have been
expected of him:
'Oh, you must not talk about dying yet.'
'Lor bless her dear heart, no!' interposed the nurse, hastily
depositing in her pocket a green glass bottle, the contents of
which she had been tasting in a corner with evident satisfaction.
'Lor bless her dear heart, when she has lived as long as I have,
sir, and had thirteen children of her own, and all on 'em dead
except two, and them in the wurkus with me, she'll know better
than to take on in that way, bless her dear heart! Think what it
is to be a mother, there's a dear young lamb do.'
Apparently this consolatory perspective of a mother's prospects
failed in producing its due effect. The patient shook her head,
and stretched out her hand towards the child.
The surgeon deposited it in her arms. She imprinted her cold
white lips passionately on its forehead; passed her hands over
her face; gazed wildly round; shuddered; fell back--and died.
They chafed her breast, hands, and temples; but the blood had
stopped forever. They talked of hope and comfort. They had been
strangers too long.
'It's all over, Mrs. Thingummy!' said the surgeon at last.
'Ah, poor dear, so it is!' said the nurse, picking up the cork of
the green bottle, which had fallen out on the pillow, as she
stooped to take up the child. 'Poor dear!'
'You needn't mind sending up to me, if the child cries, nurse,'
said the surgeon, putting on his gloves with great deliberation.
'It's very likely it WILL be troublesome. Give it a little gruel
if it is.' He put on his hat, and, pausing by the bed-side on
his way to the door, added, 'She was a good-looking girl, too;
where did she come from?'
'She was brought here last night,' replied the old woman, 'by the
overseer's order. She was found lying in the street. She had
walked some distance, for her shoes were worn to pieces; but
where she came from, or where she was going to, nobody knows.'
The surgeon leaned over the body, and raised the left hand. 'The
old story,' he said, shaking his head: 'no wedding-ring, I see.
The medical gentleman walked away to dinner; and the nurse,
having once more applied herself to the green bottle, sat down on
a low chair before the fire, and proceeded to dress the infant.
What an excellent example of the power of dress, young Oliver
Twist was! Wrapped in the blanket which had hitherto formed his
only covering, he might have been the child of a nobleman or a
beggar; it would have been hard for the haughtiest stranger to
have assigned him his proper station in society. But now that he
was enveloped in the old calico robes which had grown yellow in
the same service, he was badged and ticketed, and fell into his
place at once--a parish child--the orphan of a workhouse--the
humble, half-starved drudge--to be cuffed and buffeted through
the world--despised by all, and pitied by none.
Oliver cried lustily. If he could have known that he was an
orphan, left to the tender mercies of church-wardens and
overseers, perhaps he would have cried the louder.
TREATS OF OLIVER TWIST'S GROWTH, EDUCATION, AND BOARD
For the next eight or ten months, Oliver was the victim of a
systematic course of treachery and deception. He was brought up
by hand. The hungry and destitute situation of the infant orphan
was duly reported by the workhouse authorities to the parish
authorities. The parish authorities inquired with dignity of the
workhouse authorities, whether there was no female then domiciled
in 'the house' who was in a situation to impart to Oliver Twist,
the consolation and nourishment of which he stood in need. The
workhouse authorities replied with humility, that there was not.
Upon this, the parish authorities magnanimously and humanely
resolved, that Oliver should be 'farmed,' or, in other words,
that he should be dispatched to a branch-workhouse some three
miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders
against the poor-laws, rolled about the floor all day, without
the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing, under
the parental superintendence of an elderly female, who received
the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny
per small head per week. Sevenpence-halfpenny's worth per week
is a good round diet for a child; a great deal may be got for
sevenpence-halfpenny, quite enough to overload its stomach, and
make it uncomfortable. The elderly female was a woman of wisdom
and experience; she knew what was good for children; and she had
a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, she
appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own
use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a
shorter allowance than was originally provided for them. Thereby
finding in the lowest depth a deeper still; and proving herself a
very great experimental philosopher.
Everybody knows the story of another experimental philosopher who
had a great theory about a horse being able to live without
eating, and who demonstrated it so well, that he had got his own
horse down to a straw a day, and would unquestionably have
rendered him a very spirited and rampacious animal on nothing at
all, if he had not died, four-and-twenty hours before he was to
have had his first comfortable bait of air. Unfortunately for,
the experimenal philosophy of the female to whose protecting care
Oliver Twist was delivered over, a similar result usually
attended the operation of HER system; for at the very moment when
the child had contrived to exist upon the smallest possible
portion of the weakest possible food, it did perversely happen in
eight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sickened from
want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got
half-smothered by accident; in any one of which cases, the
miserable little being was usually summoned into another world,
and there gathered to the fathers it had never known in this.
Occasionally, when there was some more than usually interesting
inquest upon a parish child who had been overlooked in turning up
a bedstead, or inadvertently scalded to death when there happened
to be a washing--though the latter accident was very scarce,
anything approaching to a washing being of rare occurance in the
farm--the jury would take it into their heads to ask troublesome
questions, or the parishioners would rebelliously affix their
signatures to a remonstrance. But these impertinences were
speedily checked by the evidence of the surgeon, and the
testimony of the beadle; the former of whom had always opened the
body and found nothing inside (which was very probable indeed),
and the latter of whom invariably swore whatever the parish
wanted; which was very self-devotional. Besides, the board made
periodical pilgrimages to the farm, and always sent the beadle
the day before, to say they were going. The children were neat
and clean to behold, when THEY went; and what more would the
It cannot be expected that this system of farming would produce
any very extraordinary or luxuriant crop. Oliver Twist's ninth
birthday found him a pale thin child, somewhat diminutive in
stature, and decidely small in circumference. But nature or
inheritance had implanted a good sturdy spirit in Oliver's
breast. It had had plenty of room to expand, thanks to the spare
diet of the establishment; and perhaps to this circumstance may
be attributed his having any ninth birth-day at all. Be this as
it may, however, it was his ninth birthday; and he was keeping it
in the coal-cellar with a select party of two other young
gentleman, who, after participating with him in a sound
thrashing, had been locked up for atrociously presuming to be
hungry, when Mrs. Mann, the good lady of the house, was
unexpectedly startled by the apparition of Mr. Bumble, the
beadle, striving to undo the wicket of the garden-gate.
'Goodness gracious! Is that you, Mr. Bumble, sir?' said Mrs.
Mann, thrusting her head out of the window in well-affected
ecstasies of joy. '(Susan, take Oliver and them two brats
upstairs, and wash 'em directly.)--My heart alive! Mr. Bumble,
how glad I am to see you, sure-ly!'
Now, Mr. Bumble was a fat man, and a choleric; so, instead of
responding to this open-hearted salutation in a kindred spirit,
he gave the little wicket a tremendous shake, and then bestowed
upon it a kick which could have emanated from no leg but a
'Lor, only think,' said Mrs. Mann, running out,--for the three
boys had been removed by this time,--'only think of that! That I
should have forgotten that the gate was bolted on the inside, on
account of them dear children! Walk in sir; walk in, pray, Mr.
Bumble, do, sir.'
Although this invitation was accompanied with a curtsey that
might have softened the heart of a church-warden, it by no means
mollified the beadle.
'Do you think this respectful or proper conduct, Mrs. Mann,'
inquired Mr. Bumble, grasping his cane, 'to keep the parish
officers a waiting at your garden-gate, when they come here upon
porochial business with the porochial orphans? Are you aweer,
Mrs. Mann, that you are, as I may say, a porochial delegate, and
'I'm sure Mr. Bumble, that I was only a telling one or two of the
dear children as is so fond of you, that it was you a coming,'
replied Mrs. Mann with great humility.
Mr. Bumble had a great idea of his oratorical powers and his
importance. He had displayed the one, and vindicated the other.
'Well, well, Mrs. Mann,' he replied in a calmer tone; 'it may be
as you say; it may be. Lead the way in, Mrs. Mann, for I come on
business, and have something to say.'
floor; placed a seat for him; and officiously deposited his
cocked hat and can on the table before him. Mr. Bumble wiped
from his forehead the perspiration which his walk had engendered,
glanced complacently at the cocked hat, and smiled. Yes, he
smiled. Beadles are but men: and Mr. Bumble smiled.
'Now don't you be offended at what I'm a going to say,' observed
Mrs. Mann, with captivating sweetness. 'You've had a long walk,
you know, or I wouldn't mention it. Now, will you take a little
drop of somethink, Mr. Bumble?'
'Not a drop. Nor a drop,' said Mr. Bumble, waving his right hand
in a dignified, but placid manner.
'I think you will,' said Mrs. Mann, who had noticed the tone of
the refusal, and the gesture that had accompanied it. 'Just a
leetle drop, with a little cold water, and a lump of sugar.'
Mr. Bumble coughed.
'Now, just a leetle drop,' said Mrs. Mann persuasively.
'What is it?' inquired the beadle.
'Why, it's what I'm obliged to keep a little of in the house, to
put into the blessed infants' Daffy, when they ain't well, Mr.
Bumble,' replied Mrs. Mann as she opened a corner cupboard, and
took down a bottle and glass. 'It's gin. I'll not deceive you,
Mr. B. It's gin.'
'Do you give the children Daffy, Mrs. Mann?' inquired Bumble,
following with this eyes the interesting process of mixing.
'Ah, bless 'em, that I do, dear as it is,' replied the nurse. 'I
couldn't see 'em suffer before my very eyes, you know sir.'
'No'; said Mr. Bumble approvingly; 'no, you could not. You are a
humane woman, Mrs. Mann.' (Here she set down the glass.) 'I
shall take a early opportunity of mentioning it to the board,
Mrs. Mann.' (He drew it towards him.) 'You feel as a mother,
Mrs. Mann.' (He stirred the gin-and-water.) 'I--I drink your
health with cheerfulness, Mrs. Mann'; and he swallowed half of
'And now about business,' said the beadle, taking out a leathern
pocket-book. 'The child that was half-baptized Oliver Twist, is
nine year old to-day.;
'Bless him!' interposed Mrs. Mann, inflaming her left eye with
the corner of her apron.
'And notwithstanding a offered reward of ten pound, which was
afterwards increased to twenty pound. Notwithstanding the most
superlative, and, I may say, supernat'ral exertions on the part
of this parish,' said Bumble, 'we have never been able to
discover who is his father, or what was his mother's settlement,
name, or con--dition.'
Mrs Mann raised her hands in astonishment; but added, after a
moment's reflection, 'How comes he to have any name at all,
The beadle drew himself up with great pride, and said, 'I
'You, Mr. Bumble!'
'I, Mrs. Mann. We name our fondlings in alphabetical order. The
last was a S,--Swubble, I named him. This was a T,--Twist, I
named HIM. The next one comes will be Unwin, and the next
Vilkins. I have got names ready made to the end of the alphabet,
and all the way through it again, when we come to Z.'
'Why, you're quite a literary character, sir!' said Mrs. Mann.
'Well, well,' said the beadle, evidently gratified with the
compliment; 'perhaps I may be. Perhaps I may be, Mrs. Mann.' He
finished the gin-and-water, and added, 'Oliver being now too old
to remain here, the board have determined to have him back into
the house. I have come out myself to take him there. So let me
see him at once.'
'I'll fetch him directly,' said Mrs. Mann, leaving the room for
that purpose. Oliver, having had by this time as much of the
outer coat of dirt which encrusted his face and hands, removed,
as could be scrubbed off in one washing, was led into the room by
his benevolent protectress.
'Make a bow to the gentleman, Oliver,' said Mrs. Mann.
Oliver made a bow, which was divided between the beadle on the
chair, and the cocked hat on the table.
'Will you go along with me, Oliver?' said Mr. Bumble, in a
Oliver was about to say that he would go along with anybody with
great readiness, when, glancing upward, he caught sight of Mrs.
Mann, who had got behind the beadle's chair, and was shaking her
fist at him with a furious countenance. He took the hint at
once, for the fist had been too often impressed upon his body not
to be deeply impressed upon his recollection.
'Will she go with me?' inquired poor Oliver.
'No, she can't,' replied Mr. Bumble. 'But she'll come and see
This was no very great consolation to the child. Young as he
was, however, he had sense enough to make a feint of feeling
great regret at going away. It was no very difficult matter for
the boy to call tears into his eyes. Hunger and recent ill-usage
are great assistants if you want to cry; and Oliver cried very
naturally indeed. Mrs. Mann gave him a thousand embraces, and
what Oliver wanted a great deal more, a piece of bread and
butter, less he should seem too hungry when he got to the
workhouse. With the slice of bread in his hand, and the little
brown-cloth parish cap on his head, Oliver was then led away by
Mr. Bumble from the wretched home where one kind word or look had
never lighted the gloom of his infant years. And yet he burst
into an agony of childish grief, as the cottage-gate closed after
him. Wretched as were the little companions in misery he was
leaving behind, they were the only friends he had ever known; and
a sense of his loneliness in the great wide world, sank into the
child's heart for the first time.
Mr. Bumble walked on with long strides; little Oliver, firmly
grasping his gold-laced cuff, trotted beside him, inquiring at
the end of every quarter of a mile whether they were 'nearly
there.' To these interrogations Mr. Bumble returned very brief
and snappish replies; for the temporary blandness which
gin-and-water awakens in some bosoms had by this time evaporated;
and he was once again a beadle.
Oliver had not been within the walls of the workhouse a quarter
of an hour, and had scarcely completed the demolition of a second
slice of bread, when Mr. Bumble, who had handed him over to the
care of an old woman, returned; and, telling him it was a board
night, informed him that the board had said he was to appear
before it forthwith.
Not having a very clearly defined notion of what a live board
was, Oliver was rather astounded by this intelligence, and was
not quite certain whether he ought to laugh or cry. He had no
time to think about the matter, however; for Mr. Bumble gave him
a tap on the head, with his cane, to wake him up: and another on
the back to make him lively: and bidding him to follow,
conducted him into a large white-washed room, where eight or ten
fat gentlemen were sitting round a table. At the top of the
table, seated in an arm-chair rather higher than the rest, was a
particularly fat gentleman with a very round, red face.
three tears that were lingering in his eyes; and seeing no board
but the table, fortunately bowed to that.
'What's your name, boy?' said the gentleman in the high chair.
Oliver was frightened at the sight of so many gentlemen, which
made him tremble: and the beadle gave him another tap behind,
which made him cry. These two causes made him answer in a very
low and hesitating voice; whereupon a gentleman in a white
waistcoat said he was a fool. Which was a capital way of raising
his spirits, and putting him quite at his ease.
'Boy,' said the gentleman in the high chair, 'listen to me. You
know you're an orphan, I suppose?'
'What's that, sir?' inquired poor Oliver.
'The boy IS a fool--I thought he was,' said the gentleman in the
'Hush!' said the gentleman who had spoken first. 'You know
you've got no father or mother, and that you were brought up by
the parish, don't you?'
'Yes, sir,' replied Oliver, weeping bitterly.
'What are you crying for?' inquired the gentleman in the white
waistcoat. And to be sure it was very extraordinary. What COULD
the boy be crying for?
'I hope you say your prayers every night,' said another gentleman
in a gruff voice; 'and pray for the people who feed you, and take
care of you--like a Christian.'
'Yes, sir,' stammered the boy. The gentleman who spoke last was
unconsciously right. It would have been very like a Christian,
and a marvellously good Christian too, if Oliver had prayed for
the people who fed and took care of HIM. But he hadn't, because
nobody had taught him.
'Well! You have come here to be educated, and taught a useful
trade,' said the red-faced gentleman in the high chair.
'So you'll begin to pick oakum to-morrow morning at six o'clock,'
added the surly one in the white waistcoat.
For the combination of both these blessings in the one simple
process of picking oakum, Oliver bowed low by the direction of
the beadle, and was then hurried away to a large ward; where, on
a rough, hard bed, he sobbed himself to sleep. What a novel
illustration of the tender laws of England! They let the paupers
go to sleep!
Poor Oliver! He little thought, as he lay sleeping in happy
unconsciousness of all around him, that the board had that very
day arrived at a decision which would exercise the most material
influence over all his future fortunes. But they had. And this