Thomas Hood on the Poor

Thomas Hood suffered ill health for most of his life, apparently from coronary disease and tuberculosis; "at one time Hood proposed for himself the deadly-lively epitaph, 'Here lies one who spat more blood and made more puns than any other man.'"1 He sometimes wrote and edited while bedridden.

Hood never lived in abject poverty but he was never a well-to-do man. His income was derived from his writings; it was uncertain and fluctuated. He sometimes lived beyond his means primarily by renting properties for his family that were larger than necessary. He was not a good businessman and he was exploited by publishers and tricked by business partners. He knew what it was like to be in honest debt -- that is, debt due to misfortune and miscalculation rather than high-living, speculation and gambling. Hood took his family to Europe to live more economically in order to pay off his debts rather than declare bankruptcy.

Hood acknowledged that he didn't do manual labor but, as he explains in "Lay of the Laborer," he worked long hours in ill health for low wages. He could honestly empathize with the poor.

illustration of a pun

Ninety percent of the population of Britain belonged to the laboring class and one-fourth of the population lived in poverty. Many of the working poor lived hand-to-mouth and the very poor sometimes starved.

Many of the poor worked twelve to sixteen hours a day and were still not able to earn enough for the basics -- food, clothing, and shelter. Children were put to work as soon as possible (as young as five years old) to supplement the family's income.

An accident or illness that prevents you from working can result in disaster -- even for someone earning above-starvation wages. Once you get behind it's very hard to catch up. You move to cheaper lodgings. You stop eating meat. You start pawning and selling household items and even clothing.

In addition to the physical stress of working long hours in unhealthy conditions with poor nutrition and no medical care, there is the psychological and emotional stress. You fear that your children will become ill, that you will lose you job, that you will be put out onto the street. You face each day knowing you must take any work you can get and do whatever your employer commands because the rent must be paid and because there will be no supper if you don't.2

There were numerous reform movements in 19th-century England; there were many things that needed reforming -- education, nutrition, housing, sanitation, labor laws, poor laws, suffrage, Parliament, worker safety, medical care, wages and the administration of justice -- and all of them affected the poor.

The Chartists agitated for the implementation of the six-point People's Charter that included universal manhood suffrage and secret balloting. The SPCA advocated for the humane treatment of animals. The Salvation Army acted to save souls by improving material conditions in the slums. Other groups sought to prohibit the employment of children in mines. Mechanics Institutes aimed to improve the lot of artisans and skilled workers through education. Parliament conducted investigations and issued blue books. The Great Reform Bill and others were passed. Some of the worst abuses were eliminated. Today, almost two hundred years later, poverty is still a major problem.

Newspapers and magazines printed exposés. Non-fiction books were published. Numerous poems, plays, short stories and novels were written. For a time it was almost required that authors (some not know for their concern for the poor) to publish something relevant: Caroline Norton ("A Voice from the Factories," 1836), Letitia Elizabeth Landon ("The Factory," 1838), Elizabeth Barrett Browning ("The Cry of the Children," 1842), and Charlotte Bronte (Shirley, 1849). Those who wrote sometimes or mostly about social problems include George Crabbe, Ebenezer Elliott, Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens, Frances Trollope, Charles Kingsley, Charles Manby Smith, Charles Reade, Mrs. George Linnaeus Banks, George Robert Sims, Margaret Harkness, Arthur Morrison, and Israel Zangwill.

Although he is remembered primarily for his humorous works, Thomas Hood wrote about the poor from the beginning to the end of his career.

Note: Most of the graphics below were not originally associated with the works they accompany. They are meant to illustrate other treatments of the same or similar subjects. The sources of most are show in their captions, when you hold the mouse cursor over them or when you click on some of them to see a larger version.

"An Address to the Steam Washing Company," Odes and Addresses to Great People (London: Baldwin, Cradock, & Joy, 1825), 73-90.

illustration of a pun

This piece expresses the dismay and anger of many of the laboring poor. Spinners, weavers, agricultural workers and, in this case, women who washed clothes were being replaced by steam-powered machines. There was no "safety net" -- no unemployment insurance and no skills retraining -- except the poorhouse. None of them had any savings or investments to live on. The speaker in the poem says that they can't take up sewing because there are already too many women doing that. And they are unfit to do heavy work such as repairing roads.

The "world wagg'd well enuff" until the advent of steam-power. It was especially galling (and against Nature) that men ran the washing companies:

   For man warnt maid for Wommens starvation,
   Nor to do away Laundrisses as is Links of Creation.

This punning image sums up their situation: Lo, then, the poor laundress, all wretched she stands,/ Instead of a counterpane, wringing her hands!

There was little else she or any of the laboring poor could do.

"The Lost Heir," The Comic Annual (London: Charles Tilt, 1834), 84-92.

This poem is about a common situation: a mother is frantic because she can't find her child. When the boy returns on his own, the mother's distress turns to relief and then anger. In this case, however, the boy is a member of a lower-class working family who live in an alley in the notorious Seven Dials district of London.

illustration of Old Clothes Market in London

Little Kitty M'Nab is supposed to keep "half an eye" on Bill while his mother, Betty Morgan, sells herring in the streets (her husband also works), but this day he has escaped from the alley. The last time Betty saw him he was safely playing in the gutter. Bill is better off than other boys because he had "two bricks, an old shoe, nine oyster-shells, and a dead kitten by way of toys."

Betty isn't too worried that someone has "borrowed" him to "go a begging with" because he is too well dressed. Street beggars sometimes "borrowed" or rented a baby or young child in order to increase their "earnings" by appearing more pathetic. They would not want a well-dressed child like Bill: he's wearing a good jacket bought at the Rag Fair, red plush trousers handed down from his father, a shirt, a "pinafore with only two slits and a burn on the breast" and a "goodish sort of hat." Although a "[c]hild as is lost about London streets, and especially Seven Dials, is a needle in a bottle of hay," she believes he will be easy to recognize because he is wearing one shoe and one boot.

There was a large market for used clothing in London and clothing could also be pawned. In Charles Dickens' Dombey and Sons (Chapter 6), young Florence Dombey becomes separated from Susan. An old woman calling herself Mrs. Brown offers to help her but takes her down some back streets to her place which is full of rags, bones and other saleable items. She threatens to kill Florence if she causes any trouble. She takes her bonnet, petticoats, dress and shoes and gives her some rags to put on. She then takes her back to a street and releases her. Of course, Bill's clothes were not of the same high quality as Florence Dombey's.

Betty asks Serjeant M'Farlane, the local policeman, if he has "come across my poor little boy," but decides it would be useless "to send the Cryer [town bellman] to cry him about, he's such a blunderin drunken old dog;/ The last time he was fetched to find a lost child, he was guzzing with his bell at the Crown,/ And went and cried a boy instead of a girl."3

Betty's fears are many: Bill might have been run over by a carriage (a not-uncommon occurrence) or kidnapped to be "a plaster parish image boy" (a model for cupids and angels) or a chimney sweep. He might also be in jail; she recalls that the Murphy's child "was once lost for a month through stealing a penny-bun."

She expresses a common sentiment: "Lauk! I never knew what a precious he was -- but a child/ don't not feel like a child till you miss him." But when Bill returns (he was watching a Punch and Judy show), Betty's relief soon turns to anger: "But let me get him home, with a good grip of his hair, and/ I'm blest if he shall have a whole bone in his skin!"

The lost child was a stock motif in 19th-century literature. Hood enriches it by locating it in one of the worst areas of London populated by the very poorest people. The mother's concern for her child is no different from any mother's, but her fears are different: middle-class children weren't imprisoned for stealing penny-buns nor kidnapped to be made into chimney sweeps. Further, this ironically-titled poem appeared in The Comic Annual. It's a comic poem in that there is a happy ending (normalcy is restored) and there are a few humorous bits. The readers would have found it amusing; they might also have briefly identified with or at least sympathized with the poor mother.

"A Drop of Gin," Punch, 18 November 1843, 223.

William Hogarth's 'Gin Lane'

For several reasons, including encouragement of the distilling industry by the government, gin had been plentiful and cheap since the end of the 17th century.

William Hogarth's mid-18th-century print Gin Lane depicts the consequences of drinking gin (in contrast to its companion print which shows the inhabitants of Beer Street as happy and healthy).

At the time Hood's poem was published excessive gin-drinking among the poor was still considered to be a problem and frequently condemned.

The poem begins with a typical denunciation of gin as the cause of "misery, shame and sin":

   Gin! Gin! a drop of Gin!
   The dram of Satan! the liquor of Sin!

But wait says the speaker

   Let Anger be mute,
   And sweet Mercy dilute,
   With a drop of Pity, the drop of Gin!

A ragged pauper, who is "misfortune's butt," has only rags for clothes, "no credit, no cash," little food, "no coal in the cellar," and, most importantly, "no prospect in life worth a minnikin pin." He's driven to thoughts of suicide. "Happy the wretch" who can resist gin's "tremendous temptations" by staying out of "the palace of Gin!"

In a gin shop a pauper would find what others find when they visit a club, bar or pub: warmth on a cold day, companionship, conversation and commiseration -- respite from the struggle to live. Rather than objurgation Hood advocates empathy, tolerance, compassion, and forgiveness.

"The Pauper's Christmas Carol," Punch, 16 December 1843, 269.

poor family out on the street

A pauper attending a Christmas dinner at the workhouse sings the joys of the "Day of Plenty": after "Two-and-fifty weeks of toil,/ Pudding-time is come at last!"

He is "treated like a welcome guest." There is plenty of beef and pudding, beer and ale.

   Fed upon the coarsest fare
   Three hundred days and sixty-four
   But for one on viands rare,
   Just as if I wasn't poor!

His carol celebrates the birth of Christ indirectly -- charity given and hope revived:

   Frozen cares begin to melt,
   Hopes revive and spirits flow --
   Feeling as I have not felt
   Since a dozen months ago —-
   Glad enough to sing a song

Unfortunately, as the last line of each stanza says, "Christmas comes but once a year."

"The Assistant Drapers' Petition," The Comic Annual (London: A. H. Baily and Co., 1839, 88-93)

This poem is about a petition by the assistant drapers asking that they be required to work only until 7 o'clock instead of 10 o'clock (or whenever the last customer left). As Hood points out they weren't meddling in foreign affairs; they weren't republican anti-monarchist. Their demand was reasonable but it caused a big stir.

It might seem that salesclerk, waitress, or shop assistant would be a good job, but their hours were long and their net pay was low. They were expected be well-dressed and well-groomed but they were not reimbursed for these expenses. They were on their feet all day. They worked until the last customer was served which might be long after the official closing hours. This left little time for social interaction or intellectual improvement. The potential for advancement was low. Following the development of the large department store, salespeople were sometimes housed in crowded dormitories with strict regulations about when they would work and eat and sleep.

But, no matter what the conditions they were expected to be courteous and cheerful. Things hadn't changed much by 1907 when Clementine Black included "Shop Assistants, Clerks, Waitresses" in her book Sweated Industry and the Minimum Wage (London: Duckworth & Co., 48-74) and "white collar" laborers are still underpaid and overworked.

"The Song of the Shirt," Punch, 16 December 1843, 260.

'The Song of the Shirt' in 'Punch'

"The Song of the Shirt" appeared anonymously in the Christmas issue of Punch. Notice that it's surrounded by comic graphics. (Click on the graphic to see a larger version.) There was some editorial debate whether Punch should publish the poem because it was not in keeping with the usual humorous content of the magazine.

Except for the opening and closing stanzas, the speaker in the poem is a seamstress who stitches shirts in her room from dawn until late at night earning barely enough to live. She must provide her own needles and thread.

   With fingers weary and worn,
   With eyelids heavy and red,
   A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
   Plying her needle and thread --
   Stitch! stitch! stitch!
   In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
   And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
   She sang the "Song of the Shirt!"
   Sewing at once, with a double thread,
   A shroud as well as a shirt.
   It is not linen you're wearing out,
   But human creatures' lives!

She represents the thousands of working women who lived in abject poverty despite constant labor.

   O, God! that bread should be so dear.
   And flesh and blood so cheap!
   And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
   A crust of bread -- and rags.
   That shattered roof -- and this naked floor--
   A table -- a broken chair --
   And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
   For sometimes falling there!
   Work -- work -- work,
   As prisoners work for crime!

She must pick up the material and deliver the finished shirts (during which times she earns nothing).

   For only one short hour
   To feel as I used to feel,
   Before I knew the woes of want,
   And the walk that costs a meal!

The last stanza is the same as the first except for one line inserted before the last line:

   Would that its tone could reach the rich! --
   She sang this "Song of the Shirt!"

The poem was immediately and immensely popular and was reprinted in British and European newspapers, dramatized, printed on broadsheets and handkerchiefs and turned into a street ballad. It is Hood's best-know poem and possibly the best-know social-protest poem in English.

Fifty years later an investigation by the Women's Industrial Council (Home Industries of Women in London, 1897) found that shirt makers were still among the hardest working and lowest paid workers.

"The Lay of the Laborer," Hood's Magazine, November 1844, 419-430.

illustration of a laborer resting

In the prose preface to the lay a fictional narrator takes shelter from a storm in a small, mean alehouse where a group of laboring men are drinking, smoking and talking about the high price of bread, the lack of work, the long hours they must work for low wages when work is available and the onset of winter. He is put off by the men discussing family matters before him, a stranger, until it becomes clear from what the men say that their lives are public. The poor have no domestic secrets, no private affairs: statistics had been compiled, articles had been written, charities had "taken inventory of their defects moral and spiritual" and medical men had assessed their physical condition. All of England knows all about the poor.

One laborer scoffs at "the queer remedies as is prescribed, like for a starving man! A Bible says one -- a Reading made Easy says another -- a Temperance medal says another -- or maybe a Hagricultural Prize. But what is he to eat, I ax?" Their many problems can be summed up as "Winter, Disease, and Want." During the winter they were more likely to becoming ill; they would need to earn more in order to purchase coal for heating; yet, the amount of work would diminish and outdoor work cease altogether if the weather was harsh. They all agree that something must be done for them but no one suggests a remedy.

Then they sing. Give us some tools and we will go to work.

   A spade! a rake! a hoe!
   A pickaxe, or a bill!
   A hook to reap, or a scythe to mow,
   A flail, or what you will --

We don't want to burn barns and ricks; we leave it to God to punish the misers.

   To a flaming barn or farm
   My fancies never roam;
   The fire I yearn to kindle and burn
   Is on the hearth of Home;

Put us to work and you won't have to worry about us poaching or thieving; we'll do any work to avoid the workhouse. (The poor, in fact, would do almost anything to remain independent; workhouse accommodations and food were bad, the overseers were harsh and husbands, wives and children were separated.)

   My only claim is this
   With labour stiff and stark,
   By lawful turn, my living to earn,
   Between the light and dark;

We want no charity; we want "to work, and not to beg." They finish the song, the candle goes out and the room is dark and silent.

In the prose section that follows Hood says that a while ago he wrote about "the destitution of an overtasked class of females, who work, work, work, for wages almost nominal" ("The Song of the Shirt," 1843), but the condition of those who have no work at all is even worse.

Hood claims to be a member of the "working class." His labors (writing) provide work for paper makers, printers, stitchers, and critics. He has made no fortune; "no reproach clings to my coin." He sleeps well: his sympathy for "the Starving Unemployed" is not a personal guilt for exploiting workers.

illustration of a pun

He then refers to the case of 18-year old Gifford White who wrote letters on behalf of his fellow unemployed agricultural workers to the farmers of Bluntisham threatening robbery and arson if they did not give them work. White was sentenced to transportation for life for merely writing the letters; he committed no other crimes.

Hood discusses White's case at length. Among the points he makes is that transportation for life is usually reserved for serious crimes, not threats. Arson is a serious crime and arsonists should be punished, but White did not commit arson.

He thinks there is unwarranted panic in the countryside about a worker revolt; the laboring poor "have born the severest trials that can afflict the soul and body of man, with an exemplary fortitude, and a patience almost superhuman"; they have not turned to violence.

The situation of agricultural workers is very bad and something must be done, but the proposal that the unemployed should emigrate, is simply disguised transportation for life.

Finally, he pleads for mitigation of White's sentence.

"The Lay of the Laborer" was admired and praised, but it is not one of Hood's best pieces. The preface is conventional, establishing how/when/where the narrator heard the laborers converse and sing. The lay itself, however, is not the sort of thing working men would actually sing.

Hood does not exaggerate the extent of the problem of unemployment and its consequences. White's punishment was shocking and Hood's petition for clemency is heartfelt.

Although, the entire work is shamelessly sentimental, it would have appealed to a large number of readers of the time. It appeared in Hood's comic miscellany not as a pamphlet issued by a charitable organization. It reached many more people directly and indirectly. It did not bring any change to White's sentence.

See also

Introduction to Thomas Hood


1"Prefatory Notice" to The Poetical Works of Thomas Hood, William Michael Rossetti, ed. (London: E. Moxon, Son and Co., nd), xxiv.

2"Thou shalt not lose thy job." George Orwell, in A Clergyman's Daughter calls this the 11th commandment. (He also repeats it in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.) It was true in Hood's time, it was true in Orwell's time and it's true in our time.

3See James Burn, The Beggar Boy: An Autobiography (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1882), 36, for an account of a real mother sending out a bellman with a description of her missing son.