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A Slight Depreciation of the Currency

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Crimean War, 1853-1856
Great Britain—Armed Forces; Militias
Great Britain—Politics and Government
Great Britain—Social Life and Customs
Law; Lawyers; Justice; Courts; Trials
Money; Finance; Banking; Investments; Taxation; Insurance; Debt; Inheritance and Succession
Social classes; Class distinctions; Aristocracy (Social Class); Aristocracy (Social Class)—Fiction; Middle Class; Working Class; Servants;
Work; Work and Family; Occupations; Professions; Wages
Other Details
Printed : 3/11/1855
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume XII
Magazine : No. 293
Office Book Notes
Views : 511

The 'famous golden calf' Dickens refers to in paragraph 2 was George Hudson, the so-called 'Railway King', who had been much courted by the upper classes anxious to obtain shares during the 'railway mania' of 1844-1847 (see Punch cartoon, 'King Hudson's Levee', 29 November 1845) and became MP for Sunderland in 1845.

He was of humble origins, a farmer's son who had first made money as a linen-draper in York, and his wife's lack of culture was apparently much mocked by London society, e.g., the anecdote quoted by G. M. Young in Victorian England about her asking, on being shown a bust of Marcus Aurelius at Grosvenor House, 'It ain't the present Markiss, is it?' (Oxford paperback edn [1960], p. 53). Hudson's empire collapsed in 1849 when evidence of his having practised fraud on a grand scale became public knowledge. He avoided prosecution, however, and continued as MP for Sunderland until 1859.

The Windsor court-martial was, in fact, two successive courts-martial, fully reported in The Times and HN during July, August and September 1854. The proceedings revealed a deplorable state of affairs in the mess of the 46th Regiment with much ruffianly behaviour and bullying of junior officers. There was considerable public sympathy for one of the defendants, Lieutenant Perry, who alleged that, among other ill-treatment, he had 'time after time ... been dragged from his bed and compelled by the officers to go through the sword exercise in a state of nudity' (HN, July 1854, p. 159). Perry was first tried for assaulting (under extreme provocation) a fellow-officer, Lieutenant Greer, and found guilty but with a strong recommendation to mercy. Greer was also court-martialled and this resulted in Perry's being tried a second time for writing a letter to the officer presiding over Greer's trial, a letter in which, it was alleged, Perry had defamed witnesses in that trial (as a witness himself he had been unable to cross-examine other witnesses and thus defend his own character against witnesses called by Greer). He was found guilty on three of the four counts against him ('a scandalous verdict', according to The Times, 5 September 1854) and dismissed from the service, though, because of the jury's recommendation to mercy, he was allowed to sell his commission. The Mayor of Windsor opened a Defence and Testimonial Fund for Perry, which, HN reported in September, had already reached a total of over £1,500. It is interesting to note that, despite his vehement objection to such subscriptions in the following article, Dickens himself had contributed £5 to the Perry Fund (noted in The Examiner, 9 September 1854). Perry eventually emigrated to Australia (report in The Times, 27 August 1855, p. 10, col. e).

The workmen jailed (fourteen days with hard labour) for taking time off to go to watch a military review were brothers, Thomas and George Collin of Chelmsford, and their case was take up by The Times in a lengthy third leader (27 August 1855), which condemned the clergyman magistrate's harshness (he had justified it on the grounds of their failure to express contrition). The man fined for reaping his own wheat on a Sunday was an old Worcestershire labourer called Nathaniel Williams (case reported in The Times on 21 September 1855 and in HN for October); he was convicted under a statute that prohibited people from plying their trade on the sabbath. (Dickens suppresses the fact that in this case the Home Secretary did try to intervene; the magistrate, however, another clergyman, 'refused to admit the soundness of Sir G. Grey's opinion' [HN, p. 221]). Cases of violence against women, which Dickens goes on to mention, with an allusion to an earlier article bearing on the subject, 'Things That Cannot Be Done' (see Vol. 3 of the Dent edition, pp. 174-179) were the subject of comment in HN for October (p. 220: 'The police reports of one day, the 2nd inst., contain four such cases. They all occurred on Saturday night—the drunkard's weekly festival of vice and brutality').

In Little Dorrit, Book 1, Chapter 21 (published May 1856) Dickens gives a nice example of the English satisfation in speaking of large sums of money observed by Sydney Smith: '"I am told", said Bishop ..."that Mr Merdle has made another enormous hit. They say a hundred thousand pounds". / Horse Guards had heard two. / Treasury had heard three'.

Literary allusions

  • 'It was said by ... SYDNEY SMITH': untraced;
  • 'not wisely, nor too well': Shakespeare, Othello, Act 5, Sc. 2;
  • 'Brobdingnagian': i.e.gigantic, from Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), Part Two;
  • 'the vast Shallow family': alludes to the foolish old Justice Shallow in Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part Two.

Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume III: 'Gone Astray' and Other Papers from Household Words, 1851-1859, 1998.

DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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