Warehousemen and Clerks' Schools Fourth Anniversary Dinner


Speech and toasts at the Warehousemen and Clerks' Schools Fourth Anniversary Dinner (5 November 1857).


Dickens, Charles


Bibliographic Citation

Dickens, Charles. 'Speech and toasts at the Warehousemen and Clerks' Schools Fourth Anniversary Dinner' (5 November 1857). Dickens Search. Eds. Emily Bell and Lydia Craig. Accessed [date]. https://dickenssearch.com/speeches/1857-11-05_Speech_Warehousemen-and-Clerks-Schools-Fourth-Anniversary-Dinner.


When I have the honour to fill this or any similar place, I never lend my poor aid to uphold the preposterous fiction that the brightest part of creation are not present, and that the starts of the firmament on my right, which shine upon our waking and sleeping dreams, are not distinctly visible in the sky. It seems to me the most inconsistent and ridiculous of all customs, when we are come to propose the first lady of the land, to forget that ladies are present; and I, therefore, setting an example, trust and hope that you will follow that example, when I address you as ladies and gentlemen.

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to offer you a toast which includes a great deal more than the two syllabic words in themselves; which, whilst they express our loyalty towards the lady who rules England, hardly expresses its loyalty to the ladies who rule us. We most happily associate the institutions under which we live with the domestic virtues and happiness of a lady who is at once the boast of the country and of our homes, ‘Her Majesty the Queen’.

Ladies and Gentlemen, In this great commercial city, heaped up with riches on every side, to which hungry eyes are sometimes turned across the sea, those two great services the Army and Navy, even in times of profoundest peace, should never be forgotten. But I am sure you will agree with me that in these so different times they should in our ‘flowing cups’, be freshly remembered; remembered in connexion with the recent acts of gallantry that have won the admiration of the world; remembered in intimate connexion with a manly composure in the face of pestilence, and a Christian resignation under the shadow of death, only the be equalled by the modestly, gentleness, and the perfect and profound self-command always attendant upon their great bravery.

I understand that there happens to be no officer of either service here to acknowledge my toast. It occurs to me, however, that this matters very little, for throughout the civilized world the members of both are at this moment practically thanking us. Wherever duty is to be done, they are thanking us; wherever fame and honour are to be gained, they are thanking us; wherever the sun shines they are thanking us; aye, even where the sun does not shine – in the long night of a polar winter – one of those services at least is now thanking us with a most eloquent speech. Ladies and gentlemen, I beg to propose ‘The Army and Navy’.

I must now solicit your attention for a few minutes to the cause of your assembling together – the main and real object of the evening’s gathering; for I suppose we are all agreed that the motto of these tables is not ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’; but, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we live’. It is because a great and good work is to live ‘tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’, and to live a greater and better life with every succeeding tomorrow, that we eat and drink here at all.

Conspicuous on the card of admission to this dinner, and on the title-page of this little book descriptive of the institution, is the word ‘Schools’. This set me thinking this morning, before I turned these pages about, what are the sorts of schools that I don’t like. I found them, on consideration, to be rather numerous. I don’t like to begin with – and to begin, as charity does, at home – I don’t like the sort of school to which I once went myself, the respected proprietor of which was by far the most ignorant man I have ever had the pleasure to know, who was one of the worst-tempered men perhaps that ever lived, whose business it was to make as much out of us and to put as little into us as possible, and who sold us at a figure which I remember we used to delight to estimate, as amounting to exactly £2. 4s. 6d. a head.

I don’t like that sort of school, because I don’t see what business the master had to be at the top of it instead of the bottom, and because I never could understand the wholesomeness of the moral preached by the abject appearance and degraded condition of the teachers who plainly said to us by their looks every day of their lives, ‘Boys, never be learned; whatever you are, above all things, be warned from that in time by our sunken cheeks, by our poor pimply noses so cruelly eruptive in the frosty mornings, by our meagre diet, by our acid beer, and by our extraordinary suits of clothes, of which no human being can say whether they are snuff-coloured turned black, or black turned snuff-coloured, a point upon which we ourselves are perfectly unable to offer any ray of enlightenment, it is so very long since they were undarned and new’. I do not like that sort of school, because I have never yet lost my ancient suspicion touching that curious coincidence that the boy with four brothers to come always got the prizes. In fact, and in short, I do not like that sort of school, which is a pernicious and abominable humbug altogether.

Again, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t like that sort of school – a ladies’ school – with which the other school used to dance on Wednesdays, where the young ladies, as I look back upon them now, seem to me always to have been in new stays and disgrace – the disgrace chiefly concerning a place of which I know nothing at this day, that bounds Timbuctoo on the north-east – and where memory always depicts the youthful enthraller of my first affection as for ever standing against a wall, in a curious machine of wood, which confined her innocent feet in the first dancing position, while those arms, which should have encircled my jacket, those precious arms, I say, were pinioned behind her by an instrument of torture called a backboard, fixed in the manner of a double direction post.

Again, I don’t like that sort of school, of which we have a notable example in Kent, which was established ages ago by worthy scholars and good men long deceased, whose munificent endowments have been monstrously perverted from their original purpose, and which, in their distorted condition, are struggled for and fought over with the most indecent pertinacity. Again, I don’t like that sort of school – and I have seen a great many such in these latter times – where the bright childish imagination is utterly discouraged, and where those bright childish faces, which it is so very good for the wisest among us to remember in after life, when the world is too much with us early and late, are gloomily and grimly scared out of countenance; where I have never seen among the pupils, whether boys or girls, anything but little parrots and small calculating machines.

Again, I don’t by any means like schools in leather breeches, and with mortified straw baskets for bonnets, which file along the streets in long melancholy rows under the escort of that surprising British monster, a beadle, whose system of instruction, I am afraid, but too often presents that happy union of sound with sense, of which a very remarkable instance is given in a grave report of a trustworthy school inspector, to the effect that a boy in great repute at school for his learning, presented on his slate, as one of the ten commandments, the perplexing prohibition, ‘Thou shalt not commit doldrum’. Ladies and gentlemen, I confess, also, that I don’t like those schools, even though the instruction given in them be gratuitous, where those sweet little voices which ought to be heard speaking in very different accents, anathematize by rote any human being who does not hold what is taught there. Lastly I do not like, and I did not like some years ago, cheap distant schools, where neglected children pine from year to year under an amount of neglect, want, and youthful misery far too sad even to be glanced at in this cheerful assembly.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, perhaps you will permit me to sketch in a few words the sort of school that I do like. It is a school established by the members of an industrious and useful order, which supplies the comforts and graces of life at every familiar turning in the road of our existence; it is a school established by them for the Orphan and Necessitous Children of their own brethren and sisterhood; it is a place giving an education where, while the beautiful history of the Christian religion is daily taught, and while the life of that Divine Teacher who Himself took little children on His knees is daily studied, no sectarian ill will nor narrow human dogma is permitted to darken the face of the clear heaven which they disclose. It is a children’s school, which is at the same time no less a children’s home, a home not to be confided to the care of cold or ignorant strangers, nor, by the nature of its foundation, in the course of ages to pass into hands that have as much natural right to deal with it as with the peaks of the highest mountains or with the depths of the sea, but to be from generation to generation administered by men living in precisely such homes as those poor children have lost; by men always bent upon making that replacement, such a home as their own dear children might find a happy refuge in if they themselves were taken early away. And I fearlessly ask you, is this a design which has any claim to your sympathy? Is this a sort of school which is deserving of your support.

This is the design, this is the school, whose strong and simple claim I have to lay before you tonight. I must particularly entreat you not to suppose that my fancy and unfortunate habit of fiction has anything to do with the picture I have just presented to you. It is a sober matter of fact. The Warehousemen and Clerks’ Schools, established for the maintaining, clothing, and educating of the Orphan and Necessitous Children of those employed in the wholesale trades and manufactures of the United Kingdom, are, in fact, what I have just described. These schools for both sexes were originated only four years ago. In the first six weeks of the undertaking the young men themselves and quite unaided, subscribed the large sum of £3,000. The schools have been opened only three years, they have now on their foundation thirty-nine children, and in a few days they will have six more, making a total of forty-five. They have been most munificently assisted by the heads of great mercantile houses, numerously represented, I am happy to say, around me, and they have a funded capital of almost £14,000. This is wonderful progress, but the aim must still be upwards, the motto always ‘Excelsior’.

You do not need to be told that five-and-forty children can form but a very small proportion of the Orphan and Necessitous Children of those who have been entrusted with the wholesale trades and manufactures of the United Kingdom: you do not need to be informed that the house at New Cross, rented for a small term of years, in which the schools are at present established, can afford but most imperfect accommodation for such a breadth of design. To carry this good work through the two remaining degrees of better and best, there must be more work, more co-operation, more friends, more money. Then be the friends, and give the money.

Before I conclude, there is one other feature in these schools which I would commend to your special attention and approval. Their benefits are reserved for the children of subscribers; that is to say, it is an essential principle of the institution that it must help those whose parents have helped them, and that the unfortunate children whose father has been so lax, or so criminal, as to withhold a subscription so exceedingly small that when divided by weeks it amounts to only threepence weekly, cannot, in justice, be allowed to jostle out and shoulder away the happier children, whose father has had that little forethought, or done that little kindness which was requisite to secure for them the benefits of the institution. I really cannot believe that there will long be any such defaulting parents. I cannot believe that any of the intelligent young men who are engaged in the wholesale houses will long neglect this obvious, this easy duty. If they suppose that the objects of their love, born or unborn, will never want the benefits of the charity, that may be a fatal and blind mistake – it can never be an excuse, for, supposing them to be right in their anticipation, they should do what is asked for the sake of their friends and comrades around them, assured that they will be the happier and the better for the deed.

Ladies and gentlemen, this little ‘labour of love’ of mine is now done. I most heartily wish that I could charm you now not to see me, not to think of me, not to hear me – I most heartily wish that I could make you see in my stead the multitude of innocent and bereaved children who are looking towards these schools, and entreating with uplifted hands to be let in. A very famous advocate once said, in speaking of his fears of failure when he had first to speak in court, being very poor, that he felt his little children tugging at his skirts, and that recovered him. Will you think of the number of little children who are tugging at my skirts, when I ask you, in their names, on their behalf, and in their little persons, and in no strength of my own, to encourage and assist this work?

This is the fifth day of November – this is a very notorious and inauspicious a day to be publicly exhibited in a chair. And I must confess that I have several times this evening felt upon me an irresistible impulse to look about me on the table for my lantern and matches. I am, however, at this moment reassured by the circumstance that I have no mask to fall off; that I am exactly what you see me, deeply penetrated by your great enthusiasm in my behalf; that I am heartily obliged to you for your great kindness, and that you are most cordially welcome to my small services.


He should, he said, do nothing so superfluous and so unnecessary as to descant upon his lordship’s many faithful, long, and great public services, upon the honour and integrity with which he had pursued his straightforward public course through every difficulty, or upon the manly, gallant, and courageous character which rendered him certain, in the eyes alike of friends and opponents, to rise with every rising occasion, and which, like the seal of Solomon in the old Arabian story, enclosed in a not very large casket the soul of a giant. – He felt perfectly certain that that would be the response; for in no English assembly that he had ever seen was it necessary to do more than mention the name of Lord John Russell to ensure a manifestation of personal respect and grateful remembrance.

It being his pride and privilege to enroll the subject of the toast among his personal friends, he should take an early opportunity of telling him that he was not forgotten at the anniversary.
He observed that under circumstances of the greatest difficulty, Mr. Russell had written descriptions of the Crimean campaign which rivalled in their brilliancy the greatest productions of the greatest novelists, and equalled in their fidelity and their regard for truth – as he had often heard testified by the best authorities – the most scholarly productions of the most deliberate historians. In giving them the toast of the Press, he said, it was very much the same thing as if he had asked them to drink to his own family. He was almost born and bred to the Press, his earliest working years having been passed in the House of Commons, and he must be base indeed, or have a very much shorter memory than he believed he possessed, if anything that concerned its honour or reputation could be indifferent to him, or if it were not one of the foremost efforts of his life to do anything he could to uphold its character.




Dickens, Charles, “Warehousemen and Clerks' Schools Fourth Anniversary Dinner,” Dickens Search, accessed June 14, 2024, https://www.dickenssearch.com/speeches/1857-11-05_Speech_Warehousemen-and-Clerks-Schools-Fourth-Anniversary-Dinner.