Playground and General Recreation Society Anniversary Festival 1858


Chairman's speeches at the Playground and General Recreation Society Anniversary Festival (1 June 1858).


Dickens, Charles


Bibliographic Citation

Dickens, Charles. 'Chairman's speeches at the Playground and General Recreation Society Anniversary Festival' (1 June 1858). Dickens Search. Eds. Emily Bell and Lydia Craig. Accessed [date].


Gentlemen, if you will allow me to recall the little train of familiar incidents through which I took a stroll from my own house within these last two or three hours, perhaps it will as aptly introduce the business we have in hand as a much more elaborate and a much more tiresome introduction.

You must know that I have still at home one very dear young child who has not arrived at years of sufficient discretion to go to school in Germany or France with his brothers; who lives on terms of personal hostility towards all the cats in the neighbouring gardens, and who invents cats besides for the excitement of a Scotch terrier. These two – the English child and the Scotch dog – perpetually flying in and out of the garden-door in a sort of poetical rapture of cats, worry me very much more than I ever saw them worry any other living thing; for, indeed, they only seek a pretext for being constantly in motion, and are innocent of all harm. This very afternoon, a few hours ago, they were so strongly under the influence of this fury of cats, that I, sitting in my own room, endeavouring with a heavy heart to consider my present responsibilities, found myself unable to collect my sense by any means. So I resolved to go out for a short stroll.

The first thing I saw, when I went out of my own door, was a policeman hiding among the lilac trees apparently lying in wait for some burglar or murderer, After observing him with great dread and anxiety for a minute or two, I was much relived to find that the object of his vigilance was nothing worse than a hoop, which he presently took into custody, and carried off to the station-house.

Now, my way happened to lie through trees of the leading squares. In the first square I encountered a company of seven little boys, each boy carrying a boy much larging than himself, an old pickle-bottle, and a very home-made fishing rod; with which impediments they were fagging up to Hampstead ponds, where I should judge that the party would scarcely arrive in time to tumble in before dark. I found the dignity of the second square, which is a highly genteel one, very much impaired by its having the game of hop-scotch chalked all over its pavement; and here too I found my own personal dignity suffered some little detriment through my becoming, without my own consent, the centre-point or pivot of a dodging game between two boys who evaded each other around me, and lunged at each other before me and made no more account of me than if I were a sort of moving post or pillar. Coming to the long hackney-coach stand in that neighbourhood, I found the waterman in a state of red-heat and ire, because they children’s shuttlecocks were flying about the horses’ ears, and because a train of little creatures, hailing an imaginary ‘Bal-loon!’ were filing in and out among his water-tubs. In the third square I arrived in time to dry the tears and relieve the distresses of two diminutive little creatures, the prey of a third diminutive little creature, a size larger, who, in default of having anything else to play with, had taken off their caps, and thrown them down an area.

And so I arrived in the course of time at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where I positively seemed to find myself in an enemy’s country; prodigious and awful spikes being stuck into the posts of that neighbourhood for the impalement of the youth of London; and three distinct rushes taking place while I was there on the part of an officer in a gold-laced hat, and armed with a drawn cane, who drove before him a flying cloud of boys and girls, and pursued them with horrible menaces.

Thus I happily arrived at last in the haven where you now behold me, meditating very much upon the great need there is, in London and in all large towns, of place for the children to play in; and considering with what a determined self-assertion nature declares that play they must, and play they will, somewhere or other, under whatsoever circumstances of difficulty.

Now, gentlemen, in the main, I quite agree with the reverend doctor who just now so eloquently expressed himself; but I begin with children, because we all began as children; and I confine myself to children tonight, because the child is the father of the man. Some majestic minds out of doors may, for anything I know, and certainly for anything I care, consider it a very humdrum and low proceeding to stop, in a country full of steam-engines, power-looms, big ships, monster mortars, and great guns of all sorts, to consider where the children are to play. Nevertheless, I know that the question is a very kind one, and a very necessary one. The surgeon and the recruiting sergeant will tell you with great emphasis, that the children’s play is of immense importance to a community in the development of bodies; the clergyman, the schoolmaster, and the moral philosopher, in all degrees, will tell you with no less emphasis, that the children’s play is of great importance to a community in the development of minds. I venture to assert that there can be no physical health without play; and there can be no efficient and satisfactory work without play; that there can be no sound and wholesome thought without play. A country full of dismal little old men and women who had never played would be in a mighty bad way indeed; and you may depend upon it that without play, and good play, too, those powerful English cheers which have driven the sand of Asia before them, and made the very ocean shake, would degenerate into a puling whimper, that would be the most consolatory sound that can possibly be conceived to all the tyrants on the face of the earth.

Now, gentlemen, great towns constantly increasing about us, as the national trade and prosperity increase; houses constantly crowding together and continually accumulating; and the fields being always put at an always increasing distance from the great mass of the people; it becomes a very serious question where the children shall play, and how they shall grow up into men and women who must have played, or it would have been better for them and for all of us that they had never been born. The great importance of this question, in its many aspects both of humanity and policy, so strongly suggested itself to that gentleman who has been several times mentioned tonight – the Rev. Mr. Laing – so strongly suggested itself to him, not yet a year ago, that he conceived the idea of establishing a Playground Society; in other words a combination of certain ladies and gentlemen of some influence and position who, being agreed on the main question, should resolve to advance it by all means in their power. This infant society began by corresponding with the governing authorities in several large towns, and with other persons in position, with a view to ascertain their opinion. It also sought to elicit the opinion of that great mover of all opinion, the press. A cordial support of the principle, and an earnest approval of it, were, I believe, unanimously accorded. The Society then endeavoured, as Mr. Slaney has intimated, to impress upon the owners of lands the great benefit they would render to the country by sometimes conceding small gifts of open places for this benevolent purpose. Mr. Slaney himself, ever foremost in such good objects, brought in a Bill to facilitate the legal transfer of such lands, which Bill I have some reason to hope will pass without opposition. The Chief Commissioner of Public Works has further signified his approval that what are called ‘School Treats’ shall be allowed to be held in the easily accessible public parks, in certain parts of them set apart for that good purpose. The Society has also been in communication with the Government, and it hopes with some good effect, towards the reservation of Smithfield as a place of children’s recreation. In a word, it has by every means in its power, during its brief existence of eight or nine months, cleared and paved the way for the distinct and plain proposal which I have to make to you. Everybody says, ‘Begin this good and necessary work by all means’; but nobody begins it.

It is indeed extremely difficult to begin. We must remember that it is much more difficult in the present than it will be in the future, because the present finds the houses closely clustered together and the towns increased, whereas it is to be hoped that the future will find open spaces reserved, before the houses are agglomerated, and before the towns are so densely grown; and it is easy to understand that it is far more easy not to build houses up, than to find them built up, and have to pay for them and pull them down. The work, then, is very difficult to begin.

Yes. But how difficult is it to begin? Now, we happen to know that a playground in the populous Metropolitan district of St. Pancras, or in Marylebone Parish, somewhere in the close neighbourhood about Manchester Square, would cost perhaps £1,000. There are two earnest and munificent ladies known to this Society, one of whom will give towards the St. Pancras experiment £100, and one of whom will give towards the Marylebone experiment £100, if other people will be liberal in their degree, and according to the extent of their power, and subscribe the rest. This is, in fact, the Society’s first report; and what I am to do tonight, is to entreat your help that the experiment may be made. There is no kind of castle-building, observe, in the case. The Society does not ask you for the vague and indefinite means of constructing fifty possible playgrounds or five hundred impossible playgrounds: it asks you for the clearly defined and ascertained means of proving the justice of their case by one experiment, and only one,

I will only trouble you by observing further, that of the success of the experiment, if practically and wisely carried out; of its being followed by innumerable imitations, and of its doing an incalculable amount of good; I myself have hardly a doubt. I believe, as Mr. Slaney has said, that the poor people would gladly even pay for a playground near to their own dwellings where they knew their children would be safe, under just so much supervision, and no more, as should exclude gross language, corrupting habits, and the demoralization and vagabondism of the streets. We have made, as we all know, very great improvement in respect of our public parks; but they are obviously and unavoidably too far distant from many little legs and many little arms, encumbered with the weight of little brothers and sisters; and I think the domestic tenderness and household consideration evinced in this very idea of the playground would win over the parents who have experience of this truth every day, and would attract their confidence immediately.

I will not enter into the question whether the Playground Society shall aspire to add to its name the title of ‘General Recreation Society’, and to provide cheap indoor amusements for the young. I confess I am not myself quite clear upon that point. I have some individual doubt whether it might not become a little too wise, and whether, taking too deliberate an aim at these young birds, it might not blow them away with an overcharge of instruction. But that is no part of the question tonight. The question I have to put to you – leaving you to supply all its need of attendant considerations, of humanity, kindness, compassion, justice, and policy, for the present, and especially for the future – the question I have to put to you, and through you to the public, is, whether the case shall be proved or disproved, and whether this one experiment shall be tried or not tried? I beg to propose you to drink, ‘Prosperity to the Playground Society’.


It was, he said, highly appropriate that the voice of a society whose chief object was the welfare of little children, and in promoting innocent amusement among them, should first be heard in proposing the health of a monarch endeared to them all, not only by the ties of loyalty, but by more graceful bonds of affection, as a devoted wife and tender mother.

The Society, he said, under whose auspices they met that evening, was established through the exertions of a very eminent, a very active, and a highly serviceable London incumbent, a gentleman then present – though his modesty had removed him from him – and who was now in his eye, as he doubted not he was in their remembrance. The society was also very much indebted to other Christian ministers of all denominations for much of the success it had already attained; and, therefore, he had much pleasure in proposing ‘The Church’, coupling with it the name of the Rev. Dr. Irons, and the Christian ministers of all denominations who truly exerted themselves for general instruction and general good.

He alluded, amidst much laughter, to the games sometimes performed in the political playground, which he said were not very improving or intelligent, and led to boys occasionally attempting ‘over’ posts which they had much better have left alone.