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Overview of Context in 'A Christmas Carol'

In this worksheet, students will learn about Charles Dickens' upbringing and Victorian England, which will help the understanding behind his writing of 'A Christmas Carol'.

'Overview of Context in 'A Christmas Carol'' worksheet

Key stage:  KS 4

GCSE Subjects:   English Literature

GCSE Boards:   Eduqas, OCR, Pearson Edexcel, AQA

Curriculum topic:   19th Century Prose, 19th Century Novel, The 19th Century Novel

Curriculum subtopic:   A Christmas Carol

Difficulty level:  

Worksheet Overview

QUESTION 1 of 10

     In this activity, you'll learn about the context in which Charles Dickens wrote 'A Christmas Carol'.  We'll be looking at both Dickens' childhood and Victorian England. 

 

What do you know about this already?

 

 

Charles Dickens

 

Dickens was born on 7th February, 1812, the second of eight children born to John and Elizabeth Dickens.  He spent the first nine years of his life living in Kent, a county in the South-East of England.  Despite being a kind and loving man, John Dickens was financially irresponsible and with a large family to provide for, found it very easy to rack up large debts. 

 

As a result of this, the family moved to Camden Town in London, in 1822.  John Dickens continued to live beyond his and his family’s means and in 1824, he was finally arrested and sent to debtor’s prison.  Shortly afterwards, and probably as a result of being unable to provide for herself and her eight children, Elizabeth Dickens moved the rest of the family into prison with John. 

 

Charles, however, did not join the rest of the family and was sent to live with a family friend, where, at 12 years old, he was sent out to work.  He joined other child workers at a blacking factory (where shoe polish was made), sticking labels onto bottles for 10 hours a day. This job made a lasting impression on Dickens; the conditions and pay were poor and the employers cruel. 

 

When John Dickens’ grandmother died and left him a lot of money, John was able to pay off his debts and was released from prison.  Charles did not leave the factory straight away and this only made him more sympathetic to the poor working and living conditions that the working classes had to put up with.

 

Now, have a go at the next few questions about Dickens' early life and how this influenced his writing. 

 

You should always refer to your own text when working through these examples.  These quotations are for reference only.

What do you think conditions were like inside prisons and workhouses in Victorian London?

 

They were overcrowded

They were full of diseases

Three meals were served every day

People would rather die than go there

Everyone got their own bedroom

There was a lot of cruel treatments and harsh punishments

How do you think children were treated when working in Victorian England?

They worked reduced hours so that they could go to school

They were paid a lot less than adults

They were treated cruelly by employers

They had to use dangerous machinery and often got injured, or were killed

Children liked working to earn some extra money

Very young children often had to work to help their families with money

How do you think Dickens' background helped influence his writing of 'A Christmas Carol'?

His father and the rest of his family had to go to debtors' prison

He had to work at a young age to help his family

He came from a large family and knew how his parents struggled financially

He moved to London when he was young with his family

Why do you think Dickens' chose to set his novel at Christmas time to get his message across to Victorian society?

It's a time that people should think about those less fortunate than themselves

It's a time that people should be full of Christmas spirit and a time to spend with friends and family

The Industrial Revolution 

 

   

 

Victorian England was a time of great technological development.  The steam train was invented and machinery became used much more in factory production and commerce.  This left many people jobless, as machinery had replaced them.  To look for work, people were forced to flock to the major cities, such as London and Birmingham.  Here, the demand for jobs was high, so pay was low.  Families were forced to live in squalor, often sharing houses with several other families in order to make ends meet.

 

London became the most advanced city in the world.  It had the highest business output, the most rapidly growing population and ever-expanding city walls.  However, despite the fact that London in itself was a world power, the actual city was in ruins.  The enormous amount of factory production meant that there was a constant black smog of smoke that hung over the city, poisoning the air.  Buildings were grimy.  Streets were crowded and overpopulated.  There was no sanitary sewage system to cater for the massive influx of people and thus, disease was rife.

 

How do you think The Industrial Revolution made conditions even worse for families, which three words show that conditions were very tough?

Buildings were grimy. Streets were crowded and overpopulated.

Healthcare and Children

 

 

Victorian England was a time of dramatic population increase.  The population of England almost doubled from 16.8 million in 1851 to 30.5 million in 1901.  Contraception was not widespread and many couples did not use it.  Childbirth was often dangerous and many women died while giving birth.  Lots of children died during their infancy, as a result of poor health care, especially for the poor.

 

Wealthy children were lucky enough to be sent to private boarding schools, where they received a good education. However, many other children, who were wealthy, but not rich, were sent to school where the prime goal was for the owners to make money, while at the same time providing as little education for them as possible.  Conditions were poor and the children were treated abominably.

 

What do you think healthcare was like in Victorian society? 

 

The Poor Laws 1834

 

The Poor Law Amendment of 1834 was introduced to help with the widespread poverty on the streets of England and to provide relief to the poor. The Poor Laws were designed to replace the previous poor laws, for they were too liberal and did not contain enough discipline for the poor. The poor had to agree to go to workhouses and obey strict rules set in each town or city. Those who refused to do so feared losing their jobs.

 

Debtors prison was a British Prison System, in which individuals (who could not pay off their debts, taxes, rents, etc.) were sent to prison until they could pay off their debts.  Typically, the entire family, as well as the debtor, were imprisoned. The prisons were similar to workhouses, where the debtors had to mass-produce items (e.g. potato sacks).

 

The conditions in a workhouse were horrendous and disease-ridden. The paupers were treated as prisoners. The men and women were separated to prevent breeding; the mothers and their young were also separated. The inmates received little gruel (thin, watery porridge) and they were not clothed properly. Moreover, they were forced to do horrible jobs (i.e. crushing stones).

 

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843 - 9 years after The Poor Laws had been introduced.

 

Thinking about all of the information you have learned so far, what do you think Dickens thought of The Poor Laws - did he think they were the right solution to deal with poor people?

 

They made conditions even worse for the poor

The workhouses were spacious

Spacious workhouses led to reduced spread of disease

The over-crowding led to deaths

Poor people were treated terribly

Dickens knew what it was like in a workhouse as he had worked in one.

Now let's look at some characters and think about how Dickens had used them to highlight key messages that he wanted to get across about the issues in Victorian society and the plight of the poor. 

 

Match each character to an issue that Dickens may have been trying to highlight to his readers: 

Column A

Column B

Scrooge
Cruel employer
Tiny Tim
Child employment
Martha
The attitude of the rich to the poor
Fred
Poor healthcare
Scrooge
Christmas spirit

Gothic Fiction

 

  

 

Why do you think Dickens wrote his story as a ghost story?

 

You may need to research on the internet for this answer.

 

And finally, let's test your knowledge of context so far.  Answer the true/false questions below. 

 

Good luck! 

  • Question 1

What do you think conditions were like inside prisons and workhouses in Victorian London?

 

CORRECT ANSWER
They were overcrowded
They were full of diseases
People would rather die than go there
There was a lot of cruel treatments and harsh punishments
EDDIE SAYS
Workhouses and prisons were very overcrowded and conditions were really bad. If people couldn't afford a home, they were forced to go to workhouses. The food was poor, there was a lot of disease and often people died because of the terrible conditions. Workhouses were no better than prisons.
  • Question 2

How do you think children were treated when working in Victorian England?

CORRECT ANSWER
They were paid a lot less than adults
They were treated cruelly by employers
They had to use dangerous machinery and often got injured, or were killed
Very young children often had to work to help their families with money
EDDIE SAYS
Children as young as 4 very often had to work to help their families pay for basic food and accommodation. Bosses treated children really badly, often beating them and making them work with dangerous machinery. Employers could pay children a lot less than adults, so preferred cheap labour, and they often had to work very long hours with little food and water.
  • Question 3

How do you think Dickens' background helped influence his writing of 'A Christmas Carol'?

CORRECT ANSWER
His father and the rest of his family had to go to debtors' prison
He had to work at a young age to help his family
He came from a large family and knew how his parents struggled financially
He moved to London when he was young with his family
EDDIE SAYS
This was a tricky one, as all answers are correct! Although Dickens became a very famous and wealthy author, he had experienced a life of poverty as a child. He understood how terrible conditions were and wanted to influence richer people to have more sympathy with poor people and to help them more. He also wanted to highlight the bad conditions of places such as workhouses so that the rich didn't think this was a suitable option.
  • Question 4

Why do you think Dickens' chose to set his novel at Christmas time to get his message across to Victorian society?

CORRECT ANSWER
It's a time that people should think about those less fortunate than themselves
It's a time that people should be full of Christmas spirit and a time to spend with friends and family
EDDIE SAYS
Both answers are correct again! Victorian society didn't celebrate Christmas in such a big way that we do now. It was a much more low key event. Charles Dickens helped to re-invent Christmas with his novel and helped to bring back good Christian values of generosity, family and thinking of others who are less fortunate. He also published the novel stave by stave, so that even people without much money could afford to buy and read it. He wanted to get the message out to everyone!
  • Question 5

The Industrial Revolution 

 

   

 

Victorian England was a time of great technological development.  The steam train was invented and machinery became used much more in factory production and commerce.  This left many people jobless, as machinery had replaced them.  To look for work, people were forced to flock to the major cities, such as London and Birmingham.  Here, the demand for jobs was high, so pay was low.  Families were forced to live in squalor, often sharing houses with several other families in order to make ends meet.

 

London became the most advanced city in the world.  It had the highest business output, the most rapidly growing population and ever-expanding city walls.  However, despite the fact that London in itself was a world power, the actual city was in ruins.  The enormous amount of factory production meant that there was a constant black smog of smoke that hung over the city, poisoning the air.  Buildings were grimy.  Streets were crowded and overpopulated.  There was no sanitary sewage system to cater for the massive influx of people and thus, disease was rife.

 

How do you think The Industrial Revolution made conditions even worse for families, which three words show that conditions were very tough?

CORRECT ANSWER
Buildings were grimy. Streets were crowded and overpopulated.
EDDIE SAYS
To add to the misery of the poor, machinery was starting to take over from human labour, which meant even less income for the poor. Health conditions became worse due to pollution, and overcrowding of cities became even worse, as people were travelling to cities to find work in factories. Again, this then led to workhouses being even more crowded, as people were forced to go there out of desperation.
  • Question 6

Healthcare and Children

 

 

Victorian England was a time of dramatic population increase.  The population of England almost doubled from 16.8 million in 1851 to 30.5 million in 1901.  Contraception was not widespread and many couples did not use it.  Childbirth was often dangerous and many women died while giving birth.  Lots of children died during their infancy, as a result of poor health care, especially for the poor.

 

Wealthy children were lucky enough to be sent to private boarding schools, where they received a good education. However, many other children, who were wealthy, but not rich, were sent to school where the prime goal was for the owners to make money, while at the same time providing as little education for them as possible.  Conditions were poor and the children were treated abominably.

 

What do you think healthcare was like in Victorian society? 

 

CORRECT ANSWER
EDDIE SAYS
The poor in Victorian England didn't have much spare money to afford medication or treatment. There wasn't an NHS like nowadays! Children were often born with health conditions which couldn't be treated and infant mortality was high. Victorians had large families too, which put more strain on affording housing, food and healthcare. The huge population increase also put a strain on families and the conditions in England, particularly in large cities like London.
  • Question 7

The Poor Laws 1834

 

The Poor Law Amendment of 1834 was introduced to help with the widespread poverty on the streets of England and to provide relief to the poor. The Poor Laws were designed to replace the previous poor laws, for they were too liberal and did not contain enough discipline for the poor. The poor had to agree to go to workhouses and obey strict rules set in each town or city. Those who refused to do so feared losing their jobs.

 

Debtors prison was a British Prison System, in which individuals (who could not pay off their debts, taxes, rents, etc.) were sent to prison until they could pay off their debts.  Typically, the entire family, as well as the debtor, were imprisoned. The prisons were similar to workhouses, where the debtors had to mass-produce items (e.g. potato sacks).

 

The conditions in a workhouse were horrendous and disease-ridden. The paupers were treated as prisoners. The men and women were separated to prevent breeding; the mothers and their young were also separated. The inmates received little gruel (thin, watery porridge) and they were not clothed properly. Moreover, they were forced to do horrible jobs (i.e. crushing stones).

 

Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843 - 9 years after The Poor Laws had been introduced.

 

Thinking about all of the information you have learned so far, what do you think Dickens thought of The Poor Laws - did he think they were the right solution to deal with poor people?

 

CORRECT ANSWER
They made conditions even worse for the poor
The over-crowding led to deaths
Poor people were treated terribly
Dickens knew what it was like in a workhouse as he had worked in one.
EDDIE SAYS
Bearing in mind Dickens had lived through poverty as a child, he was very much against the viewpoint that the poor were poor because they were lazy, which was a common misconception in the Victorian era. He uses not just this story, but many of his novels to show how the poor suffered - think about poor little Oliver Twist and his struggles to cope as an orphan in Victorian London. Dickens also wanted to bring to light one of the theories made popular by an economist - Thomas Malthus. Malthus thought that to solve the overcrowding issue, the poor should starve to death to "decrease the surplus population." These words are echoed by Scrooge in Stave one, when he talks to the charity workers, and in Stave three, when the Ghost of Christmas Present repeats it back to Scrooge. What a lovely man Malthus was!
  • Question 8

Now let's look at some characters and think about how Dickens had used them to highlight key messages that he wanted to get across about the issues in Victorian society and the plight of the poor. 

 

Match each character to an issue that Dickens may have been trying to highlight to his readers: 

CORRECT ANSWER

Column A

Column B

Scrooge
Cruel employer
Tiny Tim
Poor healthcare
Martha
Child employment
Fred
Christmas spirit
Scrooge
The attitude of the rich to the p...
EDDIE SAYS
Dickens cleverly uses these characters to put a person behind the label. Tiny Tim is a really good example of a sweet, kind and innocent child, who could die if he doesn't get the much needed healthcare. He hoped his readers would feel real sympathy with his character and look at the poor in a different way, and it worked - not only in the novel (Tiny Tim did not die!) but in society too. People became more caring and, still to this day, charities have the most donations at Christmas time, as people think of others less fortunate than themselves. Well done Mr Dickens!
  • Question 9

Gothic Fiction

 

  

 

Why do you think Dickens wrote his story as a ghost story?

 

You may need to research on the internet for this answer.

 

CORRECT ANSWER
EDDIE SAYS
Yes, Mr Dickens was a true genius! Victorians loved a good ghost story; it was a really popular genre of the era. Think about all of the similar stories - Dracula, Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde. He knew that it would be a popular topic and again exploited it to make sure he attracted as many readers as possible - what a clever man!
  • Question 10

And finally, let's test your knowledge of context so far.  Answer the true/false questions below. 

 

Good luck! 

CORRECT ANSWER
EDDIE SAYS
Well done! You've reached the end of the context behind 'A Christmas Carol'. You should now be an expert on Victorian society and Mr Dickens himself!
---- OR ----

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