Part II: The Proper Payment of Clerks
As I stated at the beginning of my last entry, my focus of research is Anna Cora Mowatt, not Charles Dickens. These two literary figures were active at the same time, although their paths do not seem to have crossed in any significant manner. I became intrigued by what seems to be an on-going internet debate on the topic, “Is Bob Cratchit Poor?” while I was on my yearly quest to find a new version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” for Yuletide viewing. The commentary on Cratchit’s status and also the tendency of some modern productions to costume Scrooge’s clerk’s family as members of London’s lower class put me in mind of data I had gathered about Walter Watts’ experiences as a clerk working for the Globe Life Insurance Company.
The term “clerk,” as I covered in the last essay, was a generic job title that people of this time used for wide range of white-collar workers who handled the management of funds and records. Bank tellers, paralegals, and private secretaries were all on the continuum of trained professionals who might be called clerks. The designation was used to refer to a multitude of careers from comfortably salaried government functionaries to poorly-paid shop assistants. As a center for government, commerce, banking, the legal profession, and the British Empire’s military establishment, London was bursting at the seams with clerks during the 19th century.
Charles Dickens was not the only writer to include a clerk in one of his works. Bob Crachit was not the only clerk he created. Next time you encounter a 19th century text set in London, odds are that a clerk of some description will number among the characters. In all probability, this character will be a reasonably intelligent, industrious person — usually male and a bachelor. (If they are stupid and lazy, this contradiction of expectations will be noted.) The individual’s dress, speech, and demeanor will clearly mark him as a white-collar worker. He may have a regional accent in some cases, but does not typically use the slang of that marks a speaker from the lower classes. A clerk is usually addressed with a combination of “Mister” and his surname except by his friends and family.
Unusual for the fairly moribund class system in Victorian England, clerks in some professions had the hope of social mobility. This is not true of all career paths, but in some cases, clerk was a transitory position – only the first rung of the ladder of success. As Gregory Anderson tells us in his book, Victorian Clerks;
Naturally those employed in central or local government or in large organizations such as the railways and industrial companies could hardly hope to achieve economic independence within those organizations or institutions. The most clerks employed in such large organizations could hope for was upward job or income mobility. Many commercial clerks, however, apart from anticipating career mobility, also looked forward to being employers themselves. This was not unnatural, given that they were often employed as members of small, closely knit work forces by employers who may once have been clerks themselves.1
Scrooge is an excellent example of the latter situation. After learning his profession through an apprenticeship under the nurturing mentorship of his boss, Mr. Fezziwig, he moved on to positions of greater responsibility, finally becoming an independent business owner. This type of progression from apprentice to boss was repeated often enough in reality that it became an accepted model of professional development for clerks in certain fields. Therefore, another stereotypical characteristic of many clerks you will encounter in Victorian fiction is that, like Scrooge, they are career-minded and ambitious.
When we ask the question – Is Bob Cratchit poor? – an unspoken issue at stake is — how well or badly is Mr. Scrooge paying Cratchit for his services? Dickens doesn’t tell us precisely what sort of business Scrooge and Marley run. A ‘counting-house’ — which is all the establishment is ever called in the story — is not actually a type of business, but usually a designation for the location in a firm’s building where funds are stored and managed. My guess is that their organization is a type of small, private lending institution. In this essay, blogger Stephen Winick uses evidence of the text to construct a compelling argument that Dickens is signaling that Scrooge and Marley were a species of mortgage bankers, who bought and sold debt on the London Exchange. There are several strong hints in the story that seem to indicate that the partners earn revenue from making loans at interest and collecting on bankruptcies.
Dickens also does not tell us exactly what sort of clerk Bob Crachit is or precisely how long he has been working for the firm of Scrooge & Marley. I have seen bloggers and youtubers quote various sums as being the average take-home pay for a Victorian clerk. However, these numbers are relatively meaningless given the wide range of jobs covered under the designation of “clerk.” As Gregory Anderson specifies in his book;
One of the characteristics of the nineteenth century clerical work was the great variation in salary and status associate with the different job functions. Although many clerks earned less or no more than skilled manual workers at least, others holding top positions in leading firms were able to command excellent salaries.2
It is therefore difficult to be precise in determining how fairly Bob Cratchit is being paid. By broad estimation, though, it looks like the salary Scrooge is giving him at the beginning of the story stacks up against the reality of others from his profession very, very badly. Because they were in positions of trust, clerks in banking and insurance tended to command high salaries. For example, the fictional Bob Cratchit, at 15 shillings a week, makes a fraction of the 3 pounds per week salary the historical person Walter Watts took home in 1850. Watts was a clerk in the auditor’s office of a large insurance company in charge of processing canceled checks. He’d been with the firm since he was a fifteen-year-old apprentice.
Given the very small size of Scooge’s office, Bob Crachit might serve as what David Anderson calls a correspondence clerk. This position was usually one of the most desirable for Victorian clerks working in small businesses, as Anderson explains;
While a clerk’s wider status was conditioned by his social background and contacts, the ultimate determinants of his status in the office were his seniority and position in the job hierarchy. The closer he was to his employer, the greater a clerk’s status. Situations such as correspondence clerkships were therefore important and highly coveted. The correspondence clerk usually dealt with a firm’s customers. Through these business contacts he was in a unique position not only to satisfy old customers but to cultivate new ones. More than any other clerk he was aware of all the details of a business transaction. A ledger clerk, for example, was familiar only with the final part of a transaction, the entry in the ledger, whereas the correspondence clerk was acquainted with terms of the transaction. The loss of a good correspondence clerk was keenly felt.3
Anderson goes on to cite a dispute in which a correspondence clerk quit because he was being paid 150 pounds a year by a large London firm in 1850 when he felt his salary should have been closer to 400 pounds per year. Salary for this sort of position was by that time was sufficiently well-established for the clerk in this story to feel he could weather a public clash.
Dickens gives us a number of mixed messages about the Cratchits’ economic status. They have some possessions and engage in various activities that suggest they are living comfortably. In other instances, they are called poor and shown to be in need. This contradiction is so evident that in one recent blog composed by a financial advisor, the writer blamed the family’s money woes on their penchant for overspending. For example; Bob buys a goose for his family’s Christmas dinner. The eldest son has a new shirt. Mrs. Cratchit and the second oldest daughter, Belinda, decorate their old dresses with new ribbons. The writer suggests that Scrooge is modeling a much better example for weathering a challenging economic climate with his more frugal Christmas Eve meal of gruel and activity of reviewing his bank book. This advice might be sound for our current difficult days, but since this message directly contradicts the overall theme of A Christmas Carol, I doubt it’s what Dickens was trying to draw the reader’s attention to when he chose to include these seemingly conflicting details about the Cratchits’ finances.
It is not unusual to find essays on the Internet in which the author uses the highly sympathetic way Cratchits are described in A Christmas Carol as an example of Dickens’ or his readers’ attitude towards the poor of London. I think this is also a perilously misleading interpretation of the text. The Cratchits may be quite poor in the story, but they aren’t representatives of “the Poor” of Victorian London. I don’t think Dickens meant them to be read that way. I don’t believe his readers viewed them as such.
Let me give you a list of poor characters from the works of Dickens, their occupations, and see if any one of them stands out to you:
- Phil Squod, shooting gallery assistant and former travelling tinker
- Tilly Slowboy, nursemaid
- Nancy, pickpocket and prostitute
- Bill Sykes, thief
- Bob Cratchit, office manager for a small but profitable loan company
As game featured on Sesame Street used to say — which one of these is not like the others? Then as now, clerking was a reasonably stable, white-collar job that had a degree of social acceptability not granted to professions like carnival worker, thief, or prostitute.
In Stave Four of A Christmas Carol, a collection of characters gather at the shop of Old Joe, the pawnbroker, who I think reveal a more likely representation of attitudes towards London’s urban poor held by Dickens and his readers. The laundress, the undertaker’s assistant, and Mrs. Dilber, the charwoman are all unskilled or semi-skilled blue-collar workers in positions so poorly paid and unstable that they are willing to steal from their employers or clients to make ends meet. Their interactions with Old Joe reveal that they are each regular visitors to his shop. Theft, apparently, is a standard strategy for supplementing their meager incomes.
Bob Cratchit, unlike other examples of low or no income characters in works by Dickens, is a person of sterling character. We see enough of him in the story to know that he is not stupid, or lazy, or an alcoholic. In other words, he is not saddled with any of the stereotypical character flaws poor people in Victorian times were usually accused of to make them seem complicit in their own poverty.
The possessions and spending habits of the Cratchits are not the evidence of overspending, I think, but the remnants of nice things they purchased when at a time when their financial outlook was not so grim, and evidence of their faith in Bob’s earning prospects based on his skill level and seniority. They own their own house in a neighborhood that isn’t terribly dirty or crime-infested. Camden Town was not an address to cause any embarrassment. Cornhill, which Bob passes on his way home, was where Walter Watts grew up. In 1843, two of Watts’ younger brothers were of the right age to be sliding on the ice like children described in the story.
The Cratchits’ clothes are worn and a bit threadbare, but are decorated with ribbons and high collars appropriate to the wearer’s age and station in life as a self-respecting members of the white-collar working class. The story specifies that the family’s store of glassware consists of “two tumblers and a custard cup without a handle.” This perhaps indicates not items that have been recently purchased but items that have remained from a set gradually diminished by trips by Peter to the pawnbroker to raise funds for the family.
I believe the poverty of the Crachit family would have been surprising and unsettling to Dickens’ readers in 1843. It would be as if today we would read a short story or watch a movie in which the main character works at a bank or is a school teacher, but is so poor they have to live in a storage container instead of a house or apartment, eating only food they get from a local charity, and wearing clothes that had been donated to a homeless shelter. A Victorian reader, in other words, would not ask, “Is Bob Crachit poor?” but rather “Why in the world is Bob Crachit so very poor?”
My answer is simple. Brace yourself. This may be a shock…
It’s because Scrooge is being stingy.
Bob Crachit seems to be a victim of wage stagnation. He’s been a loyal employee presumably for a number of years and yet his salary is stuck at an appalling 15 shillings a week. This is not a great deal more than the starting wage that his son, Peter, may obtain at the unnamed “situation” Bob has his eye on – five and six pence. As I have said, it is hard to precisely pin down the appropriate wage for a clerk of unknown years of experience given an unclear job description in a vaguely indicated job sector in 1843. However, fifteen shillings a week is closer to the wages that are recorded for apprentices in banking and insurance. This sort of salary would be an insult to an experienced senior clerk.
Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s partner, had been dead for several years when the story opens. The business had gone from a three-man to a two-man operation. Bob Cratchit had undoubtedly taken on additional responsibilities and duties. Scrooge is, of course, under no obligation to make Bob his partner just because the position is vacant. However Cratchit’s pay and title do not reflect the added work he has undertaken. This inequity is doubtlessly a large part of otherwise good-natured Mrs. Cratchit’s extreme frustration with Mr. Scrooge that is evident when she balks at drinking a toast to him, protesting;
“It should be Christmas Day, I am sure,” said she, “on which one drinks the health of such an odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man as Mr. Scrooge. You know he is, Robert! Nobody knows it better than you do, poor fellow!”4
Even the saintly Tiny Tim has no fondness for his father’s employer, as his reaction to the toast testifies;
It was the first of their proceedings which had no heartiness in it. Tiny Tim drank it last of all, but he didn’t care tuppence for it. Scrooge was the Ogre of the family. The mention of his name cast a dark shadow on the party, which was not dispelled for a full five minutes.5
At the very least, Scrooge could have hired additional man-power to relieve the pressure on Bob in the form of an apprentice. It is notable that Peter Cratchit does not seem to have been considered for an apprenticeship at the firm. Scrooge, at the beginning of the story, is not aware of the particulars any of the Cratchit children. In today’s impersonal corporate workplace, such inattention does not seem terribly strange. However, in the context of a tiny, Victorian-era office, such an obvious lack of a strong interpersonal bond between employer and employee would have read as a red flag indicating serious communication problems within this small business and a perhaps dangerous absence of trust. Bob Cratchit does not feel confident with his relationship with his employer or happy enough with his work environment to approach his boss with either a direct request for an apprenticeship for his son or for a recommendation for a suitable placement for Peter with one of Scrooge’s associates.
Apprenticeships were often acquired through personal connections, particularly for positions in banking and insurance where a high degree of trust in the candidate was required as Gregory Anderson explains;
Personal recommendation or nomination, presuming on the part of the aspiring clerk some kind of direct or indirect contact with the employer class, was an essential prerequisite for the filling of a whole range of clerical appointments. It was natural, particularly in industries like banking and insurance which involved the use and transmission of money and financial securities, that preference would be given in recruitment to those who were respectably connected. One way of ensuring the respectability and integrity of clerks was by recruiting only men who were known personally or were nominated by persons known to the employer.6
I believe that Victorian readers would have noticed the fact that Peter Cratchit was not apprenticed to the firm of Scrooge & Marley and would have put it down as another black mark against the miser’s already stained character. If they did not, Dickens draws attention to Scrooge’s dereliction of his duty when in a reality projected by one of the Spirits of Christmas, he has Bob expresses his confidence that Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, will find an appropriate job placement for Peter;
“You would be sure of it, my dear,” returned Bob, “if you saw and spoke to him. I shouldn’t be at all surprised—mark what I say!—if he got Peter a better situation.”7
Today we have different views on child labor. We might feel a bit taken aback at the prospect of such a young boy forced to go to work. However, Victorian readers might feel incensed at a young man like Peter Cratchit being denied the opportunity for advancement that a position at Scrooge & Marley’s represented. As Anderson explains:
The apprenticeship was seen as the first stage in a career which held out the promise of upward mobility and improved status. In professions such as banking or insurance, clerks embarked on careers in which they had served their apprenticeship.8
Instead of Peter having the security of a good apprenticeship with a successful firm in one of the highest paying forms of clerking, the best his father can do for him is give him a chance at a low-paying “situation” at some unnamed business. To compensate for both Peter’s financially insecure future and her father’s stagnant wages, the eldest daughter Martha had gone to work as a seamstress as a milliner’s shop. If you have read “Nicholas Nickleby,” you know that this is a difficult, low-paying, dead-end job, with long hours. Again, readers in the Victorian era feel differently than we do now about young women having jobs. They might not like the fact that her family’s financial distress is denying her the opportunity to find a husband and start her own family.
One may think that none of these woes were Scrooge’s problem, however, in the early Victorian era, there was still an expectation that in small businesses, employers would know and care about the lives of their employees, exhibiting the kind of attitude Old Fezziwig does in A Christmas Carol. As Anderson elaborates;
In the small office or counting house strong contacts existed between employers and their clerks. Employers worked close to their clerks, sometimes alongside them or at least in an adjacent office. While only the leading clerks were normally in the complete confidence of their employers, ideally a vertical relationship of trust and loyalty was developed between employers and the rest of their clerks.9
Becoming a better employer is an important part of Scrooge’s reformation. He immediately begins to feel pangs of guilt about his behavior when the Ghost of Christmas Past reminds him of how he was treated by his first employer, Mr. Fezziwig. Dickens places Scrooge’s improved character as an employer second on the list of improvements to his character in the final paragraphs of the story;
He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old City knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough in the good old world.10
By repairing his relationship with Bob Cratchit through not just a one-time charitable gift but by properly raising his clerk’s wages, Scrooge eases an on-going tension in the story. He repairs what Victorian readers would have perceived as a breach in a social contract between employer and loyal employee. The closing paragraphs of the story indicate that Scrooge takes on the sort of mentoring role that would have transformed him from a bad boss to the image of the ideal employer of that era.
If my conclusions are making this essay seem like it might be a good candidate for the Journal of the Blatantly Obvious… Well, A Christmas Carol isn’t exactly Finnegan’s Wake. I don’t think Dickens was trying to keep his message hidden from his readers. I believe that he created the Cratchits as a family with whom many of his readers would identify. The plight of Bob, his wife, and his children was designed to tug at their heartstrings and cast Scrooge as all the more a frustrating and infuriating villain at the beginning of the story and make the old miser’s reformation at the end all the more satisfying.
To be honest, I am more troubled by the fact that in so many modern productions of A Christmas Carol and guides to interpreting the story available on the Internet, Bob Cratchit and his family are mis-classified as members of London’s underclass of poverty-stricken workers instead of a white-collar employee and his family experiencing economic distress. It’s not that I’m at all concerned that people aren’t aware of trivia about Victorian clerks. That lack of knowledge is just job security for historians like me. What bothers me is that I think we as a society have become conditioned to viewing workers from the perspective of the employer not the employee. Like Scrooge, we look at the Cratchits as members of an unfortunate, disadvantaged stratum of society. We, like Scrooge, become blind to the fact that the Cratchits’ fortunes are entirely within his control. Bob Cratchit is a skilled worker who works long hours and has years of experience. If the wage Scrooge gave Cratchit was commiserate with his skill, hours, and experience, Bob would not be poor. Cratchit’s poverty is Scrooge’s fault because he is not fairly compensating him. Bob is to blame for his poverty only in the fact that he is foolishly being loyal to the firm of Scrooge and Marley despite ill treatment.
At the beginning of the story, Scrooge sneers at Bob Cratchit’s poverty as if it were a condition wholly disconnected from him in passages like the following;
“There’s another fellow,” muttered Scrooge, who overheard him: “my clerk, with fifteen shillings a week, and a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas. I’ll retire to Bedlam.”11
One of the great epiphanies that Scrooge experiences as a result the visitations of the spirits is that the fate of the Cratchits is in his hands. He has the power to single-handedly wipe away their poverty by paying Bob a proper wage. The ending paragraphs to the story indicate that Scrooge turned this idea into action and the Cratchits’ lives became immediately and lastingly better. I don’t think that Dickens is here saying that one wealthy person like Scrooge can eliminate all poverty; rather the writer is reifying the traditional, mutually beneficial bond between employer and employee that gave Victorian workers hope of social and economic advancement. He was reminding us that bosses and workers depend on – and therefore should support — each other.
In the modern, corporate world, this level of Dickens’ message no longer speaks to readers the way the story originally did. Company policies for large corporations explicitly encourage mangers to be impersonal and detached when dealing with subordinates. Employers are profit-driven first and foremost. Advancing the career-goals of employees may be highlighted in hiring brochures, but is rarely an actual priority of most businesses. In other words, it is likely that our bosses have mindsets like Scrooge, the villain of this story, before he reforms.
Even worse, we workers have learned to see ourselves through the eyes of such bosses. Employees are just people who can be hired or fired, laid off, and paid as best suits the bottom line of the company. We no longer buy into the sort of social contract that the early Victorian clerks shared with their employers that assured workers that years of devotion and hard work would be rewarded with fair pay, trust, advancement, and pensions. If you want to have power in your job, you need to be smart like Scrooge and get focused on becoming a boss.
And so… Merry Christmas? Sweet dreams…
- Anderson, Gregory. Victorian Clerks. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1976. Page 40.
- Page 20.
- Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. (Philadelphia and New York: J. Lippencott & Co., 1915.) Page 91.
- Anderson, Gregory. Victorian Clerks. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1976. Page 12.
- Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. (Philadelphia and New York: J. Lippencott & Co., 1915.) Page130-131
- Anderson, Gregory. Victorian Clerks. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1976. Page 20.
- page 30.
- Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. (Philadelphia and New York: J. Lippencott & Co., 1915.) Page 147-148.
- Page 11.