A Procession of Unemployed by Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz). Wood engraving, 3 ½ x 4 ½ inches (8.9 cm by 11.2 cm). — Chapter 45, The Old Curiosity Shop. Date of original serial publication of Part 25: 24 October 1840 in Master Humphrey's Clock, Part 28, Vol. 2: 45.

Passage Illustrated: Nell witnesses Social Unrest in the Black Country

But night-time in this dreadful spot! — night, when the smoke was changed  to fire; when every chimney spirited up its flame; and places, that had been dark vaults all day, now shone red-hot, with figures moving to and fro within their blazing jaws, and calling to one another with hoarse cries — night, when the noise of every strange machine was aggravated by the darkness; when the people near them looked wilder and more savage;  when bands of unemployed labourers paraded the roads, or clustered by torch-light round their leaders, who told them, in stern language, of their wrongs, and urged them on to frightful cries and threats; when maddened men, armed with sword and firebrand, spurning the tears and prayers of women who would restrain them, rushed forth on errands of terror and destruction, to work no ruin half so surely as their own — night, when carts came rumbling by, filled with rude coffins (for contagious disease and death had been busy with the living crops); when orphans cried, and distracted women shrieked and followed in their wake — night, when  some called for bread, and some for drink to drown their cares, and some with tears, and some with staggering feet, and some with bloodshot eyes, went brooding home — night, which, unlike the night that Heaven sends on earth, brought with it no peace, nor quiet, nor signs of blessed sleep — who shall tell the terrors of the night to the young wandering child! [Chapter the Forty-fifth, 45-46]

The Backdrop of Industrial Unrest after the Napoleonic Wars

After the purgatorial experience of what was probably Birmingham, Nell and her grandfather spend two days passing through the horribly blighted zone known as the Black Country, a vaguely defined area in the West Midlands which included Wolverhampton and Birmingham. And, in fact, the name for this highly polluted industrial area originated in the very period in which Dickens was writing The Old Curiosity Shop. During the later period of the Industrial Revolution in the latter part of the eighteenth century, the region had become Britain's most industrialised, as coal mines, coking, iron foundries, glass factories, brickworks, and  steel mills all spewed forth high levels of pollution onto suburbs, moors, and woods "under the breath of kiln and furnace" (44) in the nearby industrial centres.

In particular, Birmingham had become the metropolitan hub of the United Kingdom's manufacturing industries, having earned itself a reputation first as a city of canals in the eighteenth century and of factories in the early nineteenth. Following the cessation of Anglo-French hostilities in 1815, the inevitable economic slump led to the widespread unemployment that Dickens describes here: political and social unrest characterized the life of the industrial slums in the Black Country in the post-Waterloo  period. Demands for parliamentary reform (especially doing away with rotten boroughs and enacting universal suffrage) led to political agitation and demonstrations. One of the most celebrated "insurrections," which in fact was entirely peaceful, occurred at St. Peter's Fields, Manchester, which the government ruthlessly crushed by unleashing the cavalry on unarmed protestors.

Dickens's characterization of the agitation as an armed insurrection seems ungenerous and reactionary. Dickens is vague about where and when the disturbance occurs, and he certainly does not set the scene that Nell witnesses in the northern industrial city of Manchester or its suburbs. Dickens's mob does not articulate concerns about parliamentary reform, and indeed does not express concern about any particular issues requiring redress. During the period 1812-22, such English industrial areas probably suffered more, economically, socially and politically, than during the French Wars. Consequently, numerous manifestations of social discontent and distress may have contributed to the violent riot and widespread disaffection which Nell witnesses in the Black Country, probably in the early 1820s. A series of peaceful demonstrations in favour of reform culminated in the deaths of eleven people in Manchester in August 1819 —  the so-called "Peterloo Massacre."

Phiz, perhaps eliciting fears of a French Revolution revived on English soil, has the mechanics led by a member of the bourgeoisie, possibly a retired officer, who points with his sabre towards the smoking factory-chimneys on the distant horizon. A woman desperately tries to prevent her enthusiastic husband (right) from joining the agitators, as the torch-light procession is likely to lead to violence, and will be put down with force. Although this mob of "unemployed labourers" carries torches, few of them possess regular weapons; even the sturdy rebel in the revolutionary cap to the right has just a pistol and long-bladed dagger. Such unemployed workers armed largely with scythes and billhooks could not have expected to be successful against properly trained and well-armed cavalry.

Related Material on the Political Unrest Post-1815

A Note on the Date of the Action of the Novel

Related Resources Including Other Illustrated Editions

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]


Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop in Master Humphrey's Clock. Illustrated by Phiz, George Cattermole, Samuel Williams, and Daniel Maclise. 3 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1840.

Last modified 24 October 2020