A view from Dave Trott: Words beat data
A view from Dave Trott

Words beat data

In 1842, the Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission was released.

Young girls were spending 16 hours a day, six days a week, sewing garments.

Boys as young as eight were pulling coal carts in the mines, 11 hours a day.

Children were losing their limbs, sometimes their lives, cleaning huge machinery.

The choice was simple, work in inhuman conditions or starve to death.

Not that those facts bothered everyone.

The Reverend Thomas Malthus saw no need to worry about the poor.

He said: “Better to let the poor starve naturally and decrease the surplus population.”

That was the attitude of the majority of the wealthy.

The poor were stupid and lazy, they had no use but physical labour.

There was no more point educating them than educating a horse or an ox.

The wealthy believed that a rich man was a self-made man.

Consequently the pursuit of wealth for its own sake was a worthy goal.

A member of the commission asked a young writer to help with a pamphlet to turn public opinion against the cruel treatment of the poor.

To bring the greed of the wealthy to everyone’s attention.

The young writer’s name was Charles Dickens, and the pamphlet was to be called: “An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.”

Dickens visited tin mines in Cornwall, and Field Lane Ragged School in London’s east end.

What he saw there made him too angry to write a pamphlet.

Reason alone wouldn’t change anything.

Someone else could do facts and figures – he needed to move people emotionally.

He said to the head of the commission, Dr Southwood Smith: “You will certainly feel that a sledgehammer has come down with 20 times the force of the first idea.”

And Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol.

He had seen a Scottish grave inscribed: “Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie – a meal man.”

A meal man was a corn merchant, but Dickens misread it as “a mean man”.

That became his main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, a man who loves money above all else.

A man blind to the suffering and misery it causes, and the terrible waste of humanity.

A ghost visits Scrooge and shows him various scenes: past, present and future.

Scrooge is touched by the plight of a little crippled boy called Tiny Tim.

When Scrooge asks the ghost if the boy will live, the ghost answers: “Better to let the poor die naturally and decrease the surplus population.”

The exact words of the Reverend Thomas Malthus.

He shows Scrooge two starved children, just like Dickens saw in the Ragged School.

He tells Scrooge: “The boy is Ignorance, the girl is Want. Beware them both but most of all beware the boy.”

Eventually, having learned the message in the dreams, Scrooge changes his ways.

The message being that employers are responsible for the wellbeing of their workers, something that never even occurred to the wealthy before.

For the first time social responsibility was expressed in emotional, human terms instead of dry facts and cold figures and data.

In the first year, the book had to be reprinted 13 times; in the US alone, it eventually sold two million copies.

People who would never read a dry, factual report read the book again and again.

Over the years, it’s been adapted 48 times for plays, 28 times for films, 87 times for TV, 25 times for radio, four times for opera, twice for ballet, 15 times for graphic novels, and twice for video games.

Since it was written, Dickens’ book has been taught in schools every year at Christmas.

As Walt Disney said: “We have to entertain in order to educate, because the other way round doesn’t work.”

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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