Oliver Twist


This quotation refers to the behaviour of Mrs. Mann, the matron of a workhouse that Oliver Twist is sent to as a young orphan boy.

Mrs. Mann is stealing a large part of the money the parish gives her to buy provisions for the paupers in the workhouse, described in the passage ‘she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them’. Thus the children, who already exist on small portions set by the parish, are being slowly starved. This sets the background for the most notable event in the chapter, when Oliver tells the Master ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’

Dickens describes Mrs. Mann as ‘a very great experimental philosopher‘ — poking fun at Utaliarian thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham and Thomas Malthus — as if she has come up with her own scientifically-calculated minimum subsistence level. He goes on to tell a well-known tale of a man who gradually reduced the straw he fed his horse, aiming to get him to survive on just one straw a day. Just as he reached this target, the horse died. Like the horse-keeper, Mrs. Mann is experimenting with providing the bare minimum of food to sustain the life of the boys in her care, profiting from anything she views in excess of this.

The adverb ‘still‘ i used to emphasise that the thieving is continuing to an even greater degree or amount. By referring to Mrs. Mann as ‘Finding in the lowest depth a deeper still‘, Charles Dickens is describing her as the lowest of the low, stealing from the already meagre budget set to feed the poor children.

Oliver asks for more food in this illustration by George Cruikshank (1792-1878) from Chapter 2 of Oliver Twist (Treats of Oliver Twist's Growth, Education, and Board).
Oliver asks for more food in this illustration by George Cruikshank (1792-1878) from Chapter 2 of Oliver Twist (Treats of Oliver Twist’s Growth, Education, and Board).

Historical Background.

Pauper Apprentice Abuse.

As part of a series of laws to alleviate poverty in the late Elizabethan period, children of the poor could be sent out from local parish care to be apprenticed to someone that would house and feed them, but also get them to do work. The apprenticeship wasn’t learning a skilled trade over a number of years in the modern sense, but would often take the form of making a child perform menial and repetitive tasks over long hours. As the industrial revolution took hold from the mid-eighteen-century factory owners would use pauper children on a larger scale as cheap labour. Many guardians effectively saw a pauper apprentice as their own property and would mistreat the children by maximising the profit from their labour with long hours in return for meagre food and overcrowded sleeping conditions.

In a notorious case during the mid-eighteenth century, midwife Elizabeth Brownrigg was hanged at Tyburn for the murder of her apprentice, 17-year-old Mary Clifford. To the Parish authorities in the Saint Dunstan’s area of London, Brownrigg appeared respectable and trustworthy, having been appointed overseer of women and children in the workhouse. She was given custody of several female children as domestic servants from the London Foundling Hospital, set up by Thomas Coram a few decades earlier. Brownrigg would be nice to her apprentices during an early trial period, but once they had committed to staying for longer, she would become abusive, repeatedly starved and tortured

A few years before Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, another notorious case made the headlines, which many newspapers of the time referred to as the worst case of pauper abuse since Brownrigg. In 1829, Esther Hibner was indicted for the wilful murder of a 13-year-old parish apprentice girl, by starvation. It emerged Hibner badly treated a number of girls in her care, aged just 6 and upwards, making them work very long hours, routinely beating them and giving them very little food to eat. Another girl, aged 10, died during the course of the trial from her treatment. Hibner was found guilty and, like Brownrigg, publicly executed.

Chapter Summary.

Oliver Twist Chapter 2.

Following the death of his mother (Chapter 1) and with no family to care for him, the orphaned baby Oliver falls under the care of parish authorities. He is initially brought up ‘by hand’ (spoon or bottle-fed as a young infant), before being ‘farmed’ out to a branch workhouse with around 20-30 pauper boys, where he is mistreated and underfed. The workhouse is a grim and oppressive place, and the chapter depicts the harsh conditions that the children there are subjected to. The chapter introduces characters responsible for overseeing the workhouse including the parish beadle, Mr. Bumble; the master, Mr. Limbkins, and the greedy matron, Mrs. Mann. After being slowly starved, the boys decide to ask the master for more food, and Oliver is chosen to perform the daunting task. After dinner, Oliver rises from the table and standing in front of the master asks ‘Please, sir, I want some more.’ He instantly incurs the wrath of the workhouse officials and is put into solitary confinement. The next day a reward is offered for anyone that would lie, to have Oliver as an apprentice, thereby taking him off the hands of the parish.


Taken from the following passage in Chapter 2 (Treats of Oliver Twist’s Growth, Education, and Board) of Oliver Twist:

For the next eight or ten months, Oliver was the victim of a systematic course of treachery and deception. He was brought up by hand. The hungry and destitute situation of the infant orphan was duly reported by the workhouse authorities to the parish authorities. The parish authorities inquired with dignity of the workhouse authorities, whether there was no female then domiciled in ‘the house’ who was in a situation to impart to Oliver Twist, the consolation and nourishment of which he stood in need. The workhouse authorities replied with humility, that there was not. Upon this, the parish authorities magnanimously and humanely resolved, that Oliver should be ‘farmed,’ or, in other words, that he should be dispatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws, rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female, who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week. Sevenpence-halfpenny’s worth per week is a good round diet for a child; a great deal may be got for sevenpence-halfpenny, quite enough to overload its stomach, and make it uncomfortable. The elderly female was a woman of wisdom and experience; she knew what was good for children; and she had a very accurate perception of what was good for herself. So, she appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use, and consigned the rising parochial generation to even a shorter allowance than was originally provided for them. Thereby finding in the lowest depth a deeper still; and proving herself a very great experimental philosopher.


Mrs. Mann.

Mrs. Mann is the Matron of the juvenile workhouse where Oliver is raised. Mrs. Mann physically abuses and half-starves the children in her care. She skimps on the children’s food and other basic needs in order to save money. She also uses her position to embezzle money from the parish, falsely claiming expenses for the care of the children that she has not actually spent.

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Finding in the lowest depth a deeper still.


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