Red Tape was an article written by Charles Dickens to criticise bureaucracy. It was first published on Saturday, 15 February 1851, in Dickens own magazine Household Words.
Your public functionary who delights in Red Tape—the purpose of whose existence is to tie up public questions, great and small, in an abundance of this official article—to make the neatest possible parcels of them, ticket them, and carefully put them away on a top shelf out of human reach—is the peculiar curse and nuisance of England. Iron, steel, adamant, can make no such drag-chain as Red Tape. An invasion of Red Ants in innumerable millions, would not be half so prejudicial to Great Britain, as its intolerable Red Tape.
Your Red Tapist is everywhere. He is always at hand, with a coil of Red Tape, prepared to make a small official parcel of the largest subject. In the reception room of a Government Office, he will wind Red Tape round and round the sternest deputation that the country can send to him. In either House of Parliament, he will pull more Red Tape out of his mouth, at a moment’s notice, than a conjuror at a Fair. In letters, memoranda, and dispatches, he will spin himself into Red Tape, by the thousand yards. He will bind you up vast colonies, in Red Tape, like cold roast chickens at a rout-supper; and when the most valuable of them break it (a mere question of time), he will be amazed to find that they were too expansive for his favourite commodity. He will put a girdle of Red Tape round the earth, in quicker time than Ariel. He will measure, from Downing Street to the North Pole, or the heart of New Zealand, or the highest summit of the Himalaya Mountains, by inches of Red Tape. He will rig all the ships in the British Navy with it, weave all the colours in the British Army from it, completely equip and fit out the officers and men of both services in it. He bound NELSON and WELLINGTON hand and foot with it—ornamented them, all over, with bunches of it—and sent them forth to do impossibilities. He will stand over the side of the steam-ship of the state, sounding with Red Tape, for imaginary obstacles; and when the office-seal at the end of his pet line touches a floating weed, will cry majestically, “Back her! Stop her!” He hangs great social efforts, in Red Tape, about the public offices, to terrify like evil-minded reformers, as great highwaymen used to be hanged in chains on Hounslow Heath. He has but one answer to every demonstration of right, or exposition of wrong; and it is, “My good Sir, this is a question of Tape.”
He is the most gentlemanly of men. He is mysterious; but not more so than a man who is cognisant of so much Tape ought to be. Butterflies and gadflies who disport themselves, unconscious of the amount of Red Tape required to keep Creation together, may wear their hearts upon their sleeves; but he is another sort of person. Not that he is wanting in conversation. By no means. Every question mooted, he has to tie up according to form, and put away. Church, state, territory, native and foreign, ignorance, poverty, crime, punishment, popes, cardinals, Jesuits, taxes, agriculture and commerce, land and sea—all Tape. “Nothing but Tape, Sir, I assure you. “Will you allow me to tie this subject up, with a few yards, according to the official form? Thank you. Thus, you see. A knot here; the end cut off there; a twist in this place; a loop in that. Nothing can be more complete. Quite compact, you observe. I ticket it, you perceive, and put it on the shelf. It is now disposed of. What is the next article?”
The quantity of Red Tape officially employed in the defence of such an imposition (in more senses than one) as the Window-Tax; the array of Red Tapists and the amount of Red Taping employed in its behalf, within the last six or seven years; is something so astounding in itself, and so illustrative of the enormous quantities of Tape devoted to the public confusion, that we take the liberty, at this appropriate time, of disentangling an odd thousand fathoms or so, as a sample of the commodity.
The Window-Tax is a tax of that just and equitable description, that it charges a house with twenty windows at the rate of six shillings and twopence farthing a window; and houses with nine times as many windows, to wit a hundred and eighty, at the rate of eightpence a window, less. It is a beautiful feature in this tax (and a mighty convenient one for large country-houses) that, after progressing in a gradually ascending scale or charge, from eight windows to seventy-nine, it then begins to descend again, and charges a house with five hundred windows, just a farthing a window more, than a house with nine. This has been, for so many years, proved—by Red Tape—to be the perfection of human reason, that we merely remark upon the circumstance, and there leave it, for another ornamental branch of the subject.
Light and air are the first essentials of our being. Among the facts demonstrated by Physical Science, there is not one more indisputable, than that a large amount of Solar Light is necessary to the development of the nervous system. Lettuces, and some other vegetables, may be grown in the dark, at no greater disadvantage than a change in their natural colour; but, the nervous system of Animals must be developed by Light. The higher the Animal, the more stringent and absolute the necessity of a free admission to it of the Sun’s bright rays. All human creatures bred in darkness, droop, and become degenerate. Among the diseases distinctly known to be engendered and propagated by the want of Light, and by its necessary conconcomitant, the want of free Air, those dreadful maladies, Scrofula and Consumption, occupy the foremost place.
At this time of day, and when the labours of Sanitary Reformers and Boards of Health have educated the general mind in the knowledge of such truths, we almost hesitate to recapitulate these simple facts: which are as palpable and certain as the growth of a tree, or the curling of a wave. But, within a few years, it was a main fault of practical Philosophy, to hold too much herself apart from the daily business and concerns of life. Consequently, within a few years, even these truths were imperfectly and narrowly known. Red Tape, as a great institution quite superior to Nature, positively refused to receive them —strangled them, out of hand—labelled them Impositions, and shelved them with great resentment.
This is so incredible, that our readers will naturally enquire, when, where, and how? Thus. In the Spring of 1844, there sat enthroned, in the office of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Downing Street, London, the Incarnation of Red Tape. There waited upon this enshrinement of Red Tape in the body and flesh of man, a Deputation from the Master Carpenters’ Society, and another from the Metropolitan Improvement Society: which latter, comprising among its members some distinguished students of Natural Philosophy, took the liberty of representing the before-mentioned fact in connexion with Light, as a small result of Infinite Wisdom, eternally established before Tape was. And, forasmuch as the Window Tax excluded light from the dwellings of the poor in large towns, where the poor lived, crowded together in large old houses; by tempting the landlords of those houses to block up windows and save themselves the payment of duty, which they notoriously did—and, forasmuch, as in every room and corner thus made dark and airless, the poor, for want of space, were fain to huddle beds —and, forasmuch, as a large and a most unnatural per-centage of them, were, in consequence, scrofulous, and consumptive, and always sliding downward into Pauperism— the Deputation prayed the Right Honourable Red Tape, M. P., at least so to modify this tax, as to modify that inhuman and expensive wrong. To which, the Right Honourable Red Tape, M. P., made reply, that he didn’t believe that the Tax had anything to do with scrofula; “for,” said he, “the window-duties don’t affect the cottager; and I have seen numerous instances of scrofula in my own neighbourhood, among the families of the agricultural peasantry.” Now, this was the perfection of what may be called Red Tapeosophy. For, not to mention the fact, well known to every traveller about England, that the cottages of agricultural labourers, in general, are a perfect model of sanitary arrangement, and, are in particular remarkable for the capacious dimensions of their windows (which are usually of the bay or oriel form: never less than six feet high, commonly fitted with plate glass, and always capable of being opened freely), it is to be carefully noticed that such cottages always contain a superabundance of room, and especially of sleeping-room: also, that nothing can be farther from the custom of a cottager than to let a sleeping-room to a single man, to diminish his rent: and to crowd himself and family into one small chamber, where by reason of the dearness of fuel he stops up crevices, and shuts out air. These being things which no English landlord, dead or alive, ever heard of, it is clear—as clear as the agricultural labourer’s cottage is light and airy—that the exclusion of light and air can have nothing to do with Scrofula. So, the Right Honourable Red Tape, M. P., gave the lie (politely) to the Deputation, and proved his case against Nature, to the great admiration of the office Messengers!
Well! But, on the same occasion, there was more Red Tape yet, in the back-ground, ready, in nautical phrase, to be paid out. The Deputation, rather pertinaciously dwelling on the murderous effects of a prohibition of ventilation in the thickly-peopled habitations of the poor, the same authority returned, “You can ventilate them, if you choose. Here is Deputy Red Tape, from the Stamp Office, at my elbow; and he tells you, that perforated plates of zinc, may be placed in the external walls of houses, without becoming liable to duty.” Now, the Deputation were very glad to hear this, because they knew it to be a part of the perfect wisdom of the Acts of Parliament establishing the Window Tax, that they required all stopped-up windows to be stopped up with precisely the same substance as that of which the external walls of a house were made; and that, in a variety of cases, where such walls were of stone, for example, and such windows were stopped up with wood, they were held to be chargeable with duty: though they admitted no ray of light through that usually opaque material. Besides which, the Deputation knew, from the Government Returns, that, under the same Acts of Parliament, a little unglazed hole in a wall, made for a cat to creep through, and a little trap in a cellar to shoot coals down, had been solemnly decided to be windows. Therefore, they were so much relieved by this perforated-zinc discovery, that the good and indefatigable DOCTOR SOUTHWOOD SMITH (who was one of the deputation) was seen, by PRIVATE JOHN TOWLER of the Second Grenadier Guards, sentry on duty at the Treasury, to fall upon the neck of MR. TOYNBEE (who was another of the deputation) and shed tears of joy in Parliament Street.
But, the President of the Carpenters’ Society, a man of rule and compasses, whose organ of Veneration appears (in respect of Red Tape) to have been imperfectly developed, doubted. And he, writing to the Stamp Office on the point, caused more Red Tape to be spun into this piece of information, “that perforated plates of zinc would be chargeable if so perforated as to afford light, but not if so as to serve the purpose of ventilation only!” It not being within the knowledge of the Carpenters’ Society (which was a merely practical body) how to construct perforations of such a peculiar double-barreled action as at once to let in air and shut out light, the Right
Honorable Red Tape, M.P., himself, was referred to, for an explanation. This, he gave in the following skein, which has justly been considered the highest specimen of the manufacture. “There has been no mistake, as the parties suppose, in stating that openings for ventilations might be made which would not be chargeable as windows, and I cannot think it at all inconsistent with such a statement to decline expressing, beforehand, a general opinion as to whether certain openings when made would or would not be considered as windows, and as such liable to charge.”
To crown all, with a wreath of blushing Tape of the first official quality, it may be briefly mentioned, that no existing Act of Parliament made any such exception, and that it had no existence out of Tape. For, a local act, for Liverpool only, was afterwards passed, exempting from the Window Tax circular ventilating apertures, not exceeding seven inches in diameter; provided, that if they were made in a direct line, they should be protected by a grating of cast-iron, the interstices thereof not exceeding one quarter of an inch in width.
One other choice sample of the best Red Tape presents itself in the nefarious history of the Window Tax. In July of the same year, LORD ALTHORP—whose name is ever to be respected, as having, perhaps, less association with Red Tape than that of any Minister whomsoever—made a short speech in the House of Commons, descriptive of an enactment he then introduced, for allaying something of the indignation which this tax had raised. It was, he said, “a clause, enabling persons to open fresh windows in houses at present existing, without any additional charge. Its only effect is, to prevent an increase of the revenue, in the case of houses already existing.” On the faith of this statement, numbers of house-occupiers opened new windows. The instant the clause got into the Government offices, it was immeshed in a very net of Red Tape. The Stamp Office, in its construction of it, substituted existing occupiers, for existing houses; into the clause itself were introduced, before it became law, words, confining this privilege to persona “duly assessed for the year ending 5th April, 1835.” What followed? Red Tape made the discovery that no one who took advantage of that clause, and opened new windows, WAS duly assessed in 1835-—the whole Government Assessment: made, be it remembered, by Government Assessors: having been loosely and carelessly made—and all those openers of new windows, upon the faith of that plain speech of a plain gentleman, were surcharged; to the increase of the revenue, the dishonour of the public character of the country, and the very canonisation of Red Tape.
For the collection and clear statement of these facts, we are indebted to an excellent pamphlet reprinted, at the time, from the “WESTMINSTER REVIEW.” The facts and the subject are worthy of one another.
O give your public functionary who delights in Red Tape, a good social improvement to deal with! Let him come back to his Tape-wits, after being frightened out of them, for a little while, by the ravages of a Plague; and count, if you can, the miles of Red Tape he will pile into barriers, against—a General Interment Bill, say, or a Law for the suppression of infectious and disgusting nuisances! O the cables of Red Tape he will coil away in dispatch boxes, the handcuffs he will make of Red Tape to fetter useful hands; the interminable perspectives of Exchequers, Woods and Forests, and what not, all hung with Red Tape, up and down which he will languidly wander, to the weariness of all whose hard fate it is, to have to pursue him!
But, give him something to play with—give him a park to slice away—a hideous scarecrow to set up in a public place, where it may become the ludicrous horror of the civilised earth—a marble arch to move—and who so brisk as he! He will rig you up a scaffolding with Red Tape, and fall to, joyfully. These are the things in which he finds relief from unlucky Acts of Parliament that are more troublesome improvements than they were meant to be. Across and across them, he can spin his little webs of Red Tape, and catch summer flies: or, near them, litter down official dozing-places, and roll himself over and over in Red Tape, like the Hippopotamus wallowing in his bath.
Once upon a time, there was a dusty dry old shop in Long Acre, London, where, displayed in the windows, in tall slim bottles, were numerous preparations, looking, at first sight, like unhealthy maccaroni. On a nearer inspection, these were found to be Tapeworms, extracted from the internal mechanism of certain ladies and gentlemen who were delicately referred to, on the bottles, by initial letters. Doctor Gardner’s medicine had effected these wonderful results; but, the Doctor, probably apprehensive that his patients might “blush to find it fame,” enshrined them in his museum, under a thin cloud of mystery. We have a lively remembrance of a white basin, which, in the days of our boyhood, remained, for eight or ten years, in a conspicuous part of the museum, and was supposed to contain a specimen so recent that there had not yet been time for its more elabourate preservation. It bore, as we remember, the label, “This singular creature, with ears like a mouse, was last week found destroying the inside of Mr. O— in the City Road.” But, this was an encroachment on the province of the legitimate Tapeworms. That species were all alike except in length. The smallest, according to the labels, measured, to the best of our recollection, about two hundred yards.
If, in any convenient part of the United Kingdom, (we suggest the capital as the centre of resort,) a similar museum could be established, for the destruction and exhibition of the Red-Tape-Worms with which the British Public are so sorely afflicted, there can be no doubt that it would be, at once, a vast national benefit, and a curious national spectacle. Nor can there be a doubt that the people in general would cheerfully contribute to the support of such an establishment. The labels might be neatly and legibly written, according to the precedent we have mentioned. “The Right Honourable Mr. X— from the Exchequer. Seven thousand yards.” “Earl Y— from the Colonial Office. Half as long again.” “Lord Z— from the Woods and Forests. The longestever known.” “This singular creature,”—not mentioning its ears “was found destroying the patience of Mr. John B— in the House of Commons.” If it were practicable to open such an Institution before the departure of All Nations (which can scarcely be hoped) it might be desirable to translate these abstracts into a variety of languages, for the wider understanding of one of our most agreeable and improving sights.
This article was the first occurence of the phrase ‘Red Tapeworm’ which Dickens coined and has subsequently entered the English language. A red tapeworm is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “a person who adheres excessively to official rules and formalities.”
Criticism of bureaucracy by Charles Dickens in the 1850’s continued after this article, when he coined a government department the ‘Circumlocution Office’ in his novel Little Dorrit, first serialised between 1855 and 1857. In Chapter 10 of the novel, Arthur Clennam visits the Circumlocution Office trying to find out about the case against a man called William Dorrit, who is in prison for debt. He is passed from official to official trying to find a satisfactory answer. At the time, Charles Dickens was angry with the government’s mishandling of the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) and sought to satirize the incompetence of bureaucracy.