On Tuesday, 9 May 1865, Charles Dickens presided at the Annual Festival of the Newsvendors’ Benevolent and Provident Association, where he delivered the following speech.
Ladies and gentlemen — Dr. Johnson’s experience of that club, the members of which have travelled over one another’s minds in every direction, is not to be compared with the experience of the perpetual president of a society like this. Having on previous occasions said everything about it that he could possibly find to say, he is again produced, with the same awful formalities, to say everything about it that he cannot possibly find to say. It struck me, when Dr. F. Jones was referring just now to Easter Monday, that the case of such an ill-starred president is very like that of the stag at Epping Forest on Easter Monday. That unfortunate animal when he is uncarted at the spot where the meet takes place, generally makes a point, I am told, of making away at a cool trot, venturesomely followed by the whole field, to the yard where he lives, and there subsides into a quiet and inoffensive existence, until he is again brought out to be again followed by exactly the same field, under exactly the same circumstances, next Easter Monday.
The difficulties of the situation — and here I mean the president and not the stag — are greatly increased in such an instance as this by the peculiar nature of the institution. In its unpretending solidity, reality, and usefulness, believe me — for I have carefully considered the point — it presents no opening whatever of an oratorical nature. If it were one of those costly charities, so called, whose yield of wool bears no sort of proportion to their cry for cash, I very likely might have a word or two to say on the subject. If its funds were lavished in patronage and show, instead of being honestly expended in providing small annuities for hard- working people who have themselves contributed to its funds — if its management were intrusted to people who could by no possibility know anything about it, instead of being invested in plain, business, practical hands — if it hoarded when it ought to spend — if it got by cringing and fawning what it never deserved, I might possibly impress you very much by my indignation. If its managers could tell me that it was insolvent, that it was in a hopeless condition, that its accounts had been kept by Mr. Edmunds — or by “Tom,”— if its treasurer had run away with the money-box, then I might have made a pathetic appeal to your feelings. But I have no such chance. Just as a nation is happy whose records are barren, so is a society fortunate that has no history — and its president unfortunate. I can only assure you that this society continues its plain, unobtrusive, useful career. I can only assure you that it does a great deal of good at a very small cost, and that the objects of its care and the bulk of its members are faithful working servants of the public — sole ministers of their wants at untimely hours, in all seasons, and in all weathers; at their own doors, at the street-corners, at every railway train, at every steam-boat; through the agency of every establishment and the tiniest little shops; and that, whether regarded as master or as man, their profits are very modest and their risks numerous, while their trouble and responsibility are very great.
The newsvendors and newsmen are a very subordinate part of that wonderful engine — the newspaper press. Still I think we all know very well that they are to the fountain-head what a good service of water pipes is to a good water supply. Just as a goodly store of water at Watford would be a tantalization to thirsty London if it were not brought into town for its use, so any amount of news accumulated at Printing-house Square, or Fleet Street, or the Strand, would be if there were no skill and enterprise engaged in its dissemination.
We are all of us in the habit of saying in our every-day life, that “We never know the value of anything until we lose it.” Let us try the newsvendors by the test. A few years ago we discovered one morning that there was a strike among the cab-drivers. Now, let us imagine a strike of newsmen. Imagine the trains waiting in vain for the newspapers. Imagine all sorts and conditions of men dying to know the shipping news, the commercial news, the foreign news, the legal news, the criminal news, the dramatic news. Imagine the paralysis on all the provincial exchanges; the silence and desertion of all the newsmen’s exchanges in London. Imagine the circulation of the blood of the nation and of the country standing still — the clock of the world. Why, even Mr. Reuter, the great Reuter — whom I am always glad to imagine slumbering at night by the side of Mrs. Reuter, with a galvanic battery under his bolster, bell and wires to the head of his bed, and bells at each ear — think how even he would click and flash those wondrous dispatches of his, and how they would become mere nothing without the activity and honesty which catch up the threads and stitches of the electric needle, and scatter them over the land.
It is curious to consider — and the thought occurred to me this day, when I was out for a stroll pondering over the duties of this evening, which even then were looming in the distance, but not quite so far off as I could wish — I found it very curious to consider that though the newsman must be allowed to be a very unpicturesque rendering of Mercury, or Fame, or what-not conventional messenger from the clouds, and although we must allow that he is of this earth, and has a good deal of it on his boots, still that he has two very remarkable characteristics, to which none of his celestial predecessors can lay the slightest claim. One is that he is always the messenger of civilization; the other that he is at least equally so — not only in what he brings, but in what he ceases to bring. Thus the time was, and not so many years ago either, when the newsman constantly brought home to our doors — though I am afraid not to our hearts, which were custom-hardened — the most terrific accounts of murders, of our fellow-creatures being publicly put to death for what we now call trivial offences, in the very heart of London, regularly every Monday morning. At the same time the newsman regularly brought to us the infliction of other punishments, which were demoralising to the innocent part of the community, while they did not operate as punishments in deterring offenders from the perpetration of crimes. In those same days, also, the newsman brought to us daily accounts of a regularly accepted and received system of loading the unfortunate insane with chains, littering them down on straw, starving them on bread and water, damaging their clothes, and making periodical exhibitions of them at a small charge; and that on a Sunday one of our public resorts was a kind of demoniacal zoological gardens. They brought us accounts at the same time of some damage done to the machinery which was destined to supply the operative classes with employment. In the same time they brought us accounts of riots for bread, which were constantly occurring, and undermining society and the state; of the most terrible explosions of class against class, and of the habitual employment of spies for the discovery — if not for the origination — of plots, in which both sides found in those days some relief. In the same time the same newsmen were apprising us of a state of society all around us in which the grossest sensuality and intemperance were the rule; and not as now, when the ignorant, the wicked, and the wretched are the inexcusably vicious exceptions — a state of society in which the professional bully was rampant, and when deadly duels were daily fought for the most absurd and disgraceful causes. All this the newsman has ceased to tell us of. This state of society has discontinued in England for ever; and when we remember the undoubted truth, that the change could never have been effected without the aid of the load which the newsman carries, surely it is not very romantic to express the hope on his behalf that the public will show to him some little token of the sympathetic remembrance which we are all of us glad to bestow on the bearers of happy tidings — the harbingers of good news.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, you will be glad to hear that I am coming to a conclusion; for that conclusion I have a precedent. You all of you know how pleased you are on your return from a morning’s walk to learn that the collector has called. Well, I am the collector for this district, and I hope you will bear in mind that I have respectfully called. Regarding the institution on whose behalf I have presented myself, I need only say technically two things. First, that its annuities are granted out of its funded capital, and therefore it is safe as the Bank; and, secondly, that they are attainable by such a slight exercise of prudence and fore-thought, that a payment of 25s. extending over a period of five years, entitles a subscriber — if a male — to an annuity of 16 pounds a-year, and a female to 12 pounds a-year. Now, bear in mind that this is an institution on behalf of which the collector has called, leaving behind his assurance that what you can give to one of the most faithful of your servants shall be well bestowed and faithfully applied to the purposes to which you intend them, and to those purposes alone.