On Thursday, 6 January 1870, Charles Dickens made what would be his last visit to Birmingham when he presided at the distribution of prizes and certificates to the students of the Birmingham and Midland Institute. Dickens made short speeches before and after he had presented the awards, humourously referring to the date of the ceremony (Twelfth Night), a day he traditionally enjoyed family festivities of his own.

We have now to bestow the rewards which have been brilliantly won by the most successful competitors in the society’s lists. I say the most successful, because to-night we should particularly observe, I think, that there is success in all honest endeavour, and that there is some victory gained in every gallant struggle that is made. To strive at all involves a victory achieved over sloth, inertness, and indifference, and competition for these prizes involves besides, in the vast majority of cases, competition with, and mastery asserted over, circumstances adverse to the effort made; therefore, every losing competitor among my hearers may be certain that he has still won much, very much, and that he can well afford to swell the triumph of the rival who has opposed him in the race. I have applied the word rewards to these prizes, and I do so, not because they represent any great intrinsic worth in silver or gold, but precisely because they do not. They represent what is above all price; what can be stated in no arithmetical figures, and what is one of the great needs of the human soul—encouraging sympathy. They are an assurance to every student present or to come in your institution that he does not work either neglected or unfriended, and that he is watched, felt for, stimulated, and appreciated — such an assurance conveyed in the presence of this large assembly, and striking to the breast of the recipient that thrill which is inseparable from any great united utterance. A feeling—as a reward—to my thinking as purely worthy of the labour as the labour itself is worthy of the reward, and by a sensitive spirit can never be forgotten.

Charles Dickens proceeded to distribute prizes, shaking each student warmly by the hand and greeting them with a warm remark. After the prizes had been distributed, Dickens added the following speech:—

The prizes are now all distributed, and I have discharged myself of the delightful task you have entrusted to me; and if the recipients of these prizes and certificates who have come upon this platform have had the genuine pleasure in receiving their acknowledgments from my hands that I have had in placing them in theirs, they are in a true Christian temper to-night. I have the painful sense upon me, that it is reserved for some one else to enjoy this great satisfaction of mind next time. It would be useless for the few short moments longer to disguise the fact that I happen to have drawn King this Twelfth Night, but that another Sovereign will very soon sit upon my inconstant throne. To-night I abdicate, or, what is much the same thing in the modern annals of Royalty—l am politely dethroned. This melancholy reflection, ladies and gentlemen, brings me to a very small point, personal to myself, upon which I will beg your permission to say a closing word.

When I was here last time I made, in reference to some remarks of your respected member, Mr. Dixon, a short confession of my political faith—or, perhaps, I should better say, want of faith. It imported that I have very little confidence in the people who govern us—please to observe “people” there with a small “p”—but that I have very great confidence in the people whom they govern—please to observe there’ “people” with a large “P.” This was shortly, elliptically stated, and was, with no evil intention, I am absolutely sure, in some quarters inversely explained. Perhaps, as the inventor of a certain extravagant fiction, but one I do see rather frequently quoted as if there were grains of truth at the bottom of it—a fiction called “The Circumlocution Office”—and, perhaps, also as the writer of an idle book or two, whose public opinions are not obscurely stated—perhaps, in these capacities I do not sufficiently bear in mind Hamlet’s caution, to speak by the card lest equivocation should undo me.

Anyhow, I complain of nobody; but simply in order that there may be no more mistake as to what I did mean, and as to what I do mean, I will restate my meaning. And I will do so in the words of a great thinker, a great writer, and a great scholar—whose life, unfortunately for mankind, was cut short—in his “History of Civilisation in England”:—

“They may talk as they will about the reforms which Government has introduced, and the improvements to be expected from legislation; but whoever will take a wider and more commanding view of human affairs will soon discover that such hopes are chimerical. They will learn that law-givers are nearly always the obstructors of society instead of its helpers, and that in the extremely few cases in which their measures have turned out well, their success has been owing to the fact that, contrary to their usual custom, they have implicitly obeyed the spirit of their time, and have been, as they always should be, the mere servants of the people, to whose wish they are bound to give a public and legal sanction.”