Charles Dickens was one of the most energetic men of the Victorian age. He was the most famous novelist of the period, he edited or “conducted” as he put it, his own weekly journal, he was a journalist & philanthropist. His most famous experiment in philanthropy was Urania Cottage, a home for fallen women. The aim was to take young women off the streets or, more usually, from prison after they’d served their sentence, & give them the skills they needed to leave behind a life of crime. They would be trained in the domestic arts & sent to Australia, Canada or Sth Africa to start a new life. Dickens’s partner in this as in many of his philanthropic ventures was Angela Burdett Coutts, a young woman who was the heiress to the Coutts Bank fortune. She provided the money & certainly took an interest in the girls but Dickens was the driving force behind Urania Cottage. Dickens had always been interested in crime & punishment. His early experiences when his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for debt are well-known. The effect of this & its consequences for him – the end of his formal education & the time he spent working in Warren’s Blacking Factory – are well-known. He was fascinated by prisons & had very enlightened views of how prisoners should be treated – reformed rather than punished. Prisoners were forced to do repetitive, menial work, often in complete silence & there was no idea of reform. Dickens understood that many prisoners had started their life of crime through poverty rather than vice. Women were especially vulnerable. Orphaned or abandoned by their families or partners, it was almost impossible to make a living through respectable work. A seamstress could barely make enough to live on & if they didn’t have the skills to become domestic servants, prostitution or petty theft were the only alternatives. Urania Cottage was to be a home for the girls, not an institution or penitentiary, where they could be treated with respect, as individuals & earn the right to emigrate to a new life. Only a small number of women could be accommodated, about a dozen, but they usually only stayed for a year (if they stayed the course) before leaving for the colonies. Of course, not all the girls were grateful for this interference in their lives. It could be seen as middle-class meddling. But, Dickens & Miss Coutts really wanted to make a difference in the lives of their charges. The alternative was horrible, a short, miserable life on the streets or in prison. Urania Cottage was an enlightened alternative to some of the other schemes of the time, most of them with overtly religious or punitive aims. Jenny Hartley has written a fascinating account of the project. Dickens took a hands-on role in every area. He leased the Cottage, employed the staff, bought all the furniture, set out their daily timetable, personally interviewed the prospective inmates & was the moving force of the Committee set up to manage it. He wrote hundreds of letters, engaged the help of two prison governors who suggested suitable girls, & took an avid interest in every aspect of the work. He was involved for over 10 years & the effects of it can be seen in his books. Characters such as Martha Endell & Little Em’ly in David Copperfield, Tattycoram in Little Dorrit & Susan Nipper in Dombey & Son, are all testament to the effects of Dickens’s involvement at Urania. Dickens wrote up the story of every girl who entered Urania Cottage in a Case Book. He interviewed them all personally on arrival & throughout their stay. Although the book has disappeared, there’s enough evidence from his mentions of it in letters to know that a very full record was kept & only Dickens saw it. What a resource for a novelist! Although very little is known about the inmates apart from Dickens’s letters & Census records, Hartley has managed to trace several of them once they emigrated. Rhena Pollard was 16 when she was admitted to Urania Cottage. She was a troublemaker, spirited, but with a temper. Even so, Dickens thought she had potential, “The little girl from Petworth is an extraordinary case of restless imposture & seeking after notoriety; but there are chances (not desperate chances, I think) of something better being made of it.” Rhena lost her temper once too often & declared that she was off, she wouldn’t stay another minute. All Dickens’s theatrical instincts came to the fore. He ordered her to be turned out at once, as was the rule. But, it was Christmas, & he didn’t want Rhena to go at all so he called her bluff. She was shocked into admitting that she wanted to stay & she pleaded with the matron in front of the other girls to be allowed to change her mind. Dickens then wrote a letter to be read out to the girls that had the effect of allowing Rhena to stay, showing the others the consequences of disobedience & reinforcing the authority of a new matron as Dickens pretended that it was the matron’s pleas which had changed his mind. Rhena eventually emigrated to Canada, married a homesteader & had a family. Her descendants live in Ontario today. Hartley even speculates that Rhena is the model for Tattycoram as she resembles her in looks & temper.
Another descendant of a Urania girl was traced on Hartley’s last day of a trip to Australia in a retirement home here in Melbourne. She had no idea of the Dickensian connection in her family. This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in Dickens or in the social history of the 19th century. The Urania Cottage project was a period of ten years of Dickens’s life that had a profound impact on his life & work.