Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens

SPEECH: LONDON, JUNE 5, 1867.

[On the above date Mr. Dickens presided at the Ninth Anniversary Festival of the Railway Benevolent Society, at Willis’s Rooms, and in proposing the toast of the evening, made the following speech.]

Although we have not yet left behind us by the distance of nearly fifty years the time when one of the first literary authorities of this country insisted upon the speed of the fastest railway train that the Legisture might disastrously sanction being limited by Act of Parliament to ten miles an hour, yet it does somehow happen that this evening, and every evening, there are railway trains running pretty smoothly to Ireland and to Scotland at the rate of fifty miles an hour; much as it was objected in its time to vaccination, that it must have a tendency to impart to human children something of the nature of the cow, whereas I believe to this very time vaccinated children are found to be as easily defined from calves as they ever were, and certainly they have no cheapening influence on the price of veal; much as it was objected that chloroform was a contravention of the will of Providence, because it lessened providentially-inflicted pain, which would be a reason for your not rubbing your face if you had the tooth-ache, or not rubbing your nose if it itched; so it was evidently predicted that the railway system, even if anything so absurd could be productive of any result, would infallibly throw half the nation out of employment; whereas, you observe that the very cause and occasion of our coming here together to-night is, apart from the various tributary channels of occupation which it has opened out, that it has called into existence a specially and directly employed population of upwards of 200,000 persons.

Now, gentlemen, it is pretty clear and obvious that upwards of 200,000 persons engaged upon the various railways of the United Kingdom cannot be rich; and although their duties require great care and great exactness, and although our lives are every day, humanly speaking, in the hands of many of them, still, for the most of these places there will be always great competition, because they are not posts which require skilled workmen to hold. Wages, as you know very well, cannot be high where competition is great, and you also know very well that railway directors, in the bargains they make, and the salaries which they pay, have to deal with the money of the shareholders, to whom they are accountable. Thus it necessarily happens that railway officers and servants are not remunerated on the whole by any means splendidly, and that they cannot hope in the ordinary course of things to do more than meet the ordinary wants and hazards of life. But it is to be observed that the general hazards are in their case, by reason of the dangerous nature of their avocations, exceptionally great, so very great, I find, as to be stateable, on the authority of a parliamentary paper, by the very startling round of figures, that whereas one railway traveller in 8,000,000 of passengers is killed, one railway servant in every 2,000 is killed.

Hence, from general, special, as well, no doubt, for the usual prudential and benevolent considerations, there came to be established among railway officers and servants, nine years ago, the Railway Benevolent Association. I may suppose, therefore, as it was established nine years ago, that this is the ninth occasion of publishing from this chair the banns between this institution and the public. Nevertheless, I feel bound individually to do my duty the same as if it had never been done before, and to ask whether there is any just cause or impediment why these two parties — the institution and the public — should not be joined together in holy charity. As I understand the society, its objects are five-fold — first, to guarantee annuities which, it is always to be observed, is paid out of the interest of invested capital, so that those annuities may be secure and safe — annual pensions, varying from 10 to 25 pounds, to distressed railway officers and servants incapacitated by age, sickness, or accident; secondly, to guarantee small pensions to distressed widows; thirdly, to educate and maintain orphan children; fourthly, to provide temporary relief for all those classes till lasting relief can be guaranteed out of funds sufficiently large for the purpose; lastly, to induce railway officers and servants to assure their lives in some well- established office by sub-dividing the payment of the premiums into small periodical sums, and also by granting a reversionary bonus of 10 pounds per cent. on the amount assured from the funds of the institution.

This is the society we are met to assist — simple, sympathetic, practical, easy, sensible, unpretending. The number of its members is large, and rapidly on the increase: they number 12,000; the amount of invested capital is very nearly 15,000 pounds; it has done a world of good and a world of work in these first nine years of its life; and yet I am proud to say that the annual cost of the maintenance of the institution is no more than 250 pounds. And now if you do not know all about it in a small compass, either I do not know all about it myself, or the fault must be in my “packing.”

One naturally passes from what the institution is and has done, to what it wants. Well, it wants to do more good, and it cannot possibly do more good until it has more money. It cannot safely, and therefore it cannot honourably, grant more pensions to deserving applicants until it grows richer, and it cannot grow rich enough for its laudable purpose by its own unaided self. The thing is absolutely impossible. The means of these railway officers and servants are far too limited. Even if they were helped to the utmost by the great railway companies, their means would still be too limited; even if they were helped — and I hope they shortly will be — by some of the great corporations of this country, whom railways have done so much to enrich. These railway officers and servants, on their road to a very humble and modest superannuation, can no more do without the help of the great public, than the great public, on their road from Torquay to Aberdeen, can do without them. Therefore, I desire to ask the public whether the servants of the great railways — who, in fact, are their servants, their ready, zealous, faithful, hard-working servants — whether they have not established, whether they do not every day establish, a reasonable claim to liberal remembrance.

Now, gentlemen, on this point of the case there is a story once told me by a friend of mine, which seems to my mind to have a certain application. My friend was an American sea-captain, and, therefore, it is quite unnecessary to say his story was quite true. He was captain and part owner of a large American merchant liner. On a certain voyage out, in exquisite summer weather, he had for cabin passengers one beautiful young lady, and ten more or less beautiful young gentlemen. Light winds or dead calms prevailing, the voyage was slow. They had made half their distance when the ten young gentlemen were all madly in love with the beautiful young lady. They had all proposed to her, and bloodshed among the rivals seemed imminent pending the young lady’s decision. On this extremity the beautiful young lady confided in my friend the captain, who gave her discreet advice. He said: “If your affections are disengaged, take that one of the young gentlemen whom you like the best and settle the question.” To this the beautiful young lady made reply, “I cannot do that because I like them all equally well.” My friend, who was a man of resource, hit upon this ingenious expedient, said he, “To-morrow morning at mid- day, when lunch is announced, do you plunge bodily overboard, head foremost. I will be alongside in a boat to rescue you, and take the one of the ten who rushes to your rescue, and then you can afterwards have him.” The beautiful young lady highly approved, and did accordingly. But after she plunged in, nine out of the ten more or less beautiful young gentlemen plunged in after her; and the tenth remained and shed tears, looking over the side of the vessel. They were all picked up, and restored dripping to the deck. The beautiful young lady upon seeing them said, “What am I to do? See what a plight they are in. How can I possibly choose, because every one of them is equally wet?” Then said my friend the captain, acting upon a sudden inspiration, “Take the dry one.” I am sorry to say that she did so, and they lived happy ever afterwards.

Now, gentleman, in my application of this story, I exactly reverse my friend the captain’s anecdote, and I entreat the public in looking about to consider who are fit subjects for their bounty, to give each his hand with something in it, and not award a dry hand to the industrious railway servant who is always at his back. And I would ask any one with a doubt upon this subject to consider what his experience of the railway servant is from the time of his departure to his arrival at his destination. I know what mine is. Here he is, in velveteen or in a policeman’s dress, scaling cabs, storming carriages, finding lost articles by a sort of instinct, binding up lost umbrellas and walking sticks, wheeling trucks, counselling old ladies, with a wonderful interest in their affairs- -mostly very complicated — and sticking labels upon all sorts of articles. I look around — there he is, in a station-master’s uniform, directing and overseeing, with the head of a general, and with the courteous manners of a gentleman; and then there is the handsome figure of the guard, who inspires confidence in timid passengers. I glide out of the station, and there he is again with his flags in his hand at his post in the open country, at the level crossing, at the cutting, at the tunnel mouth, and at every station on the road until our destination is reached. In regard, therefore, to the railway servants with whom we do come into contact, we may surely have some natural sympathy, and it is on their behalf that I this night appeal to you. I beg now to propose “Success to the Railway Benevolent Society.”

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