Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens


[Inaugural Address on the opening of the Winter Session of the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

One who was present during the delivery of the following speech, informs the editor that “no note of any kind was referred to by Mr. Dickens — except the Quotation from Sydney Smith. The address, evidently carefully prepared, was delivered without a single pause, in Mr. Dickens’s best manner, and was a very great success.”]

Ladies and gentlemen — We often hear of our common country that it is an over-populated one, that it is an over-pauperized one, that it is an over-colonizing one, and that it is an over-taxed one. Now, I entertain, especially of late times, the heretical belief that it is an over-talked one, and that there is a deal of public speech-making going about in various directions which might be advantageously dispensed with. If I were free to act upon this conviction, as president for the time being of the great institution so numerously represented here, I should immediately and at once subside into a golden silence, which would be of a highly edifying, because of a very exemplary character. But I happen to be the institution’s willing servant, not its imperious master, and it exacts tribute of mere silver or copper speech — not to say brazen — from whomsoever it exalts to my high office. Some African tribes — not to draw the comparison disrespectfully — some savage African tribes, when they make a king require him perhaps to achieve an exhausting foot-race under the stimulus of considerable popular prodding and goading, or perhaps to be severely and experimentally knocked about the head by his Privy Council, or perhaps to be dipped in a river full of crocodiles, or perhaps to drink immense quantities of something nasty out of a calabash — at all events, to undergo some purifying ordeal in presence of his admiring subjects.

I must confess that I became rather alarmed when I was duly warned by your constituted authorities that whatever I might happen to say here to-night would be termed an inaugural address on the entrance upon a new term of study by the members of your various classes; for, besides that, the phrase is something high-sounding for my taste, I avow that I do look forward to that blessed time when every man shall inaugurate his own work for himself, and do it. I believe that we shall then have inaugurated a new era indeed, and one in which the Lord’s Prayer will become a fulfilled prophecy upon this earth. Remembering, however, that you may call anything by any name without in the least changing its nature — bethinking myself that you may, if you be so minded, call a butterfly a buffalo, without advancing a hair’s breadth towards making it one — I became composed in my mind, and resolved to stick to the very homely intention I had previously formed. This was merely to tell you, the members, students, and friends of the Birmingham and Midland Institute — firstly, what you cannot possibly want to know, (this is a very popular oratorical theme); secondly, what your institution has done; and, thirdly, what, in the poor opinion of its President for the time being, remains for it to do and not to do.

Now, first, as to what you cannot possibly want to know. You cannot need from me any oratorical declamation concerning the abstract advantages of knowledge or the beauties of self- improvement. If you had any such requirement you would not be here. I conceive that you are here because you have become thoroughly penetrated with such principles, either in your own persons or in the persons of some striving fellow-creatures, on whom you have looked with interest and sympathy. I conceive that you are here because you feel the welfare of the great chiefly adult educational establishment, whose doors stand really open to all sorts and conditions of people, to be inseparable from the best welfare of your great town and its neighbourhood. Nay, if I take a much wider range than that, and say that we all — every one of us here — perfectly well know that the benefits of such an establishment must extend far beyond the limits of this midland county — its fires and smoke — and must comprehend, in some sort, the whole community, I do not strain the truth. It was suggested by Mr. Babbage, in his ninth “Bridgewater Treatise,” that a mere spoken word — a single articulated syllable thrown into the air — may go on reverberating through illimitable space for ever and for ever, seeing that there is no rim against which it can strike — no boundary at which it can possibly arrive. Similarly it may be said — not as an ingenious speculation, but as a stedfast and absolute fact — that human calculation cannot limit the influence of one atom of wholesome knowledge patiently acquired, modestly possessed, and faithfully used.

As the astronomers tell us that it is probable that there are in the universe innumerable solar systems besides ours, to each of which myriads of utterly unknown and unseen stars belong, so it is certain that every man, however obscure, however far removed from the general recognition, is one of a group of men impressible for good, and impressible for evil, and that it is in the eternal nature of things that he cannot really improve himself without in some degree improving other men. And observe, this is especially the case when he has improved himself in the teeth of adverse circumstances, as in a maturity succeeding to a neglected or an ill-taught youth, in the few daily hours remaining to him after ten or twelve hours’ labour, in the few pauses and intervals of a life of toil; for then his fellows and companions have assurance that he can have known no favouring conditions, and that they can do what he has done, in wresting some enlightenment and self-respect from what Lord Lytton finely calls —

“Those twin gaolers of the daring heart, Low birth and iron fortune.”

As you have proved these truths in your own experience or in your own observation, and as it may be safely assumed that there can be very few persons in Birmingham, of all places under heaven, who would contest the position that the more cultivated the employed the better for the employer, and the more cultivated the employer the better for the employed; therefore, my references to what you do not want to know shall here cease and determine.

Next, with reference to what your institution has done on my summary, which shall be as concise and as correct as my information and my remembrance of it may render possible, I desire to lay emphatic stress. Your institution, sixteen years old, and in which masters and workmen study together, has outgrown the ample edifice in which it receives its 2,500 or 2,600 members and students. It is a most cheering sign of its vigorous vitality that of its industrial-students almost half are artisans in the receipt of weekly wages. I think I am correct in saying that 400 others are clerks, apprentices, tradesmen, or tradesmen’s sons. I note with particular pleasure the adherence of a goodly number of the gentler sex, without whom no institution whatever can truly claim to be either a civilising or a civilised one. The increased attendance at your educational classes is always greatest on the part of the artisans — the class within my experience the least reached in any similar institutions elsewhere, and whose name is the oftenest and the most constantly taken in vain. But it is specially reached here, not improbably because it is, as it should be, specially addressed in the foundation of the industrial department, in the allotment of the direction of the society’s affairs, and in the establishment of what are called its penny classes — a bold, and, I am happy to say, a triumphantly successful experiment, which enables the artisan to obtain sound evening instruction in subjects directly bearing upon his daily usefulness or on his daily happiness, as arithmetic (elementary and advanced), chemistry, physical geography, and singing, on payment of the astoundingly low fee of a single penny every time he attends the class. I beg emphatically to say that I look upon this as one of the most remarkable schemes ever devised for the educational behoof of the artisan, and if your institution had done nothing else in all its life, I would take my stand by it on its having done this.

Apart, however, from its industrial department, it has its general department, offering all the advantages of a first-class literary institution. It has its reading-rooms, its library, its chemical laboratory, its museum, its art department, its lecture hall, and its long list of lectures on subjects of various and comprehensive interest, delivered by lecturers of the highest qualifications. Very well. But it may be asked, what are the practical results of all these appliances? Now, let us suppose a few. Suppose that your institution should have educated those who are now its teachers. That would be a very remarkable fact. Supposing, besides, it should, so to speak, have educated education all around it, by sending forth numerous and efficient teachers into many and divers schools. Suppose the young student, reared exclusively in its laboratory, should be presently snapped up for the laboratory of the great and famous hospitals. Suppose that in nine years its industrial students should have carried off a round dozen of the much competed for prizes awarded by the Society of Arts and the Government department, besides two local prizes originating in the generosity of a Birmingham man. Suppose that the Town Council, having it in trust to find an artisan well fit to receive the Whitworth prizes, should find him here. Suppose that one of the industrial students should turn his chemical studies to the practical account of extracting gold from waste colour water, and of taking it into custody, in the very act of running away with hundreds of pounds down the town drains. Suppose another should perceive in his books, in his studious evenings, what was amiss with his master’s until then inscrutably defective furnace, and should go straight — to the great annual saving of that master — and put it right. Supposing another should puzzle out the means, until then quite unknown in England, of making a certain description of coloured glass. Supposing another should qualify himself to vanquish one by one, as they daily arise, all the little difficulties incidental to his calling as an electro-plater, and should be applied to by his companions in the shop in all emergencies under the name of the “Encyclopaedia.” Suppose a long procession of such cases, and then consider that these are not suppositions at all, but are plain, unvarnished facts, culminating in the one special and significant fact that, with a single solitary exception, every one of the institution’s industrial students who have taken its prizes within ten years, have since climbed to higher situations in their way of life.

As to the extent to which the institution encourages the artisan to think, and so, for instance, to rise superior to the little shackling prejudices and observances perchance existing in his trade when they will not bear the test of inquiry, that is only to be equalled by the extent to which it encourages him to feel. There is a certain tone of modest manliness pervading all the little facts which I have looked through which I found remarkably impressive. The decided objection on the part of industrial students to attend classes in their working clothes, breathes this tone, as being a graceful and at the same time perfectly independent recognition of the place and of one another. And this tone is admirably illustrated in a different way, in the case of a poor bricklayer, who, being in temporary reverses through the illness of his family, and having consequently been obliged to part with his best clothes, and being therefore missed from his classes, in which he had been noticed as a very hard worker, was persuaded to attend them in his working clothes. He replied, “No, it was not possible. It must not be thought of. It must not come into question for a moment. It would be supposed, or it might be thought, that he did it to attract attention.” And the same man being offered by one of the officers a loan of money to enable him to rehabilitate his appearance, positively declined it, on the ground that he came to the institution to learn and to know better how to help himself, not otherwise to ask help, or to receive help from any man. Now, I am justified in calling this the tone of the institution, because it is no isolated instance, but is a fair and honourable sample of the spirit of the place, and as such I put it at the conclusion — though last certainly not least — of my references to what your institution has indubitably done.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I come at length to what, in the humble opinion of the evanescent officer before you, remains for the institution to do, and not to do. As Mr. Carlyle has it towards the closing pages of his grand history of the French Revolution, “This we are now with due brevity to glance at; and then courage, oh listener, I see land!” 18 I earnestly hope — and I firmly believe — that your institution will do henceforth as it has done hitherto; it can hardly do better. I hope and believe that it will know among its members no distinction of persons, creed, or party, but that it will conserve its place of assemblage as a high, pure ground, on which all such considerations shall merge into the one universal, heaven-sent aspiration of the human soul to be wiser and better. I hope and believe that it will always be expansive and elastic; for ever seeking to devise new means of enlarging the circle of its members, of attracting to itself the confidence of still greater and greater numbers, and never evincing any more disposition to stand still than time does, or life does, or the seasons do. And above all things, I hope, and I feel confident from its antecedents, that it will never allow any consideration on the face of the earth to induce it to patronise or to be patronised, for I verily believe that the bestowal and receipt of patronage in such wise has been a curse in England, and that it has done more to prevent really good objects, and to lower really high character, than the utmost efforts of the narrowest antagonism could have effected in twice the time.

18 Carlyle’s French Revolution. Book X., Chapter I.

I have no fear that the walls of the Birmingham and Midland Institute will ever tremble responsive to the croakings of the timid opponents of intellectual progress; but in this connexion generally I cannot forbear from offering a remark which is much upon my mind. It is commonly assumed — much too commonly — that this age is a material age, and that a material age is an irreligious age. I have been pained lately to see this assumption repeated in certain influential quarters for which I have a high respect, and desire to have a higher. I am afraid that by dint of constantly being reiterated, and reiterated without protest, this assumption — which I take leave altogether to deny — may be accepted by the more unthinking part of the public as unquestionably true; just as caricaturists and painters, professedly making a portrait of some public man, which was not in the least like him to begin with, have gone on repeating and repeating it until the public came to believe that it must be exactly like him, simply because it was like itself, and really have at last, in the fulness of time, grown almost disposed to resent upon him their tardy discovery — really to resent upon him their late discovery — that he was not like it. I confess, standing here in this responsible situation, that I do not understand this much-used and much-abused phrase — the “material age.” I cannot comprehend — if anybody can I very much doubt — its logical signification. For instance, has electricity become more material in the mind of any sane or moderately insane man, woman, or child, because of the discovery that in the good providence of God it could be made available for the service and use of man to an immeasurably greater extent than for his destruction? Do I make a more material journey to the bed-side of my dying parent or my dying child when I travel there at the rate of sixty miles an hour, than when I travel thither at the rate of six? Rather, in the swiftest case, does not my agonised heart become over-fraught with gratitude to that Supreme Beneficence from whom alone could have proceeded the wonderful means of shortening my suspense? What is the materiality of the cable or the wire compared with the materiality of the spark? What is the materiality of certain chemical substances that we can weigh or measure, imprison or release, compared with the materiality of their appointed affinities and repulsions presented to them from the instant of their creation to the day of judgment? When did this so-called material age begin? With the use of clothing; with the discovery of the compass; with the invention of the art of printing? Surely, it has been a long time about; and which is the more material object, the farthing tallow candle that will not give me light, or that flame of gas which will?

No, ladies and gentlemen, do not let us be discouraged or deceived by any fine, vapid, empty words. The true material age is the stupid Chinese age, in which no new or grand revelations of nature are granted, because they are ignorantly and insolently repelled, instead of being diligently and humbly sought. The difference between the ancient fiction of the mad braggart defying the lightning and the modern historical picture of Franklin drawing it towards his kite, in order that he might the more profoundly study that which was set before him to be studied (or it would not have been there), happily expresses to my mind the distinction between the much-maligned material sages — material in one sense, I suppose, but in another very immaterial sages — of the Celestial Empire school. Consider whether it is likely or unlikely, natural or unnatural, reasonable or unreasonable, that I, a being capable of thought, and finding myself surrounded by such discovered wonders on every hand, should sometimes ask myself the question — should put to myself the solemn consideration — can these things be among those things which might have been disclosed by divine lips nigh upon two thousand years ago, but that the people of that time could not bear them? And whether this be so or no, if I am so surrounded on every hand, is not my moral responsibility tremendously increased thereby, and with it my intelligence and submission as a child of Adam and of the dust, before that Shining Source which equally of all that is granted and all that is withheld holds in His mighty hands the unapproachable mysteries of life and death.

To the students of your industrial classes generally I have had it in my mind, first, to commend the short motto, in two words, “Courage — Persevere.” This is the motto of a friend and worker. Not because the eyes of Europe are upon them, for I don’t in the least believe it; nor because the eyes of even England are upon them, for I don’t in the least believe it; not because their doings will be proclaimed with blast of trumpet at street corners, for no such musical performances will take place; not because self- improvement is at all certain to lead to worldly success, but simply because it is good and right of itself, and because, being so, it does assuredly bring with it its own resources and its own rewards. I would further commend to them a very wise and witty piece of advice on the conduct of the understanding which was given more than half a century ago by the Rev. Sydney Smith — wisest and wittiest of the friends I have lost. He says — and he is speaking, you will please understand, as I speak, to a school of volunteer students — he says: “There is a piece of foppery which is to be cautiously guarded against, the foppery of universality, of knowing all sciences and excelling in all arts — chymistry, mathematics, algebra, dancing, history, reasoning, riding, fencing, Low Dutch, High Dutch, and natural philosophy. In short, the modern precept of education very often is, ‘Take the Admirable Crichton for your model, I would have you ignorant of nothing.’ Now,” says he, “my advice, on the contrary, is to have the courage to be ignorant of a great number of things, in order that you may avoid the calamity of being ignorant of everything.”

To this I would superadd a little truth, which holds equally good of my own life and the life of every eminent man I have ever known. The one serviceable, safe, certain, remunerative, attainable quality in every study and in every pursuit is the quality of attention. My own invention or imagination, such as it is, I can most truthfully assure you, would never have served me as it has, but for the habit of commonplace, humble, patient, daily, toiling, drudging attention. Genius, vivacity, quickness of penetration, brilliancy in association of ideas — such mental qualities, like the qualities of the apparition of the externally armed head in Macbeth, will not be commanded; but attention, after due term of submissive service, always will. Like certain plants which the poorest peasant may grow in the poorest soil, it can be cultivated by any one, and it is certain in its own good season to bring forth flowers and fruit. I can most truthfully assure you by-the-by, that this eulogium on attention is so far quite disinterested on my part as that it has not the least reference whatever to the attention with which you have honoured me.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I have done. I cannot but reflect how often you have probably heard within these walls one of the foremost men, and certainly one of the very best speakers, if not the very best, in England. I could not say to myself, when I began just now, in Shakespeare’s line —

“I will be BRIGHT and shining gold,”

but I could say to myself, and I did say to myself, “I will be as natural and easy as I possibly can,” because my heart has all been in my subject, and I bear an old love towards Birmingham and Birmingham men. I have said that I bear an old love towards Birmingham and Birmingham men; let me amend a small omission, and add “and Birmingham women.” This ring I wear on my finger now is an old Birmingham gift, and if by rubbing it I could raise the spirit that was obedient to Aladdin’s ring, I heartily assure you that my first instruction to that genius on the spot should be to place himself at Birmingham’s disposal in the best of causes.

[In acknowledging the vote of thanks, Mr. Dickens said:-]

Ladies and gentlemen, as I hope it is more than possible that I shall have the pleasure of meeting you again before Christmas is out, and shall have the great interest of seeing the faces and touching the bands of the successful competitors in your lists, I will not cast upon that anticipated meeting the terrible foreshadowing of dread which must inevitably result from a second speech. I thank you most heartily, and I most sincerely and fervently say to you, “Good night, and God bless you.” In reference to the appropriate and excellent remarks of Mr. Dixon, I will now discharge my conscience of my political creed, which is contained in two articles, and has no reference to any party or persons. My faith in the people governing is, on the whole, infinitesimal; my faith in the People governed is, on the whole, illimitable.


Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30