Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens

SPEECH: THE NEWSVENDORS’ INSTITUTION, LONDON, APRIL 5, 1870.

[The annual dinner in aid of the funds of the Newsvendors’ Benevolent and Provident Institution was held on the above evening, at the Freemason’s Tavern. Mr. Charles Dickens presided, and was supported by the Sheriffs of the City of London and Middlesex.

After the usual toasts had been given and responded to,

The Chairman said that if the approved order of their proceedings had been observed, the Corporation of the City of London would no doubt have considered themselves snubbed if they were not toasted by themselves. He was sure that a distinguished member of the Corporation who was present would tell the company what the Corporation were going to do; and he had not the slightest doubt they were going to do something highly creditable to themselves, and something highly serviceable to the whole metropolis; and if the secret were not at present locked up in the blue chamber, they would be all deeply obliged to the gentleman who would immediately follow him, if he let them into it in the same confidence as he had observed with respect to the Corporation of the City of London being snubbed. He begged to give the toast of “The Corporation of the City of London.”

Mr. Alderman Cotton, in replying to the toast, said for once, and once only, had their chairman said an unkind word about the Corporation of London. He had always reckoned Mr. Dickens to be one of the warmest friends of the Corporation; and remembering that he (Mr. Dickens) did really go through a Lord Mayor’s Show in a Lord Mayor’s carriage, if he had not felt himself quite a Lord Mayor, he must have at least considered himself next to one.

In proposing the toast of the evening Mr, Dickens said:-]

Ladies and gentlemen — You receive me with so much cordiality that I fear you believe that I really did once sit in a Lord Mayor’s state coach. Permit me to assure you, in spite of the information received from Mr. Alderman Cotton, that I never had that honour. Furthermore, I beg to assure you that I never witnessed a Lord Mayor’s show except from the point of view obtained by the other vagabonds upon the pavement. Now, ladies and gentlemen, in spite of this great cordiality of yours, I doubt if you fully know yet what a blessing it is to you that I occupy this chair to-night, because, having filled it on several previous occasions for the society on whose behalf we are assembled, and having said everything that I could think of to say about it, and being, moreover, the president of the institution itself, I am placed to- night in the modest position of a host who is not so much to display himself as to call out his guests — perhaps even to try to induce some among them to occupy his place on another occasion. And, therefore, you may be safely sure that, like Falstaff, but with a modification almost as large as himself, I shall try rather to be the cause of speaking in others than to speak myself to- night. Much in this manner they exhibit at the door of a snuff shop the effigy of a Highlander with an empty mull in his hand, who, having apparently taken all the snuff he can carry, and discharged all the sneezes of which he is capable, politely invites his friends and patrons to step in and try what they can do in the same line.

It is an appropriate instance of the universality of the newsman’s calling that no toast we have drunk to-night — and no toast we shall drink to-night — and no toast we might, could, should, or would drink to-night, is separable for a moment from that great inclusion of all possible subjects of human interest which he delivers at our doors every day. Further, it may be worthy the consideration of everybody here who has talked cheerfully to his or her neighbour since we have sat down at the table, what in the name of Heaven should we have talked about, and how on earth could we have possibly got on, if our newsman had only for one single day forgotten us. Now, ladies and gentlemen, as our newsman is not by any means in the habit of forgetting us, let us try to form a little habit of not forgetting our newsman. Let us remember that his work is very arduous; that it occupies him early and late; that the profits he derives from us are at the best very small; that the services he renders to us are very great; that if he be a master, his little capital is exposed to all sorts of mischances, anxieties, and hazards; and if he be a journeyman, he himself is exposed to all manner of weathers, of tempers, and of difficult and unreasonable requirements.

Let me illustrate this. I was once present at a social discussion, which originated by chance. The subject was, What was the most absorbing and longest-lived passion in the human breast? What was the passion so powerful that it would almost induce the generous to be mean, the careless to be cautious, the guileless to be deeply designing, and the dove to emulate the serpent? A daily editor of vast experience and great acuteness, who was one of the company, considerably surprised us by saying with the greatest confidence that the passion in question was the passion of getting orders for the play.

There had recently been a terrible shipwreck, and very few of the surviving sailors had escaped in an open boat. One of these on making land came straight to London, and straight to the newspaper office, with his story of how he had seen the ship go down before his eyes. That young man had witnessed the most terrible contention between the powers of fire and water for the destruction of that ship and of every one on board. He had rowed away among the floating, dying, and the sinking dead. He had floated by day, and he had frozen by night, with no shelter and no food, and, as he told his dismal tale, he rolled his haggard eyes about the room. When he had finished, and the tale had been noted down from his lips, he was cheered and refreshed, and soothed, and asked if anything could be done for him. Even within him that master passion was so strong that he immediately replied he should like an order for the play. My friend the editor certainly thought that was rather a strong case; but he said that during his many years of experience he had witnessed an incurable amount of self-prostration and abasement having no outer object, and that almost invariably on the part of people who could well afford to pay.

This made a great impression on my mind, and I really lived in this faith until some years ago it happened upon a stormy night I was kindly escorted from a bleak railway station to the little out-of- the-way town it represented by a sprightly and vivacious newsman, to whom I propounded, as we went along under my umbrella — he being most excellent company — this old question, what was the one all- absorbing passion of the human soul? He replied, without the slightest hesitation, that it certainly was the passion for getting your newspaper in advance of your fellow-creatures; also, if you only hired it, to get it delivered at your own door at exactly the same time as another man who hired the same copy four miles off; and, finally, the invincible determination on the part of both men not to believe the time was up when the boy called.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have not had an opportunity of verifying this experience with my friends of the managing committee, but I have no doubt from its reception to-night that my friend the newsman was perfectly right. Well, as a sort of beacon in a sufficiently dark life, and as an assurance that among a little body of working men there is a feeling of brotherhood and sympathy- -which is worth much to all men, or they would herd with wolves — the newsvendors once upon a time established the Benevolent and Provident Institution, and here it is. Under the Provident head, certain small annuities are granted to old and hard-working subscribers. Under the Benevolent head, relief is afforded to temporary and proved distress. Under both heads, I am bound to say the help rendered is very humble and very sparing, but if you like it to be handsomer you have it in your power to make it so. Such as it is, it is most gratefully received, and does a deal of good. Such as it is, it is most discreetly and feelingly administered; and it is encumbered with no wasteful charges for management or patronage.

You know upon an old authority, that you may believe anything except facts and figures, but you really may believe that during the last year we have granted 100 pounds in pensions, and some 70 pounds in temporary relief, and we have invested in Government securities some 400 pounds. But, touching this matter of investments, it was suggested at the anniversary dinner, on the high and kind authority of Sir Benjamin Phillips that we might grant more pensions and invest less money. We urged, on the other hand, that we wished our pensions to be certain and unchangeable — which of course they must be if they are always paid out of our Government interest and never out of our capital. However, so amiable is our nature, that we profess our desire to grant more pensions and to invest more money too. The more you give us to- night again, so amiable is our nature, the more we promise to do in both departments. That the newsman’s work has greatly increased, and that it is far more wearing and tearing than it used to be, you may infer from one fact, not to mention that we live in railway times. It is stated in Mitchell’s “Newspaper Press Directory,” that during the last quarter of a century the number of newspapers which appeared in London had more than doubled, while the increase in the number of people among whom they were disseminated was probably beyond calculation.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have stated the newsman’s simple case. I leave it in your hands. Within the last year the institution has had the good fortune to attract the sympathy and gain the support of the eminent man of letters I am proud to call my friend, 24 who now represents the great Republic of America at the British Court. Also it has the honour of enrolling upon its list of donors and vice-presidents the great name of Longfellow. I beg to propose to you to drink “Prosperity to the Newsvendors’ Benevolent and Provident Institution.”

24 The Honourable John Lothrop Motley.

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