In the latest in our local history series, Paul Harding, from Discover History, looks at when Charles Dickens visited Worcester.

"ARE there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"

Imagine the scene - the Cornmarket in the centre of Worcester is covered in fresh snow, people begin to pour into the Public Hall with a penny in their hand. It’s Saturday and the hall is open for its popular ‘Saturday Penny Readings.’ Inside Christmas greenery such as Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe adds to the beauty of this fine building.

The Public Hall was a popular venue, where people could hear music, sing songs and receive entertainment that didn’t involve sitting in a pub and drinking. On Saturday evenings, authors could often be found, sat in an armchair, on the stage reading from their own books.

In 1867 the audience settled down to a winter ghost story. A man with a beard began with the words ‘Marley was dead to begin with…..’ It was Charles Dickens and he was reading from his popular 1843 book A Christmas Carol. 

At Christmas, we see many adaptations of this popular story, so what was our city like outside the Public Hall when Charles Dickens visited?

In the 19th Century, Worcester was joining the Industrial Revolution. The river, the canal and the new railway all saw many goods passing through.

The Cottage Industry, whereby families created wool on hand looms, was now a thing of the past. Large brick buildings, with machines and an army of workers was the new way of making consumables. Royal Worcester Bone China works, Fownes Gloves, Cinderella Shoes, Hardy and Padmore Iron Works, Lea and Perrins Sauce and Hill Evans Vinegar Works helped the city excel in this new era.

Worcester had become a quiet backwater after the death and destruction of the English Civil Wars. The Scottish occupation and the Battle of Worcester, fought in 1651, were ruinous for the city. Buildings were badly damaged and the looms and other wool manufacturing tools were looted or smashed during the final storming of the city.

This Industrial age began to restore the city’s importance and put Worcester back on the map where it stood in the Middle Ages.

However, problems plagued this new fast-paced society. Criminals filled the city and county gaols, found in Friar Street and Castle Street retrospectively; the destitute reluctantly went to the Workhouse and the poor inhabited the growing slums of Dolday, Copenhagen Street and Quay Street.

A huge number of people living in the slums still lived in damp, rotting, overcrowded medieval dwellings with one outdoor privy for a number of homes. In turn, drinking water was taken from old contaminated wells, buckets left in the yard filling with rain water and even water drawn from the filthy River Severn. Cholera epidemics became almost as seasonal as a common cold.

Sir Charles Hastings, a surgeon at the Worcester Infirmary, took great interest in the city and with the Board of Health began the task of improving the city. He also established the British Medical Association in 1832.

The Health report that was created is a horrifying read that could have been penned by Charles Dickens himself. It included descriptions of overflowing privies, putrefying matter oozing through the walls of homes from grave yards and overcrowding living in the Courts system.

Improvement proposals were made from these shocking findings, but took almost a century to implement.

*The Public Hall was used as a Music Hall for many years. Vesta Tilley performed there and so did Sir Edward Elgar and Jenny Lind. Sadly the Public Hall was demolished in the 1960s. The Cornmarket car park now occupies this site.