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Pip Pip Pip Hooray!

Historical Significance

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When Charles Dickens wrote his famous book “Great Expectations” in 1860, he may
not have expected it to continue to be read by peoples of the 20th and 21st
centuries.  Since the story was written in the 19th century, it may be hard for
us to understand what the Hulks are, or how law and order worked, and even the
aristocratic way of England’s richest.  In order to truly enjoy one of Dickens’
finest stories, one must first know the history behind the book.
 The Hulks: the dreadful floating prisons.  England experienced a huge economic
downfall during Dickens’ time, so there were many people who were left with
nothing to their name.  These unfortunate creatures soon turned to crime at an
early age and stayed criminals as long as they lived.  England eventually had so
many convicts they did not know what to do.  Before, criminals would simply be
sent off to the American Colonies.  The British Government obviously believed
that sending these people miles and miles away would just make them disappear
forever.  However, their plan did not work as in 1776; the American colonists
rebelled against England to fight for independence.  So, now with nowhere to
dump the criminals, England decided that they would create what was soon to be
known as The Hulks.  The Hulks are actually decommissioned naval vessels the
England decided to use as prisons.  The boat would be filled up with convicted
criminals, and be anchored off a distance from the shore.  Then, the convicts
would wait in this floating dungeon until after a while; a fleet would go off
and dump them onto the new continent of Australia.  Of course the conditions
upon these ships were most unbearable.  There was a lack of food, lack of space,
and lack of proper health care.
Magwitch, the convict in “Great Expectations” was sentenced to stay onboard one
of the Hulks.  He escaped once, but then was sent back when he was caught.
Magwitch and the rest of his fellow convicts were eventually shipped off to
Australia, or New South Wales.  Australia became England’s new dumping ground
after the American colonies.  There in Australia, Magwitch became a wealthy man
and thus he could help Pip to live a good life.
 The law and order in 19th century Britain is important to know about.  Back in
the 19th century, people believed that public executions and brutal punishments
were important, in the way that it may scare off any future criminals from
committing any more crimes.  When a public hanging took place, many people would
come to watch and cheer as they convict was hung until death.  Afterwards,
people often threw parties to celebrate the death of another criminal.  Since
England was in a dire state of poverty in the 19th century, debtors were very
common.  Debtors are people who cannot pay their bills on time, and therefore,
are sentenced to prison confinement.  Of course, with so many debtors and
criminals, the prisons begin to fill up.  Overcrowded facilities, sometimes with
over 1,000 people were not uncommon.  Men, women, and even children were all put
in one jail, so all sorts of “things” happened.  Disease and death spread
through the prisons in no time.  Of course, the law system did not help.  Jurors
seemed to be lazy most of the time, and were quick to convict most people; it
took less time and they could get back to whatever they were doing.  Also, many
cases the outcome was based upon a person’s rank or social position, as in the
case where Compeyson won over Magwitch, only because Compeyson had a much better
 There is a huge difference between the rich and the poor in 19th century
England; the poor being in jail and the rich being in a nice house.  It was
after the Industrial Revolution that generated much of England’s income.
Unfortunately, this income was mostly generated for only a few people, as the
workers often were cheated out of their money.  This was a time best described
as a time where the rich got richer and the poor got even poorer.  Being rich
was, and still is, one of the best things one could ever hope for.  The rich of
19th century England spent their days doing literally nothing.  They lounged
around reading books, or having tea with friends, or just simply relaxing.
These people had servants to do every little thing for them.  They almost never
worked, as most of their money comes from their giant businesses, and they
generated a constant steam of income for themselves, and usually neglected the
workers.  Miss Havishim is one of the rich people of “Great Expectations”.  She
is a good example because apparently, she can sit around doing nothing but
dreaming dreams of revenge.  She does no work, has a number of servants, and has
a few people vying over her inheritance money.
 To know the history of 19th century England is to know the book.  Without a
look into the background of the story, one is not able to fully understand and
feel the way Dickens would want you to feel when you meet the characters,
explore the places, and progress through the storyline.  One must know the
history, before one knows the book.




The End =)