Society is changing but there's a long way to go still

Food, shelter and clothing are the very basics

Destitution was a common theme in Dickens's time and still pervades in society today - Credit: Getty Images

In 1805, a young woman was forced to walk through the lychgate of the graveyard to enter the church of St Margaret and St Andrew at Littleham, Exmouth. She was barefoot, wrapped in a white sheet, and weeping bitterly. She would have presented a pitiful sight, but alarmingly now that was seen as being a Christian act as she was excommunicated from the church, her ‘sin’ unknown by this writer.

There have been several references and enquiries regarding this sad event in recent posts on social media, which made me reflect on how attitudes have changed over the centuries, even decades. It is unthinkable that people, including children, were transported to the other side of the world, even executed, for stealing food when they were starving. Those same unfortunate individuals would, in present times, be offered sustenance instead, and would be recognised as victims of a cruel system, not as the perpetrators of crime.

Charles Dickens shone a light in the darkest corners of poverty, destitution, cruelty and oppression when he wrote his serialised novels which poor people could purchase for one halfpenny each month. The interest in his stories were often based on conditions which existed in the 1800s, and played a significant part in the encouragement of the poorly educated to read. The characters were illustrated as being victims or perpetrators, exposing the inequalities, injustices and deprivations which pervaded society in those times.

In this decade, we are witnessing struggles across the world, more recently in Afghanistan, where desperate people are trying to flee an oppressive, brutal incoming regime, even offering their children to soldiers to fly them to safety. These too are victims, pleading, often impossibly, for help.

Unfortunately, there are some who believe that if others have not been seen to succeed in life, then it is their own fault. We see it daily, the uncaring attitudes of some of those in positions of power, or among others in professional standing, even our colleagues or neighbours. However, values continue to change, with greater recognition being given to the less fortunate in the population, especially the ‘victims’. An example of this has emerged in recent years, when victims of crime are invited to make Victim Personal Statements to the Court which has heard the case where the crime committed has made significant impacts on their lives, many of which are lifelong. These can be cathartic for some of those affected, where they might not have been listened to before. Hopefully, the feelings that they have expressed will help them to move forward with their lives and they will begin to heal.

Last week’s victim statements at the end of the Sarah Everard trial were a powerful reminder of how lives are left shattered by wicked and cruel acts perpetrated against innocent victims, and how those victims could ever begin to recover is beyond our imagination. They too are serving whole life sentences.

Society has indeed moved a very long way from the scene at the lychgate in 1805, but there is a long way to go yet.

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