Oliver Twist is born a sickly infant in a workhouse. The parish surgeon and a drunken nurse attend his birth. His mother kisses his forehead and dies, and the nurse announces that Oliver’s mother was found lying in the streets the night before. The surgeon notices that she is not wearing a wedding ring.
So they established the rule that all poor people should have the alternative . . . of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it.
Authorities at the workhouse send Oliver to a branch-workhouse for “juvenile offenders against the poor-laws.” The overseer, Mrs. Mann, receives an adequate sum for each child’s upkeep, but she keeps most of the money and lets the children go hungry, sometimes even letting them die.
On Oliver’s ninth birthday, Mr. Bumble, a minor church official known as the parish beadle, informs Mrs. Mann that Oliver is too old to stay at her establishment. Since no one has been able to discover his mother’s or father’s identity, he must return to the workhouse. Mrs. Mann asks how the boy came to have any name at all. Mr. Bumble tells her that he keeps a list of names in alphabetical order, naming the orphans from the list as they are born.
Mrs. Mann fetches Oliver. When Mr. Bumble is not looking, she glowers and shakes her fist at the boy, so he stays silent about the miserable conditions at her establishment. Before Oliver departs, Mrs. Mann gives him some bread and butter so that he will not seem too hungry at the workhouse.
The workhouse offers the poor the opportunity to starve slowly as opposed to quick starvation on the streets. For the workhouse, the undertaker’s bill is a major budget item due to the large number of deaths. Oliver and his young companions suffer the “tortures of slow starvation.” One night at dinner, one child tells the others that if he does not have another bowl of gruel he might eat one of them. Terrified, the children at the workhouse cast lots, determining that whoever loses shall be required to ask for more food for the boy. Oliver loses, and after dinner, the other children insist that Oliver ask for more food at supper. His request so shocks the authorities that they offer five pounds as a reward to anyone who will take Oliver off of their hands.
In the parish, Oliver has been flogged and then locked in a dark room as a public example. Mr. Gamfield, a brutish chimney sweep, offers to take Oliver on as an apprentice. Because several boys have died under his supervision, the board considers five pounds too large a reward, and they settle on just over three pounds. Mr. Bumble, Mr. Gamfield, and Oliver appear before a magistrate to seal the bargain. At the last minute, the magistrate notices Oliver’s pale, alarmed face. He asks the boy why he looks so terrified. Oliver falls on his knees and begs that he be locked in a room, beaten, killed, or any other punishment besides being apprenticed to Mr. Gamfield. The magistrate refuses to approve the apprenticeship, and the workhouse authorities again advertise Oliver’s availability.