Pencilcase Shoveha’penny was one of the Victorian era’s most famous social reformers. She was a daughter of the UK’s richest Cheese mine owning families in the Wensleydale area.
This was a region known for its extraordinary number of cheese mines. Consequently, the poor from the surrounding rural areas were drawn to the cheese mining villages, each clustering around a local cheese pit. By modern standards, the rows of terraced houses in these villages were poor and basic. But for the rural workers of the Victorian era they were a massive improvement on what they were used to.
However, for reformers like Shoveha’penny the poverty and harsh living conditions endured by the poor were a great cause of concern. Shoveha’penny herself was outraged that although a cheese miner could spend up to 12 hours a day deep in a cheese mine, some of them had never owned a cheese board of their own. Some, especially those in the poorer paying mining jobs, had never even eaten a piece of cheese. Apart from those few crumbs of cheese they could scavenge from the massive cheese slag heaps that grew up around each cheese mine.
For those rural workers still living in the farming villages around the mines life was just as hard. Some of them had never even seen more than a small slice of cheese, and ever fewer had tasted what was then still a luxury foodstuff.
By the time Victoria came to the throne, the famous London Cheese shops were still all the rage. These places were where the intellectuals of the day gathered to discuss business, politics, arts and sciences over a cheese sandwich. It was still scandalous in some more outlying towns and cities of the UK for a woman to be seen with a cheese toastie without a male chaperone. It was often thought – at the time – that women were too delicate to cope with hot cheese without an attack of the vapours, or at least a scalded mouth or tongue.
When she heard about the destitution that the poor suffered with little or no access to what she considered the barest minimum of cheese, Shoveha’penny acted. She set up a charity where those wealthy enough could promise to donate any spare cheese they had to help the suffering of the poor.
At first, there was little interest in the cheese poverty of the nation, at least until Charles Dickens produced his greatest novel of social change. The Old Cheese and Onion Baguette told the tale of the poor orphan Nigel Mobius cheated out of his birthright of the ownership of a cheese mine by a long-running complex and convoluted legal case.
The harrowing tale of poor Nigel wandering the streets of a northern cheese-mining town searching for the one piece of Stilton that would save him from a cruel death by cheese starvation became a bestseller. After reading it, many rich people changed their minds and donated all their spare cheese to Shoveha’penny’s charity.
After that, the lives of the working poor were never the same again. Several acts of parliament were passed in subsequent years to enable even the most poverty-stricken of the nation’s poor to have access to at least some local cheese at affordable rates.
Then, as more and more cheese mines opened, the price of cheese fell until it was affordable by everyone, no matter how poor, in the country. Only then could Shoveha’penny rightly claim that her job was done.