Background.

  • It might be laid down as a very good general rule of social and political guidance, that whatever Exeter Hall champions, is the thing by no means to be done” is a quotation from a literary review of Narrative of the Expedition sent by her Majesty’s Government to the river Niger in 1841 written by Charles Dickens and published in The Examiner on Saturday, 19 August 1848.
  • The full title of the book, published in two volumes, was Narrative of the Expedition sent by her Majesty’s Government to the river Niger in 1841, under the command of Captain H. D. Trotter, R.N. By Captain William Allen, R.N. Commander of H.M.S. Wilberforce, and T. R. H. Thomson, M.D., one of the medical officers of the Expedition. Published with the sanction of the Colonial Office and the Admiralty.

Context.

This quotation is a critical comment on the activites of Exeter Hall, a large meeting venue on London’s Strand where many meetings for religious and philanthropic organisations were held. Charles Dickens was critical of the motives of the philanthropy that came out of such meetings, reflected in his work such as the sketch The Ladies’ Societies and most particularly in the character of Mrs. Jellyby in the novel Bleak House.

The 1841 Niger Expedition.

The Niger expedition of 1841 was a government-backed missionary voyage to travel to Lokoja, at the confluence of the Niger River and Benue River, in what is now Nigeria. It was promoted by the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilization of Africa, an organisation that had been set up in 1839 by Thomas Fowell Buxton. The expedition was put into motion at a meeting held at Exeter Hall on 1 June 1840 attended by over 4,000 people and chaired by Prince Albert. The British government had backed the effort on the grounds that it would help to make treaties with the native peoples, introduce Christianity and promote increased trade. Three ships, HMS Albert, HMS Sudan and HMS Wilberforce, took part in the voyage. Around 150 Europeans were on board the ships as well as people from African desent. However the Europeans quickly contracted fever and suffered a high mortality from disease. As a result the expedition was abandoned.

Exeter Hall.

Exeter Hall was a large meeting hall that stood on the north side of London’s Strand between 1831 and 1907, It was constructed, as Bell’s Weekly Messenger reported of the opening, ‘for purpose of acconmodating the members of the Religious, Benevolent, and Scientific Societies and lnstiitutioos connected with the metropolis‘. The name was derived from Exeter House, a 16th-century mansion (also known as Burghley House and Cecil House) that previosuly stood on the site. When Exeter House was demolished it was replaced with an arcade and menagerie known as Exeter Exchange which occupied the site from 1773 to 1829. Exeter Hall was designed to hold several rooms that could be used as headquarters for religious and philanthropic organisations, a small hall and a large meeting hall. The large hall was 131 feet long, 76 feet wide, and 45 feet high; and designed to hold more than 3000 persons. In 1907 Exeter Hall was sold to the J. Lyons & Co. hotel and restaurant group, who tore down the building and built the Strand Palace Hotel built in its place. The hotel opened in September 1909.

Exeter Hall
Interior of the main hall of Exeter Hall with a meeting in progress. Illustration from The Illustrated London News from 1844.

Source.

Taken from the following passage in the The Examiner published on Saturday, 19 August 1848

It might be laid down as a very good general rule of social and political guidance, that whatever Exeter Hall champions, is the thing by no means to be done. If it were harmless on a, cursory view, if it even appeared to have some latent grain of common sense at the bottom of it-which is a very rare ingre- dient in any of the varieties of gruel that are made thick and slab by the weird old women who go about, and exceedingly roundabout, on the Exeter Hall platform-such advocacy might be held to be a final and fatal objection to it, and to any project capable of origination in the wisdom or folly of man.

The African Expedition, of which these volumes contain the melancholy history, is in no respect an exception to the rule. Exeter Hall was hot in its behalf, and it failed. Exeter Hall was hottest on its weakest and most hopeless objects, and in. those it failed (of course) most signally. Not, as Captain Allen justly claims for himself and his gallant comrades, not through any want of courage and self-devotion on the part of those to whom it was entrusted;-the sufferings of all, the deaths of many,,, the dismal wear and tear of stout frames and brave spirits, sadly attest the fact ;-but because, if the ends sought to be attained are to be won, they must be won by other means than the exposure of inestimable British lives to certain destruction by an enemy against which no gallantry can contend, and the enactment of a few broad farces for the entertainment of a King Obi, King Boy, and other such potentates, whose respect for the British force is, doubtless, likely to be very much enhanced by their relishing experience of British credulity in such represen- tations, and our perfect impotency in opposition to their climate, their falsehood, and deceit.

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It might be laid down as a very good general rule of social and political guidance, that whatever Exeter Hall champions, is the thing by no means to be done.
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