Ten years before the UK introduced child labour laws, the Dickens family fell into debt and the future writer's father, John Dickens, took his son out of school. Charles worked for a year in the harsh, rat-infested conditions of Warren's Blacking Factory, pasting labels on to jars of black polish – a mixture of soot, beeswax or lanolin, which rendered shoes and boots waterproof in the rainy London weather.
“Dickens never really talked about this moment in his life publicly,” says Emma Harper, curator of the Charles Dickens Museum in London.
“He later recounts it to John Forster, who's one of his best friends, but it doesn't become public until after Dickens’s death. We think there was great shame attached to the poverty of his family, and the fact that they were constantly going in and out of debt.”
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Dickens’s time in the factory, the museum has created a small display of artefacts relating to his time in the factory – engravings showing the conditions at factories like Warren’s and a bottle of shoe polish from the factory itself. The latter is a remarkable find. Archaeologists excavated it from an old ice well, which builders in the 19th century had used as a rubbish dump.
Also included are letters written to Dickens by his father.
Dickens worked at the factory for a year between 1823 and 1825, for 10 hours a day, six days a week, after he turned 11 years old. So little is known about the episode that until 10 years ago it was thought that he started work in the factory when he was 12, at the same time that his father was sent to debtor’s prison.
Dickens’s time in the factory proved significant for two reasons. For one, it furnished him with details and material that he drew on for his portraits of those stampeded by industrial Britain: Oliver Twist in a workhouse; David Copperfield among the harsh adults of his childhood.
There is even a story – perhaps apocryphal – that one of the other boys Dickens befriended at Warren’s Blacking Factory was called Bob Fagin.
“He puts this name away for later use,” says Harper. “Which is what Dickens often did – he collected people and places throughout his life that we then find in his stories.”
Fagin, of course, reappears as the fiendish criminal in Oliver Twist.
But Dickens’s attention to the plight of the poor went beyond their portraits in his novels. He was also an active social campaigner, helping to agitate for improvements in care for the homeless, children’s medicine and the plight of the working class in general. His own time as a child labourer no doubt impelled this zeal for reform.
He also understood the power of literature. At one point, he was approached by a campaigner who wanted him to write a pamphlet on the conditions of children working in mines.
“Dickens thought the way to make the biggest impact was with a novel,” explains Harper. “He writes in A Christmas Carol about ignorance and want, which is often dropped from adaptations because it's more serious and heavy. But he wanted to encourage people to be charitable and give to the hungry and the poor at Christmas. And you can really tell from Dickens’s writing that he knows what it is to be hungry.”
Dickens also drew on his father for some of the crueller characters in his later novels, particularly those who prized money above love and care.
The Blacking Factory display includes two letters from his father, showing his insensitivity and, perhaps, remorse. One is addressed to an acquaintance whom John Dickens hopes will take in Charles while the rest of the Dickens family moved into the Marshalsea Prison for his debts, a common occurrence in those days.
Charles was to remain outside of prison because he was the only member of the family earning money, despite being at this time 11 or 12 years old.
The second letter differs in feel. It is much later, from the 1840s, and is addressed to Dickens’s publisher Chapman & Hall. By that time John Dickens was estranged from Charles and was living in Cornwall. He asked the publishers if they could send him a copy of Dickens’s latest novel American Notes.
“It will be very painful for me to be left in ignorance of its contents,” he wrote.
The display at the Dickens Museum is small but it ably rounds out the image of the protean illustrious author now remembered best for A Christmas Carol and his telling portraits of England as it loped into the industrial age, with Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and Little Dorrit still fixtures on school reading lists.
The museum is housed where Dickens and his family lived from 1837 to 1839, and is done up as a traditional Victorian house, with Dickens’s own furniture, whether from that house or others he lived in. A grand mahogany desk sits in the study where he wrote Oliver Twist, with its great sloping incline a reminder that Dickens literally wrote his novels.
Other rooms demonstrate the height to which Dickens had ascended – his sumptuous four-poster bed, his en suite dressing room with the suit he wore to events at Buckingham Palace, the nursery upstairs for his children and the maid’s room attached to it.
“We think of him as this great successful Victorian celebrity,” says Harper. “But behind him is a classic rags to riches story.”
The Charles Dickens Museum is staging its Blacking Factory display in Dickens's study until January 21, 2024