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‘Overrun with rats’: Charles Dickens Museum illuminates author’s factory stint | Charles Dickens

It was an experience that ruptured his childhood but shaped his life’s work. Two hundred years ago, 11-year-old Charles Dickens was taken out of school to work in a rat-infested factory on the banks of the Thames to support his family as his father sank into debt.

Now the Charles Dickens Museum in London is marking the bicentenary of the bleak period of the author’s childhood by displaying letters from his father that illustrate the difficulties in the father-son relationship.

The museum is also displaying an early edition of The Life of Charles Dickens, the three-volume biography of the author by his friend John Forster that revealed the grim facts of his childhood.

Warren’s blacking factory on the banks of the Thames. Photograph: Charles Dickens Museum

In September 1823, the young Dickens was removed from school and sent to work, 10 hours a day, six days a week, at Warren’s blacking factory, near where Charing Cross station is today.

A few months later, John Dickens, Charles’s father, was arrested and imprisoned for three months in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison in Borough.

The young Charles spent a year fixing labels to bottles of blacking or boot polish. He never spoke of the experience, but wrote an account of it for Forster, whose biography was published two years after Dickens’s death.

Dickens wrote: “It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age. It is wonderful to me that, even after my descent into the poor little drudge I had been since we came to London, no one had compassion enough on me – a child of singular abilities, quick, eager, delicate and soon hurt, bodily or mentally – to suggest that something might have been spared.

A letter from John Dickens to the politician Joseph Parkes
A letter from John Dickens to the politician Joseph Parkes with an urgent request for work for his son. Photograph: Charles Dickens Museum

“The blacking factory … was a crazy, tumbledown old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times and the dirt and decay of the place rise up visibly before me as if I were there again.”

He also recalled one of his fellow child labourers. “One of them came up, in a ragged apron and a paper cap, on the first Monday morning, to show me the trick of using the string and tying the knot. His name was Bob Fagin; and I took the liberty of using his name long afterwards, in Oliver Twist.”

One of the letters from John Dickens was written in June 1834, another year of acute financial difficulty for the family. In it, John Dickens makes an urgent appeal to Joseph Parkes, a politician, to help find Charles a job, vouching for his son’s “competence in every respect”.

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens’s relationship with his parents was damaged for life after they sent him to work in the factory. Photograph: PA

The second was written in 1843, when Dickens was an established and indeed famous author, to ask Charles’s publisher Chapman & Hall to send him a copy of his son’s forthcoming book, American Notes.

“I understand, for I have not seen the advertisement, you have announced this new work for publication in about a week. As it will be very painful for me to be left in ignorence [sic] of its contents, and fearing that I may be overlooked at such a distance, I have to solicit the favour of your sending me a copy by coach …”

Frankie Kubicki, senior curator at the Charles Dickens Museum, said: “The 11-year-old boy who walked to work from lodgings in Camden and Southwark every morning experienced the ugliness of factory life and received a permanent mental imprint of the hardship that was lurking to find impoverished children in the capital city.

“In his later works, the blacking factory looms large, not only as a significant backdrop to David Copperfield, but as the driving force behind the creation of hapless child victims in his stories, such as the much-loved character Oliver Twist.

“His position at the factory was to damage his relationship with his parents for the rest of his life, and his father’s continuing money problems only further deepened this void. The items which we are showing make the experience palpable and enable us to see the damaging effects of poverty on a child’s life and a close-knit family.”

The items will be displayed at the museum from 25 August until 21 January.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/aug/25/overrun-with-rats-charles-dickens-museum-illuminates-authors-factory-stint ‘Overrun with rats’: Charles Dickens Museum illuminates author’s factory stint | Charles Dickens

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