Once the shock of imprisonment had left him, John Dickens began to adjust to his new life in prison. With no creditors to bother him, and with his board and lodgings taken care of, perhaps now Dickens could sleep in peace.
Robbed of the man of the house, however, life at Gower Street became even more difficult. Elizabeth Dickens, in her desperation to make ends meet, had begun to pawn the family’s possessions, with Charles given the unenviable task of taking the family’s goods to the various pawnbroker’s shops.
This sad ritual continued until the house in Gower Street was virtually empty, and the Dickens family had removed to two small, cold rooms in one corner of the house. What young Charles Dickens made of his new situation can only be imagined, however, whatever he thought, as it turned out he would not have much time to dwell on it.
For, at that very moment, a friend of the family arrived on the scene, with an offer that Elizabeth Dickens would find hard to refuse. James Lamert had lodged with the Dickens family in Camden and he was moved to hear of the family’s troubles since. Realising that the family was in desperate need of money, Lamert suggested that Charles could come and work for him, at the factory which he managed by Hungerford Stairs.
Charles would be tasked with attaching labels to the pots of boot polish that the factory produced, with a weekly salary of six shillings. Lamert sweetened the offer further by promising to give Charles lessons during his lunchbreak – so that his education would not suffer.
To Dickens’ unending indignation, both his mother and his father were in favour of Lamert’s proposal. Later, in his autobiography, Dickens would express horror at his parents seeming indifference to his situation. “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…to suggest that something might have been spared to place me at any common school” he wrote.
And so, began one of the darkest chapters of young Charles Dickens’ life.
Warren’s Blacking Factory sat in a partly disused warehouse on the Thames foreshore. Its wainscoted rooms may have spoken of better days, but the rotting floors, damaged staircases and general smell of decay would have left the casual visitor in little doubt as to the present state of the building.
The first thing Dickens noted about the place was the sound of rats running in the basement. He could hear them moving and fighting even as he sat upstairs. “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 would later write in his autobiography.
If the place itself was dreadful, the work was equally soul destroying. Charles had been tasked with affixing labels to the pots of blacking. He would first attach a piece of oil paper to the pot; then a piece of blue paper was placed over the oil paper. The combination was then tied up with string. Following that, the papers were clipped so that the pot looked attractive. Finally, the Warren’s Blacking label was attached to the pot with a dab of paste. This task would be repeated with each bottle of blacking that was sent his way – which meant he was carrying out the same actions hundreds of times a day. It was soul destroying work, especially for a boy of Dickens’ obvious talents, and how his heart sank as he did it.