Charles Dickens – A London Life (Part 5)

Charles Dickens – A London Life (Part 5)

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.

Charles Dickens – A London Life (Pt 3)

Charles Dickens – A London Life (Pt 3)

Life at Bayham Street was undoubtedly hard for the entire Dickens family, but it was perhaps hardest of all for John and Elizabeth’s eldest male child. Charles Dickens found his life unenviably altered in London, and it took him quite some time to adjust to this strange new life.

A capable and intelligent student, Dickens had excelled at Mr Giles school small school on Clover Lane in Chatham. Under the gentle and encouraging influence of Mr Giles, Charles had grown in stature and confidence, with a love of history and a voracious appetite for literature.

His two years at Clover Lane had awakened in him a world of possibilities – however, it was a world that was about to be cruelly denied him in London.

There would be no more school, for one thing. Charles’ day now consisted of a diet of drudgery: whether cleaning his father’s boots before work in the morning, running errands for his mother during the day, or babysitting his younger brothers and sisters.

To emphasis the unfairness of his present condition, Charles often compared his unhappy fate with that of his elder sister. Fanny Dickens had recently been elected to study at the newly opened Royal Academy of Music, and although Charles was delighted to see his sister succeed in her studies, he could not help but wonder what had happened to his own education.

In this difficult period, Charles sought solace in the tiniest of details, whether the thrilling rush of the city streets, the minutest expression of character from someone he knew, or a glimpse of one of London’s gleaming spires glimpsed through the dust heaps of Camden. These experiences brought a satisfying comfort to the young man, reminding him that there was more to life far than his miserable existence in Bayham Street.

As much as he missed Kent, Dickens’ interest in London was beginning to grow. He delighted in viewing St Paul’s Cathedral from a site close to his house, he enjoyed walking through the city or to the West End and he had a particular fascination with the Strand and Covent Garden. He had read about the latter in a book and once he had finished reading, he rushed out of the house to find the real thing so that he could compare it.

It was the noisy and unruly streets of St Giles which entranced him the most, however. The area, which was bounded by New Oxford Street to the north, Long Acre to the south-east, Charing Cross Road to the West and Holborn to the East, was notorious in Dickens’ day.

St Giles contained the infamous Rookery, a semi derelict warren of slum accommodation and squalor. The area had been desirable in the 17th century but as the fashionable and wealthy moved to other areas, the site fell into neglect. Houses were subdivided so that more and more families could live in them. Property owners stopped taking care of their properties and some buildings were abandoned completely. Open sewers ran through the streets and cesspits were left unattended.

In 1860 reformer Henry Mayhew wrote a paper on the area. A Visit to the Rookery of St Giles and its Neighbourhood contains a detailed description of the area, with Mayhew noting that the area has become “the synonym of filth and squalor”.

With regards to the people of the area, Mayhew pulls few punches. “They [are] a noisy and riotous lot, fond of street brawls, equally “fat, ragged and saucy;” and the courts abound in pedlars, fish-women, newscriers, and corn-cutters” He says.

The area held a peculiar fascination for Charles Dickens, however. Much later, such visions of want, neglect, poverty and deprivation would drive Dickens’ own writing, but in 1822, Dickens was facing those same foes himself.