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 4)

Charles Dickens – A London Life (pt 4)

Dickens would later immortalise his father’s famous advice to him by putting his words into the mouth of David Copperfield’s Mr Micawber. Micawber, incarcerated for debt at the King’s Bench Prison in the book, is fondly remembered for his simple maxim on financial matters:

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery”.

It is a lesson that young Charles Dickens learnt in the cruellest way possible many years before.

It was a tragedy, certainly not lost on his eldest son, that John Dickens could not follow his own advice. By 1823, Dickens Senior’s finances were in such a perilous state that his wife Elizabeth was forced to take action to save the family from bankruptcy.

After discussing the matter with friends, Elizabeth Dickens decided to set up a school. A family friend convinced her that she could attract pupils from ex-patriate families living in India and Mrs Dickens quickly decided to give it a go. It was the fashion in those days for the children of ex-patriates to be sent home to be schooled in England, and Mrs Dickens was certain that she could attract these children to her new institution.

A large house on Gower Street North was leased and, in the autumn of 1823, the Dickens family moved into the building. A shiny brass plate was purchased to inform passers by that the new school was open for business. The sign proclaimed in bold letters: “Mrs Dickens’s Establishment”.

Suddenly, Charles began to dream of the sort of life that had been denied him since he had left Kent. Perhaps his mother would make enough money to send him back to school, he thought.

Alas, it was not to be. For all her good intentions, Mrs Dickens’s Establishment proved a disaster. Not a single student ever entered the building on Gower Street. Norm it seems, did anyone ever enquire about the place.  Indeed, Charles later recalled that extraordinarily few preparations were ever undertaken for the school to open. It seems that the idea simply fizzled out.

With John’s creditors closing in, however, the Dickens family had nowhere left to run. The house on Gower Street would soon come under siege from those to whom John Dickens owed money. Individuals began to turn up at all hours of the day and night, with the family forced to take refuge inside as these unwelcome visitors made their presence known.

By 1824, matters had come to a head. John Dickens had played a game of cat and mouse with his creditors, but this game was suddenly at an end. On a cold winter’s day in February 1824, Dickens was arrested, going first to a sponging house, and shortly afterwards to the Marshalsea Debtors Prison.

With a reputation for cruelty and extortion, the Marshalsea was one of the most notorious prisons in England. Like most of the prisons of its time, the institution was run on a for profit basis. Those who could afford the prison’s fees enjoyed a relatively easy life. They were free to use the prison shop, as well as its bar and restaurant; they were even free to leave the prison during the day!

If you were unlucky enough to be imprisoned for debt, however, life at the Marshalsea could be harsh in the extreme. Huddled together in overcrowded cells, prisoners regularly went without food and basic necessities. Indeed, life was so harsh that a Parliamentary commission of 1729 found that over 300 inmates had starved to death in a single three month period!

So young Charles Dickens was right to worry about his father’s fate. However, what he could not have known at this point, was that his life was to take a similarly dramatic turn for the worse.

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.

Charles Dickens – A London Life (Part 2)

Charles Dickens – A London Life (Part 2)

Young Charles made the journey to his new home alone. Armed with a copy of the book his mentor Mr Giles had given him, and with his few meagre possessions in a hastily packed suitcase, Charles hopped onboard the Commodore stagecoach for the three hour journey to London. Finding himself the only passenger on the vehicle, and with nothing but the miserable sounds of the rain to keep him company, Dickens felt that his life had taken a rather unfortunate turn.

We know that Kent held a special place in the author’s affections. His first novel (Pickwick Papers) was set there, and so was his last (The Mystery of Edwin Drood). The woods, orchards, marshes and rivers of the county became an idealised haven in the writer’s mind, and once his fortune was made, Dickens returned to his beloved Kent to enjoy his golden years.

So what did young Charles make of London, that vast and unruly conglomeration of the best and worst in humanity? His thoughts on the matter were perhaps shaped by his earliest experiences of the city.

The family found accommodation in Bayham Street, Camden. In the 1820s, Camden was one of the poorest of the London suburbs. Open farmland not fifty years before, the area had experienced a building boom in the last years of the 18th century, following Sir Charles Pratt’s acquisition of the manor through marriage.

Pratt, whose full title was the 1st Earl Camden, bestowed not only his name on his new estate, but also the right to build. The result was Camden Town. Being so far from the city of London, however, the development suffered greatly, being considered both too provincial and too unfashionable.

By the 1820s, Camden Town had hit rock bottom. Without adequate town planning, houses were being built in a piecemeal fashion by speculative builders. The area thus grew in a rather ramshackle way.

The property on Bayham Street was rather small for John and Elizabeth’s growing family. By 1822, the Dickens’ consisted of eight members, with mother and father Dickens joined by six children, including baby Alfred. Although 16 Bayham Street was made up of three floors, it was a narrow house, built on land which had previously housed the garden of the once popular Mother Red Cap Inn.

Not that Charles particularly noticed the tiny cramped accomodation in which he now resided. What struck the would be author more was the lack of local children of his own age. He would later relate to his friend and biographer John Forster that he had had the feeling of having fallen “into a solitary condition apart from all other boys of (my) own age”. It was a portent of things to come. Charles did not know it at the time, but his childhood had already come to an end.

Read about Charles Dickens’ only surviving London home here: the Charles Dickens Museum

Charles Dickens – A London Life (Part 1)

Charles Dickens – A London Life (Part 1)

Charles Dickens is intimately associated with London but he was not born there.

The novelist, author of some of the most celebrated works in the English language, was actually the native of another English town – Portsmouth.

Dickens was born in the coastal town on the 7th of February 1812. Perhaps surprisingly, the house is still standing today – 393 Old Commercial Road, although in 1812 it would have been known as No. 13 Mile End Terrace.

Charles’ mother, Elizabeth, and father, John, had married three years earlier. They had met through Elizabeth’s brother Thomas Culliford Barrow, who had worked with Charles’ father in the local Navy Office.

John and Elizabeth were married at St Mary-Le-Strand Church in London. Shortly after the wedding the couple  moved to Landport in Portsmouth.

Charles dad John was an interesting character. The son of a servant in the house of Lord Crewe, John had nonetheless risen to a respectable job at the Navy Office and a comfortable lifestyle. That he had grand desires is indicated by his use of the term esquire in written documents, as well as by his lavish spending.

If John Dickens earned 12 shillings he would indubitably  spend 13.It was a quality that Charles would come to regret as he found himself increasingly saddled with the legacy of his father’s financial indiscipline.

John was forever falling into debt. In 1824 these debts would lead to the imprisonment, but in the year preceding this, it meant that the Dickens family were forever living beyond their means.

As a young boy Charles was given lessons in reading and Latin by his mother. Charles later told his biographer John Foster that this awakened in him a lifelong love of knowledge and literature.

In 1815 John Dickens was summonsed to work at the Navy Office in London, at that time situated at Somerset House on the Strand. This wax be young Charles’ first taste of the city.

The family found accommodation in Norfolk Street (modern day Fitzrovia), close to where his brother Willliam ran a coffeeshop.

However the Dickens’ brush with the big city was to be brief as John was transferred again in 1816, this time to Kent.

After a few weeks in Sheerness the family moved to Chatham, where Charles would spend several happy years.

The town stands close to Watling Street, the old Roman road which was itself based on a much older path frequently used by the Celtics. The town was recorded in the Domesday Book as Ceteham, the name thought to derive from the old Roman element catu, which signified a valley or basin. The remains of a Roman era cemetery have been found in the vicinity of the town.

In Dickens’ day, Chatham would have been concerned mainly with seagoing, with a massive Dockyard providing the Royal Navy with a constant stream of new ships.

The Dickens family settled at No. 2 Ordinance Terrace, a modest yet respectable house at the very top of a steep hill. Charles, who was five at the time of the family’s move to Chatham, would prosper in the town. It is here that he first fell in love (with ‘peach coloured’ Lucy), here where he met his mentor, schoolmaster Giles, and here where his love of literature began to blossom into a voracious appetite for reading. Young Charles was soon reading everything he could get his hands on – beginning with the books which his father had brought into the house. This early reading included Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Smollett’s Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle and Humphry Clinker.

This seemingly idyllic life was to come to an abrupt end in 1822, however, when John Dickens was recalled to London by the Navy Pay Office. Although young Charles was allowed to stay behind finish his final term at school, his days in Chatham were numbered.