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.