Charles Dickens & the Blacking Factory

The Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, London, occupies a typical Georgian terraced house which was Charles Dickens’ home from March 1837 to December 1839. Here he completed The Pickwick Papers, and wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby

There was one place in London that was open on Christmas Day, and which welcomed many visitors and tourists through its doors. Even its cafe was open. Given that the novella A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens first published on 17 December 1843 and never out of print since, has had such a significant impact upon the British Christmas, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Charles Dickens Museum just off Gray’s Inn Road in Bloomsbury in central London, should open on Christmas Day.

But what was it that inspired Dickens to bring to his reader images of joy, warmth and life, and to contrast it with unforgettable images of despair, sadness, coldness and death? Dickens’ sources for the tale appear to be many and varied, but are principally the humiliating experiences of his childhood and his sympathy for the poor. So what happened to Dicken’s when he was a boy?

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born 7 February 1812 in Landport, Portsmouth in England, the second child of John and Elizabeth Dickens, who went on to have five more children, two of whom died in infancy. John Dickens worked as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office in Portsmouth, but he didn’t manage his finances very well and lived beyond his means, and the family moved home frequently. In 1816, they moved to Chatham, Kent, where Charles spent much time outdoors but he also read voraciously. The family moved again in June 1822 to Bayham Street in Camden Town, London, though Charles remained in Chatham to continue his education, where he lodged with his schoolmaster William Giles. Charles joined his family in September but didn’t attend school as his father could not afford the fees.

At the end of 1823, the family moved to a brand new six-roomed house at Gower Street North in Bloomsbury, with the intention of opening a school in a better part of town to be known as ‘Mrs Dickens’s Establishment’. But the school never got off the ground, and there is no evidence that a single pupil ever enrolled with Mrs Dickens.

Hungerford Stairs at the river end of Hungerford Street, Strand, London. The blacking factory where Dickens laboured as a boy of 12 was at 30 Hungerford Street, where Charing Cross railway station is now sited

1824 was to be a nightmare for the whole family. When the family’s cousin and former lodger, James Lamert offered employment for Charles at his blacking factory, his parents immediately accepted as the income could help to pay for the extra expense of their new home. On 9 February, only two days after his twelfth birthday, Dickens left his home in Bloomsbury and walked the three miles to Warren’s Blacking Factory close to Hungerford Stairs from where a ferry crossed the River Thames.

But on 20 February, John Dickens was arrested for his failure to repay a debt of £40 and he was sentenced to Marshalsea debtor’s prison in Borough High Street, Southwark. Under English law at the time, offenders were imprisoned indefinitely until the debts were paid. That someone in prison was unable to work to earn the necessary money to repay those debts, nor the accumulating prison fees, did not enter into the logic of the punishment, and debtors often died in these prisons through starvation and the terrible living conditions.

Though young Charles tried desperately to raise the money to keep his father out of jail by running errands, John Dickens reported to prison on 23 February, the family home was given up, and the entire family, with the exception of Charles and his older sister Frances (known as Fanny) moved into John’s prison cell.

In late April John Dickens received an inheritance of £450 from his paternal grandmother, and on 28 May after coming to an arrangement with his creditors, John Dickens was released from prison. The family boarded initially with Elizabeth Roylance, a family friend, at Little College Street, Camden Town (later immortalised as Mrs Pipchin in Dombey and Son), before moving to Johnson Street, Somers Town near St Pancras. Eventually Charles went to school at the Wellington House Academy in Granby Street off Hampstead Road.

Unfortunately in early 1827, the family was evicted from Johnson Street for non-payment of rates and they moved into lodgings at The Polygon, Somers Town. Charles’ mother asked Edward Blackmore, one of the lodgers of Charles’ maternal great-aunt at her lodging house in Berners Street in Fitzrovia, if he would find employment for Charles in his office at Ellis & Blackmore in Grays Inn (one of the four Inns of Court, the self-contained precincts where barristers traditionally train and practise). In the meantime, Charles left Wellington Academy and spent seven weeks as a clerk for Charles Molloy, a solicitor. Blackmore was impressed by the youngster, and Charles started as a solicitor’s clerk in May 1827 and he was paid 10s 6d (52p) a week, almost twice what he had received at the dreaded blacking factory.

Charles Dickens
7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870
The greatest novelist of the Victorian period
Photograph around 1852. Later photographs always show him with a pointed beard

Charles was adept at his work and having learned shorthand in his spare time, he left Ellis & Blackmore in November 1928 to become a freelance reporter. As a reporter, he covered proceedings at the law courts for nearly four years, an experience that was to inform many of his novels, Nicholas NicklebyDombey and Son, and especially Bleak House, whose vivid portrayal of the machinations and bureaucracy of the legal system did much to enlighten the general public. Within a few years he was reporting for two major London newspapers. In 1833, he began submitting sketches to various magazines and newspapers under the pseudonym Boz, and in 1836, his articles were published in his first book,Sketches by Boz.

But Dickens’ childhood had been dominated by the four months he spent working in the blacking factory, and the conditions under which working-class people lived became major themes of his writing and influenced him for the rest of his life. He wrote about his experience at Warren’s, and this was later edited and supplemented by his friend and biographer John Forster, and included in Forster’s biography, The Life of Charles Dickens.

What was it like for Charles having to work in a blacking factory and with his father and family in prison?

Illustration by Fred Bernard of Dickens at work as 12 year old boy in the blacking factory after his father had been sent to Marshalsea Prison, published in the 1892 edition of Forster’s Life of Dickens

John Forster asked Charles in 1847 about Warren’s blacking factory at Hungerford Stairs. Blacking was a thick black liquid mixture used for polishing boots and blacking fireplaces. The factory was owned by George Lamert, who had bought the rights to the blacking recipe from Jonathan Warren, and who was the brother-in-law of James Lamert, the manager. It was in competition with a blacking factory nearby on the Strand which was owned by Robert Warren, a relative of Jonathan Warren. Dickens worked for ten hours a day, Monday to Saturday, for which he received six shillings(30p) per week. Charles recalled:

‘The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down 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 in 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. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river. There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary’s shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label, and then go on again with more pots. Two or three other boys were kept at similar duty down-stairs on similar wages. 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.’

‘No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into the companionship of common men and boys. The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day by day, what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, was passing away from me, never to be brought back, cannot be written’.

‘I know I do not exaggerate, unconsciously and unintentionally, the scantiness of my resources and the difficulties of my life. I know that if a shilling or so were given me by anyone, I spent it in a dinner or a tea. I know that I worked, from morning to night, with common men and boys, a shabby child. I know that I tried, but ineffectually, not to anticipate my money, and to make it last the week through by putting it away in a drawer I had in the counting-house, wrapped into six little parcels, each parcel containing the same amount, and labelled with a different day. I know that I have lounged about the streets, insufficiently and unsatisfactorily fed. I know that, but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond.’

Whilst he was working at the blacking factory, Charles at first continued to board with Elizabeth Roylance in Camden Town. But after a few weeks, he was despondent at being so far from his family, and his father found him a back-attic room in the house of Archibald Russell, an agent for the Insolvency Court, at Lant Street, Borough. Charles later recalled that the family were kind to him (the inspiration for the Garlands in The Old Curiosity Shop) and in his room a ‘little window had a pleasant prospect of a timber-yard, and when I took possession of my new abode, I thought it was a Paradise’.

A courtyard of Marshalsea Prison in Borough, London, about 1897 after the prison had closed and was being used as apartments. The building on the left had been the debtors’ block where John Dickens was imprisoned

Living closer to Marshalsea prison (later to be the setting for Little Dorrit), Charles was able to have breakfast and supper with the family at the prison. On Sundays, he spent the day at the prison together with his sister, Fanny, who was at the Royal Academy of Music in Tenterden Street, Hanover Square. He went to fetch her there at nine o’clock in the morning, and they walked back there together at night.

However even when the family was released from prison, Charles continued to work at the blacking factory, and the factory moved to Chandos Street, Covent Garden. Charles recalled that opposite the houses where the blacking business was set up:

‘was, and is a public house, where I got my ale, under these new circumstances. The stones in the street may be smoothed by my small feet going across to it at dinner-time, and back again. The establishment was larger now, and we had one or two new boys. Bob Fagin and I had attained to great dexterity in tying up the pots. I forget how many we could do in five minutes. We worked, for the light’s sake, near the second window as you come from Bedford Street; and we were so brisk at it, that the people used to stop and look in. Sometimes there would be quite a little crowd there. I saw my father coming in at the door one day when we were very busy, and I wondered how he could bear it.’

Following a quarrel between John Dicken and James Lamert that may have been related to Charles’ ’employment at the window’, John decided to remove Charles from the factory and place him in the Academy. His mother however disagreed saying that he should continue to work to support the family. This incident may have done much to confirm Dickens’s view that a father should rule the family, a mother find her proper place inside the home. He was never able to forgive her. After becoming a successful novelist, he wrote:

‘I do not write resentfully or angrily, for I know how all these things have worked together to make me what I am, but I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.’

In Nicholas Nickleby, there is a damning portrayal of Elizabeth in the character of Mrs Nickleby, a woman content to marry her daughter into a life of misery.

He alluded to this most unhappy period in his youth in David Copperfield, his favourite novel, and the most autobiographical:

‘I had no advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no assistance, no support, of any kind, from anyone, that I can call to mind, as I hope to go to heaven!’

Charles Dickens never got over his terror of poverty, nor did he forget the deprivations he endured during his family’s crisis. He felt abandoned and betrayed by the adults who were supposed to take care of him. Scenes from the factory, the boarding house, and the debtor’s prison all peppered his fiction. Even as an adult, until Hungerford Stairs was demolished  in 1862, Charles said that he:

‘never had the courage to go back to the place where my servitude began. I never saw it. I could not endure to go near it. For many years, when I came near to Robert Warrens’ in the Strand, I crossed over to the opposite side of the way, to avoid a certain smell of the cement they put upon the blacking-corks, which reminded me of what I was once. It was a very long time before I liked to go up Chandos Street. My old way home by the Borough made me cry’.

The Life of Charles Dickens by John Forster. This fully illustrated biography was published after Dicken’s death in 1870 in three volumes, the first volume in 1872, and the last in 1874

The above extracts from Charles’ experiences in the blacking factory and during the time his father was in Marshalsea Prison are taken from The Life of Charles Dickens, the full account of which can be read here.

Charles Dickens and the Blacking Factory by Michael Allen first published on 9 September 2011 by Oxford-Stockley Publications/Createspace provides for the first time an accurate history of Warren’s blacking factory drawn from written sources dating from within two years of Dickens working there, and which throws new light on Dickens’ childhood.

Charles Dickens Museum, 48 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LX
Open Monday to Sunday from 10am until 5pm
W:  T: 020 7405 2127


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