Friday, July 25, 2008

The Charles Dickens Walk

Just as David Perdue (who is the creator of one of my favorite C.D. resources, David Perdue's Charles Dickens page at: informed me, Jean Haynes, a City of London guide, arrived in costume and did a wonderful job, using dramatic voices and numerous direct quotes from his biographies and his novels.

A peak at a portion of the childhood of Charles Dickens when he lived in the countryside of Kent, as told by Jean Haynes:

Charles's father, John Dickens worked for the Royal Navy as a clerk and for most of Charles's early childhood, the family enjoyed a comfortable middle class lifestyle. But John Dickens was reckless with his money and despite numerous promotions and a decent salary, he continuously spent more than he earned. When Charles was eleven, his family moved from the country back to London, and he stayed behind in Chatham, some believe, in order to finish the school term. A few months later he came to meet the family.

Once in London, his parents could no longer pay for Charles to go to school, and instead, a short while later, they began to count on him to bring in an extra income. Just days after his twelfth birthday, his parents arranged for Charles to work at Warren's Blacking Factory, a factory next to the River Thames that made boot polish and which was owned by a family friend. Understandably, Charles felt a bit abandoned by his parents and frustrated at his inability to continue with his education.

Jean describes the situation for us:

The photo to the right shows two jars from this factory; both used to hold Warren's Boot Black, or shoe and boot polish. In his biography written by Peter Ackroyd, Dickens is quoted as saying that it was his job 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." He worked for ten hours a day, with a short meal break at twelve and a tea-break in the late afternoon. He is said to have "hurt bodily and mentally" due to the drudgery.

Dickens also said this about the factory in a squalid area of town next to the Thames:

it was "a crazy tumbledown old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscotted 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."

As you can see in this small photo of a quote of his blown up into poster form, Dickens was dreadfully discouraged by this event. (Click on the photo to read the quote.) In his mind, his hopes of becoming an actor or writer or wildly successful man seemed dashed. His childhood was gone and it had not disappeared slowly or faded; it vanished overnight. To make things even more drastic, a few days after he was introduced to the blacking factory, his father was arrested for debt. A baker who lived near the Dickens family in Camden was owed forty pounds, which was a large amount of money in the early 1800's. John Dickens had not paid the baker for some time and he owed money to other people in London and even in Rochester, where the family lived when Dickens was first born.

He was put first in a "sponging house" or house for people who were about to be imprisoned for debt could have a chance to get help from family or friends before being locked away. It is believed that Charles was sent on errands by his father - to visit family members and ask for money on behalf of his father. What is known is that no one gave them any money. Perhaps they had asked for such help too many times before, and so, on February 20th, 1824, John Dickens was incarcerated, or locked up, in the Marshalsea Prison.

According to Peter Ackroyd, it was quite common for people to be arrested and imprisoned for not paying debts at that time:

"It has been estimated, for example, that in 1837 there were between 30,000 and 40,000 arrests for debt -- but nevertheless the insolvent debtor was classed as a quasi-criminal and kept in prison until he could pay...It often happened that such a prisoner remained indefinitely within the prison."

After his father was imprisoned, most of the families' belongings were sold off and his mother and younger siblings moved in to the prison as lodgers because it was cheaper than any other alternative. Many experts believe that the Marshalsea Prison haunted Dickens for the rest of his life. In fact Ackroyd states, "the high wall with the spikes on top of it, the shadows cast by the prison buildings, the lounging shabby people -- all of these images return again and again in his narratives."

1 comment:


Hannah - you are just like Tony Horowitz, weaving together history, primary sources, and your impressions of the present. I'm loving it!