Charlie & the Blacking Factory

In 1823, a young boy started work at Warren’s Blacking Factory, on Hungerford Stairs in The Strand, London. His job was to label the pots of blacking, i.e. shoe polish.

As he would describe it later: ‘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 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’ {Forster, p2}.

This was the beginning of the hard times for young Charles Dickens (1812-70), then barely twelve. His happy childhood in Kent, where his father John Dickens was employed in Chatham Royal Dockyard {Dickens Fellowship}, ended then. His family ended up in the workhouse, then his father ended up in Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison, and Charles was out in the world on his own at such a young age.

He lived first with a ‘reduced old lady’ in Camden Town, who took in child boarders {Forster, p3}, then later in the back-attic of an ‘insolvent court agent’ in the Borough {Forster, p5}.

‘My rescue from this kind of existence I considered quite hopeless and abandoned as such, altogether; though I am solemnly convinced that I never, for one hour, was reconciled to it, or was otherwise than miserably unhappy. I felt keenly, however, the being so cut off from my parents, my brothers, and sisters; and, when my day’s work was done, going home to such a miserable blank; and that, I thought might be corrected’ {Forster, p5}.

As for his employment, that was made a little easier by Charles’ friendship with his co-worker, an orphan named Bob Fagin. Later, through his writing, Dickens would make his surname both famous and infamous. ‘Bob Fagin was very good to me on the occasion of a bad attack of my old disorder. I suffered such excruciating pain that time, that they made a temporary bed of straw in my old recess in the counting-house, and I rolled about on the floor, and Bob filled empty blacking-bottles with hot water, and applied relays of them to my side, half the day. I got better, and quite easy towards evening, but Bob (who was much bigger and older than I) did not like the idea of my going home alone, and took me under his protection’ {Forster, p8}.

Still, there is no doubt that Charles did it tough. ‘I know I do not exaggerate, unconsciously and unintentionally, the scantiness of my resources and the difficulties of my life . . . 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’ {Forster, p4}. It was a hard initiation into the real world for the young boy, struggling to survive on his 6 shillings of wages. ‘I was so young and childish, and so little qualified—how could it be otherwise?’ {Forster, p4}

Eventually, this stage of Charles’ life would end. His father would receive a bequest from a relative, and was able to pay his way out of debt. ‘I have heard him say the family lived more comfortably in prison than they had done for a long time out of it’ {Forster, p5}.

Charles was able to leave his job by 1824, then return to school for two more years, at Wellington House Academy. He would later work for a firm of solicitors, then found a job as a reporter {Dickens Fellowship}. This was the beginning of his literary career.

There is no doubt the rest of Dickens’ life, and his writing, were affected by his youthful experiences. His childhood trauma returned when he was telling the story to his biographer, John Forster, over 20 years later. He wrote a little of his own autobiography, then incorporated most of it in David Copperfield’s story.

It was a story that has been told many times since. Professor George Landow (2002) wrote: ‘Students of Dickens have emphasized the crucial importance of the traumatic period in his life when his parents suddenly removed him from school and their middle-class, more-or-less genteel environment, made him live apart from the family, and forced him to work at Warren’s Shoeblacking factory and warehouse.’ Robert Douglas-Fairhurst {2010}, Oxford Professor of English Literature wrote: ‘His rage at social injustice, his sensitivity to the fate of abandoned children, his never-satisfied hunger for financial and emotional security: all this can be traced back to his time sticking labels onto bottles of Warren’s blacking’ Literary critic Walter Allen commented: The blacking factory episode does not account for Dickens’s genius, but it does, I believe, explain some of the forms his genius took, and it throws light on much that is otherwise baffling both in his art and his life. It explains why we so often find at the centre of his novels the figure of the lost, persecuted, or helpless child: Oliver Twist, Little Nell, David, Paul Dombey, Pip, and their near relations, Smirke and Jo, in Bleak House. It explains, too, why their rescue, when there is a rescue, so often has the appearance of a fairy-story ending, the result of what is sometimes called wishful thinking’ (Allen @ Landow 2002).

If we compare Dickens to his character Louisa Gradgrind Bounderby, we can see that see with her education inadequate for real life, she never had the exposure to it that he did. ‘For the first time in her life, Louisa had come into one of the dwellings of the Coketown Hands; for the first time in her life, she was face to face with anything like individuality in connection with them. . .She knew them in crowds passing to and from their nests, like ants or beetles. But she knew more from her reading infinitely more of the ways of toiling insects than of these toiling men and women’ (Dickens, p120). As the frantic Rachel flings at her later: ‘Oh young lady, young lady, I hope you may be, but I don’t know! I can’t say what you may ha’ done! The like of you don’t know us, don’t care for us, don’t belong to us’ (Dickens, p186).

The blacking factory was the beginning of Dickens’ lifelong concern for the underdog, which shines through in all his novels, and continued even when he was a famous and wealthy author. We may say that it all began during the childhood hard times of the young Charles Dickens. In fact, the boot-blacking produced there stained his soul, and everything he would write during a long career.

WORKS CITED

Allen, Michael (2011). Charles Dickens and the Blacking Factory. Dickens Fellowship. Retrieved from: http://www.dickensfellowship.org/charles-dickens-and-blacking-factory

Allingham, P. (2004). John Forster: Essayist, Historian, and Editor, 1812-1876. The Victorian Web. Retrieved from: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/pva/pva35.html

‘Charles Dickens’. (2012). FamousAuthors.org. Retrieved from: http://www.famousauthors.org/charles-dickens

Cody, D. (2004). Dickens: A Brief Biography. The Victorian Web. Retrieved from: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/dickensbio1.html

Dickens Fellowship. (2016). The Life of Charles Dickens. Retrieved from: http://www.dickensfellowship.org/life-charles-dickens

Douglas-Fairhurst, R. (2010). Charles Dickens. In William Landay. Retrieved from: http://www.williamlanday.com/2010/01/04/dickens-and-the-blacking-factory/

Forster, J. (1872-74). The Life of Charles Dickens Book I Chapter II. University of St Andrews. Retrieved from: https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~jfec/ge/forster.html

Jones, K. (2012). Dickens and the Blacking Factory. History in an Hour. Retrieved from: http://www.historyinanhour.com/2012/02/29/dickens-blacking-factory/

Landow, G. (2002).The Blacking Factory and Dickens’s Imaginative World. The Victorian Web. Retrieved from: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/dickensbio3.html

Langton, R. (1880).The childhood and youth of Charles Dickens. Princeton University Library. Retrieved from: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101068150802;view=1up;seq=127

Waller Rogers, L. (2016).‘Warren’s Blacking Factory’. Lisa’s History Room. Retrieved from: http://lisawallerrogers.com/tag/warrens-blacking-factory/

Dickens, C. (2001) Hard Times. New York, London: WW Norton & Co.

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One thought on “Charlie & the Blacking Factory

  1. Your Posts are always full of interesting historical facts. The information you have given here prove to be valuable when trying to put the novels of Charles Dickens into context.
    Well done again.
    Dave

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