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.


Allen, Michael (2011). Charles Dickens and the Blacking Factory. Dickens Fellowship. Retrieved from:

Allingham, P. (2004). John Forster: Essayist, Historian, and Editor, 1812-1876. The Victorian Web. Retrieved from:

‘Charles Dickens’. (2012). Retrieved from:

Cody, D. (2004). Dickens: A Brief Biography. The Victorian Web. Retrieved from:

Dickens Fellowship. (2016). The Life of Charles Dickens. Retrieved from:

Douglas-Fairhurst, R. (2010). Charles Dickens. In William Landay. Retrieved from:

Forster, J. (1872-74). The Life of Charles Dickens Book I Chapter II. University of St Andrews. Retrieved from:

Jones, K. (2012). Dickens and the Blacking Factory. History in an Hour. Retrieved from:

Landow, G. (2002).The Blacking Factory and Dickens’s Imaginative World. The Victorian Web. Retrieved from:

Langton, R. (1880).The childhood and youth of Charles Dickens. Princeton University Library. Retrieved from:;view=1up;seq=127

Waller Rogers, L. (2016).‘Warren’s Blacking Factory’. Lisa’s History Room. Retrieved from:

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


What forms of entertainment were there in ancient Rome?

The first thing we think about with Roman entertainment is the gladiators. The first contest was held at the funeral Decimus Junius Brutus in 264BC {Boatwright Gargola Lenski Talbert, p94}. From here it became massive entertainment. Gladiators often started out as slaves and became celebrities.

There were auditoriums throughout the Empire, but the famous Colosseum was not built until Flavian times {Boatwright Gargola Lenski Talbert, p382}. The games were: “magnificent; there is no denying it. But what pleasure can it possibly be to a man of culture, when either a puny human being is mangled by a most powerful beast, or a splendid beast is transfixed by a hunting spear”{Cicero Letters VIIi}?

We may consider the gladiatorial games to be barbaric blood sport. This comes from a society that loves big football hits, boxing and cage fighting.

The Circus Maximus existed from Rome’s earliest days {Boatwright Gargola Lenski Talbert, p377}. Horse and chariot races were conducted here, passions ran high. In Republican times there were the Greens and Blues, representing political factions {Dupont, p209}. Under the Empire; the Reds, Whites, Golds and Purples were added {Boatwright Gargola Lenski Talbert, p380}. Charioteers (today’s harness) were extremely well-paid and famous, but the races were high-risk {Dupont, p210}.

Another form of entertainment was the ludi scaenici or theatre. There were tragedies, comedies and more low-brow mimes. Greek plays were performed; then Roman playwrights include Livius Andronicus, Terence, Publilius Syrus {Dupont, p228}; then later Seneca {Boatwright Gargola Lenski Talbert, p 333}.

The entertainments enjoyed by Romans show how little has changed in 2000 years, certainly not human nature.

Works cited

Boatwright, Mary & Gargola, Daniel & Lenski, Noel & Talbert, Richard. The Romans: From Village to Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Dupont, Florence. Daily Life in Ancient Rome. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1992.

Lewis, Naphtali & Reinhold, Meyer. (Ed) Roman Civilization: Selected Readings Volume I. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

“Divine” Madness


Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (12-41CE), nicknamed Caligula “little boots”, was the third Roman emperor. Everyone was delighted when the young man came to power in 37, but the dream soon became a nightmare. So what was wrong with Caligula?

Childhood traumas he had many. His father Germanicus died when he was 7; then his mother Agrippina was exiled then killed, along with two brothers {Boatwright Gargola Lenski Talbert, p316}. The teenager lived with Tiberius on Capri, believed responsible for their deaths. He had a “truly disastrous youth, likely to affect his development in the worst possible way” {Grant, p109}.

The ancients were not so sympathetic. Tiberius described his great-nephew as having all of Sulla’s faults and none of his virtues {Tacitus, p224}. Caligula was careful to speak no treason, leading to a later comment: “There had never been a better slave or a worse master.” {Tacitus p209}

Later in 37, the young emperor fell ill. Some blamed this on unhealthy luxuries {Philo}. Maybe this was brain fever, and his erratic behaviour began after recovery. {Boatwright Gargola Lenski Talbert p317}  Modern historians attempt to diagnose Caligula with some mental illness, difficult to do. {Grant, p111} Suetonius mentions epilepsy and chronic insomnia. “He tired of lying awake the greater part of the night. . .invoking the day which, seemed as if it would never break.” {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVv}

Perhaps a good diagnosis for Caligula is psychopath. “Everything that Caligula said or did was marked with equal cruelty, even during his hours of rest and amusement and banquetry.” {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVxxxii} The first casualties were co-heir Tiberius Gemellus, then Praetorian Prefect Macro and his wife Ennia, who helped him to power {Boatwright Gargola Lenski Talbert, p317}.

Many innocent people would meet their deaths, sometimes gruesomely, “not necessarily for major offences, but merely for criticising his shows, failing to swear by his genius, etc.” {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IV} Their confiscated estates were sold to boost the treasury, Caligula called this: “I am clearing my accounts” {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVxxix.} He even made parents attend their own son’s executions. {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVxxvi}

His sexual behaviour was also psychopathic. Caligula had homosexual affairs with Valerius Catallus and actor Mnester {Grant, p114}; but seems to have preferred stolae. This was unfortunate for the women of Rome, from meretrices to senator’s wives. He loved cuckolding other men, therefore showing his power, particularly senators. The ladies were told: “This beautiful throat will be cut whenever I please.” {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVxxxii}

He committed incest with his sisters, especially Drusilla, who were put on coins {}. After her death in 38, Drusilla was made a goddess {Boatwright Gargola Lenski Talbert, p317}. Julia Livilla and Agrippina were later banished by their brother, not such a terrible fate. Caligula later had himself deified, dressing as various god and goddesses and putting his statue in temples.

We can question whether these tales are true? “The consistent tone of the stories suggests a kernel of truth” {Grant, p114}.

Perhaps a more contemporary diagnosis for Caligula is tyrant, who Plato compares to a werewolf that eats human flesh {Plato Republic VIII}.  After looking at the means by which they stay in power, he adds: “A man becomes strictly tyrannical whenever by nature, or by habit, or by both together, he has fallen under the dominion of wine, or love, or insanity. {Plato Republic IX}

Whatever was wrong with Caligula was permanently cured on 24 Jan 41, when he was stabbed to death in the theatre, by Cassius Chaerea and his own Praetorian Guard {}. This tyrannicide was somewhat heroic, unlike the murders of his wife Caesonia and infant daughter. After his assassination the Romans wished to restore the Republic {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVlx}, but it was too late for that.


Barber, Stephen & Reed, Jeremy. Caligula: Divine Carnage. Creation Books, 2000.

Boatwright, Mary & Gargola, Daniel & Lenski, Noel & Talbert, Richard. The Romans: From Village to Empire, Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Cassius Dio. “Roman History: Book LIX.” Loeb Classical Library edition, 1924. Retrieved from:*.html

Grant, Michael. The Twelve Caesars. London: Phoenix Giant, 1997.

Philo of Alexandria. “ON THE EMBASSY TO GAIUS” The Works of Philo. Retrieved from:

Plato. The Republic. London: Wordworth Classics of World Literature, 1997.

Suetonius Tranquilis, Gaius. The Twelve Caesars. Middlesex: Penguin Classics, 1957.

Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. The Annals of Imperial Rome. London: Penguin Classics, 1956.