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Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Charles Dickens: Champion of the Poor

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on 7 February 1812, at Portsea, near Portsmouth. Lots of special events are planned for the bicentenary. Charles was the second child of John Dickens and Elizabeth Barrow, the daughter of a naval pay-officer. They married in 1809 and their first child, Frances (Fanny) was born the following year. A further six children were born after Charles; two died in early childhood.

John Dickens became overwhelmed by debt. Charles was heartbroken when his father was arrested for debt and jailed in the Marshalsea prison.
His parents could not afford to send him to school any more. They were very pleased, but Charles was horrified, when he was offered a job at Warren’s blacking warehouse, by Hungerford Stairs. Charles spent ten hours per day sealing and labelling pots of blacking (used for stoves); he earned six shillings a week. He felt ‘utterly neglected and hopeless’. But he ‘suffered in secret, and that I suffered exquisitely, no-one ever knew… I kept my own counsel, and I did my work’ (David Copperfield).
Charles never forgot the hardship of those years at the blacking factory. He became a fierce champion of poor and vulnerable people, especially children.
His first novel Oliver Twist (1837) told the story of workhouse orphan Oliver. To save money, ‘farmed out’ pauper children like Oliver to institutions like Mrs Mann’s house. The parishes gave these ‘baby farms’ money to care for each child. The less money the owners spent on food and clothes, the bigger profits they made. Parish overseers also apprenticed out poor children like Oliver to save money on their upkeep.
A decade after ‘Oliver Twist’ was published, a news story about pauper children made Dickens furious. Over 100 children, including 5 year old Bridget Quin, died from cholera at a ‘baby farm’ at Tooting during the winter of 1848-9.
The Tooting ‘baby farm,’ run by Mr Drouet, housed nearly 1400 children. Drouet was paid four shillings and sixpence (22½p) for each child. The children were dressed in rags. They didn’t get enough to eat. Their only vegetables were rotten potatoes. Some boys were so hungry they stole potato peelings from a bucket of pigswill used to feed pigs. Children slept three or four to a bed.
The Tooting children, already poorly from overcrowded beds, little food and not enough warm clothing, were easy victims for the killer disease of cholera. Dickens said the Tooting ‘farm’ was ‘brutally conducted’ and ‘vilely kept.’
In spite of Dickens’s efforts, when he died on 9 June 1870, many children lived in poverty (and still do). But without Dickens’s work, the social reforms of the Victorian age would have been even slower to arrive.

Images: Oliver Twist asks for more gruel in the workhouse.Illustration by George Cruikshank, The Adventures of Oliver Twist, (Chapman & Hall Ltd, and Henry Frowde, circa 1905).
Charles Dickens and autograph. Cassell’s Illustrated History of England Vol. IX, (Cassell, Petter and Galpin, c.1874). Author’s collection.

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