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Charles Dickens: a writing lifetime

Childhood

View of the exterior of Somerset House showing the central courtyardThe central courtyard at Somerset House, from Charles Knight's London, vol.4, 1843 [Miscellaneous DA677 LON]Charles Dickens was born in 1812, the year of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow, and died in the year of the Education Act of 1870, which gave poor children in Britain the right to free education. Many people regard him as a Victorian figure, but in fact Dickens was born in the Regency era, and was already an adult of 25 and the famous author of Pickwick when Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837. He had grown up under the mad King George III, George IV (the old Prince Regent) and William IV and his Queen, Adelaide.

These early 19th century reigns are not much discussed today, but they witnessed the final end of the Napoleonic Wars at the Battle of Waterloo and its aftermath: fatherless families and returning maimed servicemen, widespread famine and terrible poverty in the country, and a period of harsh political repression under Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth, best known for the massacre of political demonstrators at Peterloo in 1819.

After several years' heavy repression of political dissent, there followed an exciting period of agitation and a nationwide mobilization for political rights which ended in elation with the passage of the Great Reform Act of 1832, which extended the franchise and made representation more fairly spread across the male population of the country. But disappointment was widespread when, shortly afterwards, the extent of the persisting exclusion was grasped, and the public realised that the first major Act of the Parliament newly-elected under the Reform Act was the New Poor Law of 1834, which ushered in the totalitarian and harsh workhouse regime Dickens was later to pillory in Oliver Twist.

The family moved about quite a lot during Dickens's childhood, living in at least 17 addresses before he was 20. Sometimes these moves were to follow his father's work, and at other times to avoid creditors –the family finances were insecure, and Dickens's parents did not always live within their means. John and Elizabeth Dickens were both Londoners, but Dickens himself was born in Portsmouth, where his father –who was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office–had been posted. So, from his birth until 1815, when the family moved back to London, young Dickens was probably aware at some deep level of the busy life of a naval town on a war footing.

The Dickens family settled in London for the next couple of years, 1815–7, while John Dickens was working in the Navy offices at Somerset House. The family lodged above a grocery shop in an area of Marylebone near the Middlesex Hospital (north of Oxford Street, west of Tottenham Court Road) where there were family associations. At the time, Regent's Park and the northern extension of nearby Regent Street were under construction. This part of London was socially mixed and arty, several of his parents' relatives (including his grandmother, and a great-aunt) lived nearby, there were shops across the street, and a well-established workhouse on the next block, so the district was full of interest.

Urban streets and docksides were familiar to the young Dickens, from Portsmouth and London: Christopher Huffham – a friend of his parents and Dickens's godfather – lived at Limehouse, and worked in the London docks as a rigger and blockmaker for the great sailing ships of the Navy. Young Dickens would later use the atmosphere, stories and voices of both in his fiction.

Then in 1817, Dickens's father was again posted away, this time to Chatham, and the family moved once more. Chatham was where young Dickens grew up between the ages five and nine, and where he went to school. The area of the Kent countryside around Chatham and Rochester became very important to him, and remained so until the end of his life.

Dickens was his parents' second child, and their eldest son. In 1822, when this longish posting in Chatham was over, the family returned again to London. The family was now in straitened circumstances. Dickens now had one older and two younger sisters and two younger brothers. They settled in a very small house in a poor part of Camden Town. Dickens could not attend school as there were no funds to pay the fees, and the family was in debt. After a valiant attempt on Mrs Dickens' part to open a school in Gower Street, the family was pitched into an unwelcome new experience: young Dickens was sent to work in a blacking manufactory near the Strand, bottling shoe-polish, and his father was imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea debtor's prison, near London Bridge. His mother and the younger children joined Mr Dickens inside the prison.

At first Dickens lodged with a family acquaintance in Camden Town, and crossed London on foot north/south every day to the factory and back. But he was so lonely and miserable that lodgings were found for him in Southwark nearer to the prison, and he was able to join the family for meals, now walking to work through London east/west.

This traumatic period of his life – which is now understood to have lasted at least a year when he was aged 11-12 years old – scarred Dickens deeply, and was never afterwards spoken of within the family. He himself felt robbed of his childhood. Dickens's had privately described the humiliation and hopelessness of that time only to his friend John Forster – who divulged the fact in his great biography only after Dickens's death. Contemporaries were unaware that Dickens had been a factory boy, and it is said that even his own children knew nothing of it.

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