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Finding Young Dickens at Home



Rob Hardy


It might be thought that there could be no further surprises of biographical data about Charles Dickens, one of the world's most beloved authors, whose life has been covered in scores of biographies. In an illustrative example, though, of the adage "Chance favors the prepared mind," historian Ruth Richardson was researching something else and discovered that Dickens had lived a few doors down from a London workhouse which must have been his model for such famous scenes as poor Oliver Twist asking for more. Richardson's Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist & the London Poor (Oxford University Press) tells all about her discovery. (It must be said that after the book was published, others pointed out that her discovery was not news, as it had been reported in books before; even if this is so, her book tells how she came upon the discovery independently, and gives fresh information of how the neighborhood affected Dickens and his stories in many ways.) Anyone interested in the extraordinary life of Dickens or in his novels will find this an illuminating work. 




Part of the reason that this story is so involving is that Dickens was very secretive about his origins and upbringing. His mother and father seem to have been decent enough people, but they were constantly on the move due to changes of workplace and economic distress. An appendix to the book lists twelve different homes Dickens lived in before he was twelve. Famously, one of the family's moves was to the Marshalsea Prison, where John Dickens was imprisoned for debt. During his imprisonment, the twelve-year-old Charles Dickens was also famously employed in a blacking factory. These important parts of his story, however, only became famous after he died. Even Dickens's children were surprised to learn of the prison and the blacking factory after their father's death. He was repeatedly to burn stacks of his letters and ask others to do so. His urge toward privacy was so strong that it was not until the middle of the twentieth century that his long relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan was revealed. Yet everyone knew that he would present stories in the first person, like David Copperfield, and that he often wrote about the trials of young people, and the basis for the stories had to come from somewhere. Now we can acknowledge an important somewhere. 




In 2010 Richardson was asked, in her role as historian, to support a campaign to save one of the last surviving London workhouses. There had been plenty of workhouses supported by the parishes in which they were set. Each was "rather like a modern refugee camp in a disaster zone, thin pickings, but with a degree of benevolence." They were often the last refuge for the extremely poor, orphans, or unwed mothers to get a roof, employment, and a meager amount of food. The degree of benevolence was a low degree; the "new-modelled diet table" featured gruel all week, with cheese on Saturdays. The starvation diet meant that the undertaker for the paupers was busy, and so were the "resurrection men" who dug up pauper corpses for delivery to those learning anatomy. If there was a Samaritan impulse to continue such workhouses, it was often swallowed up by predation. Oliver Twist begins with the theft of a locket from a workhouse corpse, and Oliver and his fellows are farmed out as workers, for the benefit of the woman employed by the Poor Law to run the place. 




It is not surprising that the buildings were dirty and liable for decay. Even those who thought it essential that charity be extended to the less fortunate also accepted the social stigma that "sent to the workhouse" signified. Laws were changed, and the workhouse system went out of fashion. The buildings were torn down for more modern residences, or perhaps were blown out of existence in the Blitz. The one Richardson was asked to save from the wrecking ball had been the Cleveland Street Workhouse, which owed its continued existence to being annexed as a clinic by the nearby Middlesex Hospital. The hospital itself was demolished in 2008, to the distress of preservationists who undertook with renewed enthusiasm the salvation of the old workhouse. To research the site, and show it worth saving, Richardson went through old maps, legal records, newspaper reports, drawings of street scenes, and street directories. Many of her pictorial findings are reproduced here, as she takes us through the detective work that led her to a finding that nearly made her fall out of her library chair. 




The Dickens family had lived a few doors down from the workhouse, she discovered, in Marylebone at 10 Norfolk Street. They were there for two separate periods when Dickens was three and four, and then when he was eighteen and nineteen. The property belonged to John Dodd who kept his shop on the premises. He was a cheesemonger and grocer, and he was also a chapman. This means that he sold chapbooks, cheap booklets with a sewn binding, including alphabet guides and stories for children up to crime stories or religious tracts for adults. It may well be that chapbooks from Mr. Dodd were among the first things Dickens read. Before he became an author of less ephemeral literature, he may well have written a chapbook as well (evidence for which Richardson gives). Astonishingly, the house still exists, although its address and street name have changed (now 22 Cleveland Street), which helps account for its obscurity in the Dickens biography. Richardson takes us with her on a visit to the place, which is still a corner commercial building, although it is a Greek pie shop, rather than a grocer's. There are the same panes of glass in the old bow windows, and various doors and domestic hardware that Dickens would have known.  




The details of what his life was like there and exactly how Norfolk Street and its proximity to the workhouse affected him must remain conjecture; Richardson's book is full of "Perhaps Dickens..." or "As a child, Dickens might have..." The tentative nature of such statements, however, does not obscure some understanding of Dickens's history in the locale. "During the day," for instance, "the child Dickens would have been able to watch daily events and characters in motion along the street: horses, coal and milk deliveries, building works, postmen, tradesmen, muffin-men, street sellers, street sweepers, funerals, rag-and-bone men, old-clothes-men, ballad-sellers... it was not a quiet street." There was a pawnbroker's nearby, across the street from Dickens's front door and diagonally opposite the workhouse. Not only would it have been an establishment John Dickens knew, a pawnbroker's shop figures importantly in the plot of Oliver Twist. And then there are names. Dickens was famous for dreaming up facetious names like Gradgrind, but he also drew from life. There was an oil merchant down the street from his house named William Sykes; it isn't too much to suppose that he gave his name to Oliver's nemesis Bill Sikes. 




Besides an account of the early years of Charles Dickens, there is much here about the social conditions of the time, the poor laws, and the religious and governmental view of the poor. Richardson seems to have read carefully everything Dickens wrote, and gives many quotations apt for the environs. Even though much of her book is conjectural about the locale's effect upon the young Dickens, the conjectures are reasonable, and built on a fascinating foundation of historical and topographic data, explained here with love and enthusiasm.



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