Charles Dickens begins working at Warren's Blacking Factory
Just before his father's arrest, 12-year-old Dickens had begun working ten-hour days at Warren's Blacking Warehouse, on Hungerford Stairs, near the present Charing Cross railway station.
He earned six shillings a week pasting labels on jars of shoe polish. This money paid for his lodgings with Mrs. Roylance and helped support his family. Mrs. Roylance, Dickens later wrote, was "a reduced old lady, long known to our family", and whom he eventually immortalized, "with a few alterations and embellishments", as "Mrs. Pipchin", in Dombey & Son. Later, lodgings were found for him in a "back-attic...at the house of an insolvent-court agent, who lived in Lant Street in The Borough...he was a fat, good-natured, kind old gentleman, with a quiet old wife; and he had a very innocent grown-up son; these three were the inspiration for the Garland family in The Old Curiosity Shop. The mostly unregulated, strenuous—and often cruel—work conditions of the factory employees (especially children) made a deep impression on Dickens. His experiences served to influence later fiction and essays, and were the foundation of his interest in the reform of socio-economic and labour conditions, the rigours of which he believed were unfairly borne by the poor.
As told to John Forster (from The Life of Charles Dickens):
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 wainscoted 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. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river. There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary's shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label, and then go on again with more pots. Two or three other boys were kept at similar duty down-stairs on similar wages. One of them came up, in a ragged apron and a paper cap, on the first Monday morning, to show me the trick of using the string and tying the knot. His name was Bob Fagin; and I took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards, in Oliver Twist.
For more than a half century, 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. As Walter Allen points out, this experience had crucial influence on (1) the writer's emphasis upon orphans and abandoned children, (2) the self-pity that permeates many of his works, and (3) their fairy-tale plots:
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, just as the deaths of Little Nell, Paul Dombey, and Jo are dramatizations of his own self-pity. And it explains the dominant mood in which his world is created. It was not at all one of good- humoured acceptance of things, but a mood of nightmare compounded of lurid melodrama and savage comedy, relieved from time to time by unreflecting joy in the absurd and the comic for their own sakes'." [Allen, 166]
Alexander Welsh similarly argues
The secret memory of the blacking warehouse explains a great deal in Dickens's life and fiction. It partially explains why, in the midst of his success with Pickwick, he should begin a fairy tale of the workhouse child, Oliver Twist. It explains the vein of self-pity that crops up again and again in the novels, and particularly the childlike sentiment that if he had died or turned bad, it would have served the grown-ups right. .
Boot polish factory where 12-year-old Dickens was sent to work, fixing labels to bottles of blacking, to help support his family. Dickens had dreams of becoming a gentleman and was humiliated working with the rough men and boys at the factory. The experience had a major impact on Dickens later life and works and also on his relationship with his mother who, after Charles left the factory as the result of a quarrel between his father and the owners of the factory, argued unsuccessfully to have him sent back. Dickens relates the misery he felt during this time in the fictionalized account of David Copperfield working at Murdstone and Grinby's warehouse (David Copperfield). Warren's Blacking Factory was located at 30 Hungerford Stairs, the Strand. A ferry operated at the stairs until 1845 when Hungerford foot bridge opened , hoping to spur trade at Hungerford Market. The market was torn down in 1860 to make way for Charing Cross railway station and the footbridge was replaced by a railway bridge in 1863. The railway company argued that few people used the footbridge due to the smell from the river. The Micawbers take temporary lodging in a "little, dirty, tumble-down public-house" at Hungerford stairs before emigrating to Australia (David Copperfield).