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Monday, 7 February 2011

“Happy 199th Birthday to You”, The Early Life of Charles John Huffam Dickens

Today, 7th February, would have been the birthday of Charles Dickens. I suspect a lot of history blogs and sites will do a post about him, and it may even make a footnote in some newspapers. Those blogs and sites, I’m sure, will contain wonderfully detailed descriptions of Dickens’ life, his family, his inspirations and his novels.
With that in mind, I decided not to do a long post about his life and / or his work (I think that task would have been too daunting for me!) but instead I wanted to try and condense his early years – specifically the years between his birth and his becoming a successful author – into a fairly bite-size post.

That way, I hoped to make a short, succinct, readable post that contained all the key points about Dickens’ younger years that could be read in a matter of minutes.

Hopefully I’ve been successful…

John Dickens
On 7th February 1812, Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsea, Portsmouth. His father, John, was a clerk working in the Navy Pay Office, his mother Elizabeth was the daughter of a senior clerk in the same Pay Office. Charles was the second of ten children, only five of whom survived childhood.
Charles’ childhood was unsettled, with the family moving around extensively. They first moved when he was four years old, from Portsmouth to Norfolk Street in Bloomsbury, London in 1816. A year later they moved from London to Chatham, in Kent, and then back to London in 1822 where the family settled in Camden Town.
Elizabeth Dickens
Charles would always consider Chatham to be his real home, being the place where his formative years were spent playing by the sea and observing the dockyard, and his first memories made.
Moving from home to home would be a pattern for the rest of Charles’ life.

His parents were neither particularly affectionate nor loving toward him, and he would go on to describe himself in his childhood as a "very small and not-over-particularly-taken-care-of boy". As such, he spent much time alone between the ages on ten and twelve, which helped little Charles to develop a vivid imagination that he would return to again and again in his work. John was a poor father, who neglected the educational needs of Charles and his siblings. Even with the funds the family had at their disposal, the boy was denied any schooling.

At the time of Charles’ birth the Dickens’ were a perfectly ordinary middle class family in a financially comfortable position. Charles’ father, John, was earning a decent salary of £350, which would have been sufficient for the family to live a comfortable middle class lifestyle. John, however, was a man who lived beyond his means and in 1824 the family ran out of money. Bankruptcy descended, and all the Dickens’ possessions had to be pawned. In February of the same year, John Dickens was imprisoned in Marshalsea Debtors Prison, in Southwark. The Dickens family, with nowhere else to go, moved into the prison to live with John during his imprisonment, apart from young Charles, who had found lodgings in Camden with family friend Elizabeth Roylance.
Dickens in 1839
Living in lodgings and having to pay his way, twelve year old Charles was sent out to work.
He found a job in a shoe blacking factory on the north bank of the Thames, near Hungerford market doing terribly mundane labour for 6 to 7s a week. As one of a number of young, often shoe-less boys, he spent his days pasting labels onto bottles of shoe blacking from early morning until late at night. Quite a change in lifestyle for a young middle-class boy of twelve.

In the summer of 1824, John Dickens' grandmother, Elizabeth Dickens, died having bequeathed the family £450. With this money, John was granted release from prison and paid off his debts, allowing the Dickens family to leave Marshalsea Prison. They went to live with Charles in the home of Elizabeth Roylance.

With a little money now to their name, the family was able to remove Charles from the blacking factory. His employment there, thankfully for Charles, lasted only a few months, but he would remember the misery for the rest of his life, referring to the time as “the secret agony of my soul”.
Much later, Charles described the misery of working in the blacking factory to his biographer, John Forster, who published ‘The Life of Charles Dickens’ after the author died in 1870. Talking about his time in the blacking factory, Dickens told Forster:

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.

Things took a turn for the better for Charles when the family finally sent him to school at Wellington House Academy, where he enjoyed good schooling until 1827, when the family finances had once again been drained and he was withdrawn from the school, leaving Charles angry and disappointed.

After the disappointment of losing his school place, Charles, in May 1827, now aged fifteen, gained employment as a junior solicitor’s clerk at Ellis and Blackmore, attorneys, of Holborn Court, Gray’s Inn, where he earned just less than £1 a week. However, as with his job in the blacking factory, this position did not last long as he hated law, and six months later he left and sought a position in journalism. To achieve his goal, he learned shorthand in his spare time, and by the time he was seventeen he had acquired a job as a freelance reporter. Between 1831 and 1832 he sat in on Parliamentary debates, taking shorthand notes and writing reports which he sold to various London papers.

This job paid well with Charles sometimes earning up to £5 a week. In his private life, Charles was taken with a girl named Maria Beadnell, whom he wished to marry, only for her father, a banker, to refuse Charles permission to do so and end the relationship by sending her to school in Paris

Mary Beadnell
Despite enjoying some success with his reporting work, Charles was a creative personality, and contemplated a career on the stage. Ready to give up on writing and become an actor, it was only the publication of his story ‘A Dinner at Poplar Walk’ in London periodical Monthly Magazine’s December 1833 issue that changed his mind. This acceptance of his work changed his career course, and rather than become an actor, Charles returned to writing.

Catherine Hogarth
In 1834, Charles rented rooms at Furnival’s Inn, and, under the pseudonym of Boz (The Dickens’ family nickname for Charles’ youngest brother, Augustus) he started to write descriptive political sketch pieces for the newspaper the Morning Chronicle, for whom He travelled across the country reporting on election campaigns. In 1835 he submitted work to a newly established paper, the Evening Chronicle, and whilst doing so, met the daughter of the co-editor, George Hogarth; a young lady named Catherine Hogarth. A year later, they were married and moved in with Catherine’s youngest sister, Mary. Charles and Catherine would go on to have ten children.

Charles’ career as a writer appeared to be set for success when, in February 1836 his sketch pieces for the morning chronicle were compiled into one piece of work, named ‘Sketches by Boz’, and published by John Macrone. This collection was received with great success by the public, and two months later, his first full-length novel, ‘The Pickwick Papers’ was published in monthly instalments by publishers Chapman and Hall. ‘Pickwick Papers’ started off slowly, being released to a rather indifferent reception, but by November 1836, when its run came to an end, it was selling 40,000 copies of each installment.
Dickens in 1842
In the same month, Richard Bentley, owner of the new literary magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, offered Charles the job of editor of the magazine. Charles accepted and as a contribution to its contents, serialized his second novel ‘Oliver Twist’ within its pages. This serialization was illustrated by the great George Cruikshank.
By the time Charles and Catherine’s first child was born (also named Charles), in 1837 Charles senior had become the most popular and best paid author in the country.
His third novel ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ was serialized monthly between April 1838 and October 1839, with publishers Chapman and Hall paying £150 per monthly part – a huge sum of money at the time.

By now, Charles was hugely busy, and in danger of suffering from exhaustion, or, as he put it ‘bursting my boiler.’ With that in mind, Charles bought out his publishing agreements with John Macrone, and, in 1839 left his post at Bentley’s Miscellany, a move encouraged by a fall-out with Richard Bentley over the rights to Oliver Twist.

From this moment, Charles Dickens’ literary career went from strength to strength, and he would go on to write prolifically for the rest of his life, turning out not just the novels for which he is famous, but also short stories, non-fictional works, plays and poetry. Looking at a list of his work, it’s difficult to see how he found the time to do anything BUT write. In the interest of keeping this post fairly short, I did not intend to list all of Dickens’ work here, but to illustrate his writing consistency and abundant productivity I have done just that.
If you wish, treat the following list as somewhat of an appendix:

Sketches By Boz – 1836 (Short Story Collection)
The Village Coquettes – 1836 (Plays)
The Pickwick Papers – serialised April 1836 to November 1837
The Mudfog Papers – 1837 (Short Story Collection)
Oliver Twist – serialised February 1837 to April 1839
Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi – 1838 (Non Fiction)
Nicholas Nickleby  - serialised April 1838 to October 1839
The Old Curiosity Shop – serialised April 1840 to February 1841
Barnaby Rudge – February 1841 to November 1841
The Fine Old English Gentleman – 1841 (Poetry)
American Notes – 1842 (Non Fiction)
A Christmas Carol – 1843 (Christmas Book)
Martin Chuzzlewit – serialised January 1843 to July 1844
The Chimes – 1844 (Christmas Book)
The Cricket On the Hearth – 1845 (Christmas Book)
The Battle of Life – 1846 (Christmas Book)
Pictures From Italy – 1846 (Non Fiction)
Dombey and Son – serialised October 1846 to April 1848
The Haunted Man and the Ghosts Bargain – 1848 (Christmas Book)
The Life Of Our Lord: As Written for His Children – 1849 (Non Fiction)
David Copperfield – Serialised May 1849 to November 1850
Bleak House – serialised March 1852 to September 1853
A Child’s History of England – 1853 (Non Fiction)
Hard Times – serialised April 1854 to August 1854
Little Dorrit – serialised December 1855 to June 1857
The Frozen Deep – 1857 (Play)
A Tale of two Cities – serialised April 1859 to November 1859
Great Expectations – serialised December 1860 to August 1861
Our Mutual Friend – serialised May 1864 to November 1865
The Uncommercial Traveller – 1860 to 1869 (Short Story Collection)
Speeches, Letters and Sayings – 1870 (Non Fiction)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood – serialised April 1870 to September 1870 (Unfinished)

The only time the constant production line of work trailed off was after the Staplehurst Rail Crash in which he was involved.
You can read about the effect this accident had on Dickens here

I hope this post is what I set out for it to be; a digestible account of Dickens’ youth up until he acquired the fortune and fame we know him for today. All that remains is for us to wish him a happy 199th Birthday!


  1. Fascinating! There was a lot in there that your average Charles Dickens reader wouldn't know (myself included) so thanks for enlightening us.

  2. Ah!

    That's great to hear, I'm a little less nervous about it now!


  3. Thank you. I had no idea that Dickens met the daughter of the co-editor George Hogarth when he was working for the Evening Chronicle. I assumed that he found Catherine lazy, sloppy and not very intellectual because she was born to a much less literate family.

    I have created a link and hope that readers follow up on your information on the first half of Dickens' life. Many thanks
    Art and Architecture, mainly

  4. Thanks for the link, Hels, please find me as a happy follower of your blog!

    I think as the years went on in Dickens' marriage to Catherine that he did find her all those things, although, its hardly surprising as the poor woman was virtually always pregnant.

    He certainly didn't treat her as he should have in the later years of their relationship, but separation was a bit of a no-no back then, especially for a celebrity author whose novels were very moralistic.

  5. I really found Claire Tomalin's book on Dickens' life very interesting. If you'd like like read my review of the book, here it is:

  6. Thanks Andreas, I hope people will enjoy your review - especially with next year being his 200th birthday!