The child at the blacking factory

The Hindu Photo Library

The Hindu Photo Library  

What do you know of the author of the famous novel, David Copperfield? Yes, the one who also penned A Christmas Carol, Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist?

When you read his novels, were you moved by the sad lives that his fictional children led, lives that are so different from yours? Why do you think this was so?

For answers, let's get to know a boy named Charles Dickens, born on February 10, 1812, at Portsmouth in England. His father, John, worked as a clerk in the Treasury office of His Majesty's Navy. Though the Dickens family wasn't rich, they had enough to live on, to begin with.

When Charles was about five, they shifted to Chatham. At home, Charles recalls his mother teaching him Latin and English every day. As an adult, he recalls: "I faintly remember her teaching me the alphabet; and when I look upon the fat black letters in the primer, the puzzling novelty of their shapes, and the easy good nature of O and S always seems to present themselves before me as they used to do." Isn't that odd?

It was at this time that Charles received his first picture book with nonsense verse, The Dandies Ball, about gentlemen dressing up for a party. The host was named Mr. Pillblister. Doesn't it make you wonder if this character was a doctor?

It was at his second school that Charles met his favourite teacher, William Giles, who encouraged him to read and to excel at sports.

But the good times came to an end all too soon. His father spent more than he earned, and had to go to prison.

At this stage, 11-year-old Charles was sent out to work in Warren's blacking warehouse, which made polish for shoes. It had rotten wooden floors. Big rats ran in and out of the rooms. His job was to cover the pots of blacking with paper, then tie them up with string, and finally to paste labels. It was here that he made friends with a boy named Bob Fagin, who did a similar job. Do you recall the name from Oliver Twist?

Of course, Charles was miserable. He often spent his lunch money on stale pastries or a slice of hot pudding. When he was broke, he'd look at pineapples with great longing!

But this terrible time came to an end in a year or two, when Charles' father was released. The boy then returned to Wellington House Academy.

When you read of Oliver and Little Nell, David Copperfield and Pip in these familiar books next, won't you spare a thought for the cruel childhood of Charles Dickens?


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