This edited article about Charles Dickens first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.
The 12-year-old boy left his first, long day at work close to rats and in a mood of deep despair. The dark, dirty warehouse seemed like a prison and the dull, mindless work of pasting labels on to bottles had felt endless. Only a year ago he had been attending school, immersed in his books and eagerly looking forward to a future that promised much. But although the young Charles Dickens did not then realise it, his parents were already in difficulty and the future was much less rosy than he imagined.
Life for the Dickens family had become a dreary, unhappy affair in which disaster always threatened. Furniture had to be sold and Charles, who could no longer be kept at school found himself running errands to the pawn shop instead. Often cold and hungry, he did not know that the worst was yet to come. Then a friend suggested he could be found work at the blacking factory for six shillings a week and so a fearful 12 year-old started his working career in the rat-infested old building that seemed to symbolise all that was wrong with the world.
Charles Dickens never forgot this episode in his life, even though times improved and he only worked there for a few months. Nor did he ever forget that he was one of the fortunate few in being rescued from such conditions and later, when he had become the most famous author of his time he did all in his power to improve conditions for the poor. His books made the public realise the scandals and abuses that existed and they helped reformers to create conditions in which changes could be made. Dickens could have little idea of the future that was to be his when he left the blacking factory, but he did have a burning ambition which drove him forward. The results echoed round the world, and also played a significant part in changing the country in which he lived.
Charles Dickens was born at Portsmouth in 1812. His father was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office and after a few years the family moved to Chatham and to London. The family’s changing fortunes sometimes made for a precarious existence and at one time (just after his start at the blacking factory) Charles’ father had to go to the Debtor’s Prison at Marshalsea. But later on prosperity returned and Charles was able to finish his schooling at the age of 15.
He started work as an office boy to a firm of solicitors but the law was a dull business to a young man with so much energy and later his father, after teaching him shorthand, was able to find him work as a newspaper reporter. Charles specialised in Parliamentary reports and soon became known as one of the fastest and most accurate reporters in the country.
When Parliament was not sitting he was sent by his paper all over the country to cover by-elections, important speeches and other occasions. Since this was before the telephone, speed was all important. The brisk Mr. Dickens, who was now a dashing young man, loved the excitement of working at high speed and then travelling as fast as horses could carry him in the hope of delivering his copy before his rivals!
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