Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist: A Social History
Oliver Twist and Mr. Bumble
Charles Dickens' Early Life of Hardship
Charles Dickens often wrote about the poverty and hardship that he had seen in the Victorian London in which he lived.
Not many people realize that before he became a famous writer, he had actually experienced that same hardship for himself.
When he was only twelve years old, his father was sent to prison because he was unable to pay his debts. Charles had to go out to work to support his mother.
Young Charles Dickens got a job in a blacking factory where he worked in squalid conditions making shoe polish used to shine the shoes of the wealthy. He earned just six shillings a week for his labor. That's about a dollar fifty.
Until they could manage to find lodgings, Charles and his family lived in the factory, too.
This early experience gave Charles Dickens a powerful concern for the welfare of the poor and the sorry state of young children who could not receive a proper education.
In many ways, he later dedicated his entire writing life not only to the creation of some of the most memorable literature in the western world but what today we might call 'awareness raising' or even 'campaigning' on issues of social justice.
Charles Dickens Documentary
Before we go on, you might like to watch this fascinating documentary about the life and work of Charles Dickens.
Charles Dickens the Journalist
As soon as he was old enough Charles Dickens managed to get a job as a newspaper reporter for a popular paper called The True Sun and later moved to The Morning Chronicle.
The Morning Chronicle
He was well placed in this line of work as he knew the labyrinthine streets of London like the back of his hand.
The London that Dickens had grown up in became also the London that he could observe from a greater distance and write about.
It was a London in which poverty-stricken slums backed up against the mansions of the rich. Unschooled children known as guttersnipes played in the dirty streets and fell under the influence of criminals, gangsters, and thieves.
Charles Dickens used his writing - in novels, in newspaper reports and in articles for magazines - as a way of giving voice to the poor and the needy.
While he is most famous for his novels, Charles Dickens also wrote a plethora of articles and tracts supporting reforms of the poor laws, equality of voting rights and universal education.
The Artful Dodger Introduces Oliver Twist to Fagin
Perhaps better known through the musical film version of his story than by the original novel, one of Charles Dickens most famous characters is that of Oliver Twist.
Oliver Twist tells the story of a poor orphan and highlights the cruel reality and injustice of life among the needy at the time.
Oliver Twist Meets The Artful Dodger
The original book was titled 'Oliver Twist: The Parish Boy's Progress'
A 'parish boy' was a child who had no parents or guardians and was handed over to the parish authorities. In Oliver's case, he was born in 'the workhouse' as were many children of the time.
But Dickens' hero runs away to London, where his adventures begin.
Charles Dickens used the story of Oliver Twist to draw attention to many social ills that were rife in Victorian London.
The new 'poor law' introduced in 1834 was something that Charles Dickens especially disliked. It meant that any person who was homeless, without work or even simply ill or disabled, could be put into enforced labor in the dreaded 'workhouses.'
The Victorian Workhouse
In the time of Charles Dickens and his character, Oliver Twist, poor people lived in dread of the workhouse.
Inside, families were separated. Young children were split up from their mothers, wives from their husbands and the elderly and infirm from those who loved them.
The budgets allocated to the workhouses were very small and there was a great deal of corruption among the people who ran them.
Many in the workhouses went hungry while the managers grew fat on the money they received.
People of all ages, including children as young as four or five years old, had to work long hours twisting rope or breaking rocks. The dreaded workhouses were more like prisons and labor camps than any form of social care.
The following video is a clip from the great 1968 movie and shows the difference between the welfare of the sorry workhouse children and the wealthy managers.
Oliver Twist - Food Glorious Food
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist and Child Labor.
Many children from the workhouse, especially those such as Oliver Twist who had been orphaned, were sold out as child slaves.
Victorian Chimney Sweep
They were made to do the most dirty and dangerous jobs such as climbing up the chimneys to clean them, pulling carts in coal mines or dangerous factory work and all for no pay and in terrible conditions.
Watch the following video to see the famous scene from the 1968 movie in which Mr Bumble takes Oliver Twist from the workhouse to sell him on the street to the highest bidder.
It is hard to believe that this used to happen in London. In some parts of the world it still happens today.
Some of the children made to do this work were as young as five years old.
Oliver Twist Boy For Sale
Fagin, The Artful Dodger, and Pickpockets.
Many of the children ran away from these terrible places.
When they did so, they often died of cold and starvation. Either that or they turned to a life of crime on the London streets.
In the story of Oliver Twist, he meets up with a sly character known as The Artful Dodger who introduces him to an old man by name of Fagin.
Fagin is an exaggerated character in the story but represents a real truth. There were adult criminals who organized gangs of children to work for them as 'pick-pockets.' Pick-pockets were people who by cunning and guile, stole small goods - coins, jewelry, watches and so on - literally from the pockets and purses of people on the crowded London streets.
These pick-pockets would share their earnings with the gang leader in exchange for food, shelter and other protection.
In the following short clip, you'll see another famous scene from the musical movie, in which Fagin teaches Oliver Twist just what it is all about...
Oliver Twist (1968) You Gotta Pick a Pocket or Two
Charles Dickens and Victorian Baby Farms
Those children who were not old enough to work or escape were often sent to 'baby farms.'
The parish would pay a fee to the owner for the 'care' of each child. In fact, the conditions in these institutions were unimaginably poor. They were also rife with corruption because the less of the money the owners were given that they spent on the children the more they could keep for themselves.
Many of the children died in these places before they reached adulthood. They were dirty and squalid and a breeding ground for disease.
The children lived in over-crowded conditions, were malnourished and often beaten.
A Victorian Schoolroom
Charles Dickens was horrified by the things he had seen in these places and wrote articles exposing their hidden horrors to a wider public.
As he became more famous, he also used his influence to lobby politicians and other public figures.
He was successful to some extent and managed to improve conditions for many children. In one of the workhouses, in response to his work. things were much improved for the children there, including the addition of a school. Dickens was invited to see the improvements, and he wrote
The schoolroom was warm, a large, light and airy place and everything wore a cheerful and healthy aspect.
He also noted with pleasure that the schoolroom was furnished with toys, there being two wooden rocking horses and some building blocks.
In other workhouses new activities were introduced, teaching children skills such as sewing, woodwork and basic arithmetic that might help them find gainful employment in later life.
Charles Dickens in a Nutshell
Charles Dickens is Born
February 7, 1812
Dickens' father imprisoned for debt. Young Charles, aged twelve, works in a 'blacking factory.'
Charles Dickens' writing career begins as a reporter for The Morning Chronicle
Fleet Street, London
Marries Catherine Hogarth (with whom he will have ten children)
First Edition of Oliver Twist Published
Audience with Queen Victoria
Buckingham Palace, London
Charles Dickens Dies
June 9, 1870
Charles Dickens' Social Legacy
To many people today, Charles Dickens' name is still very strongly associated with the poverty and corruption of the London that he described and worked to improve.
We even use the term 'Dickensian' to describe harsh, primitive conditions or villainous characters such as Fagin, Mr Bumble and Bill Sykes that he immortalized in novels such as Oliver Twist.
Sadly, he died before the full force of his legacy could be seen, with many children still living lives of fear and deprivation.
In 1870, Charles Dickens was invited by Queen Victoria to visit her at Buckingham Palace.
For a gentleman of the time, this was considered the highest honor. Typically, he used the opportunity to highlight the needs of children in poverty within the great Queen's nation.
Even so, he would be delighted to see the modern system of public education, health and welfare that London children enjoy today.
There is no doubt that his tireless work, both as writer and political activist, played a large part in bringing about those much-needed reforms.
And even now, one and a half centuries after his death, Oliver Twist remains one of his most popular characters and a reminder to us all in this new era of increasing division between rich and poor and dog-eat-dog individualism, we are all better off if we act with kindness and care and renew our sense of social responsibility.
Find Out More About Charles Dickens
Did you know...
- Charles Dickens wrote and published 34 books in his lifetime, 24 of them his famous novels
- Over 20 of his books have been made into movies and TV series
- Charles Dickens was also an accomplished violinist and pianist
- Charles Dickens had ten children of his own. They were named, Charles Culliford Boz Dickens, Mary Angela Dickens, Kate Mcready Dickens, Walter Landor Dickens, Francis Jeffrey Dickens, Alfred Dorsey Tennyson Dickens, Sydney Smith Haldimand Dickens,
Henry Fielding Dickens, Dora Annie Dickens and Edward Dickens
- Charles Dickens' favorite book of his own was 'Our Mutual Friend.'
- His favorite drink was 'Gin Punch.'
Charles Dickens Resources
- The Dickens Fellowship
The Dickens Fellowship, founded in 1902, is a worldwide association of people who share an interest in the life and works of Charles Dickens.
- Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum
Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum, at Portsmouth, Hants, Hampshire, UK
- Charles Dickens Museum
Charles Dickens Museum, the only remaining London home of the renowned writer, and one of the most important collections of his artifacts in the country.
Whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do it well; whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself completely; in great aims and in small I have always thoroughly been in earnest.— Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist First Edition
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© 2013 Amanda Littlejohn