John Dickens

John Dickens

John Dickens, the son of William Dickens and Elizabeth Ball Dickens, was born in 1785. His parents were servants in the household of John Crewe, a large landowner in Cheshire with a house in Lower Grosvenor Street, Mayfair. William Dickens, recently promoted to the post of butler, died just before his son was born. His mother continued to work as a servant at Crewe Hall.

Elizabeth Dickens was known as a fluent story-teller. One of the Crewe children later recalled that "not since that time had she met anyone who possessed so surprising a gift for extemporising fiction for the amusement of others."

John Crewe was the member of the House of Commons for Cheshire. His wife, Frances Crewe was a leading supporter of the Whig Party and regular visitors to Crewe Hall included leading politicians, Charles James Fox, Augustus FitzRoy and Edmund Burke. They also hosted artists and writers such as Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Charles Burney, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Sarah Burney and Hester Thrale. During this period Frances became the mistress of Sheridan, the country's leading playwright. He dedicated his most famous play, The School for Scandal, to her in 1777.

John Dickens was treated very well by the Crewe family. He was allowed to use the family library and in April 1805 was appointed to the Navy Pay Office in London. The Treasurer of the Navy at this time was George Canning, a close friend of the Crewe family. The job came to Dickens through Canning's patronage, on which all such appointments depended. Claire Tomalin , the author of Dickens: A Life (2011): "John Dickens may have been the son of the elderly butler, but it is also possible that he had a different father - perhaps John Crewe, exercising his droit de seigneur, cheering himself up for his wife's infidelities, or another of the gentlemen who were regular guests at the Crewe residences. Or he may have believed that he was. His silence about his first twenty years, his habit of spending and barrowing and enjoying good things as though he were somehow entitled to do so, all suggest something of the kind, and harks back to the sort of behaviour he would have observed with dazzled eyes at Crewe Hall and in Mayfair."

On 23rd June, 1807, Dickens was promoted to Assistant Clerk at £70 a year with two shillings extra for every day of actual attendance. Two years later he got promoted again and his salary was up to £110 a year. He almost certainly got this post because Richard Brinsley Sheridan was now the Treasurer of the Navy. It has been speculated that Sheridan, the country's leading playwright, was Dickens' father.

A colleague at the Naval Pay Office described Dickens as "a fellow of infinite humour, chatty, lively and agreeable". Another friend added that he was a "pleasant companion... most genial and courtly... of kindly disposition... possessing a varied fund of anecdote and a genuine vein of humour." Peter Ackroyd has argued in Dickens (1990): "He was always well-dressed, always polite, always affable. He was good-looking and well-built, although inclining to stoutness in later years."

Dickens became friends with Thomas Barrow, a colleague at the Navy Pay Office. Dickens married his sister, Elizabeth Barrow, at St Mary-le-Strand in June, 1809. The following year her father, Charles Barrow, was forced to leave the country, when it was discovered that he had been defrauding the government.

The couple set up home at 13 Mile End Terrace (now 393 Old Commercial Road), Landport, just outside the old town of Portsmouth. Their first child, Fanny Dickens, was born in 1810. Two years later, Elizabeth gave birth to Charles Dickens, who was named after her father, Charles Barrow. A third child, Alfred, was born in 1814 but he died six months later of "water on the brain".

Dickens was transferred to London and the family found lodgings in Cleveland Street. Dickens was now earning £200 a year. However, he always had trouble managing money. He liked to dress well, enjoyed entertaining friends and bought expensive books. Dickens was in debt and had to ask for loans from family and friends.

In April 1816, a fourth child, Letitia, was born. Seven months later John Dickens was sent by the Navy Pay Office to work at Chatham Dockyard. Dickens rented a house at 11 Ordnance Terrace. Charles Dickens remembers his father taking him aboard the old Navy yacht Chatham and sailing up the Medway to Sheerness, where he had to distribute wages to the workers. It has been claimed that "this landscape and the sludge-coloured tidal rivers haunted him and became part of the fabric of his late novels".

R. Shelton MacKenzie, the author of Life of Charles Dickens (1870) has argued: "John Dickens... was a government clerk... He was in the Paymaster's office, and, in that capacity, had to travel from place to place, to pay charges and salaries, during the great war which closed at Waterloo. Sometimes he went as far to the southwest of the English coast as Falmouth and Plymouth - oftener to Gosport, Dover, Sheerness, Chatham and Gravesend. He was a trusted and trustworthy person, to whom much money was confided."

Dickens' salary continued to grow and by 1818 he was earning over £350 a year. He still could not manage and in 1819 he borrowed £200 from his brother-in-law, Thomas Barrow. When he did not pay the money back, he told him that he would not have him in his house again. The family finances were not helped by the birth of two more children, Harriet (1819) and Frederick (1819). Dickens did earn a small amount of money from journalism. This included an article in The Times about a big fire that had taken place in Chatham.

In 1822 John Dickens returned to work at Somerset House in London and the family moved to Camden Town. Here he met and became friendly with a fellow worker, Charles Dilke. The following year Fanny Dickens was awarded a place at the Royal Academy of Music in Hanover Square. She was to study the piano with Ignaz Moscheles, a former pupil of Ludwig van Beethoven. The fees were thirty-eight guineas a year, an expense that they family could not really afford. Claire Tomalin , the author of Dickens: A Life (2011), has argued: "Dickens maintained that he never felt any jealousy of what was done for her, he could not help but be aware of the contrast between his position and hers, and of their parents' readiness to pay handsome fees for her education, and nothing for his. It is such a reversal of the usual family situation, where only the education of the boys is taken seriously, that the Dickens parents at least deserve some credit for making sure Fanny had a professional training, although none for their neglect of her brother."

Elizabeth Dickens thought that she could educate the rest of the children by starting her own school. She took a lease on a large house in Gower Street North. Charles helped his mother distribute circulars advertising the school. He later recalled: "I left, at a great many other doors, a great many circulars calling attention to the merits of the establishment. Yet nobody ever came to school, nor do I recollect that anybody ever proposed to come, or that the least preparation was made to receive anybody. But I know that we got on very badly with the butcher and baker; that very often we had not too much for dinner."

In February 1824, John Dickens was arrested for debt and sent to the Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. Charles was used by his father as a messenger to carry his requests for help to family and friends. He already owed these people money and no one was willing to pay the money that would free him from captivity. Dickens later told John Forster: "My father was waiting for me in the lodge, and we went up to his room (on the top story but one), and cried very much. And he told me, I remember, to take warning by the Marshalsea, and to observe that if a man had twenty pounds a year, and spent nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy; but that a shilling spent the other way would make him wretched. I see the fire we sat before now; with two bricks inside the rusted grate, one on each side, to prevent its burning too many coals."

Although only twelve years old, Charles was now considered the "man of the family" and was given the task of taking the books that he loved to a pawnbroker in the Hampstead Road. This was followed by items of furniture, until after a few weeks the house was almost empty.

A family friend, James Lamert, suggested to Elizabeth Dickens, that Charles Dickens should work in his uncle's blacking factory. Based at a warehouse at 30 Hungerford Stairs, George Lamert, manufactured boot and shoe blacking. He offered Charles the job of covering and labelling the pots of blacking. He would be paid six shillings a week, and Lamert promised that he personally would give him lessons during his lunch hour to keep up his education. Charles was disappointed by his parents reaction to the offer: "My father and mother were quite satisfied. They could hardly have been more so, if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at a grammar-school, and going to Cambridge."

Charles later recalled: "The blacking warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumbledown old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscotted 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 downstairs 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."

Charles Dickens took lodgings in Little College Street in Camden Town. Mrs Royance took in the children cheaply and treated them accordingly. He had to share a room with two other boys. On Sundays he collected Fanny Dickens from the Royal Academy of Music and they went together to the Marshalsea Prison to spend the day with their parents. He told his father how much he hated being separated from the family all week, with nothing to return to each evening. As a result he was moved to another lodging house in Lant Street that was close to the prison and he was able to spend time with his parents every evening after work. At this time Dickens believed that his father would remain incarcerated until his death.

Dickens later wrote: "No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship of common men and boys." Peter Ackroyd has argued in Dickens (1990): "Here one senses some imitation of his father's own projection of a genteel persona (it is clear enough how John Dickens's fear, stemming from the fact that he was so perilously hovering between classes, was transmitted to the son). It also tells us much about his instinctive reaction to the labouring poor, although it is one that would have been widely shared in his lifetime; the working classes were in a very real sense a race apart, a substratum of society which bred in those above them a fear of disease, a horror of uncleanliness and of course the dread of some kind of social revolution."

In April 1825, John Dickens' mother died. He inherited the sum of £450, and he was able to pay off his debts. This allowed him to petition for release from prison, and at the end of May he was discharged from Marshalsea Prison. The Naval Pay Office agreed to take Dickens back and although he was only 39 years old, he requested to be retired early with an invalid's pension because of "a chronic infection of the urinary organs". He was eventually granted a pension of £145.16s.8d. a year.

Despite the improvement in his financial circumstances, John Dickens expected his son to continue working at Warren's Blacking Factory. The business had moved to Chandos Street in Covent Garden where he worked by a window looking out on the street and where his humiliating drudgery was exposed to public view. One day, John Dickens walked past the window with Charles Dilke. The two men stopped to watch the boys at work. Dickens told Dilke that one of the boys was his son. Claire Tomalin explains: "Dilke, a sensitive and kindly man, went in and gave him half a crown, and received in return a very low bow. This scene, described by Dilke, not Dickens, does more to suggest the humiliation he felt in being put in such a position than anything else: pitied and tipped, while his father stood simpering by."

John Dickens and George Lamert were often in dispute: "My father and the relative so often mentioned quarrelled; quarrelled by letter, for I took the letter from my father to him which caused the explosion, but quarrelled very fiercely. It was about me. It may have had some backward reference, in part, for anything I know, to my employment at the window. All I am certain of is that, soon after I had given him the letter, my cousin (he was a sort of cousin, by marriage) told me he was very much insulted about me; and that it was impossible to keep me, after that. I cried very much, partly because it was so sudden, and partly because in his anger he was violent about my father, though gentle to me. Thomas, the old soldier, comforted me, and said he was sure it was for the best. With a relief so strange that it was like oppression, I went home."

However, Elizabeth Dickens wanted Charles to continue at the blacking factory. "My mother set herself to accommodate the quarrel, and did so next day. She brought home a request for me to return next morning, and a high character of me, which I am very sure I deserved. My father said I should go back no more, and should go to school. I do not write resentfully or angrily: for I know how all these things have worked together to make me what I am: but I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back. From that hour until this at which I write, no word of that part of my childhood which I have now gladly brought to a close, has passed my lips to any human being. I have no idea how long it lasted; whether for a year, or much more, or less. From that hour, until this, my father and my mother have been stricken dumb upon it. I have never heard the least allusion to it, however far off and remote, from either of them."

Andrew Sanders, the author of Authors in Context: Charles Dickens (2003), has pointed out: "Dickens, like his parents, was to remain almost completely silent about this dark but formative period in his life. Only in the 1840s was he privately prepared to record the painful details and to show them to his wife and to his friend, John Forster. It was Forster who published most of his self-pitying autobiographical fragment after the novelist's death. For the most part, Dickens's boyhood misery was translated into fiction. The memory of his months in the blacking-factory became part of a habit of secrecy. It may also be integral to Dickens's awareness of the significance of leading a double life, a doubleness so frequently practised by his later characters."

On the insistence of his father, John Dickens was sent to Wellington House Academy on Granby Terrace adjoining Mornington Crescent. Dickens passionately disliked the man who owned the school: "The respected proprietor of which was by far the most ignorant man I have ever had the pleasure to know, who was one of the worst-tempered men perhaps that ever lived, whose business it was to make as much out of us and to put as little into us as possible."

At Wellington House Academy Dickens was taught traditional subjects such as Latin. Dickens did not distinguish himself as a scholar at the school. However, he did enjoy helping to produce the school newspaper. He also wrote and performed in plays. One boy at the school observed that "he was very fond of theatricals... and used to act little plays in the kitchen." He also spent a lot of time reading a sixteen-page weekly, The Terrific Register. He later recorded that the murder stories "frightened my very wits out of my head".

Dickens left the school in February 1827, when he was fifteen years of age. Once again John Dickens was deeply in debt. Fanny's fees at the Royal Academy of Music were so badly in arrears that she had to leave; but she showed such promise and determination that she was able to make an arrangement which allowed her to return and pay for her studies by taking on part-time teaching.

After he retired from Somerset House John Dickens found work as a journalist. He was employed by The British Press , both as a parliamentary reporter and also as a contributor of articles. As Peter Ackroyd has argued in Dickens (1990): "It cannot be said that John Dickens was a lazy man, even though he was an improvident one. At some point in this period - and the likelihood is that it was very soon after his retirement from Somerset House - he began what was for him a new career as a journalist... He was now entering his forties, and it is a sign of his undaunted spirit that he should so quickly embark upon a quite new career; if, as seems probable, he also undertook to learn the difficult art of shorthand then his application and industry have to be admired."

In 1831 John Dickens joined his brother-in-law, John Barrow, who had started up a newspaper, the Mirror of Parliament . Barrow's intention was to rival Hansard by offering a complete record of what went on at the House of Commons. His son, Charles Dickens also joined the organisation and quickly obtained a reputation for speed and accuracy in recording debates. In was a well-paid but exhausting job. Reporters were consigned to the back bench of the Strangers' Gallery, where it was hard to hear what was taking place on the floor of the chamber. A fellow reporter claimed: "It was dark: always so insufficiently lit that on the back benches no one could read a paper so ill-ventilated that few constitutions could long bear the unwholesome atmosphere."

Despite his well-paid job, John Dickens continued to get in debt and the two youngest sons, Alfred and Frederick, had to leave their school in Hampstead. Charles Dickens did what he could to help his father but became very angry when he found out that he was writing to his friends asking for money. He also wrote to Charles' publisher's, Chapman and Hall , requesting help.

Georgina Hogarth, was one of those who saw many of the letters sent to Dickens: "There were letters to Charles Dickens from his father, from his mother, brothers and other relations, almost all of them in the same tone, money difficulties, applications for money... and most, especially from his father... not only debt and difficulties, but most discreditable and dishonest dealing on the part of the father towards his son."

In 1839 Dickens decided that it would be a good idea to get his father away from his creditors in London. He went to Devon and found Mile End Cottage in Alphington, just outside of Exeter. Dickens described the cottage as a "jewel of a place... in the most beautiful, cheerful, delicious rural neighbourhood I was ever in... excellent parlour... a capital closet... a beautiful little drawing-room... noble garden." His parents agreed to move to the cottage. A friend said that during this period "his parents... seemed in fear of offending him."

It was not long before Dickens discovered that his father was using his son's name as a guarantor for certain debts. He took immediate action and placed an advertisement in all the leading newspapers that "certain persons bearing, or purporting to bear, the surname of our said client" had been obtaining credit, and that Charles Dickens would not be responsible for any debts so incurred. Dickens refused to speak to his father and demanded through his solicitors that John Dickens should leave the country. This did not happen and Dickens continued to pay his parents a weekly sum of money.

In 1846 John Dickens returned to London had his son, who at the time was editing The Daily News, gave him work to do. He was now in his sixtieth year and according to friends was "fond of a glass of grog". According to one of his colleagues, he was "full of fun, never given to much locomotion... he was always hot whatever the weather might be".

Dickens continued to suffer from urinary problems. By 1851 the bladder stones were so large that he could no longer urinate. He had an operation without unaesthetic which involved an incision being made between the anus and the scrotum so that the stones could be removed. Charles Dickens described this type of operation as "the most terrible... known in surgery" and that the operating room was "a slaughter house of blood".

Charles Dickens was called to his bedside on 29th March, 1851. He later recorded: "He did not know me, nor any one. He began to sink at about noon... and never rallied afterwards. I remained there until he died."

Primary Sources

(1) R. Shelton MacKenzie, Life of Charles Dickens (1870)

John Dickens... was a government clerk... He was in the Paymaster's office, and, in that capacity, had to travel from place to place, to pay charges and salaries, during the great war which closed at Waterloo. Sometimes he went as far to the southwest of the English coast as Falmouth and Plymouth - oftener to Gosport, Dover, Sheerness, Chatham and Gravesend. He was a trusted and trustworthy person, to whom much money was confided.

(2) John Dickens, The Ti mes (March, 1820)

The fire commenced at the house of Mr. Hill, a baker, residing at 69, High Street. Before any assistance could be afforded, it had gained such strength as to put an end to all hopes of saving Mr. Hill's house, or that next to it, with which the flames had almost immediately communicated. The attention of those who first came to the spot was then directed to the adjoining houses, and to those opposite, towards which the flames were driven by a violent north-westerly wind, which continued to blow strongly until a late hour in the morning. From Hill's house, and from those of Mr. Watson, a linen-draper ; of Mr. Cohen, a pawnbroker ; and two or three others which intervened ; the devouring element reached the Sun-tavern, a very extensive pile of building and the principal inn of Chatham. When this house caught fire the scene was most awful, for the flames had now been driven by the violence of the wind to the opposite side of the street, which then presented to the eye a pile of burning buildings, between which, from the narrowness of the place, the passage was in some places impassable, and in all extremely dangerous. About half-past four or five, the roof of the Sun-tavern fell in with a tremendous crash, and shortly after only a very small part of the walls was seen standing. At one time the brewery of Mr. Best was thought to be in danger, that its utter ruin was looked upon as inevitable; providentially, however, by the prompt assistance of great numbers of the town's-people, aided by the active exertions of the military, it escaped with comparatively trifling damage. Mr. Best was not so fortunate with respect to his dwelling-house, which with several adjoining houses, also his property, were entirely consumed. The walls of Mr. Best's house were, from their great solidarity, the only parts which were not levelled with the earth.

(3) Peter Ackroyd , Dickens (1990)

It cannot be said that John Dickens was a lazy man, even though he was an improvident one. At some point in this period - and the likelihood is that it was very soon after his retirement from Somerset House - he began what was for him a new career as a journalist... He was now entering his forties, and it is a sign of his undaunted spirit that he should so quickly embark upon a quite new career; if, as seems probable, he also undertook to learn the difficult art of shorthand then his application and industry have to be admired.