Senate House Library’s exhibition Childhood in Dickensian London provides a glimpse into the lives of 19th century children and commemorates the 150th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s death. When he died in June 1870, the obituaries published in the press tended to agree that Dickens used his writing to express his feelings about society, especially its poorest members. As the Illustrated London News obituary stated: “he used to invite us to sympathise with him, to see what he was seeing, and to share his present ideas and emotions”.
"I became, at ten years old, a little labouring hind”
This exhibition presents some of Dickens’s novels and fictional children alongside examples of campaigning works on behalf of ‘real’ children which were published during the 19th century. We hope this mixture provides interesting contrasts and sympathies between perspectives and methods of documenting children’s lives and campaigning to improve their experiences.
Despite this split in form between novels and non-fiction, the line between the textual fiction and fact is in some cases a blurred one. It is well documented that Dickens incorporated elements from his own life in his novels. Our exhibition begins with one such example: Warren’s Blacking Factory where Dickens worked as a boy becomes Murdstone and Grinby’s in David Copperfield, where young David is employed.
More broadly, Dickens explored London; he visited schools, prisons and areas of overcrowded housing known as rookeries and transferred his experiences to his readers, via his novels. Through the lives of children such as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Little Nell, Dickens depicted the problems of workhouse conditions, inadequate schooling, lack of healthcare, homelessness and parental absence.
Reading his novels today, we see 19th century London and the spheres in which these children lived through Dickens’s eyes. As G. K. Chesterton stated: “Dickens did not stamp these places on his mind; he stamped his mind on these places”.
"It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age”
Displayed alongside Dickens’s novels are texts which outline social issues or campaign for causes related to 19th century children. The organisations and individuals campaigning on behalf of children during this period were usually voluntary so the publications they produced were also methods of promotion and sources of much-needed fundraising for their causes.
To provoke sympathy and generate support from readers many of these publications described the most acute examples of suffering and used the literary technique of hyperbole to emphasis these instances. The children’s own voices were rarely directly heard and instead they were depicted without nuance and in extremes: of poverty and despair on the one hand, and salvation and hard-working success on the other.
"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?”
Our exhibition begins with a book that highlights how differing forms of literature can be used to address social issues. After reading the reports from the Commission on the Employment of Children, Charles Dickens rejected his initial idea of responding via a campaigning pamphlet and decided instead to write a novella, which he believed would have the force of a “Sledge hammer” blow. This novella was A Christmas Carol, a story of cruelty, poverty and hope which continues to be told and retold today.
Although employing distinctly different forms, and with differing levels of documentary observation and imaginative creation, what Dickens’s novels and the campaigning texts on display have in common is their desire to engage the sympathies of their readers. Placed alongside each other they provide us today with a sense of the struggles many of the poorest children faced in 19th century London.
Co-Curator & Academic Librarian: English Literature