Memory, Trauma, and Poverty: Child Labor in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield


The child laborer was often referred to as the slave of industrialized England. With hardly any agency or wisdom of their own, impoverished children were stripped from their childhoods and forced to work long hours in unsanitary conditions for low wages. Children could be found across the country working in mills, factories, and coal mines—transforming Europe into the continent we know today. Through language and imagery, Victorian authors across time and space allude to the poverty and poor living conditions that often pushed children into laboring positions to help families to survive. Charles Dickens was particularly partial to writing characters who highlight the experiences and growth of destitute boys, including Oliver Twist in Oliver Twist (1838), Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol (1843), Pip in Great Expectations (1861), and, in particular, David Copperfield in David Copperfield (1850) whose experiences in a blacking factory mirror his own life.   

Illustration of "The Warren Blacking Factory" (F259), n.d., from the Charles Dickens Museum collection. This illustration from an unknown artist shows the Warren Blacking Factory where Charles Dickens worked for approximately one year in his youth while his father was in debtors' prison. Like Dickens, fictional David Copperfield was also sent to work at a bottling factory at a young age. At Murdstone & Grinby's, little David pastes labels onto bottles at the young age of ten. In both his autobiographical and fictional writing, Dickens emphasizes the poor conditions of the factories that took advantage of child labor. In his autobiography, he describes the Warren Blacking Factory as "a crazy, tumbledown house with rotten floors and staircase, dirty and decaying, with rats swarming down in the cellar." When writing David Copperfield, he similarly characterizes Murdstone and Grinby's as "a crazy old house... literally overrun with rats. ... [with] decaying floors and staircase, [and] the squeaking and scuffing of the old grey rats down in the cellars" (Norton 136-137).  Dickens's own traumatic experiences of long work hours, separation from his family, and an unsanitary lifestyle can ultimately be corroborated with his sympathy for and focus on young, poor children in his work. 

Unknown Artist, "Warren's Blacking Warehouse Advertisement with Cat Crest," from the British Library (c. 19th Century). This newspaper advertisement for Warren's Blacking Warehouse alludes to the politics of the Blacking industry at the time of Dickens's child labor. The playful rhyme describes how Warren's Blacking Factory has overcome the competition: "There sprung up of impotent rivals a host; / But where are they now? In obscurity lost!" The advertisement boasts a product of the highest quality, as is illustrated by a startled cat hissing at its reflection in a boot shining with Warren's polish. Unsurprisingly, this product was only affordable to the wealthy, who, unlike David and Dickens in their childhoods, had money to spare for the finer things in life. Throughout the period of Victorian industrialization, factory owners like Robert Warren relied on poor child laborers for their cheap labor and nimble bodies. As Dickens reifies through both his own and David Copperfield's narratives, a dark history lies behind the pride and success of "this easy-shining and brilliant Blacking, prepared by Robert Warren." 

Ceramic Bottle (DH534), Early 1800s, from the Charles Dickens Museum website. This blacking bottle is a rare remnant of the Warren's Blacking Warehouse where Charles Dickens worked when he was a young boy. The then twelve-year-old Charles was in charge of gluing labels onto bottles of shoe polish like the one pictured here. Although his job was not particularly dangerous or labor intensive, Dickens worked for ten to twelve hours daily. He was sent to work before the enactment of the Factories Act of 1833, which banned children the age of thirteen and younger from working more than nine hours a day. Like his character David Copperfield, Dickens and other child laborers in the early 1800s had to withstand harsh and dirty conditions to help support their families. This bottle not only symbolizes the early financial instability that Dickens and his character had to endure, but also represents the drastic economic and social divides that afflicted Victorian society in the age of European industrialization. 

Fred Bernard, "Dickens at the Blacking Warehouse," from The Leisure Hour (1904). In the wake of Victorian industrialization, an economic divide grew between the wealthy and the impoverished. Cities sprung up as job opportunities arose in large factories, yet poor wages, a lack of concern for workers' rights, and cramped living conditions led to overall unrest among the poor. Children were commonly roped into labor when their guardian(s) could no longer support the family unit. Sometimes, children would be deceived into labor with promises of proper meals, easy work, and pleasant working conditions. This illustration by Fred Bernard, a "Sixties" illustrator who provided illustrations for the Household Edition of Dickens, conveys the pressure that children like Dickens were under to support themselves and their families while also alluding to the long, harsh hours of work that many youths had to endure, leading them to fall asleep at the workplace. With these stressors, children were forced to maintain responsibility and a sense of independence that seems unjust today. Because they were forced to work in factories at a young age, both Dickens and David were notably denied a full formal education—an opportunity which many poor, working children of the Victorian era were similarly deprived of (save the two hours of schooling they were allowed per day by the Factories Act of 1833). 

Phiz (Hablot K. Browne), "I Make Myself Known to my Aunt," Dickens's David Copperfield (Centenary Edition), Ch. 12 (1849), Scanned by Philip V. Allingham This steel etching of David Copperfield emphasizes the boy's impoverished and disheveled condition after laboring at Murdstone and Grinby's warehouse. A caricaturist, Phiz clearly illustrates Aunt Betsey's astonishment at her nephew's condition through her raised arms and facial expression and emphasizes David's shame regarding his state through his downcast gaze and open, pleading hands. Having escaped from a life of neglect and child labor at Murdstone & Grinby's, this etching marks the beginning of David's "rags to riches" narrative. This character archetype was common among Victorian novels, as many impoverished and working-class citizens were encouraged to take initiative, work tirelessly, and try harder to achieve success and wealth. In particular, Dickens uses the "rags to riches" plot to advocate for children who, like himself, dealt with poverty and trauma. Through protagonists such as David, Dickens prompts society to support destitute children and understand their full potential. 

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