This year marks the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’ birth. For decades, scholars have looked to the novelist’s childhood to explain his pre-occupation with reform. One historian claims she has found a clue that stayed hidden for nearly two centuries. The Old Strand Workhouse in London was slated for demolition in 2010 when Ruth Richardson joined the campaign to save the building. It was then that she made a connection others seem to have missed: As a child, Charles Dickens had lived just a few doors down from the workhouse that was probably the inspiration for his novel, Oliver Twist. A discussion about Charles Dickens, the workhouse, and the London poor.


  • Ruth Richardson Historian and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpt: “Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor” by Ruth Richardson. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press. Copyright 2012 by Ruth Richardson. All rights reserved:


  • 11:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. At the start of "Oliver Twist," Charles Dickens introduces one of the novels most central characters. Let's listen to his great, great grandson, Gerald Dickens, read the first lines.

  • 11:07:13

    MR. GERALD DICKENS"Among other public buildings, in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning and for which I will assign no fictitious name. There is one anciently common to most towns, great or small, to which a workhouse."

  • 11:07:30

    REHMOne hundred seventy-five years after those words were published, one historian believes she's found that very workhouse and that it inspired the British novelist to create one of the most powerful images of child poverty in literary history. Ruth Richardson joins me from NPR's London studio to talk about that discovery and her new book, it's titled "Dickens and the Workhouse." Do join us, 800-433-8850, send us your email to, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you. It's good to have you with us.

  • 11:08:23

    MS. RUTH RICHARDSONGood morning. It's a pleasure to be here.

  • 11:08:25

    REHMThank you. Before we talk about the workhouse, can you refresh us on the plot and the setting for "Oliver Twist?"

  • 11:08:40

    RICHARDSONWell, the setting is -- it starts off in the workhouse with Oliver being born. He's a baby. He comes out on page one, his poor mother dies on page two. It's unclear where the workhouse is at that stage and it is all the way through the book, it's not clear. And the story goes, you only really find out the plot much later in the book, much, much later. I think it's chapter 51 that it's sorted out.

  • 11:09:12


  • 11:09:13

    RICHARDSONAnd basically, he has a half brother, a nasty half brother, who wants their father's fortune. He doesn't want it to be divided with Oliver. And Oliver's given no name. The name Oliver Twist is the name given to him by the workhouse master, by the beetle, actually, Mr. Bumble. And Oliver is maltreated, he's starved, he's hungry in the workhouse. He asks for more in the workhouse. And because of his bad cheeky behavior, he's beaten, he's put in a dark hole under the workhouse, which was the punishment room.

  • 11:09:56

    RICHARDSONAnd he's sent out, eventually, quickly, to be an apprentice. They try to get him apprenticed to a chimney sweep because he's thin, he'd fit nicely up those old chimney's. But in the end, he's apprenticed to an undertaker. And he runs away and that's when he falls into the hands of the criminals in the middle of London. And that's when they try and train him up to be a pick pocket.

  • 11:10:21

    REHMIt is quite a novel, to say the least.

  • 11:10:26


  • 11:10:26

    REHMThe question I have always had about that is, did Dickens observe some of those real life happenings or did he perhaps experience any of that himself? What was his own background?

  • 11:10:49

    RICHARDSONWell, the answer to your questions or your ponderings is that, probably, both. His father fell into debt in the middle of his childhood. He was about 11, 10-11. And his father was put into prison for debt. That's what they used to do to people who fell into debt. And he was put in a terrible place called the Marshalsea prison which is near London Bridge, on the Southside of the river. And the whole family went in to the prison with him which also happened in those days except for Dickens himself who was sent to work in a factory. And so there's this little child sent off on his own, lodging in a place in Camden Town. So having to walk across London, North-South to get to the factory every day, all on his own, with no one.

  • 11:11:32

    REHMHow old would...

  • 11:11:33

    RICHARDSONYou know.

  • 11:11:33

    REHM...he have been at that point?

  • 11:11:35

    RICHARDSONI think 10, 11 and then he was there for about a year until he was nearly 12.

  • 11:11:41


  • 11:11:41

    RICHARDSONAnd he would've worked alongside kids, possibly, who came from workhouses themselves. They might've been parish apprentices, we don't know.

  • 11:11:49


  • 11:11:49

    RICHARDSONBut also...

  • 11:11:51 did...

  • 11:11:52


  • 11:11:52

    REHM...he manage to get enough food?

  • 11:11:56

    RICHARDSONWell, he was paid six shillings a week. And he was often hungry.

  • 11:12:01


  • 11:12:02

    RICHARDSONPoor child.

  • 11:12:02


  • 11:12:03


  • 11:12:03

    REHM...his own experiences came into the writing. However, the thesis of your book "Dickens in the Workhouse" is that the old strand Cleveland Street workhouse inspired the novel. Tell us why.

  • 11:12:25

    RICHARDSONWell, both before and after the Dickens family went to the Marshalsea prison they had lived in the street, on which this workhouse stood. So Dickens had lived there as a very small child, between the age of three and five, when he was first learning to read and write and understand the world. It was their first home in London.

  • 11:12:45

    RICHARDSONAnd then later on, after they'd been in the Marshalsea and got back on their feet and he was about 16, 17, they moved back there for another two, two and a half years when he was learning to be a journalist. And that's when he'd of been, went and see children in the law courts, you know, in the local magistrates courts and things like that. He'd of been reporting on those. He'd of been seeing pick pockets caught, coming up in front of the magistrates.

  • 11:13:12

    REHMNow, when he lived there as a young child, did his family have sufficient means or were they always on the edge, both when he was very young and then when they moved back when he was 16?

  • 11:13:33

    RICHARDSONI think on both occasions. The earlier period they were better off because the father had a regular job.

  • 11:13:38

    REHMI see.

  • 11:13:39

    RICHARDSONHe worked for the Navy Pay Office which was doing quite well during the Napoleonic Wars. And it was a regular job with regular pay. And he had prospects. But then the end of the Napoleonic Wars, 1815, it, you know, the Navy is run down and so more people are made unemployed and his father loses his job, partly from illness, I think and partly he's laid off. So then the father becomes a journalist himself. He teaches himself shorthand, becomes a journalist. But as you know, being a ordinary freelance journalist is quite an unreliable way of earning a living, it's very competitive and, you know, up and down, up and down. Sometimes you're flush and other times you're not.

  • 11:14:22

    REHMRuth Richardson, she's a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and affiliated scholar in history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge. Do joins us, 800-433-8850. You know, at the opening to this program, I said, it's 200 years since the birth of Dickens. Why do you believe that it's taken this long for someone, obviously you have a great deal of background, education, but why is it taken so long for someone to figure out that this particular Cleveland Street workhouse was the one?

  • 11:15:22

    RICHARDSONWell, it's difficult to say why. The biographers of Dickens knew that he'd lived in Norfolk Street, but the main biographical reference to it is only as when he was a small child.

  • 11:15:35


  • 11:15:35

    RICHARDSONWhen he was tiny and, you know, when he was between three and five. Forester, who was his first biographer and best friend plays it down very severely. Dickens never talks about it, never. And so it has been overlooked. And also, the workhouse and his home, although they're only nine doors away, they're in different parts of London. There's a boundary passes between them. So if you were a researcher and you were looking for the house number, you would see it on a map which has all the details of his house and the local houses on his side of the boundary but there's no picture of the workhouse on it. It's completely blank on the other side of the boundary.

  • 11:16:18

    REHMAnd how much...

  • 11:16:19

    RICHARDSONAnd so I think biographers have missed it.

  • 11:16:21 much of that workhouse remains even today?

  • 11:16:26

    RICHARDSONIt's still there, absolutely still there. It faces onto Cleveland Street. It's been used ever since it was first built. I mean, it was not new when Dickens was there. It was built in the same year as the American Revolution. It's a really old building.

  • 11:16:39


  • 11:16:40

    RICHARDSONAnd it's been used ever since.

  • 11:16:42

    REHM...would he recognize it today?

  • 11:16:45

    RICHARDSONOh, yes. Oh, yes.

  • 11:16:47

    REHMStill looks...

  • 11:16:47


  • 11:16:48

    REHM...the same?

  • 11:16:49

    RICHARDSONYep, exactly the same.

  • 11:16:51

    REHMHe clearly had a desire to keep his childhood association secret. So perhaps that is part of the reason why we know so little?

  • 11:17:09

    RICHARDSONYes, I think that's right. He's suppressed knowledge of this street and I don't know why. It might've been embarrassment about his childhood during his lifetime. But we know about the Blacking Factory, you know. We know about a lot of things that he was ashamed of in his lifetime because Forester tells us about it. But he'd never told us about the closeness of the workhouse and the home, his first home or the fact that he'd lived there later, again. That's come out more recently.

  • 11:17:36

    REHMWhen you think about the workhouse, do you read into his novels characters from that same experience?

  • 11:17:48

    RICHARDSONWell, it's absolutely fascinating. Since I've discovered that the workhouse and his first home are on exactly the same street and only nine doors away, I started looking at who else was living in the street when he was there. And I found, I mean, I've only scratched the surface because I only had a little while to do the research, partly because of when this was all found and that's another story in itself. But partly because the book had to be written for this year and so I was under enormous pressure to write quickly. So I had to research and write fast. And in the time that I had, I found a man opposite called Dan Weller who is a shoe mender. And of course Sam Weller is introduced cleaning shoes, yes.

  • 11:18:32

    REHMAh, and we'll talk more about that shoe mender when we come back after a short break. Do join us, 800-433-8850.

  • 11:20:05

    REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Ruth Richardson, a historian and author of a number of books, has written in fascinating detail about Charles Dickens. Her new book is titled "Dickens & the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor." She's talking primarily about the old strand, the Cleveland Street workhouse that she believes inspired the novel "Oliver Twist." And of course you're welcome to join us by phone, email. You can join us on Facebook or send us a Tweet.

  • 11:20:52

    REHMYou talk about the pawn shop there that exists that could be central to "Oliver Twist." Oliver's identity of course hinges on a locket that was his mother's. How central is that pawn shop? How central was it to your investigation leading to the discovery of the workhouse?

  • 11:21:27

    RICHARDSONWell, I found the pawn shop after I knew about the workhouse because I'd originally written years ago, 1989 I'd written about a doctor who worked in that workhouse and who left fantastic reminiscences. And actually they're on the internet if anybody wants to look them up. His name was Joseph Rogers and it's called Reminiscences of a workhouse medical officer. It's a fantastic book. And I found that in the old round reading room of the British Library years ago and wrote an article about it with my husband.

  • 11:21:55

    RICHARDSONAnd that's how I got involved with this story because the workhouse was under threat of demolition last -- 2010, late October, 2010. Some local people sent an email to my husband asking, please would we help and try and save the workhouse. And he was too busy so I went down. And I realized I couldn't continue with the work I was doing. I had to drop everything and go and help because it was a -- it is a really important building, quite apart from the Dickens connection, which I was only aware of later.

  • 11:22:29

    RICHARDSONIt's historically important. It's been used as health care for the London poor ever since the 1770s. It's gone through a whole series of different incarnations. In its most recent one it was the outpatients department for the Middlesex Hospital. And the Middlesex has completely been demolished. There's nothing left. It's just a huge field of rubble. But luckily because it was on the other side of the boundary -- of the parish boundary this building wasn't demolished yet. And so the local people were trying to save it.

  • 11:22:57

    RICHARDSONAnd sadly the English Heritage, which is the body that recommends things for saving, had recommended it to government and they turned it down. So we had to have absolutely new evidence. And the English Heritage people had used my research about Rogers the doctor so I couldn't offer that as new evidence. So I had to find something new and that was when I started digging. And that was when I found Dickens. I found him within about a month.

  • 11:23:24

    REHMNow are there some who disagree with your assumption, your findings that in fact this was not the workhouse?

  • 11:23:42

    RICHARDSONYes. I think there would be people who would say this isn't the actual workhouse. And I'd agree with them because Dickens had experience of other workhouses. I mean, there were workhouses in every parish in England at that time. And it's quite clear he learned and understood about other workhouses in other places. And when he was living in Chatham -- when the family was in Chatham they had a little servant girl who had come out of the workhouse from Chatham. So she was an inmate of a workhouse. So he'd have heard stories from her.

  • 11:24:11

    RICHARDSONI mean, I've got no doubt that the workhouse in Oliver Twist is a composite workhouse. It's not this one, but what I do think is that because he lived so close to it as a small child and as an adult he'd have got atmosphere and things from the street. He'd have been influenced by the fact of this building being so close to his own house. He'd have heard the workhouse bell, you know. He'd have heard the bell ring...

  • 11:24:35

    REHMHe'd have heard the bell, yes.

  • 11:24:37

    RICHARDSONYeah, he'd have smelt it.

  • 11:24:37

    REHMTell us about debtors' prisons in those days and what they looked like, how they -- how people ended up there. I mean, was it arbitrary debt or did one reach such a point that they were automatically thrown into those prisons with families?

  • 11:25:05

    RICHARDSONNo. What happened was if you were in debt and a creditor wanted his money they could call in the debt and you would go to something called a sponging house. And Dickens' father went to these places on numerous occasions. And I don't know whether this is true why they're called that but I think it's because they squeezed you while you were in there.

  • 11:25:25

    REHMOf course, yeah.

  • 11:25:26

    RICHARDSONSo if you could get any money you would and if you couldn't you ended up in prison. But the prison was better than a workhouse because although it was a prison the family could go in with the debtor, whereas in the workhouse the families were split apart. The husband was put in one side, the wife was put in another, the children were often sent away to factories or to baby farms. So families were broken up in the workhouse, whereas in the debtors' prison at least you were together.

  • 11:25:56

    REHMWhat is a babies farm?

  • 11:25:59

    RICHARDSONOh, well, these were sort of workhouse premises, but for children, for small children before they could be apprenticed out, after about -- they were apprenticed out between nine and eleven years of age. About the same age Dickens went to work in the workhouse, but between birth and that sort of age, Oliver Twist is sent to one of these places. He's sent to a branch workhouse, which is still under the control of the Poor Law.

  • 11:26:23

    RICHARDSONBut at the time Dickens was growing up, they developed these horrible places called baby farms where they privatized. It wasn't a public facility, it was a private facility. And of course profit had to be made out of those children. And so they screwed them down into the ground with starvation in order to make profit. And the poor children were starved. I mean, there's a case in London -- South London which is very famous called the Tooting Scandal which was a baby farm for hundreds of children and over 150 children died in that place. Absolutely shocking case.

  • 11:26:58

    REHMWere they ever put up for adoption or did no one want them or...

  • 11:27:05

    RICHARDSONWell, often they had parents and so they weren't ready for adoption. But also people didn't necessarily want to adopt children in those days. I mean, that was, you know -- they were often apprenticed out at nine or ten to different callings and sometimes sent to factories in the north or sent for immigration (unintelligible) .

  • 11:27:27

    REHMAnd tell me about Warrens Blacking Warehouse.

  • 11:27:34

    RICHARDSONOh, that's a part of the story, wonderful part. This is where Dickens was sent as a child to work. His mother had a sister called Mary who lived with the family for a long time. And she then married a doctor and left. But his stepson remained in the household and his stepson was called Lamert. And he was the manager. He became the manager of a blacking factory. And a blacking is a kind of shoe polish. But the shoe polish they made was a sort of varnish. It was very highly valued and there were adverts showing that you could reflect your face in the shine.

  • 11:28:07

    RICHARDSONAnyway, Dickens was sent as a child -- I think it was to help the family budget -- to go and work there. The six shillings kept him alive and well. So he wasn't in that drain on the family's finances. And he had to bottle the shoe polish and stick on the labels and put on the lids on the bottles. And he was very adept at it, so adept that in one of the premises they used to have him in the shop window working fast in the shop window so that visitors, you know, in the street could watch Dickens doing the work.

  • 11:28:40

    REHMBut, you know, thinking about shoe polish and the fumes that come from shoe polish and working in those kinds of conditions, would his health have been affected?

  • 11:28:56

    RICHARDSONWell, he was a frail child. He was a frail child. A lot of his early reading happened because he was very weak. And he describes sitting in Rochester Cathedral -- in the precincts of Rochester Cathedral when he was a child reading Don Quixote and other books that he loved so much later in life. I mean, he loved them as a child and he went on loving them later in life. Yes, he was an invalid child but I think it wasn't the fumes and things that he was worried about so much, as the absolute loneliness of being a lone child crossing London and the vulnerability of being a lone child crossing London at that time.

  • 11:29:33

    REHMAre there other workhouses in the area that could also have been an inspiration to him?

  • 11:29:43

    RICHARDSONYes. There was one in St. Martin's Lane which is near Trafalgar Square now. It's under the site of the National Poetry Gallery. There was a workhouse there. But these things were very high-walled places. You didn't just walk in and have a look. You could smell them on the wind and you could hear them but you wouldn't know what was going on. What he might've done is worked alongside other children who came out of a workhouse. 'Cause there might've been children working in the factory who were workhouse apprentices. We just don't know.

  • 11:30:10

    REHMAnd at what point...

  • 11:30:11

    RICHARDSONAnd the interesting thing...

  • 11:30:12 his life did he marry?

  • 11:30:16

    RICHARDSONOh, much later, much later after he'd left Norfolk Street as a young man. He went to a place called Furnival's Inn which is on High Holburn. There's a very big insurance building there now run by the -- it's the old Prudential building. And, in fact, English Heritage is living -- their offices are in that building. It's very interesting. Very, very interesting.

  • 11:30:39

    REHMAnd he had children?

  • 11:30:42

    RICHARDSONYep. Yes, he did. And in fact he had just had his first son when he started writing "Oliver Twist." So I think the nativity scene at the very beginning of "Oliver Twist" is an echo of his own first child's birth.

  • 11:30:58

    REHMSo clearly he wanted to somehow use his own life to illustrate the ills of society and to demonstrate the differences between how the rich and how the poor existed.

  • 11:31:21

    RICHARDSONYes, yes. And I think living on Norfolk Street near the workhouse must've helped that awareness because the corner shop they lived above was a grocer's so it was full of good food, cheeses, all sorts of nice things. And he described seeing faces looking in -- hungry faces looking in separated by nothing but a pane of glass. And those were probably people going into the workhouse.

  • 11:31:47

    REHMHistorian Ruth Richardson. Her new book is titled "Dickens and the Workhouse." We're going to open the phones, 800-433-8850. Here's a call from David in Little Rock, Ark. Good morning to you.

  • 11:32:11

    DAVIDGood morning, Diane. I think the reason that Dickens did not specify where and when and the features of that workhouse were, he was, at heart, a reformer and a whistleblower on the abuses of the society at the time. And I think he wanted to make -- you know, of course, there were lots of workhouses around all over the world, but he didn't want to say, well, this workhouse was at the corner of 33rd and Third. This is the way it worked.

  • 11:32:37


  • 11:32:37

    DAVIDHe wanted people to think that -- you know, he wanted to blow the whistle to illuminate this culture of these workhouses and have everybody think that it was their local workhouse.

  • 11:32:47

    REHMThat's a good point, Ruth.

  • 11:32:49

    RICHARDSONYes. David, you're absolutely right. He's made an archetype of workhouse. You're absolutely right.

  • 11:32:55

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Rehoboth Beach, Del. Good morning, Fred.

  • 11:33:06

    FREDGood morning.

  • 11:33:08

    REHMGo right ahead, sir.

  • 11:33:10

    FREDI read a great novel called "The Potato Factory" by an Australian author named Bryce Courtenay. And it deals with a notorious criminal in London at that time named Isaac Solomon. And the author Bryce Courtenay claims that Dickens used Isaac Solomon as a model for Fagin. And I was wondering if there's any truth to that or if your guest knows the story of Isaac Solomon.

  • 11:33:41


  • 11:33:42

    RICHARDSONYes. Yes indeed, I do. And until very recently I was very convinced by that story. But actually this year along with my book coming out there's been a whole slew of books about Dickens obviously 'cause of the Centenary. And one of them is a most wonderful book which is called "Dickens and the Blacking Factory" by Michael Allen. It's a really brilliant book. And this man is -- he's an old librarian who's a sleuth about Dickens and a genius in my opinion devoted to really good research. And he's found the most fascinating material in the public record office in England in what they now call the national archives.

  • 11:34:23

    RICHARDSONHe found a court case involving Lamert, the relation of Dickens who ran the blacking factory and the owner of the blacking factory. It's a long court case and it's got lots of details in it. And as a result of that -- these documents he's discovered that Lamert was Jewish himself. And he was related to a man whose name was Worms or Vorms. I don't know how to pronounce it -- Worms who was a Jewish fence, a receiver of stolen goods. And he lived near Field Lane which is a very famous slum part of London. And this man Worms was caught for being a receiver of stolen goods and he was transported to Australia for it.

  • 11:35:09

    RICHARDSONSo he could be the origin of Fagin and of Magwitch in "Great Expectations." So it's absolutely fascinating work.

  • 11:35:14

    REHMFred, does that answer your question?

  • 11:35:20

    FREDIt does. Thank you very much.

  • 11:35:22

    REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. Let's go to Kalamazoo, Mich. Good morning, Richard, you're on the air.

  • 11:35:30

    RICHARDThank you, Diane. Great show.

  • 11:35:32


  • 11:35:33

    RICHARDWhile at university I did a research paper on Charles Dickens and an artist called George -- I believe it's George Cruikshank -- this was years ago -- off of microfiche on the London Times. And Cruikshank apparently was the inspiration for a great many of Dickens' characters and books. And is there any record onto the inspiration of Cruikshank that you're dealing with?

  • 11:36:12

    RICHARDSONNot in my book particularly, no. But I do think there are certainly little bits of evidence which suggest that this might be possibly true. These are claims that Cruikshank made himself and it's just verbal claims from Cruikshank. Dickens didn't ever comment on this. He pretended he thought Cruikshank was making too great a claim. But it is interesting. In my book, I talk about a man called Pettigrew who was a doctor in Central London who wrote about the terrible treatment of children in St. James' workhouse at about the time "Oliver Twist" was being written was being planned.

  • 11:36:50

    RICHARDSONAnd it turns out that Pettigrew was a friend of Cruikshank. I don't know if Dickens had found it through his journalism or through Cruikshank. I have no idea and I've no proof of either way. But what you mention is quite plausible that he's a -- because he's a friend of Cruikshank that Cruikshank introduced Dickens to this documentation. I have no idea which way the story really went. But thanks for that.

  • 11:37:11

    RICHARDBut there was a lawsuit and apparently Cruikshank was awarded thousands of pounds at that time for the lawsuit from Dickens. And it's listed in the London Times.

  • 11:37:26

    RICHARDSONWow, that's something I'm going to have to look up. Very exciting. Thank you.

  • 11:37:28

    REHMWell, I think so. You've got more research to do. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, more of your calls, your email. I look forward to hearing from you.

  • 11:40:04

    REHMAnd joining me from an NPR studio in London is historian Ruth Richardson. She's a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. We're talking about her brand new book. It's titled "Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor." In the book she argues that Dickens actually lived on the same street as one of those workhouses that housed so many young people and whose fates were perhaps not as good as Dickens once he came out. In fact, here's an email from Chris in St. Louis, who says, "I'm struck by how brutal the conditions seemed to have been in London during Dickens' time. Do the British people simply regard this as part of their history or is there any effort to make reparations to families?" Ruth.

  • 11:41:22

    RICHARDSONWell, I think the big national reparation that we've had is the establishment of the National Health Service actually because 90 percent of the people in the workhouse were there from poverty caused by sickness or infirmity. And so if you take the sick out of the workhouse, there aren't many people left actually. And that's what the NHS does. It takes them into hospital and looks after them.

  • 11:41:43

    REHMAnd here's a question on that very subject. Rose in Charlottesville, you're on the air. Go right ahead.

  • 11:41:52

    ROSEThank you so much. This is very fascinating. I have two questions about debtor's prison that may be workhouses. How did someone get out of the debtor's prison if they were locked up? How did they earn their way out? And the other question is when did they close these prisons? When did this all end? Thank you.

  • 11:42:13

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:42:15

    RICHARDSONOkay. Thank you, Rose. How did they get out? A lot of them were locked in forever. You know, if you're stuck behind bars, you can't do much.

  • 11:42:23


  • 11:42:23

    RICHARDSONAnd there were descriptions -- yes, it's terrible. There were descriptions of people that Dickens witnessed with their hands out at the bars begging passersby for money to try and get themselves out. But often they were stuck in there. But Dickens' family managed to get out partly because his mother -- Dickens' grandmother died while her eldest son was in prison, so that was one thing. So there was some family money coming his way and he did eventually pay off all his creditors with that money. But he also got out because there was a new act of parliament and he invoked this act of parliament in order to get out. And I don't exactly know...

  • 11:43:00

    REHMWhat was the act of parliament?

  • 11:43:03

    RICHARDSONI can't remember the name of it now, but it was some kind of legal -- there was some legal thing that he could invoke and he did. He was able to do it and they got out after about a year. And in fact they were -- these places were closed down partly because of the Dickens' novels, because he publicized how -- I mean, it's there in Pickwick. Mr. Micawber -- Mr. Pickwick himself is put in a debtor's prison. He goes into a debtor's prison.

  • 11:43:29


  • 11:43:30

    RICHARDSONAnd it was, you know, he was drawing attention to the scandal of it in his earlier fiction, too.

  • 11:43:34

    REHMYou know, it's fascinating to me that he somehow was able to draw more attention to the plight of these individuals not as a journalist, but as a novelist. How do you explain that?

  • 11:43:52

    RICHARDSONI think stories appeal to everybody and they're more powerful in some ways than journalism because they stay with you. And as your first caller said, the workhouse is an archetypal, you know, it could be in any village or any town in Britain, whereas if it's just one, you can say, oh, that's been sorted out. You know, Oliver Twist is about a workhouse that's still with us in a way.

  • 11:44:14


  • 11:44:15

    RICHARDSONIt's a very powerful story.

  • 11:44:16

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Sylvania, Ohio. Good morning, Pat. Thanks for joining us.

  • 11:44:23

    PATGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:44:24


  • 11:44:24

    PATAnd I listen for a long time. Hello. I've always been fascinated by these little footnotes in history. And I was a reporter in 2005 in Tiffin, Ohio. And I did some searching. There was a railroad that went through. Charles Dickens wrote a book called "American Notes."

  • 11:44:47


  • 11:44:47

    PATAnd it mentions how he travels north and he actually would've gone to Tiffin, Ohio. I went through the old newspaper archives. They work for the advertiser Tribune. I went through the older newspaper archives and I found this little blurb where it said Boz, which was his pen name, would be in...

  • 11:45:03


  • 11:45:03

    PAT...Tiffin, Ohio. And it mentioned how he actually grabbed the Mad River Railroad and he took it. He mentions it was a horrible ride, but the interesting thing about it is the train station's still there.

  • 11:45:17


  • 11:45:18

    PATYeah, and the fascinating thing is it went through and it was -- you know, there was tar pitch on the walls and everything else, but I confirmed it from a number of people that that would've been the train station. So Dickens actually would've purchased a ticket to get on the railroad and take that (unintelligible)

  • 11:45:35

    RICHARDSONIn that building.

  • 11:45:36


  • 11:45:36

    RICHARDSONHow wonderful.

  • 11:45:37

    PATIt's actually the home of Seneca Recycling now, which is kind of fascinating.

  • 11:45:42

    RICHARDSONHow wonderful.

  • 11:45:43

    PATSo they renewed the building. It had been rundown, but they didn't rebuild it. They actually built it to suit their purposes so...

  • 11:45:54

    REHMWell, that really is a fascinating bit of history, Pat. I thank you for calling. Now to Rye, N.H. Good morning, Connie.

  • 11:46:06

    CONNIEGood morning, Diane. Thank you so much for taking my call...

  • 11:46:09

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:46:10

    CONNIE...and for this wonderful hour of information about Dickens.

  • 11:46:14


  • 11:46:15

    CONNIELike all Dickens lovers, I'm really excited about his 200th anniversary. And I'm wondering if your guest -- I'm sure she's aware of the BBC production of "Little Dorrit" that has been on American TV within the last year. And I'm wondering in that production and if she is able to judge how accurately historically was the representation of Marshalsea prison.

  • 11:46:53

    RICHARDSONWell, now I've got an admission to make, which is that I don't have a television.

  • 11:47:04

    REHMSo you have not seen that.

  • 11:47:08

    CONNIEOh, dear.

  • 11:47:10

    RICHARDSONI mean, if I watched television, I'd never write another book.

  • 11:47:15

    CONNIEWell, maybe that's why I haven't written a book because I'm too busy watching BBC productions. It is a wonderful production and...

  • 11:47:24

    RICHARDSONOh, I'm so glad.

  • 11:47:26

    CONNIE...the way Marshalsea prison is presented, it's almost a refuge for the head of the family. And the children are allowed to come and go, but...

  • 11:47:44


  • 11:47:44

    CONNIE...does that sound correct to you historically?

  • 11:47:48

    RICHARDSONYes, that's correct. That's correct. The only person who was actually imprisoned was the debtor, so that's Dickens' father. And his wife and the children could go in and out, yes, absolutely.

  • 11:47:59


  • 11:47:59

    RICHARDSONAnd the little servant that they had from Chatham, she used to go in and out.

  • 11:48:02

    REHMBut where were they while he was in prison?

  • 11:48:08

    RICHARDSONThey were staying in the same room. They had more than one -- I think they had one big room and they all stayed in the same room. And there was a separate kitchen for all the other prisoners.

  • 11:48:17


  • 11:48:18

    RICHARDSONAnd Dickens himself used to go and visit. He often went for breakfast and for supper there. When he moved -- he moved to Camden Town to be nearer the prison and so he used to go in and out. I've often thought that "Little Dorrit" is actually a kind of portrait of himself.

  • 11:48:34

    REHMYes. How long was his father in prison?

  • 11:48:39

    RICHARDSONWell, until recently -- I think they know how long he was in there. It was only about three, four months. But Dickens was in the factory it turns out for a lot longer, from this recent research on Lamert it turns out he was there for nearly a year in the factory.

  • 11:48:54

    REHMI see. I see. All right. Thanks for calling, Connie. Now to Winston Salem, N.C. Good morning, William.

  • 11:49:04

    WILLIAMYes. My question is, Dickens was such a social reformer, were there any religious influences in his background? Like in America, we call it the social gospel or whatever, but was he influenced in any way in his writings by that?

  • 11:49:24

    RICHARDSONWell, I know he's deeply influenced by the Bible, very, very deeply influenced by the Bible. He believes in loving one's neighbor and caring for the poor. If you look in "Oliver Twist," there's a picture of Oliver resting by Mr. Brownlow's fireplace. And there's an image of the Good Samaritan just above the bookcase. So you can see he's deeply Christian, but not in a churchy sense. He doesn't belong to any particular church. And that's what's interesting about Dickens. He writes a version of the New Testament for his own children later in life. He's a deeply Christian man, but not stuck in any particular denomination.

  • 11:50:04

    REHMThat's interesting. We have an email from Jennifer, who says, "Is it coincidence that J. K. Rowling uses the names Crookshanks and Pettigrew, real life contemporaries of Dickens whom you mention?" What do you think of that, Ruth?

  • 11:50:26

    RICHARDSONI don't know. I don't know. She is certainly a very well read woman, J. K. Rowling.

  • 11:50:30

    REHMIsn't she, though, yes.

  • 11:50:32

    RICHARDSONYes, yes, so it's quite possible.

  • 11:50:34

    REHMSo it would not surprise you. Yes, I understand. All right. To Oklahoma. Good morning, Caroline, you're on the air.

  • 11:50:43

    CAROLINEThank you, Diane. I have published a book in 2010, October, called "When Ireland Fell Silent." And in that I also have a workhouse. And it seems to me that as I was studying about English aristocratic society that there was a definite attitude about the poor. They called them poppers, which was very degrading. They felt they were bad people really, that they were poor because they had some fault of their own that made them poor.

  • 11:51:20

    CAROLINEAnd so the workhouse was kind of set up -- of course, the Irish workhouses were far worse than the English. But the Irish workhouses were set up to keep them from coming to England when they were evicted. And they were to keep them out of sight and they wanted it to be deliberately harsh with children separated, et cetera, just to punish them so they would not want to get in the workhouse unless they were truly, truly desperate.

  • 11:51:49

    RICHARDSONYes. That's exactly as it was in England, too. I'm from a working class background myself and I remember my grandmother telling me to remember that slavery started here first and that the British aristocracy exported it. So I think, you know, we all have suffered in our cultures behind us this kind of treatment, all of us.

  • 11:52:10

    REHMWhat would you say -- and perhaps this is out of your field, but what would you say is the percentage of the truly poor in England today?

  • 11:52:25

    RICHARDSONI don't know. I really don't know. But I think there's a lot of people who have an appearance of respectability just like they did in Dickens' time, but they're on a very sticky wicket and they know that just a small thing could tip them over into poverty.

  • 11:52:38


  • 11:52:39

    RICHARDSONA lot of people in that situation here.

  • 11:52:41

    REHMRuth Richardson, her new book is titled "Dickens and the Workhouse." You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Oswego, N.Y. Good morning, Alex.

  • 11:52:56

    ALEXHello. This is fascinating and it makes me think of my father. I'm near 81. My father was born in Northern Ireland. My parents were -- my father in 1886. They were protestant and my father and his siblings were brought up on the family farm as was my mother. Now, probably life might've been even worse there for Catholics, but he had kind of a difficult childhood. He was enrolled in the local Anglican Church school at the appropriate age which was almost across the street from his farm.

  • 11:53:44

    ALEXHe probably helped out on the farm. And of course it was before the days of tractors, so farm work was extremely difficult. He told me more than once that as a child he went to bed hungry many times. He then maybe around 1893 or so he was at the house with his mother and his father came in. He had taken the little sister out to the fields with him while he worked. And he carried the sister back and he said so and so is sick. And the girl died right then and there.

  • 11:54:35


  • 11:54:36


  • 11:54:36

    ALEXAnd I don't know whether there was any law where they had to have a doctor certify it, the death. He never talked about that. Then at the age of 15, he became an apprentice grocery clerk in the village about a mile from the town which I would say for those days was a very pleasant job.

  • 11:55:08


  • 11:55:09


  • 11:55:09

    REHMYou know, talk about hardship, talk about the lives that some people during that era had to endure and certainly Charles Dickens brought all that to the fore.

  • 11:55:30

    RICHARDSONYes, absolutely. He shows all of society, but he particularly shows with sorrow and pity the situation and predicament of people who are without anything.

  • 11:55:40

    REHMDo you...

  • 11:55:41

    RICHARDSONIt's wonderful, I think.

  • 11:55:42

    REHMDuring his lifetime, Ruth, did he have an opportunity to see the poor houses being reformed? Or were they still very much in operation and present during his entire lifetime?

  • 11:56:04

    RICHARDSONThey were in operation during his whole lifetime, but there was reform in the offing. And that's is why Rogers, the doctor, is so important to me, because from that workhouse, he had gone in and seen what it was like and he started to -- he started an association for the improvement of workhouse infirmaries. And by the 1870s he had Florence Nightingale behind him, and Louis Twining and some very important figures behind him including Dickens. Dickens dies 1870, but in the 1870s there was a series of -- there was a new act of parliament which changed the situation poor law. And they separated the sick from the well and built hospitals. And so he knew change was coming. He did know that.

  • 11:56:46

    REHMRuth Richardson, "Dickens and the Workhouse" is the title of her new book "Oliver Twist and the London Poor." Ruth, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 11:57:01

    RICHARDSONThank you. Thank you.

  • 11:57:01

    REHMI really enjoyed it. Thank you.

  • 11:57:03

    RICHARDSONSo did I. It's been a real pleasure.

  • 11:57:05

    REHMAnd thanks all of you for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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