Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London

Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London

by Andrea Warren

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“Explores how Charles Dickens used his stories to effect social change for London’s most destitute children . . . A lively biography” (Kirkus Reviews).
Charles Dickens is best known for his contributions to the world of literature, as the author of classics from Great Expectations to A Christmas Carol. But during his young life, Dickens witnessed terrible things that stayed with him: families starving in doorways, babies being “dropped” on streets by mothers too poor to care for them, and a stunning lack of compassion from the upper class. After his family went into debt and he found himself working at a shoe-polish factory, Dickens soon realized that members of the lower class were no different than he, and, even worse, they were given no chance to better themselves. It was then that he decided to use his greatest talent, his writing ability, to tell the stories of those who had no voice.
In this book, award-winning author Andrea Warren takes readers on a journey into the workhouses, slums, factories, and schools of Victorian England, and into the world of a beloved writer who used his pen to do battle on behalf of the poor, becoming one of the greatest reformers of his or any age.
“Warren writes in a clear, direct, vivid manner that brings it all to life.” —Booklist (starred review)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547677286
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 11/29/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 165
Sales rank: 241,061
Lexile: 1160L (what's this?)
File size: 68 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

In 1996, Houghton Mifflin published Andrea Warren's first nonfiction book for young readers, Orphan Train Rider: One Boy's True Story, which won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. Andrea travelled to London to do extensive research for this book; she has a master's degree in British Literature from the University of Nebraska. Andrea lives in Kansas.

Andrea Warren is the author of many acclaimed nonfiction books for young readers, including Orphan Train Rider: One Boy's True Story, which won the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. Andrea lives in Kansas. Visit her website at

Read an Excerpt


The Man in the Shadows

IN THE YEAR 1835, London was full of energy. Every day the city's dirt and cobblestone streets filled with traffic early in the morning. Stray dogs nipped at the heels of the horses or donkeys pulling carts, carriages, and coaches that vied for space with the sheep and pigs being herded to market. People were everywhere. They roamed the street markets in search of bargains. Some visited shops or stopped into saloons to enjoy a pint of ale or glass of gin. Sidewalk gamblers lured customers into card games. Musicians, acrobats, jugglers, and actors performed, hoping for tips from passersby. Peddlers called out their offerings of fried oysters, fresh flowers, old clothes, newspapers, or meat pies. The aromas of hot coffee, grilled meat, and fried bread mixed with the odors of people, horses, tobacco, and coal tar.

Only when it began to get dark did the noise die down. The peddlers left. Tailors, butchers, and other shopkeepers locked their doors and headed for home. Soon, only taverns and eating houses were still open, adding a faint glow to the dim light provided by streetlamps. Many streets had no light, and the dozens of lanes and alleyways that threaded off them were pitch black.

It was down these lanes and alleys that the poor lived, crowded into dingy, dirty tenements. The poorest of the poor — those who had so far managed to stay out of the despicable workhouses that were their last resort — lived on the streets. Most sought out dark spots, feeling safest when they could not be seen.

A slender young man, stylishly dressed and wearing a proper coat and hat, often walked the city at night. He knew the poor were there in the shadows. Once he had been a child with nothing. His world had fallen apart when his father was arrested for debt and put in prison. He had been separated from his family and forced to work long hours in a damp, dismal warehouse to support himself. Sometimes he had been cold and hungry and so full of misery that he could not picture his own future.

But now he walked because he enjoyed it. He moved at a brisk pace for hours at a time, thinking through problems bothering him with his work, but also paying careful attention to what was going on around him and to the people he saw. Occasionally he stopped to write in a notebook. During his late-evening walks in the poorer districts of the city, he regularly came across homeless people who were dressed in rags and huddled together for warmth. Seeing children in this condition was especially upsetting, and fueled his anger at society's indifference toward them. He vowed to use his own knowledge of wretched poverty to shame the powerful into action.

Back at his writing desk, his pen on fire, he worked on the sketches and stories that would force others to see what he saw, and feel what he had felt. People were noticing. They watched for his name, and when they saw the byline Charles Dickens, they started to read.


The Poor People of London

WHEN TWENTY-THREE-YEAR-OLD Charles Dickens was beginning to make his name as a journalist and author in 1835, London was a city of glittering wealth and dismal poverty, of light and shadow, of daytime delights and dreadful night.

Dickens saw these startling contrasts every day. The British Empire ruled half the world. London was its capital, and with more than a million people, it was Europe's largest city. A center of business and industry, it was home to museums, concert halls, and parks. Wealthy people lived in elegant mansions, attended by a bevy of servants. The royal family had several fine palaces, each with stately gardens.

Yet much of the city was just as it had been centuries earlier: primitive, overcrowded, filthy, and violent. The average life span of a Londoner was only twenty-seven years. For the poor, it was twenty-two — and these could be brutal years, played out against a landscape of despair.

As Dickens was all too aware, London had a staggering number of poor people. They eked out a living however they could, but many simply had no way to support themselves. Dickens had heard the stories of old people who took poison to end their miserable lives, and he knew that every morning the police found dead babies in trash cans, cast aside by hapless parents who could not feed them.

On his daily walks, Dickens passed taverns and gin palaces where poor people drank themselves into early graves. Many of the poor were victims of violence. Some died of starvation. Disease was rampant in the city, and the poor succumbed in great numbers from typhoid fever, diarrhea, and smallpox. Smoke from the city's hundreds of thousands of coal-burning chimneys melded into a grimy fog that hung in the air, and coal dust caused lung problems for even the very young.

In spite of the awful conditions, the poor kept coming to the city, seeking work in the massive factories and mills. They toiled in the shipyards, on the docks, and in the outdoor markets. So many sought each available position that employers could demand they labor as many as sixteen hours a day, six or even seven days a week. Wages were so low that poor workers could barely support themselves, much less a family. Dickens knew that work conditions could be dangerous and that injured workers received no assistance. The families of workers killed on the job were given nothing.

Housing in the overcrowded city was in critically short supply. The poor were jammed into huge tenements, sometimes a dozen people living in a single small room. If the room even had a bed, several people at a time took turns sleeping in it while others slept on the floor. The lucky ones might have a small coal-burning stove to keep them warm and to cook whatever food they had scrounged. Candles, or perhaps an oil lamp, provided the only other source of light.

Unlike the gentrified neighborhood where Dickens lived, there was little or no clean drinking water in the slums. Usually there was a pump somewhere in the area, but pump water came from the Thames (pronounced "Tems") River and was brownish and foul tasting, for the city's sewage was dumped into the river. As a result, both adults and children drank beer and gin. Filthy outdoor privies for going to the bathroom were shared by everyone in the slums. They contributed to the overpowering stench that permeated the tenement district — a combination of sewage, animal droppings, and the vast sea of people who had no way to wash themselves or their belongings. Lice and fleas infested hair, clothing, and straw mattresses. Rats and roaches competed with dogs and children for crumbs of food.

Hardest for Dickens to witness was the suffering of children. When he walked through the slums, he saw them everywhere. The poor rarely had access to reliable birth control, so families could be large, even though at least half the children died before their fifth birthday. Those who survived were usually sickly but still had to work. Education was for the upper classes; poor children had to earn their keep.

By age ten, both boys and girls labored long hours in mills and factories alongside adults. At home, their youngest siblings followed the coal carts, picking up bits that dropped on the ground to feed the fire. Girls of six or seven cared for younger brothers and sisters. Mothers who were hired out as washerwomen took daughters along to help with the backbreaking work. Some women also did sewing and taught their young daughters to thread needles and tie knots. By three in the morning, adults who worked as peddlers roused children out of sleep to walk several miles to a marketplace where cartloads of freshly picked vegetables were arriving from the countryside. Regardless of the weather, boys and girls helped sort through lettuce, cabbages, onions, turnips, herbs, or other produce. Little hands learned to pull off rotten leaves, stuffing them in their pockets to take home to make soup.

By the time they were eight, some girls spent their days walking busy streets, trying to sell apples or grapes, shoelaces, matches, flowers, or eggs. They might have younger brothers or sisters in tow. No one looked twice at a young girl holding a baby in one arm, carrying a basket on the other, with one or more small children following behind. Her voice would grow hoarse from trying to be heard above the din of the streets as she approached people, begging them to buy from her.

The hours dragged by. The baby cried, the other children did too, longing for food and naps, and in winter, for warmth. They were splashed by wagons. The girl worried about older boys stealing from her. She feared that the little ones would get stepped on by a horse or get lost in the crowds.

It must have amazed a child like this when she saw wealthy people go by in carriages pulled by teams of matching horses. How could such a life exist? To be carried along by horses, above the muddy streets, attended by footmen, and dressed in fine clean clothes! The poor were not allowed to hawk their wares on exclusive streets, but they might catch glimpses of grand homes when gates opened to admit carriages. Servants helped their masters and mistresses step down, holding umbrellas above them if it was raining. Other opened doors for them. It was a world the poor could only dream of. They understood that people were born into a certain station in life. Good or bad, you deserved it. Unless you could elevate yourself by becoming rich, you were expected to accept it.

When at last the girl had sold her goods or it grew too dark to work, she went back to the small, crowded room that was home. Many adults worked until ten at night, and there might be little or no food waiting. And though she was inside and away from the dangers of the street, other dangers might await. Many adults were alcoholics. Nobody intervened when men beat their wives or children. Little ones faced the prospect of beatings and abuse if they had not sold enough during the day, or if they had slipped in an icy puddle and ruined their wares — or for no reason except that they could not defend themselves.

Life was as difficult for boys as it was for girls. Until they were big and strong enough to compete for men's jobs, they worked as peddlers, just as the girls did, or ran errands or cleaned stables. Hoping for tips, they worked as crossing sweeps, using a small broom to brush mud, slush, animal droppings, or garbage out of the way of people who were getting out of carriages.

London's hundreds of thousands of chimneys had to be cleaned regularly to work efficiently. While lots of jobs were dangerous, this was one of the most hazardous. Many chimneys were so narrow and had such tight bends and turns that only small boys could get through them. Master chimney sweeps recruited homeless boys from the streets, or "purchased" them from orphanages that were glad to be rid of them.

A boy climbed up by grabbing braces placed in the bricks, using a brush or his clothes to dislodge clumps of coal dust. He was quickly coated with soot that made him cough. To goad him to work faster, his master might start a little fire in the chimney grate, sending heat and smoke upward, forcing the boy to hurry to the top. An alarming number of boys died in the chimneys. Sometimes they got stuck and suffocated before they could be rescued. Others lost their footing and fell to their death.

Both boys and girls scavenged along the Thames River. Dickens saw them when he walked there. Twice daily at low tide, regardless of the weather, they waded into the filthy water to search for a nail, a button, an old shoe, a tin can — anythingsellable that had dropped from ships and barges and washed ashore. They also begged, picked pockets, and stole food. When the outdoor markets closed for the day, street children grabbed any bits of food left behind. Some boys turned to hard crime — robbery and murder. Girls as young as twelve might be lured into prostitution. And still they were dogged by grinding, never-ending poverty.

Dickens was outraged that the government offered no assistance, instead decreeing that the poor were the responsibility of church parishes. Every poor person knew to which church parish he or she belonged and what charity that parish offered. Parishes also operated workhouses to care for the poor who had nowhere else to go. But life was so hard in the workhouse that some chose to take their chances on the streets.

This included children. They joined swarms of other children who were orphans or had been turned out by uncaring parents or had run away because of abuse. They slept in doorways and stables and on park benches. Dressed in rags, often without shoes, they huddled together for warmth, sleeping in snatches, wary, worried, never comfortable, their frail limbs stiff and their lips turning blue when the night air grew cold. They ate garbage and stole from other children or from the elderly. They pleaded with every passerby for a handout. If they were lucky enough to encounter someone as sympathetic as Charles Dickens, they would get a coin. But such luck was rare.

London had tens of thousands of street children at the time Charles Dickens was starting to write the essays, short stories, and novels that would help change British attitudes toward the poor. He always included children in his stories, and a few of the most memorable were boys trying to find their way in life, often victimized by adults or by a society that viewed them with disdain because of their lowly station.

It would be many years before the world learned the story of Dickens' own boyhood, and before even his wife and children realized that these boys in his books seemed so real because they were different parts of Dickens himself. Moreover, many of the hardships they suffered were based on Dickens' own experiences growing up.


The Early Years

FOR THE FIRST TEN years of his life, the future novelist knew nothing about poor children in London. Charles John Huffman Dickens was born in 1812 in Portsmouth, England, the second child and first son of John and Elizabeth Dickens. He had his mother's brown hair and large, expressive hazel-colored eyes, and he was an inquisitive child with an excellent memory for fact and detail. Once he learned how, he was often observed reading, even when other children were playing outside.

Both of his parents were gifted storytellers and passed this ability to their son. Like his mother, Dickens was a talented mimic. He acted out scenes from stories, playing all the parts, using a distinctive voice for each. He also wrote plays and recruited neighborhood children to act in them. He loved to hear people applaud for him. His older sister, Fanny, was musically gifted, and sometimes the two of them sang songs together. One time they even performed in a local tavern, and everyone cheered when they finished.

The family lived in small country towns, where the pace of life was slow and pleasant. When Dickens was five they settled in the village of Chatham. It was close to the market town of Rochester, on the Medway River, and had an old castle dating back to the Norman Conquest, and an ancient cathedral. Young Dickens gazed in fascination at the hospital ships and prison ships anchored out in the Medway, and he heard spine-tingling stories of escaped convicts. Because Rochester was a navy town, he saw soldiers and sailors on the streets. Sometimes traveling fairs came through and his father took him to see actors perform dramas and comedies. These places, these people, and these events fed his imagination.


Excerpted from "Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Andrea Warren.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
The Man in the Shadows,
The Poor People of London,
The Early Years,
A Working-Class Boy,
Growing Up,
Becoming a Writer,
The Workhouse,
Oliver Twist,
The Sea Captain Who Rescued Foundling Children,
The Great Benefactors: Handel, Hogarth, and Dickens,
Closing England's Worst Schools,
Sending Ragged Children to School,
Giving from a Charitable Heart,
A Dedicated Reformer,
A Friend to the Poor, a Complex Father,
An Author for the Ages,
Queen Victoria 1819–1901,
The Legacy of the Workhouse,
Child Labor Today,
Foundlings and Street Children Worldwide,
How You Can Make a Difference,
More About Charles Dickens and His Times,
Recommended Websites,
Selected Bibliography,
Works Consulted,
Major Works by Charles Dickens,
A Note to Readers,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH on Social Media,

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Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
VisVitaVeritas on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London is an eye-opening account of how the poverty of Dicken's early life led him to champion England's poor, particularly the children in both his writing and his actions. This is a carefully researched and well-written story that goes beyond simple biography in re-creating Dickens and the world he lived in. Although much of the information in the book is interesting and not well-known to most American young adults, I do think the non-fiction format with blocks of text and drawn photographs will remind many teens (unhappily)of school textbooks, and it will take some extra effort to convince them to read it, but it will be worth it.
Ausonius More than 1 year ago
Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812 - 1870 was born of lower middle class parents. Both were in domestic service and could afford to send the future novelist's sister to a grand music school. Both parents were gifted story tellers. At age 12, just before Charles's father went to debtors' prison, the boy began working ten hour days six days a week in a factory that made boot blacking substances. For the first time the well dressed, clean, carefully spoken boy was rubbing shoulders with desperate children of the lower classes of London. *** The lower classes had been taught that they had been placed low by the will of God and they were to accept their poverty, dirt and horrible health meekly. Middle and upper classes, aristocracy and royalty looked down on them, wanted nothing to do with them. Charles Dickens, by contrast, in daily contact with them, saw that many if not most of the poor were "deserving" poor. They had done nothing wrong. People better off than they should notice them, feel for them and work to improve their terrible plight. *** It is a major thesis of Andrea Warren's 2011 CHARLES DICKENS AND THE STREET CHILDREN OF LONDON that Charles Dickens in most of his 20 novels and numberless short stories deliberately set out to inspire readers in a position to uplift the poor to do so. His first published book was a collection of BOZ stories. His first novel was OLIVER TWIST. That novel was also England's first novel with a boy as its hero. Instantly Charles Dickens was on all men's lips and in many readers' hearts, including Queen Victoria's. *** Dickens made Britons hate workhouses, poorhouses, miserable private schools and the whole system of parish-run doles for the poor. "Dickens learned from the public's embrace of OLIVER TWIST and the subsequent outcry against the workhouses how much power he wielded as a writer, and he was determined to use it to end the suffering of innocent boys by closing down the Yorkshire schools" (Ch 11) *** This is a book for teens and young adults. It presents a debatable portrait of Charles Dickens as essentially a social reformer whose tool was his pen. Author Andrea Warren makes it clear that though Dickens did much good for the poor, he was not alone, nor indeed the first to do so. Musician Handel and painter Hogarth are singled out for special praise as is the ship captain who rescued foundlings. *** The book has a good bibliography and points out channels in which today's young people can work to improve the lot of today's poor. I found it helpful that the author was careful on almost every third page to make it clear exactly how old Charles Dickens was in a given year. In a couple of ways, Dickens reminds of the young Rudyard Kipling (1865 - 1936). Both were teen age journalists. Both had written notable works before they were 25. Neither was a university man, though Kipling's formal education was better. This book, CHARLES DICKENS AND THE STREET CHILDREN OF LONDON is a keeper. -OOO-