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Charles Dickens, Warren’s Blacking and the Chancery Court

At the age of 12, the delicate and genteelly brought up Charles Dickens was plunged into employment in a boot-blacking factory, while his father was incarcerated in Marshalsea debtors’ prison. These events traumatised the young Dickens, and greatly influenced his future work. However, as an adult this difficult period was never discussed, and only after his death did his account come out. That account has never been corroborated or challenged, but author Michael Allen has discovered that Dickens’ employers at Warren’s Blacking were fighting each other in the Chancery Court, revealing a great deal of new information.


What I’ve got to say to you today is all new information, a lot of new information. This is new research that you may well have done, just as I did, but it’s relative to Charles Dickens.

Now Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812. He was the son of a pay-clerk in the Navy Pay Office, and his father John Dickens was moved from Portsmouth to London in 1815, and from London to Chatham in 1817. It was at Chatham that Dickens had the happiest years of his childhood, much of which he later recalled in his writings.

His father was quite well paid, and the family considered themselves to be genteel.
His mother taught him, including some Latin. He went to school, he did well at school. He was taken to the theatre. He had books to read. He had friends, and he had brothers and sisters around him. There were two servants to help around the house. His health wasn’t robust, but he was happy.

Then at the age of ten, he and his family were moved back to London, and Charles Dickens’s life took a nasty turn for the worse.

To start with he wasn’t sent to school, but he was left to help with household chores, and to run errands. In London he overheard his parents talk of a crisis in their financial situation. On a grim day for him, a cousin by marriage offered employment for the boy, working in a boot blacking factory, which his parents accepted on his behalf.

Eventually his father was arrested for debt, and was sent to the Marshalsea prison. The home was sold up, and the family, but not Charles, moved into the prison with his father, and you will have heard of this repeated in ‘Little Dorrit’.

John Dickens was released from prison about three months later. He wasn’t there for long, and eventually he took his son away from the blacking factory, and he sent him back to school. After that, a veil was drawn over the whole sorry episode.

Dickens later wrote: ‘My father and mother had been stricken dumb upon it.’ Dickens himself, his brothers and his sisters, colluded in the silence. As he grew to be famous, and well loved, with a large circle of friends, and a large family of his own children, still he held close to his chest the hurt that he had suffered as a child, keeping it from his public, from his acquaintances, and even from his own sons and daughters.

But, 25 years later, he wrote it all down. He shared with his wife what he had written but nobody else, and he passed his secret to his friend and designated biographer, John Forster. Only after his death, in 1870, was the whole sorry episode exposed, coming as a profound shock, not only to his worldwide audience, but also to his stunned children.

By then there was only one version of the story: Dickens’s version. His parents were dead, as were all but one of his brothers and sisters. Nobody else could, or at least did, corroborate or contradict his story. Cue Kew: the National Archives.

Brief Marshalsea and insolvency court records of John Dickens’s imprisonment have been in the public domain for some years, held by the National Archives, and about 25 years ago, I turned up Admiralty records and accounts relating to John Dickens which were published in my book ‘Charles Dickens’s Childhood’.

But then, last summer, I discovered something new. When I say something new, what I really mean is something old, in the proceedings of the Chancery Court.

Now there’s no more appropriate place to find information relating to Charles Dickens than in Chancery proceedings. Dickens was scathing about the institution. As a youth he was a reporter, and time spent writing up cases in Chancery established a feeling in him of contempt for the organisation.

Then in 1844 when he was famous and a writer, those feelings were enforced when he obtained an injunction from the court to prevent a pirated edition of ‘A Christmas Carol’. He won the argument, but lost the costs, when the pirates decided to declare themselves bankrupt. He found himself out of pocket by the considerable sum for those days of £700.

But his most famous attack on Chancery, its expense, its tangled bureaucracy, its slowness, came in ‘Bleak House’, and in the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which dragged on for years.

However, frustrating though the proceedings of this ancient court may have been to those who had to go through them, they have left the National Archives, and us, with a rich treasure of social and economic history. The millions of Chancery documents held at the National Archives open a window into the lives and worries of people from the 14th to the 19th centuries.

Now I’m no expert on the subject, and the best guide to its complexities that I’ve found is the excellent ‘Tracing your Ancestors in the National Archives’, and if you haven’t got it, you ought to get it. This book tells us that, in summary, there are five main categories to the collection: the proceedings, which are statements made by the parties to each case – the names in the headings of those proceedings are indexed in the National Archives online catalogue.

Then there’s the evidence which is sworn by witnesses produced by the parties, decrees and orders given by the court in the progress of a suit, Chancery Master’s reports, and accounts and final decrees and appeals.

Now, documents in categories two to five listed there are not indexed on the National Archives online catalogue, but they can be found, with a great deal of patience, in hand written contemporary indexes, which are here.

The first item that I found was located in the first of these categories: in the proceedings. I wasn’t looking for it. I had no idea it existed, nor did anybody else. It was dropped in my lap by that great friend of the researcher, serendipity. I was looking for one thing, which I didn’t find, and I found something quite different: the case of Lamert v. Woodd.

[Shows slide]

Lamert was a name I knew and I was looking for; Woodd I didn’t know. And it concerned two people involved in the manufacture of boot blacking. These documents are large in size and long in content; five pages the same size as this [indicates slide], nearly 20,000 words in all. Very nicely written, very easy to understand, but turgid nevertheless; the language is repetitive and difficult.

They are stored off site, this one in particular is anyway, difficult to handle, difficult to photograph, and they’re time consuming to transcribe. But they’re worth it.

Now, boot blacking, or shoe polish as we say now, was big business in the first quarter of the 19th century. Poor conditions on pavements and roads meant that footwear needed constant protection, not just to look clean, but to maintain a degree of water repellence and flexibility.

Many firms manufactured blacking in London, which was sent for sale, not just throughout this country, but around the world. Competition was fierce. Charles Day, of the blacking firm Day and Martin, left £350,000 when he died in 1836. With money like that to be made, it’s no surprise that there was great competition.

The rivalry to Day and Martin came from two firms (among others) both called Warren’s Blacking. Now in the pleadings for the case of Woodd v. Lamert, a firsthand history of these two firms is related, and this is the first time we’ve got a decent history of these two firms; there’ve been bits and pieces, but not very much. This is the first time we’ve had a really good history of these two firms which had an influence on Dickens.

The proceedings state [that] Jonathan Warren began to manufacture blacking in 1798, taking under his wing his brother Thomas, but the two fell out and Thomas set up on his own. When Thomas died in 1805, his son Robert took over the business, and intense rivalry arose between Jonathan and his nephew Robert, and it persisted for 20 years, exacerbated because they both promoted themselves as ‘Warren’s Blacking’.

[Shows slide]

As early as 1808, Robert Warren placed advertisements like this in newspapers, warning against his uncle’s product. It was quite nasty. In 1816, Robert Warren moved from his premises in St. Martin’s Lane to number 30 in the Strand, and much was made of this address on the packaging and the advertising of his product.

Then in 1821 Uncle Jonathan managed to locate himself in premises very close by, with the deliberately confusing address of 30, Hungerford Stairs, Strand, with ’30’ and ‘Strand’ written large, and ‘Hungerford Stairs’ written small, and a whole new field of argument  opened up between the two sides of the family.

In September of that same year, Jonathan Warren placed a small ad in the Times, seeking a partner, and 12 months later he entered into an agreement with William Edward Woodd, with the unusual spelling of Woodd. The agreement gave the new owner, Woodd, all rights to Jonathan Warren’s blacking manufactory, including continued use of the name ‘Warren’s Blacking’, in exchange for an annuity of £250.

Jonathan Warren continued to operate the production side of the business, and Woodd engaged a clerk to manage the office. The office clerk was Sandhurst trained George Lamert. The coming together of Warren, Woodd and Lamert was a strange mix. Jonathan Warren was the old hand, Woodd was aged just 25, and Lamert was only 20.

Though now owned by Woodd, competition between Jonathan Warren’s blacking and Robert Warren’s blacking continued as it had done for 20 years. At the beginning of 1824, the business was moved from Hungerford Stairs to 3, Chandos Street, Covent Garden, not very far – very close together, all of them.

Then on the 2 August 1825, Jonathan Warren died, and the following small item appeared in the newspapers: ‘Sudden death this morning [of Jonathan Warren]…fell forwards on some bottles in the shop and expired.’ They don’t write newspapers like that anymore.

At the time of the death, Woodd was in Ireland and Lamert found himself running everything, by himself. The younger man taking the burden of the responsibility was the cause of an argument between Lamert and Woodd, erupting in October 1824, and they parted company.

Three months later, in January 1825, Lamert had set up his own blacking business, located in Whitechapel, and Woodd had moved away from Covent Garden to Noble Street near the City of London’s Guildhall.

All of this activity that I’ve described to you is described in the pleadings. Most of it we didn’t know before. Most of it did not appear in Dickens’s version of the story.

The Warren’s Blacking rivalry subsequently took on a bizarre twist; Robert Warren continued to advertise his ‘Genuine Blacking’, Woodd advertised the strap line he had bought of Jonathan Warren’s ‘Original Japan Blacking’, and Lamert set up with the logo ‘Manufacturer to the late Jonathan Warren’.

Labelling of the three products of the three companies, and their advertising, was so similar it could only be intended to confuse the customer. Such a situation, not surprisingly, ended in the Chancery court, with Woodd seeking to restrain Lamert, and Robert Warren seeking to restrain both Woodd and Lamert.

And sitting innocently in the middle of this tangle, unhappily sticking disputed labels onto pots of disputed blacking, had been a very young Charles Dickens.

[Shows slide of a portrayal of Dickens as a child at factory work desk]

That’s an afterthought of Dickens in the blacking warehouse; this wasn’t drawn or published until the 1890s, until people obviously knew about it. It didn’t happen at the time.

So how does the discovery of the documents at Kew impact on our knowledge of Dickens childhood?

Dickens had a widowed aunt who lived with the family when they were in Chatham, his mother’s sister Mary this was, and in 1821 while they were at Chatham, Mary remarried, this time to somebody called Matthew Lamert, an army surgeon. He also had been previously married, and had children, one of whom had attended Sandhurst and while waiting for an army appointment spent much of his time with young Charles.

Dickens described how much he enjoyed the company of this son of his relative. Dickens called this cousin, James Lamert. In 1821, Lamert was 19 years old and Charles was just nine, but despite the difference in age, they got on very well together.

Now when John Dickens was moved back to London in 1822, the young Lamert moved with them, moved with the family and lived with the Dickens family for a while until he was able to move on.

For 140 years, Dickensians have written about James Lamert and his influence on young Charles. Both Dickens and Forster describe him as the part owner and manager of Warren’s Blacking, and as the man who, when he saw the financial difficulties of Charles’s parents, offered to employ the young lad in the blacking warehouse.

But the sworn chancery statement of George Lamert shows clearly that there was no James. The person that Dickens described as and called James, was in fact called George. This threw me for quite a while until I had to work it out, and this just must be one of those situations, and I’ve come across a number, I don’t know if you have, where a person prefers to be called by a different name from the one they were given.

So, his real name was George; everybody called him James. In Chancery proceedings, this is an official document; he needs to give his proper name: George. All the other descriptions fit together once you make this link.

The pleadings show that contrary to Dickens account, George, or James, had no part in the ownership of Warren’s Blacking. He was only the hired help, hired by William Edward Woodd.

Another Chancery document I’ve found shows that one of Lamert’s sisters, Hannah, was the wife of William Edward Woodd. So, Woodd and Lamert were brothers in law, and the decision by Woodd to take Lamert to court must have caused tremendous tension in the families. Curiously, Dickens seems to have had no recollection of Woodd, nor of Jonathan Warren; they don’t appear in his version of the story.

Now Dickens’s own account of his time at Warren’s Blacking is a highly emotional account. He describes his separation from his family, who were in the Marshalsea prison, how he wandered the streets on his own, how he had to feed and fend for himself. He describes some of the people he worked with, including a boy called Bob Fagin.

With unconcealed detestation, he describes the premises at Hungerford Stairs where the blacking factory was located. He says it was: ‘A crazy, tumbledown house with rotten floors and staircase, dirty and decaying, with rats swarming down in the cellar.’

He describes the misery of a child with a vivid imagination carrying out a dirty, repetitive, dreary job from morning till night, eight o’clock in the morning to six o’clock at night, ten hours a day, Monday to Saturday, washing and putting labels on thousands of pots of blacking.

[Shows slide]

This seems to be the only one that survived. When we talk about pots, we might have a different idea of what pots were in those days, but they were made, I believe, up in Cheshire by the Wedgwood Company. They were actual china pots, they weren’t plastic …well, obviously not.

His detailed description of his work with labels is apposite, since those same labels also receive an inordinate amount of description in the pleadings; every line and every word and every layout and every colour is described in the proceedings to show how one company was trying to copy the other, and to put the others off.

[Shows slide]

Now, just like that’s the only pot that I’ve found that survived, so too are the labels themselves [very rare], and it’s only in the last six to nine months that I’ve discovered these labels. Now there’s a wonderful collection of ephemera at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, called the John Johnson collection of ephemera, and they’ve put all that onto the web, with the illustrations in this way.

It’s absolutely astounding how they’ve managed to survive in such pristine condition, considering what they were; they were just labels. I suppose people today do have labels from the 1950s and the 1940s and the 1930s, but to go back 180 years is absolutely astonishing.

But these have survived, and you can see the sorts of labels that Dickens stuck onto the pots, and the layout and the descriptions of those. The wording, illustration and layout of the labels are minutely described in the sworn statements and the similarities and differences of those produced by one branch of Warren’s compared with those produced by the other two.

They made accusations against each other of intent to mislead and defraud the public, to undermine the business of their rivals and to steal their customers. Advertisements, company agents sent out around the country, delivery men; they’re all described in the proceedings as part of the cutthroat business of winning customers from the opposition.

The pleadings throw light on another issue that has for years intrigued Dickensians: for just how long did Dickens suffer the drudgery at Warren’s? Dickens himself wrote: ‘I have no idea how long it lasted, whether for a year, or much more, or less.’ Biographers of Dickens, and that includes myself, have calculated that he started within days of his 12th birthday, in February 1824.

But the pleadings of George Lamert asserts that the blacking factory moved from its location in Hungerford Stairs before then, at the beginning of 1824, to this location in Chandos Street in Covent Garden. Now in my book ‘Charles Dickens’s Childhood’, I calculated that he remained at Chandos Street until March 1825, but the facts in the pleadings now make that impossible.

My calculation has been what Dickensians, for the last 20 years at least, have based their understanding of how long Dickens was there for. I’ve had to change my mind; it couldn’t have been March 1825 because Woodd and Lamert broke up in October 1824, so it couldn’t have gone on as long as I’ve said.

Based on the evidence in the pleadings, I would now suggest that young Charles began his life of drudgery at the age of 11, and not at the age of 12, in September 1823, and that he was at Hungerford Stairs from September 1823 to January 1824, about four months, and then the move to Chandos Street took place, and he was taken out by his father in September 1824. So that makes the year that he guessed that he was there for.

So, why is all this important? As an adult, Dickens recognised that the hardships that he endured in childhood, helped shape the sort of person that he grew up to be. He says this: he was resilient, he was self-reliant, he was determined. He observed and empathised with poor and vulnerable children.

As a result, starting in 1837 with ‘Oliver Twist’, it was Dickens who placed children at the centre of novels, making them important, making principal characters of them. Dickens’s books dealt with the damage done to children, their need for education, and the effect on them of poverty. He created the Artful Dodger, and the rest of Fagin’s children in ‘Oliver Twist’, then Smike and the other boys at Dotheboys Hall, in ‘Nicholas Nickleby’.

There was Little Nell in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’, Tiny Tim in ‘A Christmas Carol’, Pip in ‘Great Expectations’, Little Dorrit, the Gradgrind children in ‘Hard Times’, and most poignantly of all, David Copperfield, who, although the readers didn’t recognise it when the story was published, was a very close reflection of himself. Dickens’s time in a boot blacking factory was transformed into David Copperfield’s time in a wine bottling factory.

Nor was his concern for children confined to his novels; he gave speeches, he wrote articles for newspapers and letters to those with influence. He supported the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, and his near neighbour the Foundling Hospital. He spoke out forcibly against child employment, lack of education, bad housing, bad health and neglect.

So, these Chancery pleadings and the new information they contain go to the very heart of Dickens the man, and the books that he wrote. The Chancery pleadings dealt with in this article are rich in description of the blacking business, invaluable in the weight of information they carry, and in colourfully drawing out the characters of the main participants.

However, the proceedings that I’ve described at the beginning are just the beginning of the court case. It’s not until we examine the Master’s reports and certificates that the progress of the case can be discovered. On the 9 August 1827, one year after they brought the case, the court reported that William Edward Woodd had not progressed the proceedings, and costs amounting to £32, seven shillings and tuppence, were awarded to George Lamert.

Then, three months later, Robert Warren was the next to go to Chancery, requesting that injunctions be taken out against both George Lamert, and Woodd to prevent them continuing in business. The injunctions were granted, but they were countermanded two weeks later. The rivals all continued to compete for many years, but it was Robert Warren’s business that had the greatest staying power, becoming in 1913, the Chiswick Polish Company Ltd., the makers of Cherry Blossom Polish, and now subsumed into Reckitt Benckiser PLC.

The repercussions of the discovery of these documents will have an impact on all future biographies of Dickens, and on countless websites that like to tell the story of his hapless childhood. Some first steps in a reassessment of this period are explored in my article, ‘New light on Dickens and the blacking factory’, published last month in ‘The Dickensian’ [Journal of the Dickens Fellowship]. That is the completion of my talk.