Charles Dickens and the Blacking Factory
Date of publication: September 2011
The story of Charles Dickens’ childhood is dominated by a single narrative, mostly written down by Dickens himself, then edited, arranged and supplemented by John Forster. His time spent working at a blacking factory was a pivotal point in that story. The accuracy and truthfulness of his account of his own life was never seriously questioned or tested, reinforced or challenged. Neither of his parents, none of his uncles and aunts, nor any of his brothers and sisters wrote down their own recollections of the childhood of their famous relative. Or if they did, it hasn’t survived. Forster claimed a prodigious memory for his friend, but if it frequently failed him we wouldn’t know about it. And if Dickens chose to omit particular events or people from his narrative, or to adjust their impact and influence, then we are entirely in his hands – there has been nobody to challenge him. He exercised supreme control over the history of his own childhood and of his time at Warren’s Blacking.
Against this background Michael Allen’s discovery at The National Archives of documents from the Chancery Court in London, relating to disputes between the people who owned and ran the blacking factory where Dickens was employed and also between them and their rival Robert Warren, has opened up a wealth of information not previously available to us. Where Dickens’ young memory and understanding failed him these documents do, in many instances, correct and enhance the story. Allen’s account opens up the world of Warren’s Blacking, taking us beyond the knowledge and understanding of a young child. But more than that, Allen uncovers a great deal of new information about the Lamerte family and their long-lasting influence on Charles Dickens.