How to Be a Decent Person: Charles Dickens's Letter of Advice to His Youngest Son – Brain Pickings


Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, on February 7th, in 1812. He loved reading and had a positive childhood. John Dickens, his father, was a Navy Pay Officer, making a good wage. Despite this, the family was poor because of overspending and incurring a lot of debt. By the time Charles Dickens was twelve, his father had been sent to prison for not being able to repay his debts. His mother (Elizabeth) and seven brothers and sisters left their home, in hopes of a better life.

As eldest son, Charles was sent to work in a shoe polish factory. His job involved putting labels on pots. For this he was paid six shillings a week. The conditions were horrible. He was often cold and lonely while working long hours.

John Forster, author of the biography The Life of Charles Dickens quoted him telling about his life in the blacking factory:

“The blacking warehouse was the last house on the left hand side of the way at old Hungerford stairs. It was a crazy tumbledown old house abutting, of course, on the River and literally overrun with rats. It’s wainscoted rooms and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place rise up visibly before me as if I were there again. The counting house was on the first floor looking over the coal barges and the river. There was a recess in it in which I was to sit and work.

“My work was to cover the pots of paste blacking; first with a piece of oil paper; and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label, and then go on again with more pots.”

After three years of hard work, he was lucky to be able to return to school. Upon graduating, Dickens became a journalist. He worked with ‘The Mirror of Parliament’ and the ‘True Sun.’ In 1833, when he had learned shorthand, he started working for the ‘Morning Chronicle’ as a parliamentary journalist. Here he had the opportunity to publish more creative works, under the pseudonym ‘Boz.’

In 1836, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth. Eventually they had ten children. In that same year, he wrote the first edition of the ‘Pickwick Papers’ which quickly became popular. He wrote numerous editions, inspired by his travels around England and his own experiences. Many of his characters were named after people he was acquainted with.

Much of Dickens’ writings were inspired by his boyhood experiences working as a child, and built awareness in those who had the power to make changes. The bad times Dickens experienced gave him much to write about because he was able to understand the conditions under which poor people lived and worked. The compassion with which he wrote made him an effective advocate for children.

[1] “Charles Dickens,” History Crunch,


This has been Part 15 of the Series A LIFE WORTH LIVING. Read Part 16 – Dickens the Writer.