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Charles Dickens's Mysterious Childhood

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The hype about Charles Dickens's secret late-life love affair and the new movie The Invisible Woman is everywhere. But parts of Dickens's own childhood seems to have been curiously invisible too - so well-hidden that they are only now coming to light.

Directly after his first novel, Pickwick Papers, came Oliver Twist, one of Dickens's most memorable books, the tale of the workhouse-boy who asked for more. But pick up a biography of Charles Dickens written at any time in the past 150 years - and you'll find a remarkable thing. None seems to have registered that for almost five years (and five years is a significant chunk of a childhood) young Dickens lived cheek-by-jowl with a major London workhouse.

If biographers mention the street at all (and most of them don't) it's only in passing. Again and again, they discuss the great novelist's birthplace in Portsmouth, and his later childhood in Kent. But the interval between these places - a full two years spent in London, is almost always missing. And later, when they're explaining young Dickens's rise to literary fame, the same authors pass from his schooldays near Camden Town to his work as a young legal clerk and newshound, taking a route from Camden Town to Gray's Inn. Where he was living at the time seems immaterial. Yes, you've guessed: the same street! So, why is the house by the workhouse so little known?

One reason, it seems, is that Dickens was good at secrets, and he didn't want it to be known. He burned heaps of his own papers and correspondence. The terrible period in his childhood - when his father was incarcerated in the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison and Dickens himself was a factory boy in a shoe-polish manufactory - is known to us because years later he divulged it to his friend John Forster. The entire searing experience only became known from Forster's great biography, published after the novelist's death in 1870. This was a family silence: Dickens's own children knew nothing about it. And what does Forster say about the street by the workhouse? Merely this:

"When his father was again brought up by his duties to London from Portsmouth, they went into lodgings in Norfolk-street, Middlesex-hospital; and it lived also in the child's memory that they had come away from Portsea in the snow. Their home, shortly after, was again changed..."

So the downplaying of Norfolk Street in Dickens's life-story can be traced directly to Forster, and through him to Dickens himself. The street name is mentioned, but the fact that his home overlooked a major hospital and was a few doors from a major workhouse at just the time Dickens was learning to read - when he was between three and five years old - is passed over as if it's unimportant. Forster doesn't mention the crucial second - and longer - period there, which was immediately before Dickens started writing as 'Boz'. Norfolk Street was where Dickens lived with his parents between the ages of 16 and 19, where he studied for his famous shorthand skills, and where he was living when he got his first reader's ticket at the British Museum. Norfolk Street was the address on his first calling card. Dickens grew up there.

These gaps in his biography are extraordinary: nearly a quarter of his life before Dickens started writing seems to have been airbrushed out. And with those key five years goes an important understanding of what he might have witnessed there, and of Dickens's London roots. Dickens is the invisible boy: the boy who was born to Londoners, and became a Londoner himself, but whose London origins have been missed.

Now, though, things are changing. The Dickens scholar Michael Allen noticed the first period in Norfolk Street in his fine book Charles Dickens's Childhood and it was he who discovered that Dickens's father was born locally. I made the discovery that the workhouse was almost next-door in 2010. The story is told in my book Dickens & the Workhouse, just out now in paperback.

It's likely that Dickens was cagey about Norfolk Street for a number of reasons. Norfolk Street was an unfashionable part of London - not exactly a slum, but a shabby district, on an important boundary - between the great London parishes of St Pancras and St Marylebone. His parents' lodgings were above a grocer's shop. Both these great parishes had classy districts, but the boundary between them was not among them. Victorian society, especially in London, was deeply class-conscious. Any street with a workhouse in it was socially doomed.

Secondly, it looks as if the family had to leave Norfolk Street in a hurry. In 1831, Dickens's father was suddenly threatened with another period of imprisonment for debt, which was only very narrowly avoided. Exactly what happened isn't known, but it might have involved a very public humiliation in the street, like the arrival of bailiffs, or even a locally notorious escape over the rooftops. Young Dickens's calling cards - which no doubt he'd had printed at great expense when he thought the family was settled - abruptly became worthless.

A further reason Dickens might have wanted the street to disappear from his biography is that he may have taken characters and plots for his sketches and novels from there. The plot of Oliver Twist, for example, pivots on the position of a pawnbroker's shop, visible from the women's ward of a workhouse. There was indeed exactly such a pawnbroker's in Norfolk Street. One of Dickens's famous Sketches by Boz features a dancing master and his seductive daughter trapping an innocent young man into a 'breach of promise' case. I found that there was indeed a dancing school at number 10 Norfolk Street while the Dickens family was living in the house. I also found a man called Dan Weller living opposite. His name is not Sam, but how do we meet Sam Weller in Pickwick? He is cleaning the shoes of the sleeping patrons of a London coaching-inn, and seems to know everything about the owners of each pair from the appearance of their shoes. What did Dan Weller of Norfolk Street do for a living? He was a shoemaker and mender.

Lots of small connections like this leapt out once I started to look at the area in detail. The best was a discovery made the week before my manuscript was due for submission to Oxford University Press. Right opposite the workhouse there stood a tallow-chandler's shop. (Tallow was a kind of animal fat that was used by poorer people in place of beeswax for lighting). And the name painted up on the great board over the shop window? The same (differently spelled) as the terrifying ruffian who murders Nancy in Oliver Twist: William Sykes.

Dickens would have seen the parish beadle Mr. Bumble passing by in his regalia, he would have seen hungry people looking in through the grocer's shop window, pauper funerals arriving, and families on their way to the workhouse before being separated, perhaps for ever (the Poor Law divided husband from wife, and sent children away). All the cruel hardships of deep poverty would have been a common sight there.

Yet it's understandable that biographers missed the warehouse. For a start Norfolk Street has been renamed - it has now been absorbed by the longer Cleveland Street. Verifying anything about the house would have involved getting hold of detailed maps. The historic maps of Marylebone that show the house-numbers display only the streets in that one parish. Nobody who had got as far as finding Dickens's family lodgings would have been able to see from one of these maps that there was a workhouse almost next door, because the parish boundary fell between them. The workhouse stood over the border in St Pancras. Its site appears on the Marylebone map as a blank.

The importance of Norfolk Street came to light when the Workhouse itself was threatened with demolition in 2010. I was asked by local people to help save it, and - just ahead of the council meeting that was scheduled to agree the demolition - realized that this was probably the most famous workhouse in the world.

We managed to prevent the demolition, and last year a kind Canadian sponsor funded a London blue plaque for Dickens's old home. Now we are seeking a wealthy philanthropist who would like to help us save the workhouse for posterity. Any ideas?

Ruth Richardson is the author of Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor [Oxford University Press, $19.95].