The Real Oliver Twist

After finding my orphaned great grandfather and his brother in the local workhouse I wanted to learn more about how life was for them.  I remembered from ‘A’ level history the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor; and it seemed that a six-year-old orphan could not in any scenario be painted as ‘undeserving’.  But did they know kindness?  Were they well-clothed and properly fed?  Was life constrained on all sides by rules?

Think of a small boy in a Victorian workhouse, and chances are you’ll end up with Oliver Twist.  This, then, was my first port of call.  But it wasn’t much help: of the 53 chapters in Dickens’s novel only six deal with his time in the workhouse, after which he sets off to London to find himself in the care of Fagin, Artful et. al.  (If you’ve not read it, I can tell you they’re all significantly less cuddly than they seem in Lionel Bart’s musical.)

More recently I came across John Waller’s book, The Real Oliver Twist, and felt sure this would provide me with the information I wanted.  Reviewed in The Guardian as ‘a compelling history of the lives of workhouse children in the industrial revolution’, I assumed it would be a collection of testimonies by former workhouse children, inspectors, etc., looking at different aspects of life inside the system.  But no.  It is in fact, the astonishing, heart-breaking but ultimately inspiring story of the actual, real Oliver Twist – the boy whose story is thought to have inspired Charles Dickens to write his novel.

His name was Robert Blincoe, and he was born around 1792, probably out of wedlock, in St Pancras, at that time a rural parish just outside London.  For some reason, he believed himself to be the illegitimate son of a vicar, and found comfort in that.  John Waller sets out his story in six parts, the first of which does deal with Robert’s workhouse years.  It helps to understand that the Poor Law system at this time was based upon each parish looking after their own.  The workhouse was legally obliged to feed, clothe and house workhouse inmates, but life was dictated by rules, and there was no room for the tenderness and kindness that would help a child to thrive.  Records show that the St Pancras workhouse, designed to accommodate about 50, in fact had 450 inmates by 1787, and half of these were children.  It was dirty, smelly, a breeding ground for disease, and shortly after Robert’s departure the buildings were declared unfit and perilous.  Nevertheless, Robert was adequately dressed and fed, receiving a pint of milk porridge for breakfast, bread and cheese for supper and a hot lunch which included meat four times a week – a far better diet than many struggling families outside the workhouse.  He was also taught basic literacy skills.

St Pancras, like every other parish, would do whatever required to offload paupers to other parishes.  In the case of pauper children they did this by way of apprenticeship.  This was not the fine apprenticeship system that resulted in a young man skilled in the ‘Art and Mystery’ of Tailoring, Carpentry, Physick, or other trade.  ‘Parish apprentices’, as the workhouse children were known, were offloaded to employers requiring their nimble fingers and little bodies to do whatever couldn’t be done by an adult.  The fact that often, their employment didn’t prepare them for meaningful work in adulthood was neither here nor there.  Chimney sweeping was a prime example, and the smaller the boy the better.  However, chimney sweeps were notorious for cruelty towards their young charges.  It was normal for a sweep’s boy to sleep on the floor of his master’s cellar, with only his tattered clothing and soot bag for warmth.  Often they would go barefoot, with bent legs, respiratory conditions; and one particularly horrific occupational hazard was scrotal cancer.  Six-year-old Robert was so desperate to leave the workhouse that when news broke of the impending visit of a group of master sweeps, he managed to sneak in alongside the selected group of slightly taller boys, hoping to be chosen.  He wasn’t, and was as devastated to be left behind as the chosen ones were to leave.

By the first decade of the 19th century, with the Industrial Revolution well under way, a new method of offloading workhouse children was found.  Parish apprentices would be carted off to work in the northern mills.  This was eventually how Robert left St Pancras, in the company of 31 other boys and girls.  What followed is dealt with in parts two and three of Waller’s book, when Robert and the other children were sent first to Lowdham Mill near Nottingham, and then to Litton Mill in Tideswell, Derbyshire.

There is only one way to describe the use of pauper children in the textile mills.  It was slave labour.  The children were forced to work up to sixteen hours a day, and sometimes all night.  There was no pay, except occasionally a penny for working even longer hours when deadlines required.  They were housed in an adjacent apprentices’ house, where they would return, exhausted, at the end of the day, often too tired to eat their woefully inadequate diet – porridge made with milk, or often with just water, and stale rye bread or oatcakes.  Barefoot, and wearing the coarsest of dusty, greasy clothing, the smallest children were forced to work as ‘scavengers’, picking up any loose cotton that fell to the floor below the fast-moving machines.  It goes without saying that this was dangerous work.  Yet all this was justified by the moneyed classes who seem genuinely to have believed that pauper workers were a race apart, unable even to feel physical pain as they themselves would.  One incident stands out:  One of the St Pancras girls, Mary Richards, got her apron caught in the loom shaft:

[Robert] saw her whirled round and round with the shaft – he heard the bones of her arms, legs, thighs, etc. successively snap asunder, crushed, seemingly, to atoms, as the machinery whirled her around and drew tighter and tighter her body within the works, her blood was scattered over the frame and streamed upon the floor, her head appeared dashed to pieces – at last, her mangled body was jammed in so fast, between the shafts and the floor, that the water being low and the wheels off the gear, it stopped the main shaft.  When she was extricated, every bone was found broken – her head dreadfully crushed – her clothes and mangled flesh were, apparently, inextricably mixed together, and she was carried off quite lifeless.

(from John Brown: A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, page 26)

Amazingly, Mary survived, but would remain severely disabled and unemployable for the rest of her life.  There was no compensation for workplace accidents; Mary was thrown on the scrap heap and would have to depend on payouts from the people of Lowdham parish.

Incidents of this kind were not uncommon.  Children might lose fingers or even arms in the machinery.  Even if they didn’t, they were subjected to severe beatings from the overlookers.  Robert’s entire body was almost permanently covered in bruises.  He was made to stand outside, naked, in the cold; was hung from a low beam over moving machinery; and had heavy hand vices and pincers hung from his ears.  By the age of 21, when he was released from his ‘apprenticeship’ he was knock-kneed, his lower legs splaying out to the sides.  Walking would be increasingly difficult as his life progressed. He was also small, with a body disproportionate to the size of his head; and his ears would forever bear the scars of the vices and pincers.

The difference between Robert and perhaps most parish apprentices is that he instinctively knew all this was wrong.  Throughout his fourteen years’ servitude he tried several times to escape and to alert the authorities to the sadistic torture and working conditions endured by the children.  Often, this resulted in even worse treatment for himself, yet he continued.  In fact Acts of Parliament did set down minimum conditions in the mills, but the mill owners were powerful: the country was becoming rich by their efforts, and so the means by which they achieved their output was respectfully overlooked.  Upon his release, Robert worked for short spells in several mills, always moving on because conditions were not to his liking.  Eventually, in his mid-twenties and now in Manchester, he decided the only way to take control of his life was to save every penny he earned, and set up his own waste cotton business.

So how do we know all this about Robert Blincoe?
Somehow his story reached John Brown, a writer of apparent independent means yet suffered from severe ‘melancholy’ and identified with the underdog.  After meeting Robert in 1822 he knew that here, in this small, twisted and scarred yet temperate rather than bitter man, he had found the ideal ‘poster boy’ for the ‘short time’ cause – the struggle to reduce the hours worked in factories and mills from 15 or 16 hours per day to twelve or even ten.  It’s to this nationwide campaign that Waller’s story – parts 4 and 5 – now moves.  Having interviewed Robert and worked his notes into a Memoir, John Brown passed his manuscript to Radical London publisher Richard Carlile.  By the time it was published in 1828 in Carlile’s Radical newspaper The Lion, John Brown had taken his own life.

Publication brought Robert’s story to hundreds of textile workers, artisans, trades unionists and Radical politicians.  As it was told and retold, many corroborated not only his account, but also added their own experiences to the cause.  Significantly, the testimony of all who worked under him evidenced that he never resorted to the violence and cruelty that had been his lot during his formative years.  In April 1832, Manchester trades union leader John Doherty printed an extract from the Memoir in his Radical newspaper, and later that year published the whole thing in pamphlet form.  You can read A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, An Orphan Boy; Sent from the Workhouse of St Pancras, London, at seven years of age, to endure the Horrors of a Cotton Mill, through his infancy and youth, with a minute detail of his sufferings, being the first memoir of the kind published. By John Brown, in its entirety here.

Robert Blincoe was now the poster boy not only for the campaign highlighting working conditions for children, but also for factory reform and the short time cause.  Over the following years the tide started to turn against the cruellest excesses of capitalists and mill owners.  In April 1833, as part of the Commission for Inquiring into the Employment of Children in Factories, four teams of commissioners, each comprising two civil servants and a physician, were sent to the country’s main industrial cities.

Photo taken circa 1858 of man aged about 60.

One of these commissioners was Dr Bisset Hawkins; and it was in Manchester’s York Hotel that he sat with ‘small manufacturer’ Robert Blincoe to hear his story first-hand.  After learning so much of him through the over-blown language of John Brown, reading his own words for the first time, noting his gentle manner and ‘hearing’ his, by now, Lancashire accent, was like meeting an old friend.  It would not be until 8th June, 1847, though, that the Ten Hours Bill finally passed into law.  The photograph, left, was taken around 1858. Robert Blincoe died in 1860, having secured his children positions far exceeding the offspring of his former, cruel, and now bankrupt, employers.  (Yaay! Go Robert!)

Charles’s Dickens’s Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, was published in instalments in 1837-39.  Although there is no absolute proof that Dickens had read Robert Blincoe’s Memoir, it’s almost certain that he did.  There is the same gentle, innately good boy who rises from the workhouse to a better life, the same blood connection (never proven in Robert’s case) to a higher class of person (given the Victorian belief in the innate badness of paupers, this was the only believable explanation for Oliver’s goodness).  Also included is a narrow escape from a master sweep looking to take on an apprentice.  What is absolutely certain, however, is that Fanny Trollope’s The life and adventures of Michael Armstrong, the factory boy, penned after visiting the Manchester factories in 1832 and taking away a copy of the Memoir, was heavily based on Robert Blincoe’s life.

John Waller’s work is magnificent in its breadth of detail.  Using John Brown’s Memoir as his starting point, he is able to verify almost every statement using parish and other records, also corroborated by testimonies of other victims of the system.  Alongside Robert Blincoe’s biography, he also explores the life of John Brown and other key players in the Radical and factory movements.  As the story moves from the personal to the wider campaign for improvement of workers’ conditions, this, too, is fully discussed.  (I wish I could have read it all those years ago when I was doing my history ‘A’ level!)  The book will be of interest to anyone looking to understand more about the Poor Law system, parish apprentices, the Industrial Revolution, conditions in textile mills (one of my interests) and ultimately the success of the campaigns for improvement of working conditions.

It didn’t of course, give me the information I wanted about life as a workhouse orphan in the 1870s and 1880s.  The search for that continues!


Note: The book seems to be out of print, but very inexpensive copies are available second hand from Amazon Marketplace.  Click the image above.

1 thought on “The Real Oliver Twist

  1. Pingback: Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved | English Ancestors

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