Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit—when it came to writing powerful stories about the hardships and injustices of Victorian England, no one was better than Charles Dickens. But if it hadn’t been for his own father’s hardships, Dickens might never have written these and many other powerful stories.
Debtor’s prisons were a common way to deal with unpaid debt in the 19th century; people who owed money would be thrown into these dank, barbaric places until their families could pay off the debts. Victorian London was full of them, each one worse than the last. One of the most famous was Marshalsea on the south bank of the Thames. It may have looked like Oxford on the outside, but on the inside it was an extortion racket. Prisoners were crammed into tiny rooms, sometimes for decades, and exposed to the most horrible conditions. In 1729, 300 inmates starved to death in a three-month period, and 8 to 10 prisoners died every day in warmer weather.
It was here that Charles Dickens’ father was condemned in 1824 due to a debt he owed to a baker. Charles was twelve years old at the time and was forced to quit school and take a job in a factory to help support the family and pay off his father’s debt. He experienced firsthand the plight of child laborers as he watched his father languish in the most deplorable conditions.
These two incidents would not only stay with Charles his entire life, but would become central themes in many of his works. Dickens often depicted debtor’s prisons in his novels, most notably Little Dorrit in which Amy Dorrit’s father was imprisoned in Marshalsea. And of course the plight of children is a major theme, the most famous being his thinly veiled autobiography, David Copperfield.