I love local museums and can’t help popping into one each time I’m in a new town. And so when I got the chance to get involved in research and copy writing for the current exhibition at the Cuming Museum (Walworth Road, London) I was pretty excited. It’s going to end in a few weeks (24 Nov 2012) so I’m running out of time to write about it.
I knew very little about Charles Dickens’ life before I started the research for this exhibition, but it turns out that the three months of living in Lant Street, Borough, had a major impact on his life and his writing. At age 12 Dickens’ father was imprisoned up the road at the Marshalsea prison and Dickens was taken out of school to work at a blacking factory pasting labels on bottles while living as a lodger in Lant Street to be closer to his family. He kept this period in his life largely a secret, but he did confide in his close friend John Forster, and is recorded by him as saying:
“I know that I worked, from morning to night, with common men and boys, a shabby child…I know that I have lounged about the streets, insufficiently and unsatisfactorily fed. I know that, but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond.”
It is easy to see how his empathy for poor children and his future renown as a social reformer may have emanated from this period in his life. And experiences from this period appear frequently in his novels. Lant Street and the family he stayed with found their way into Pickwick Papers and Old Curiosity Shop, life in Marshalsea Prison is described at length in Little Dorrit, his experiences working in the factory appear in David Copperfield and one of his co-workers there was called Bob Fagin, who was immortalised in one of Dickens’ most popular novels, Oliver Twist.
It’s not just because I was involved in it, but the way the whole exhibition has been curated sets it apart from most, it really is of a standard that any large, highly funded museum would be proud of and I am proud to have been part of it myself.