The Real Oliver Twist:
Robert Blincoe: A Life That Illuminates a Violent Age

John Waller

Icon Books 2006
A book review by Danny Yee © 2009
Orphan workhouse boy turned mill worker Robert Blincoe quite likely was the model for Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, but Waller doesn't make too much of that in his biography The Real Oliver Twist. Nor does he focus narrowly on Blincoe — largely known to us through his memoirs, as reworked by journalist John Brown — but rather uses his life as a way of exploring the broader social history of child labour and working conditions.

In 1799 Blincoe was taken from St Pancras orphanage to Lowdham Mill near Nottingham, and then in 1803 to a brutally run mill near Litton. He struggled to survive and to maintain his dignity, attempting to escape from Lowdham at one point and attempting to contact a local magistrate at Litton. Here, as in many other workplaces, Peel's Health and Morals of Apprentices Act of 1802 had little effect.

When Blincoe finished his indenture, he struggled to find work as a spinner and did a stint in debtors' prison following a business failure. He recovered from this, however, and reached a comfortable and secure old age, with a settled family and a respectable position in society. His son even went to Cambridge University and became a vicar.

Blincoe also became politically active, involved with the campaign to limit child labour both as an example, following the publication of his memoir by Richard Carlile, and directly. Waller uses this as a base to describe the agitation behind the 1823 Reform Bill and the "short time" campaign.

There are elements of dramatisation in The Real Oliver Twist, but Waller stays close to his sources and makes it clear when he is speculating, for example about Blincoe's thoughts and route when he finally left Litton. He draws on a broad range of sources other than Blincoe's Memoir, including government inquiries, parish records, and the memoirs of other workers, as well as the secondary literature on English working life.

The Real Oliver Twist is a serious work of history, with detailed references as well as a bibliography, but it is not at all dry. A lively tour of the life and working conditions of some of the poorest inhabitants of early 19th century England, it would make an excellent text to use in schools alongside Oliver Twist.

September 2009

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%T The Real Oliver Twist
%S Robert Blincoe: A Life That Illuminates a Violent Age
%A Waller, John
%I Icon Books
%D 2006
%O paperback, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 1840467274
%P 468pp