In England in the late 1820s to the early 1830s, most factories used large numbers of child laborers. With the economy weakened by ongoing warfare and reduced trade with Europe, Europe could not pull out of a depression. In the industrial cities, business closures left many unemployed. The still-functioning factory owners discouraged organizing for better working conditions and higher wages for both child and adult workers. The government response to the crisis was the passage of the 1834 Poor Laws. Among other provisions, these laws established workhouses and made them mandatory residences of all those who would receive food and money (alms) from the church parishes. The appalling living conditions kept many people from claiming this public assistance, but many others had no options.
Oliver Twist, which was completed in 1838, was inspired in part by the Poor Laws and related media coverage of workhouse conditions.
Charles Dickens, who was born in 1812, had spent his whole life amidst the wartime atmosphere and postwar economic crisis. Although his father had a relatively secure job as a naval clerk, even he was unemployed for part of Charles’s childhood. Dickens learned firsthand about dreadful child labor conditions because he went to work at age 12 during a period when his father was imprisoned for debt. Fortunately, his father was released. The boy was able to resume his studies, but the indelible impression of these experiences stayed with him as an adult.
After entering journalism as a court reporter, he began writing fiction alongside newspaper accounts. His own experiences and his knowledge of current events fueled his interest in the hard lives of the poor. His genuine empathy for working children combined with his tremendous talent for creating colorful characters and intricate plots resulted in this now-classic novel.