Blencowe Families' Association Newsletter Vol. 20 No. 3 September 2005

Robert Blincoe - the Real Oliver Twist?

It is gratifying to learn one is related to a world famous figure, even if the figure is fictional. Okay, Oliver Twist would not have been my first choice, but I am happy to take what I can get. The theory is that Charles Dickens used a contemporary book, The Memoirs of Robert Blincoe, to flush out the early chapters of Oliver Twist. A number of academic studies have suggested a relation between Twist and Blincoe, but the idea is taken up with gusto in a new work, The Real 0liver Twist by the Australia-based historian John Waller. The chimney-sweep incident appears in both books, though with radically different emphasis (the foolhardy Blincoe actually wanted to go up chimneys, the far wiser Twist resists). But the chief reason for believing that Dickens used Blincoe's memoirs is that it was the only first-hand account of life in a workhouse. Dickens always did his research and, indeed, the book was mentioned in parliament at the time that Dickens was a parliamentary reporter.

John Waller's book paints a vivid picture of an orphan's life at the dawn of industrialisation, giving a far fuller account of Robert Blincoe's adulthood than the original Memoirs ... It is thrilling to learn that an ancestor was so heavily involved in the fight for shorter hours and children's rights, and astonishing to read that his picture was carried on banners at political demonstrations. Waller's rather ingenious strategy is to re-read Blincoe's memoirs in the light of Oliver Twist. He notes that in the Dickens' novel, Twist is able to resist the temptations of Fagin's den because he comes of good stock. Waller shows how widespread this faith in 'good blood' was in the early nineteenth century. Robert Blincoe, on the flimsiest of evidence, always believed he was the orphan child of a vicar and seems to have gained his moral strength from this conviction. But is Blincoe the real Oliver Twist? As Waller points out, his memoirs undoubtedly provided the backbone of another best-selling novel, Life and Adventure of Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy, by Frances Trollope, mother of Anthony. If Trollope's book was remembered today, then perhaps we would have had The Real Michael Armstrong. But I am growing fond of Oliver.

The Real Oliver Twist: the story of Robert Blincoe, by John Waller (Icon Books)

[John Waller wrote to thank me for putting him in touch with Edward Blincoe when he started his project. If you want to know more about the book look at <> and by way of <> you can buy a copy post-free, world-wide Jack B.]

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Blencowe Families' Association   Vol. 20 No. 3 September 2005
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updated: 15 March 2006