The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday
It was a time of great riches. It was a time of great want. Riches from the bounty arriving at the London docks daily from the far-flung Empire. Want from Famine and relocations.
It was a time when the soot-blackened mills and factories used up human lives as quickly as they did coal and ore.
It was a time of great social change, and great social strife.
It was a time when a hard-working, honest man with a dead wife and a son of uncommon cleverness could not find a position better situated than as a dustman.
It was a time when such a man was left unable to pay for schooling for his boy who so clearly deserved it.
The man was a dustman, one of the lowest stations in the capital, although it must be said, much preferred to those of mudlark or cesspool-sewerman. He spent his days pushing a cart through lanes and alleys collecting ashes from the fireplaces and stoves of the parish of St. Mary-le-Bow. When the cart was full, he would deliver its contents to a waiting barge on the riverbank, and return to his rounds.
The man’s name was Nicodemus Boffin, a rather fancy sounding name for a dustman. Truth be told, since his son had been born, named—his late wife had insisted—after her husband, he went mainly by the nickname “Old Noddy” to prevent confusion.
On this day, Old Noddy climbed the slope up from the riverside in the dying evening light. When he reached a small door of indeterminable colour, he stopped, beat his coat to remove at least some of the ashes, and went inside.
“Hello, Dad!” cried the boy, jumping up from the hearth where he had been reading by the dim light of the coal grate.
“Nicodemus, me boy. How was your day? And what is making that delicious smell?”
“A bit of stew, Dad. I remember how Mum used to make it.”
“Ah, that’s a good boy. And I have some good news for ye, I do. But let’s tuck into that stew first.” Nicodemus poured some of the soup into a bowl for his father. It was more broth than stew, but he had been able to buy a couple of potatoes and some carrots and even a bit of marrow to help flavor the stock.
When his father had slaked his immediate hunger, he announced, “Well, Nicodemus, lately I’ve been earning a bit more than usual, and I’ve saved up enough to send you to school. Maybe not for the whole term, but it’ll be a start.”
“Oh, Dad, thank ye,” said the boy. “But won’t it be more work for you?”
“Don’t you worry about that, son. It’s my decision. You’re to go to school and get an education. That’s the way out of the dust heaps, ye see, Nicodemus. I’m just sorry that you haven’t been able to attend regular, but with your mother’s doctor bills and all…” Noddy went silent; both he and his son remembered her last struggling days, wracked with coughing and nothing the doctor could do for her.
“I’ve talked with the schoolmaster at the parish school and the new term starts in two weeks. You’ll be able to begin then.”
Nicodemus had attended school before, but only sporadically when his father’s meagre earnings allowed. Still, he had begun to learn to read, enough so that he continued to teach himself by reading anything he could get his hands on, from cast-off newspapers to worn books he borrowed from the rag-and-bone man.
When Nicodemus was able to attend school, he soaked up knowledge like a sponge. His irregular attendance meant that he was in classes with younger boys. They often taunted him as being slow, but only until he started answering the schoolmaster’s questions and they could see that he was usually the smartest boy in the class.
The two weeks passed with Nicodemus becoming increasingly anxious. The day finally came and he walked into the school and presented himself to the schoolmaster.
“Ah, yes, Mr. Boffin. Please take a seat. I believe the last time you attended you were in the fifth-year class?”
“That’s correct, sir.”
“And when was that, Mr. Boffin?”
“About six months ago now, sir. Before my mother…” he stopped , wondering if he had said too much, or not enough.
“Yes, Mr. Boffin. I know your situation.” The schoolmaster stood over Nicodemus’s desk looking down at him. “Many of your classmates have situations of their own. Do not make the mistake of assuming you will be treated any different because of yours.”
“Yes, sir. I do not, sir.”
The schoolmaster strode back to the front of the room and picked up a piece of chalk. “Now, gentlemen, let’s begin today’s lesson on arithmetic.”
Over the next few weeks, it became obvious to the schoolmaster that Nicodemus was advanced far beyond his comrades in the fifth-year class, and the six-year as well. By the time he had reached the middle of the term, he had caught up to where he should rightly be for his age in the seventh-year class.
While he was impressing his schoolmaster with his brilliance in his lessons, Nicodemus was oblivious to his uniqueness. The boy was naturally curious about the world and learning came so easily to him that he never noticed that he was any different from the other boys in the class. This innocence made the taunts he sometimes endured from some of the other boys baffling to him, even as they sometimes hurt.
Nicodemus’s best friend in school was Roger Dawkins, who while not nearly as bright as Nicodemus, more than made up for it with loyalty and good humour.
“Don’t let those dullards get ye down, Nicodemus. They’ll never amount to nothing, they won’t. They don’t know what they’re talking about when they badger you. They’re just burned that you’re the cleverest one in the class.”
“I know I shouldn’t let it bother me, Roger, but it’s hard to keep my chin up sometimes.”
Seeing Nicodemus’s progress in school and his obvious love of learning, was his father’s greatest joy. How did we ever deserve such a son, he thought. Why did God give him to us, knowing that his mother would die and when I can barely support him? Surely there must be some reason behind this.
However, Noddy’s joy was to be short-lived. At supper that night, he gave his son the bad news.
“I’m sorry, son. I’m working as hard as I can, but the brickworks aren’t paying what they did for dust, and there’s little chance that the price will come back, it looks like. I’m afraid I can’t pay for your school any more. If there were any way to pay, I would, Nicodemus. No one deserves a proper education more than you do, lad. You can still go to school, but it’ll be at the Field Lane School.
Nicodemus had heard about this school from Roger. The Field Lane School was one of the “Ragged Schools” set up to teach the children of the poor. Roger said that the students were hardly taught anything and the classrooms were crowded and dirty.
“Don’t make me go there, Dad. Roger knows some boys that go there and he says that it’s like a workhouse. The students don’t learn anything and the schoolmasters whip them.”
“Now don’t worry about what Roger says, son. You attend school there for a year and I’ll try to get you fixed up in some sort of situation by then. Maybe with the parish.”
Nicodemus saw his dreams of an education disappear like a cinder that pops out of the fire and fades out as it falls to the ground. “That’s all right, Dad. I’m sure something will work out.” He hugged his father, “Good night.” He climbed up into the loft and his bed.
“Good night, son,” said Noddy, and the room quieted as he stared into the small fire on the hearth and thought. Sometime later, Noddy heard Nicodemus crying into his pillow up in the loft. His son’s gasping sobs broke his heart.
The next day, his last day at school, Nicodemus thanked his teacher, who told him sincerely that he hoped he would see him back in school soon. Nicodemus walked slowly home, passing shops with goods and foods that he knew he and his father could never afford. He passed the bookshop, its windows arrayed with the latest offerings, realizing that they were now out of his reach. Nicodemus turned off Cheapside down into a small court which led to a narrower alley to the door of indeterminable colour. He entered their tiny room with a loft that passed for a home, and wondered if he’d ever leave it. Nicodemus sat by the small window and started to read a book with a greasy cover and loose pages, but gave up on it, tossed the book to the floor, and climbed up into his bed in the loft.
He woke up in the dark, and wondered what time it was. “Dad?” he called from the loft. No answer. He climbed down and opened the door. The street outside was dark and quiet. No sounds of traffic or cries of mongers reached down the alley from Cheapside. It must be late, he thought, at least nine o’clock. Where was his father? He was always home for supper, he thought.
Wondering if he should wait up for his father, or go in search of him, Nicodemus wavered at the doorstep. Finally, he pulled on his coat, lit a lantern, and went out into the dark alleyway.
Noddy had just finished working for the day, a day that had lasted from dawn to well after dark, hoping that he’d be able to scrape together enough money to keep paying for his son’s schooling. But when his cartloads of dust and ashes were weighed, his earnings came up short. In fact, the price had gone down even since the week before. He trudged home, knowing that his son would start wondering where he was soon. Only when he heard the Bow Bells chime nine, did he realize just how late it was. Nicodemus will be worried, he thought. I worked my tired bones all day and now I’ve worried my poor son. What a failure I am.
One of the wheels of his ash cart caught in a loose cobble and the cart stopped suddenly. Noddy tried pushing, but the wheel was stuck. He threw the handles of the cart down in frustration and sunk to the ground.
“I can’t even push a cart. How am I to raise a son? Mary, why did you leave me? Why didn’t you stay with us?” Noddy cried to no one but himself in the cold dark street.
But there was one other who heard Noddy Boffin’s lament. Just at the edge of the circles of light cast by the gas lamps along the street walked a man. He was not dressed finely, but neither was his clothing worn and threadbare, which in Cheapside marked him as better than average. When he heard Noddy’s cries, and saw him sitting slumped behind his cart, he came over.
“Friend, are you in trouble? Do you need assistance?”
“No,” said Noddy. “Don’t bother yourself, sir.”
“No bother, I assure you. Please, if there is any way I can help…”
“You can help yourself by getting off the street and on your way home, sir. A gentleman such as yourself shouldn’t be out in this neighbourhood at this hour.”
For the first time, Noddy looked up at the man. “Do I know you, sir? Your face is familiar to me.”
“My name is Dickens, Charles Dickens,” said the man, extending his hand.
“Mr. Dickens!” said Noddy, jumping up so he could look at the man directly. “Pleased to meet you, sir. I must say that your stories are my son’s favourites. He reads them to me in the evenings.”
“Thank you, Mr…?”
“Boffin, sir, Noddy Boffin.”
“Boffin, what an interesting name. Perhaps I’ll use it as a character name. If you don’t mind, of course.”
“Oh, my son Nicodemus would be so tickled, Mr. Dickens.”
“And is your son at university?”
“Oh, no, sir, he’s just in seventh-year at school,” said Noddy, and then remembering, “At least he was until today.”
“Why, sir? Why until today?”
Noddy then explained to Mr. Dickens his job as a dustman, the recent loss of his wife, and his clever son who could no longer attend school.
Charles Dickens, long known as a champion of the down-trodden classes, listened to Noddy for quite some time and for several moments after, he did not speak. He seemed to be weighing something in his mind. Finally he spoke.
“Mr. Boffin, I am impressed by your honesty and openness. I believe you when you tell me that your son is uncommonly clever. And you have my condolences for your loss.” Dickens paused for a second out of respect. “As it turns out, I am of the acquaintance of a printer and bookbinder, Mr. George Dalrymple, who is need of an apprentice at this time”, announced Mr. Dickens. “Permit me to inquire with him. If he is agreeable, I will bring young Nicodemus around to his shop to meet him.”
“I couldn’t pay a premium to the master though, Mr. Dickens”
“As it happens, Mr. Dalrymple owes me a favour, as well as a tidy sum of money. I believe that he may be agreeable to forgo a premium, should Nicodemus prove a hard-working apprentice.
“Oh, that would be splendid, sir. Your kindness is much appreciated.”
And so it came to pass that through the beneficence of Mister Charles Dickens, young Nicodemus Boffin, the uncommonly clever son of an honest and hardworking dustman, became apprenticed to Mr. Dalrymple the bookbinder.