John Dickens was born in London on 21 August 1785, the son of William Dickens (1719-1785) and Elizabeth Ball (1745-1824), two important servants to John Crewe, a rich Cheshire landowner. William Dickens died two months after John was born he was raised by his mother who continued to work for the Crewe household. The Crewe family used their contacts to help John get a position as a clerk in the Royal Navy Pay Office, initially at Somerset House in London and from 1807 at Portsmouth in Hampshire.
On 13 June 1809 at St Mary-le-Strand, London, he married Elizabeth Barrow, with whom he had eight children. It was whilst in Portsmouth that Charles was born. John had been introduced to Elizabeth Barrow by her brother, Thomas Culliford Barrow, when the two men were working at the Navy Pay Office in Somerset House. He was later transferred to London and then to Chatham, returning to live in Camden Town in London in 1822 to work in Somerset House.
John Dickens and Elizabeth Barrow had eight children from their marriage, although two died in infancy.
- Frances (Fanny) Elizabeth Dickens (1810–1848).
- Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-1870).
- Alfred Allen Dickens (1814).
- Letitia Mary Dickens (1816–1893).
- Harriet Ellen Dickens (1819–1824).
- Frederick William Dickens (1820-1868).
- Alfred Lamert Dickens (1822-1860).
- Augustus Dickens (1827-1866).
John Dickens found it difficult to provide for his growing family on his income. His pay had been cut when he was transferred from Portsmouth to London but he carried on spending at a rate that was more than his income. Soon his debts had become so severe that all the household goods were sold in an attempt to pay his bills.
Unable to satisfy his creditors, on 20 February 1824 John Dickens was imprisoned in the Marshalsea Prison for debts owed to a baker. He was released on 28 May of that year but only after making an undertaking of payment for his creditors from a legacy left to him from his Mother. Elizabeth Dickens left her son £450 in her will but even this did not completely satisfy his debts.
Charles Dickens suffered the consequences of his Fathers profligate spending habits long into his career. In March 1839 he travelled to Exeter, Devon and found a cottage for his parents to stay in, a mile out from the city and effectively banishing them from the temptations of London. John and Elizabeth lived here, in the then village of Alphington, from April 1839 to October 1842.
John Dickens continued to write letters begging for money to his friends, publishers and bankers. He started to sell samples of his son’s writing and signature to cash in on his fame. Exasperated, at one point Charles Dickens resorted to taking advertisements out in London newspapers explaining that only debts from himself and his wife would be honoured.
Eventually, his parents returned from Devon, the problem still unresolved as recounted a few months later in a letter from February 1843 that his Father had gone
‘ravin mad with conscious willany. The thought of him besets me, night and day; and I really do not know what is to be done with him. It is quite clear that the more we do, the more outrageous and audacious he becomes’.
In 1845 Charles helped to get his Father a job on his periodical, The Daily News as editor. John Dickens, now a sixty-year-old man, was given a new lease of life with the appointment. He now had a regular steady income and a job he appears to have thoroughly enjoyed and excelled at. He remained at the The Daily News for six years until his death.
John Dickens suffered from urethral problems in the latter part of his life. Charles recounted the horrors of an operation performed on his father on 25 March 1851 and upon seeing him:
‘I saw him directly afterwards – his room , a slaughter house of blood. He was wonderfully cheerful and strong-hearted’.