Robert Blincoe

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Robert Blincoe (c. 1792–1860) was an English author and former child labourer. He became famous during the 1830s for his popular autobiography, A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, an account of his childhood spent in a workhouse. However, there are some doubts about whether this detailed observation of Blincoe's early life can be considered 'autobiography'. According to John Waller, in his book The Real Oliver Twist, his life story was told to a John Brown, who wrote the manuscript of a biography of Blincoe before committing suicide later the same year. But Brown had given his manuscript to a friend, Robert Carlile, who published the resulting book, A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, in five episodes in his magazine The Lion in 1832.

Early life[edit]

Robert Blincoe was born around 1792. By 1796 he was an orphan and living in the St. Pancras workhouse in London. The fate of his parents is unknown. At the age of six he was sent to work as a chimney boy, an assistant of a chimney sweeper, but his master soon returned him to the workhouse.

In August 1799, at the age of seven, he was sold to work as a mule scavenger in the Gonalston Mill, a cotton mill of C.W. and F. Lambert in Lowdham, near Nottingham. According to his later memoirs, he was one of the 80 seven-year-old children the St. Pancras workhouse sold to "indenture" as parish apprentices. They travelled there in wagons for five days. Ostensibly they were supposed to be schooled to better their lives, but that never happened.

Blincoe and the others lived in a dormitory, and their food consisted of porridge and black bread. They worked 14 hours a day, six days a week. Blincoe's first job was to pick up loose cotton waste from the spinning frames when the machine was working, even in the face of injury. He lost half a finger. Overseers beat the children on the slightest provocation. Blincoe later stated that he contemplated suicide many times. When Blincoe ran away and tried to flee to London, a tailor who sometimes worked for the mill recognized him and dragged him back.

In 1802, when Lowdham Mill was closed, Blincoe and others were sent to Litton Mill in Derbyshire. Treatment remained the same.

Life later on[edit]

Blincoe completed his effective apprenticeship in stock weaving in 1813 and worked as an adult worker until 1817. He then left to found his own cotton-spinning business. In 1819, he married a woman named Martha.


In 1822, journalist John Brown met Blincoe and interviewed him for an article about child labour. Brown decided to write Blincoe's biography and gave it to social activist Richard Carlisle. In 1828, Carlisle decided to publish the tale in his newspaper The Lion in five weekly episodes between 25 January and 22 February and The Poor Man's Advocate. The book exposed the poor conditions in the cotton mills, and just after the reprint in 1832, the government investigated the mills.

Blincoe's spinning machinery was destroyed in a fire in 1828. Destitute and unable to pay his debts, he was imprisoned in Lancaster Castle for some time. After his release, he became a cotton-waste dealer. This business was finally successful, and he was able to pay for his three children's education.

In 1832, John Doherty published A Memoir of Robert Blincoe in a pamphlet form. In an interview of Employment of Children in Manufactories Committee in 1832, he stated that he'd rather see his children transported to Australia than put them to work in factories.

Death and legacy[edit]

Blincoe died of bronchitis in his daughter's house in 1860.

Historian John Waller has asserted that Charles Dickens based his character Oliver Twist on Blincoe, but no firm documentary or anecdotal evidence exists that Dickens had heard of Blincoe.

See also[edit]

Books and references[edit]

  • Waller, John (2005). The Real Oliver Twist: Robert Blincoe: A Life That Illuminates an Age. Thriplow, Cambridge: Icon Books. ISBN 978-1-84046-727-7. OCLC 191662455. 

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