Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Dirty Ink by Dickens

I gazed upon the school room into which he took me, as the most forlorn and desolate place I had even seen. I see it now. A long room with three long rows of desks, and six of forms, and bristling all round with pegs for hats and slates. Scraps of old copybooks and exercises, litter the dirty floor. ... There is a strange unwholesome smell upon the room, like mildewed corduroys, sweet apples wanting air, and rotten books. There could not well be more ink splashed about it, if it had been roofless from its first construction, and the skies had rained, snowed, hailed, and blown ink through the varying seasons of the year.

... The rest of the half-year is a jumble in my recollection of the daily strife of our lives; of the waning summer and the changing season; of the frosty mornings when we were rang out of bed, and the cold, cold smell of the dark nights when we were rung into bed again; of the evening school room dimly lighted and indifferently warmed, and the morning schoolroom which was nothing but a great shivering-machine; of the alternation of boiled beef with roast beef, and boiled mutton with roast mutton; of clods of bread-and-butter, dog's-eared lesson-books, cracked slates, tear-blotted copy-books, canings, rulerings, hair-cuttings, rainy Sundays, suet-puddings, and a dirty atmosphere of ink, surrounding all.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Oxford University Press 1981.


  1. Well, I'll take a wild guess and date the photo to about 1910.

    eBay occasionally offers empty pint, quart, and liter ink bottles once used to fill individual wells. You wouldn't want to delegate the job to a student nicknamed Thumbs.

    Dickens is right. Schools have a characteristic array of smells. I worked for the school custodian in high school, so I had access everywhere, including the school attic, where older desks with the circular opening for the ink well were stored. Jack/USA

  2. Dickens' description makes one smell the room, heavy with ink and oppression.