CHARLES Dickens wrote about poverty and despair with an insight born of his own bitter experiences as a child.

Though his millions of readers did not know it during his lifetime, much of his work was semi-autobiographical, many of his colorful and diverse characters had real-life prototypes.

As a result, no-one did more than Dickens to speak up for the under-nourished and over-used working classes, or to publicise the iniquities of the Poor Law and the workhouse.

Born in a suburb of Portsmouth in 1812, the son of a navy pay clerk in Portsmouth dockyard, Dickens had a chequered childhood. When he was two, the family moved to London and two years later transferred to Chatham, in Kent, where he went to school.

In 1821, the Admiralty made John Dickens redundant and the family moved back to London, living in a small house in Camden Town. Dickens Senior was sent to London's Marshalsea Prison for debt, accompanied by his entire family apart from Charles, who was put to work in a blacking factory at Hungerford.

There, with half a dozen other youngsters, he spent his time labelling the bottles, before walking the four miles back to his Camden Town lodgings each evening, to spend his nights alone.

The family eventually got back onto an even keel and after four more years of schooling, Dickens decided to follow his father -

who had become a reporter on the Morning Herald - into journalism. His writing career took off when his collection of Sketches by Boz - Boz was the nickname of his younger brother - was published in 1836.

Much of Dickens's work was produced in serialised form for magazines, which explains the episodic nature of his stories, and one of the early ones was Oliver Twist, published in Bentley's Miscellany between 1837 and 1839.

This is notable for its grim condemnation of workhouse life and the sad lot of parish children. The scene in which the orphan Oliver asks the workhouse beadle for more gruel is one of the best known in English literature.

Dickens was a frequent visitor to Manchester, taking the platform at Athenaeum meetings alongside reformers and notables such as Benjamin Disraeli.

He reputedly based the character of the crippled Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol on the son of a friend who owned an Ardwick cotton mill, while the Grant Brothers, William and Daniel, the Ramsbottom industrialists, were the prototypes for the Cheeryble brothers in Nicholas Nickleby.

However, for all his reforming zeal and social conscience, Dickens produced only one work which reflected directly on the Industrial Revolution. His Hard Times (1854) was set in a mythical Coketown, identified variously with Manchester and Preston, and although not one of his better-known works, is worth reading for its descriptions of working-class life.