Dickens’ London Part 1

Charles John Huffam Dickens was a wonderful author and novelist, I mean who has not heard of him!

I grew up watching Oliver which whilst a great musical production (and I don’t like musicals in general) it tends to stray from the story of Oliver Twist, now David Leans is far darker and nearer to the mark for me anyway.

That is the London that fascinated me, Charles Dickens London, full of poverty, hopelessness, wealth and luxury. Scowling scoundrels who refer to people as ‘coves’ or bloated rich braggarts who refer to children as ‘ruffians’  with others in between.

Back in 1903 M.F.Manfield published a book called ‘Dickens London’. It’s an interesting document as Dickens himself has only been gone for three decades, so here is the first installment in a few parts of the introduction and first chapter which make for interesting reading:

All sublunary things of death partake!
What alteration does a cent’ry make!
Kings and Comedians all are mortal found,
Cæsar and Pinkethman are underground.
What’s not destroyed by time’s devouring hand?
Where’s Troy, and where’s the Maypole in the Strand?
Pease, cabbages, and turnips once grew where
Now stands New Bond Street and a newer square;
Such piles of buildings now rise up and down,
London itself seems going out of town.
James Bramston, The Art of Politicks.

In Praise of London

“The inhabitants of St. James’, notwithstanding they live under the same laws and speak the same language, are as a people distinct from those who live in the ‘City.'” Addison.

“If you wish to have a just notion of the magnitude of the City you must not be satisfied with its streets and squares, but must survey the innumerable little lanes and courts.” Johnson.

“I have often amused myself with thinking how different a place London is to different people.” Boswell.

“I had rather be Countess of Puddle-Dock (in London) than Queen of Sussex.” Shadwell.

“London … a place where next-door neighbours do not know one another.”Fielding.

“London … where all people under thirty find so much amusement.”Gray.

“Dull as London is in summer, there is always more company in it than in any other one place.” Walpole.

“London! Opulent, enlarged, and still—increasing London!” Cowper.

“What is London?” Burke.

“I began to study a map of London … the river is of no assistance to a stranger in finding his way.” Southey


This book is for the lover of Dickens and of London, alike. The former without the memory of the latter would indeed be wanting, and likewise the reverse would be the case.

London, its life and its stones, has ever been immortalized by authors and artists, but more than all else, the city has been a part of the very life and inspiration of those who have limned its virtues, its joys, and its sorrows,—from the days of blithe Dan Chaucer to those of the latest west-end society novelist.

London, as has been truly said, is a “mighty mingling,” and no one has breathed more than Dickens the spirit of its constantly shifting and glimmering world of passion and poverty.

The typical Londoner of to-day—as in the early Victorian period of which Dickens mostly wrote—is a species quite apart from the resident of any other urban community throughout the world. Since the spell which is recorded as first having fallen upon the ear of Whittington, the sound of Bow Bells is the only true and harmonious ring which, to the ears of the real cockney, recalls all that is most loved in the gamut of his sentiments.

It is perhaps not possible to arrange the contents of a book of the purport of this volume in true chronological, or even topographical, order. The first, because of the necessitous moving about, hither and then thither,—the second, because of the fact that the very aspect of the features of the city are constantly under a more or less rapid process of evolution, which is altering all things but the points of the compass and the relative position of St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey. Between these two guide-posts is a mighty maze of streets, ever changing as to its life and topography.

Hungerford Market and Hungerford Stairs have disappeared, beside which was the blacking factory, wherein the novelist’s first bitter experiences of London life were felt,—amid a wretchedness only too apparent, when one reads of the miserable days which fell upon the lad at this time,—the market itself being replaced by the huge Charing Cross Railway Station, in itself no architectural improvement, it may be inferred, while the “crazy old houses and wharves” which fronted the river have likewise been dissipated by the march of improvement, which left in its wake the glorious, though little used, Victoria Embankment, one of the few really fine modern thoroughfares of a great city.

Eastward again Furnival’s Inn, where Pickwick was written, has fallen at the hands of the house-breaker.

The office of the old Monthly Magazine is no more, its very doorway and letter-box—”wherein was dropped stealthily one night” the precious manuscript of “Pickwick”—being now in the possession of an ardent Dickens collector, having been removed from its former site in Johnson’s Court in Fleet Street at the time the former edifice was pulled down.

Across the river historic and sordid Marshalsea, where the elder Dickens was incarcerated for debt, has been dissipated in air; even its walls are not visible to-day, if they even exist, and a modern park—though it is mostly made up of flagstones—stands in its place as a moral, healthful, and politic force of the neighbourhood.

With the scenes and localities identified with the plots and characters of the novels the same cleaning up process has gone on, one or another shrine being from time to time gutted, pulled to pieces, or removed. On the other hand, doubtless much that existed in the fancy, or real thought, of the author still remains, as the door-knocker of No. 8 Craven Street, Strand, the conjectured original of which is described in the “Christmas Carol,” which appeared to the luckless Scrooge as “not a knocker but Marley’s face;” or the Spaniards Inn on Hampstead Heath described in the XLVI. Chapter of Pickwick, which stands to-day but little, if any, changed since that time.

For the literary life of the day which is reflected by the mere memory of the names of such of Dickens’ contemporaries in art and letters, as Mark Lemon, W. H. Wills, Wilkie Collins, Cruikshank, “Phiz,” Forster, Blanchard Jerrold, Maclise, Fox, Dyce, and Stanfield, one can only resort to a history of mid or early Victorian literature to realize the same to the full. Such is not the scheme of this book, but that London,—the city,—its surroundings, its lights and shadows, its topography, and its history, rather, is to be followed in a sequence of co-related events presented with as great a degree of cohesion and attractive arrangement as will be thought to be commensurate and pertinent to the subject. Formerly, when London was a

No. 8, Craven St , Strand

“snug city,” authors more readily confined their incomings and outgoings to a comparatively small area. To-day “the city” is a term only synonymous with a restricted region which gathers around the financial centre, while the cabalistic letters (meaning little or nothing to the stranger within the gates), E. C., safely comprehend a region which not only includes “the city,” but extends as far westward as Temple Bar, and thus covers, if we except the lapping over into the streets leading from the Strand, practically the whole of the “Highway of Letters” of Doctor Johnson’s time.

Mr Tulkinghorn's House

A novelist to-day, and even so in Dickens’ time, did not—nay could not—give birth to a character which could be truly said to represent the complex London type. The environment of the lower classes—the east end and the Boro’—is ever redolent of him, and he of it. The lower-middle or upper-lower class is best defined by that individual’s predilection for the “good old Strand;” while as the scale rises through the petty states of Suburbia to the luxuries of Mayfair or Belgravia,—or to define one locality more precisely, Park Lane,—we have all the ingredients with which the novelist constructs his stories, be they of the nether world, or the “hupper suckles.” Few have there been who have essayed both. And now the suburbs are breeding their own school of novelists. Possibly it is the residents of those communities who demand a special brand of fiction, as they do of coals, paraffine, and boot-polish.

At any rate the London that Dickens knew clung somewhat to Wordsworth’s happy description written but a half century before:

“Silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie,
Open unto the fields and to the sky,”

whereas to-day, as some “New Zealander” from the back blocks has said: “These Londoners they never seen no sun.” And thus it is that the scale runs from grave to gay, from poverty to purse full, and ever London,—the London of the past as well as the present, of Grub Street as well as Grosvenor Square. The centre of the world’s literary activities, where, if somewhat conventional as to the acceptation of the new idea in many of the marts of trade, it is ever prolific in the launching of some new thing in literary fashions.

At least it is true that London still merits the eulogistic lines penned not many years gone by by a certain minor poet:

“Ah, London! London! Our delight,
Great flower that opens but at night,
Great city of the Midnight Sun,
Whose day begins when day is done.”

It is said of the industrious and ingenious American that he demands to be “shown things,” and if his cicerone is not sufficiently painstaking he will play the game after his own fashion, which usually results in his getting into all sorts of unheard-of places, and seeing and learning things which your native has never suspected to previously have existed. All honour then to such an indefatigable species of the genus homo.

Nothing has the peculiar charm of old houses for the seeker after knowledge. To see them, and to know them, is to know their environment,—and so it is with London,—and then, and then only, can one say truly—in the words of Johnson—that they have “seen and are astonished.”

A great mass of the raw material from which English history is written is contained in parochial record books and registers, and if this were the only source available the fund of information concerning the particular section of mid-London with which Dickens was mostly identified—the parishes of St. Bride’s, St. Mary’s-le-Strand, St. Dunstan’s, St. Clement’s-Danes, and St. Giles—would furnish a well-nigh inexhaustible store of old-time lore. For a fact, however, the activities of the nineteenth century alone, to particularize an era, in the “Highway of Letters” and the contiguous streets lying round about, have formed the subject of many a big book quite by itself. When one comes to still further approximate a date the task is none the less formidable; hence it were hardly possible to more than limn herein a sort of fleeting itinerary among the sights and scenes which once existed, and point out where, if possible, are the differences that exist to-day. Doctor Johnson’s “walk down Fleet Street”—if taken at the present day—would at least be productive of many surprises, whether pleasant ones or not the reader may adduce for himself, though doubtless the learned doctor would still chant the praises of the city—in that voice which we infer was none too melodious:

“Oh, in town let me live, then in town let me die,
For in truth I can’t relish the country; not I.”

Within the last decade certain changes have taken place in this thoroughfare which might be expected to make it unrecognizable to those of a former generation who may have known it well. Improvements for the better, or the worse, have rapidly taken place; until now there is, in truth, somewhat of an approach to a wide thoroughfare leading from Westminster to the city. But during the process something akin to a holocaust has taken place, to consider only the landmarks and shrines which have disappeared,—the last as these lines are being written, being Clifford’s Inn,—while Mr. Tulkinghorn’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, redolent of Dickens and Forster, his biographer, is doomed, as also the Good Words offices in Wellington Street, where Dickens spent so much of his time in the later years of his life. The famous “Gaiety” is about to be pulled down, and the “old Globe” has already gone from this street of taverns, as well as of letters, or, as one picturesque writer has called it, “the nursing mother of English literature.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s