Continuing our London Walk with Charles Dickens
For part 2 of our themed walk, we visit the part of London where Dickens spent the most traumatic years of his life.
We start at Southwark tube station, walking straight into Union Street before turning right into Great Suffolk Street and right again into David Copperfield Street. This area, called “The Mint” in the 19th century, was notorious for its overcrowded, poor quality housing and high incidence of crime. It has been somewhat gentrified since, but a reek of gloom and desolation still hangs over the small brick cottages and narrow streets.
Turn right into Southwark Bridge Road and left into Lant Street. This is where Dickens lived in 1824 after his father had been imprisoned for debt in the nearby Marshalsea prison. Only the youngest children were supposed to accompany the debtors into their new accommodation, that was how it was done at the time, and Charles – at twelve years of age – was considered old enough to fend for himself. He was put to work in a boot-blacking factory and moved into the house of one Archibald Russell, an agent for the Insolvency Court.
The site of the Russell’s home is now occupied by the Charles Dickens Primary School at the end of the street. This is what Dickens had to say about Lant Street in The Pickwick Papers:
“There is a repose about Lant Street … which sheds a gentle melancholy upon the soul. There are always a good many houses to let in the street: it is a bye-street too, and its dullness is soothing.”
With gentle irony, he added that you would not call it a “first-rate residence”:
“The chief features in the still life of the street are green shutters, lodging-bills, brass door-plates, and bell-handles; the principal specimens of animated nature, the pot-boy, the muffin youth, and the baked-potato man. The population is migratory, usually disappearing on the verge of quarter-day”
– the day when tenants had to pay their rent –
“and generally by night. His Majesty’s revenues are seldom collected in this happy valley, the rents are dubious, and the water communication is very frequently cut off.”
Dickens hated his work at Warren’s factory near The Strand (now covered by Charing Cross station) but was apparently rather happy in the home of his host family. He is said to have based the kind Garlands in The Old Curiosity Shop – who give Nell’s friend Kit shelter and employment – on the Russells.
Still, he later confessed that any return to the area still made him cry “long after the birth of my first child”. (This may be the right time to point out that Dickens’s own experiences fell way short of the kind of misery – hunger, torture, homelessness – he regularly inflicted upon the orphans and urchins in his stories.) His job in the factory appeared not to have been particularly hard – “junior clerical work” might be the best way to describe it – and he was regarded as a little toff by his senior colleagues, as “young master Dickens”.
Still, he was only a kid when he was virtually abandoned by his parents, and he had all the right in the world to be severely traumatized – the fact that little in his upper-middle-class upbringing until then had prepared him for such an experience made, if anything, matters even worse.)
Turn left into Weller Street (called Little Lant Street before it was – much later – renamed after Sam Weller who lodged here in The Pickwick Papers) up to the crossing with Mint Street.
The public garden on your left hand side was the site of the parish workhouse until 1920 (when it became an industrial warehouse; the building was destroyed in the WWII Blitz and later torn down), most likely the inspiration for the workhouse of Oliver Twist. (It is not always easy to tell with Dickens where the ideas for his locations came from. In Oliver Twist, he describes a workhouse “out of town”, but most people who study this sort of thing in detail agree that it was this particular building – what young Charles saw from the street when passing by – that provided the blueprint for his later novel.)
Turn right into Mint Street and right again into Marshalsea Road, crossing the street to the church of St George the Martyr, also known as Little Dorrit’s Church. (In the bottom corner of the stained glass window behind the altar on your left hand side, you can see a representation of Little Dorrit wearing a poke hat.)
Amy a.k.a. Little Dorrit – perhaps Dickens’s most unworldly and saintly protagonist – was born and christened in the Marshalsea Prison, and this is also where she eventually marries Arthur Clennam. The most famous episode connecting her to this place, however, is the one where she returns to the prison one night after the curfew (she, unlike her Dad, is free to come and go) and is locked out so she has to sleep in the vestry of the church, using a Burial Register for a pillow.
Once a year, the church holds a service for members of the Dickens Society. When we went there, an African christening was just entering full swing, something that Dickens, I suspect, would have liked even better.
Turn now to St George’s Gardens behind the church and proceed to the brick wall on the far side. This is all that is left of the old Marshalsea Debtors Prison, where both William Dorrit and Dickens’s father were locked away.
In Little Dorrit, Dickens talks about “the games of the prison children as they whooped and ran, played hide-and-seek and made the iron bars of the inner gateway ‘home’”. And in David Copperfield, Mr. Micawber, another former inmate, recalls:
“When the shadow of that iron-work on the summit of the brick structure has been reflected on the gravel of the Parade, I have seen my children thread the mazes of the intricate pattern, avoiding the dark marks. I have been familiar with every stone in the place.”
Turn right into Borough High Street. At no. 75-77, you will find The George, London’s only remaining galleried inn. (The current building is from 1677, but it was constructed to replace an even older one from 1598.) More of these places were still left in the 19th century, but even then, they were considered a threatened species, quaint and old-fashioned.
In Chapter 10 of The Pickwick Papers, Dickens writes: “Great, rambling, queer places they are, with galleries, passages and stairways, wide enough and antiquated enough to furnish material for a hundred ghost stories.” (In Little Dorrit, Amy’s idle brother Edward sits here while composing a begging letter to Arthur Clennam.)
The actual scene in The Pickwick Papers, however, unfolds in a similar pub next door, the White Hart which was located in White Hart Yard (and destroyed in 1889). From the White Hart’s galleries, the landlady throws down boots for Sam Weller to clean “with hearty goodwill”.
Continue walking London with Charles Dickens to the Borough Market, nestled underneath the railway arches of London Bridge station, London’s most “Dickensian” place to shop for food and one of the best places in the entire city to sample an authentic Victorian atmosphere.
Nearby, on the steps of London Bridge, “the side of St Saviour’s Church” (which was how Southwark Cathedral was called when it was still nothing more than a plain parish church), Nancy meets Mr. Brownlow in Oliver Twist to betray Fagin to him, an event that eventually results in her death at the hands of Bill Sykes.
You could end your walk here and take a train from London Bridge underground station, but I suggest to turn left into Montague Close and make your way to Southwark Bridge on the riverbank – past the stretch of the Thames where Gaffer and Lizzie Hexam make a living pulling corpses from the river in Our Mutual Friend as well as Pickfords Wharf where the notorious Clink Prison once stood, adjacent to the Bishop’s palace of which you can still see the ruins.
The prison was burnt down in the Gordon Riots of 1780 and is mentioned in Barnaby Rudge – one of only two historical novels that Dickens wrote (can you guess which was the other one?), so it does not really count as Victorian London.
From Southwark Bridge, take a 344 bus to Liverpool Street or walk across the river to Monument station on your right hand side.
For our next London walk, I will hand over the reins – and the spoon and fork – to Mrs. Easy Hiker who is already eagerly anticipating the opportunity to tell you something about her favourite subject. More in our next post! Don’t miss it my subscribing to our free updates via email or following us on Facebook.
*Dickens’ only other historical novel is A Tale of Two Cities.