London contains many spirits. Founded by Romans, abandoned in the so-called Dark Ages, and then transformed in the Medieval period: it is a city that has been changing and expanding for thousands of years. As such, it is something of a historical layer-cake. As the city’s engineers and construction workers are constantly reminded, the deeper you dig London, the more ghosts you find.
Thankfully, to see the London of Charles Dickens, you don’t have to do much digging at all – much of the city that the celebrated writer walked and wrote about is still intact. What isn’t so easy is imagining what it must have actually been like to live there. Thanks to Dickens’ powers of observation, however, we are able to conjure up the dizzying and friendly unnerving atmosphere of Victorian London with ease.
Charles Dickens’ London was a city unlike any. The largest and most advanced city anywhere in the world, London in the 1800s was both reaping the rewards of the industrial revolution and suffering its unforeseen consequences. Lured by the promise of work, the city saw a huge influx of people moving from the countryside to work in the factories. With this population growth came disease, crime, and poverty.
While the city’s east end became feared as a den of iniquity, populated by opium dens, slums, and cotton mills, the glamorous West End became the parade ground of England’s newly-wealthy middle classes; boasting museums, grand parks, and charming neo-classical houses. Dickens shows us both sides of this deeply divided city – from the poorest quarters to the richest.
So, put on your stovepipe hat, trim those muttonchop whiskers, and crack out your best walking cane: we’re stepping out into Charles Dickens’ London.
Location: 86 Fetter Ln, London EC4A 1AD
Book: Great Expectations
Our journey begins with Pip’s arrival in London in Great Expectations. It was here, at Barnard’s Inn, that the wonderfully named Phillip Pirrip and his companion Herbert Pocket had their chambers. While the name ‘Inn’ would imply this enclave is a den of drinking and debauchery, it is actually a place of law.
Pip himself seems to have been equally perplexed by the establishments choice of name. For example, when he first arrives at Bernard’s Inn, he ponders: “I had supposed that establishment to be an hotel kept by Mr Barnard…whereas I now found Barnard to be a disembodied spirit, or a fiction, and his inn the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together, in a rank corner, as a club for Tom-cats.”
It would seem that Bernard’s Inn is one of those special Dickensian sites that has actually improved since the writer’s day, because, while it may have been decidedly dingy back in the 19th century, today it is a beautifully secluded and refreshing spot – an oasis in the heart of London’s great expanse.
Lincoln’s Inn Old Hall
Location: 1A New Square, Lincoln’s Inn, London, WC2A 3QB
Book: Bleak House
Not far from Bernard’s Inn is another of London’s oldest Inns of Court (barristers’ chambers). The Old Hall of Lincoln’s Inn dates back to 1489, and it is here, outside this ornate redbrick chambers, where Charles Dickens opens Bleak House, quickly conjuring up an image of London sealed within a swaddling cloth of murk and smog.
“The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.”
Beneath Lincoln’s Inn you’ll also find a particular atmospheric undercroft; a set of cloisters that date from 1623, which, in Bleak House, Dickens describes as “like an entrance to a church. And there really was a churchyard outside under some cloisters, for I saw the gravestones from the staircase window.”
The Old Curiosity Shop
Location: 2es, 13-14 Portsmouth St, London WC2A 2ES
Book: The Old Curiosity Shop
Hidden amongst the campus of the London School of Economics, this timber-framed shop dates back to the 16th century. With its overhanging upper-storey and its charmingly ramshackle facade, it is the very image of Tudor London. As you would expect, it is one of the city’s oldest shops, having somehow survived both the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the carnage of the Blitz.
Known as ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’, this fragile building was apparently made from old ship timbers. It is often assumed that Dickens took the name for his 1841 novel after coming across the shop on one of his daily walks and that this is the same that features in his text. However, anyone who has read The Old Curiosity Shop will tell you that Dicken makes it clear that the building of which he wrote was “long ago pulled down.”
As such, the building’s tagline: “Immortalized by Charles Dickens” shouldn’t be taken as gospel. Dickens did indeed live nearby – in neighbouring Bloomsbury in fact – and would have visited the quaint shop a number of times. But, in truth, the building was only given the name after The Old Curiosity Shop was released, largely thanks to an American journalist who happened upon the building while writing a piece about Dickensian landmarks and assured his reader that it was in fact the ship on Dickens’ novel.
St Michael’s Cornhill
Location: St Michael’s Alley, London EC3V 9DS
Book: A Christmas Carol
Cornhill forms the backdrop to what is arguably Charles Dickens’ most famous tale: A Christmas Carol. It is here, on Christmas Eve, that Bob Cratchit leaves Scrooge’s counting-house wrapped in his winter scarf and goes down “a slide on Cornhill at the end of a lane of boys, 20 times in honour of its being Christmas Eve, and then ran home to Camden Town as hard as he could pelt to play at Blind Man’s Bluff.”
While St Michael’s isn’t named in Dickens’ text, the author does mention the “gruff old bell was always peeping slily down on Scrooge out of a gothic window in the wall…” While there are a number of other contenders for church’s that surround Scrooge’s offices, because of the mention of Cornhill, the likelihood is that it is St Michael’s.
Located in the City Of London, Cornhill is one of the very oldest parts of the city – and I’m not talking about Medieval or Tudor; I’m talking Roman London. It is on Cornhill, not far from St Michael’s that Londinium’s Roman forum would have sat. While little of it remains today, it would have been an eye-watering sight. Three storeys high, this was a building that was larger than St Paul’s Cathedral.
The George & Vulture
Location: 63 Pitfield St, London N1 6BU
Book: A Christmas Carol
After Bob Cratchit goes home to Camden, Scrooge goes out for a rather grim and unhappy meal in Bengal Court – a warrenous maze of ancient alleys that even the most curious Londoners have rarely heard about.
Bengal Court is mentioned no less than 20 times in Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. Indeed, the author was known to frequent the taverns and coffee houses that once lined these alleys, only a few of which remain. The George & Vulture is one of them, and it is here that Scrooge has his “melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern.”
This tavern was saved from demolition by Cedric Charles Dickens, the author’s great-grandson, who campaigned to save it from the wrecking ball. To this day, members of the Charles Dickens family come to the George & Vulture the day before Christmas to congregate in a room upstairs and toast the great man himself.
The Giants of St Dunstan’s
Location: 186a Fleet St, London EC4A 2HR
Book: David Copperfield
The church of St Dunstan-in-the-West on Fleet Street features a public clock which is said to have been the first in London to bear a minute hand. Dating from 1671, the clock is held up by two stone giants who lift their clubs every fifteen minutes to strike the bells. Unfortunately, the roar of Fleet Street’s traffic often drowns out their chimes.
Betsy Trotwood takes her nephew, David Copperfield, to witness the giants strike the bells in Dickens’ semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. The pair hope to “catch them at it at twelve o’clock.”
The church survived the Great Fire of London but was demolished in 1830. The clock was sold to the Marquis of Hertford, who held it at his home in Regents Park. 100 years later, in 1935, the clock was finally returned.