Smithfield Market London ironwork
Literary travel inspiration London

Discover the London of Charles Dickens

Is there any author who more obviously makes you think of London than Charles Dickens? He knew the city like the back of his hand, spending many a night walking the streets for hours, and had the knack of conjuring up Victorian London in novels like no-one else.

There are so many memorable characters in his books who live and struggle in the greatest metropolis of Victorian England. Characters who, like Dickens himself, knew a way of life that rested on a knife edge between fortune and penury. Who knew of the downside of the Industrial Revolution as well as its many advances.

Umbrella Shop in London-001

As Mr Micawber said in David Copperfield:

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and six pence, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

It is fascinating to think of the frenetic trading in goods of all kinds that would have surrounded Dickens – easy to do as you wander through London just by looking at the street names! Just notice Milk Street, Poultry, Fetter Lane, Bread Street, Ironmonger Lane, Cloth Fair and more.

Borough Market, London

Charles Dickens nurtured dim view of the city set up against a rosy view of the countryside – there are many wonderfully evocative descriptions of the shock of arriving in London for the first time. In Great Expectations Pip arrives in London and goes to see the lawyer Mr Jaggers, whose address was in Little Britain: ‘just out of Smithfield, and close by the coach-office’.

“So, I came into Smithfield; and the shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam, seemed to stick to me. So, I rubbed it off with all possible speed by turning into a street where I saw the great black dome of Saint Paul’s bulging at me from behind a grim stone building which a bystander said was Newgate Prison.”

Nowadays the City of London is more smooth facades of concrete and glass than dank, filthy alleys. It is still laid out according to the medieval street plan after all, mainly because no one could agree to a new design for the city after the Great Fire of London in 1666. So it remains organic in layout and filled with nooks and crannies and infinite charm.

St Pauls from Millenium Bridge, London

Of course St Paul’s cathedral has been gloriously cleaned and the air pollution is not nearly so bad as it was in the coal-fired 19th century. But wandering through the ‘Square Mile’ it is still possible to find impressions and remnants of Dickensian London.

Smithfield is still the main meat market although it is now all modernly hygienic with no live animals. Little Britain snuggles around Smithfield and St Barts Hospital – it has some lovely pubs and restaurants.

Nearby St Martin le Grand is a street that appears in a number of Dickens novels. Mr Pickwick lodged nearby on Gosling Street and embarks on his hilarious cab ride to Charing Cross from the cab stand here. Martin Chuzzlewit is almost entirely set around this neighbourhood – called ‘Todgers’.

One thing you will soon notice when wandering through the City of London is the churches. As Dickens says in Martin Chuzzlewit:

“There were churches also by dozens, with many a ghostly little churchyard, all overgrown with such straggling vegetation as springs up spontaneously from damp, and graves, and rubbish.”

In medieval times there were at least 110 churches in the Square Mile alone! Now around 60 or so remain, some with merely the tower or ruins left. In many cases they have been turned into tiny green oases to provide respite for city workers.

One of those towers is that of the former St Albans on Love Lane and this forms another of Pip’s first impressions when he arrives in London. Then he puts Pip to live at Barnard’s Inn (opposite where Dickens himself lived for a time), which is now occupied by Gresham College.

The Dickens family lived in many residences in London over the years, as fortunes waxed and waned, including in Camden Town (No 16 Bayham Street was probably a model for the Cratchit house in A Christmas Carol), Gower Street, Fitzroy Square, Holborn and Somers Town.

The family also spent time in the infamous Marshalsea debtor’s prison when Charles was a child. The prison no longer exists but was on what is now called Borough High Street in Southwark. Young Charles worked at a blacking factory at 3 Chandos Street, on the Embankment and greatly bemoaned his removal from school.

London street

The other place in London where I am vividly reminded of Dickens is of course the River Thames. I think of the watermen plying the river in Our Mutual Friend and there are many references to the river, port and London’s seafaring connections in his works.

In Oliver Twist he describes Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey novel; in Martin Chuzzlewit the steamboats at the London Bridge Steam Wharf:

“Little steam-boats dashed up and down the river incessantly. Tiers upon tiers of vessles, scores of masts, labyrinths of tackle, idle sails, splashing oars, gliding row-boats, lumbering barges, sunken piles, with ugly lodgings for the water-rat within their mud-discoloured nooks; church steeples, warehouses, house-roofs, arches, bridges, men and women, casks, cranes, boxes, horses, coaches, idlers, and hard-labourers there they were, all jumbled up together…”

London from the Southbank of the Thames-001

In Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), a novel featuring many characters that worked on the Thames, Dickens portrayed the riverside tavern The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, which is widely believed to be based on the Bunch of Grapes pub in Limehouse.

Limehouse Basin is now a glamorous residential area full of sparkling glass-fronted apartments. Apart from old pubs such as The Grapes it is difficult to imagine the dark days of lime kilns and desperate families trying to keep body and soul together.

Finally there is Westminster Abbey, the final resting place of the great storyteller.

By Natasha von Geldern

Are there any other parts of London that make you think of Charles Dickens or scenes from his novels?