Blue Badge Guide Gina Mullett takes us on a Dickensian tour of London.
“London made Charles Dickens, and Charles Dickens made London,” says Gina Mullett. “No other writer has been so influenced by the capital, or so defined its story, to the extent that ‘Dickensian’ is the default description for the harsh conditions of the Victorian metropolis.
I recognise his descriptions of London from my own family’s lives. They were old East Enders: my great-grandad was a rag and bone man on Brick Lane and music hall singer Marie Lloyd was a distant cousin. Maybe that’s why when I first read his books I identified with his characters – particularly the women. As soon as I qualified as a Blue Badge Guide, I started offering Dickens walks.
Dickens’ London story began in 1822. He arrived at the age of 10 ‘packed like game’ in the damp straw of a coach’s upholstery at the Cross Keys Tavern on Wood Street. His father, John, had taken a job in the navy pay office, and the Dickens family settled in Camden Town.
John Dickens was a loving but irresponsible father. In 1824, following bankruptcy, he was sent to Marshalsea debtors’ prison. Charles had to leave school and take a job sticking labels on shoe polish bottles in Warren’s Blacking Factory.
Charles trudged the three miles across town from his lodgings in Camden to work at the dark, dank Thameside factory. On Sundays, he would walk across London Bridge to visit his mother and father in the Marshalsea.
He was scarred by the experience, remarking: ‘It’s wonderful to me how I could so easily have been cast away at such an age… I suffered exquisitely.’ Away from middle-class comforts, he pictured himself as a ‘little labouring hind’, working alongside poor children with no education. One of them ‘in a ragged apron and a paper cap’ was Bob Fagin – a name Dickens used in Oliver Twist.
In 1825, an inheritance allowed John Dickens to clear his debts and leave prison. Charles expected to escape the humiliation of the factory, but his mother insisted he stay on to earn money. Though he eventually returned to school, he never forgave his mother. At 15 Dickens took a job as a legal clerk in the City. He had little respect for the lawyers, who were motivated by money, not justice. He satirised their avarice in Bleak House, the story of a legal case that continues for generations.
Dickens’ literary career started with a series of sketches under the pen name Boz. These vignettes of London life were published in newspapers before being collected into a book. During this period Dickens met and fell disastrously in love with Maria Beadnell. Maria’s City banker father disapproved of the lowly legal clerk, while her mother continually referred to him as Mr Dicken. Maria finally rejected the devastated Charles, who took revenge by writing her into David Copperfield as the beautiful but childish Dora.
Twenty years later Maria contacted Dickens. Her husband’s business had failed, and she sought help from the wealthy and famous writer. They met, but the romance was not rekindled – Dickens rather cruelly reporting her as ‘toothless, fat, old and ugly’.
He did, however, find love with the daughter of a fellow journalist, Catherine Hogarth. The couple married at St Luke’s Church in Chelsea and set up home in Doughty Street. Today this elegant Georgian house in Holborn – the only surviving London Dickens’residence – is a museum celebrating the writer’s life. Dickens’ fortunes continued to rise. He was serialising Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist for the growing number of literate Victorians in his tuppenny weekly magazine Household Words.
Everybody read Dickens, even Queen Victoria who loved Oliver Twist. Charles was a celebrity of his times – wealthy, famous and successful. Fictional stories ran alongside social reportage, with Dickens chronicling the struggle of the working poor: one article recounted the tragic story of a woman who lost her arm in a factory accident.
In 1849, Dickens joined a crowd of 30,000 at Horsemonger Lane Gaol in south London to witness a public hanging. Sickened and haunted by the event, he campaigned for the hangings at Newgate Prison – now the site of the Old Bailey – to be taken off the streets. In 1868, the authorities finally relented and moved the executions inside
The horror of Newgate is reflected in Fagin’s last night alive in Oliver Twist. From Oliver Twist to Pickwick Papers prisons formed a constant theme in his stories, and Dickens spent years working to change the system. Dickens also worked to reform Smithfield Market. The massive growth of the Victorian city turned this ancient open-air cattle market into an urban bloodbath. He hated seeing the animals suffer and following a campaign live slaughter at Smithfield ended.
In 1857, Dickens – who loved the theatre – directed a play by his friend, the author Wilkie Collins. During the production, he fell in love with the 18-year-old actress Ellen Ternan. The celebrated author could not risk a scandal, so he maintained the illusion of a happy family life while ostracising his wife – now the mother of 10 children – by building a dividing wall in their bedroom.
Dickens set off on a punishing tour of public readings around the country. This allowed him to escape London with Ellen, but his secret was nearly exposed when travelling with her on a train that crashed in Kent. Dickens tended to the dying and injured but left the scene to avoid being seen with his mistress.
Five years later to the day, in 1870, he died of a stroke in his home – some biographers believe brought about by the stress of his secret affair. It was Dickens’ wish to be buried in Rochester Cathedral, but Queen Victoria insisted he be given a place in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey – a great London building for a great London writer.
Fifteen novels and five novellas place Dickens among the great pantheon of English storytellers. Much of this was inspired by his life in London, the city he called his ‘magic lantern’. The great man shone a light in every corner. »
Contact Gina Mullett for a Dickens tour of London.