Discovering Dickens


In her latest quest to trace the roots of  celebrated Irish and British literary figures , Lorna Hogg goes on the trail of one of the true giants, Charles Dickens..

When you wish a friend ‘Merry Christmas’,  cheerfully hand over that  seasonal donation, or just look forward to all the traditional celebration, it’s not all due to clever modern advertising. Charles Dickens encompassed both the greeting and goodwill into his  popular novella  A Christmas Carol, which has become part of our modern Christmas celebration.

We all know of Dickens’s unforgettable range of characters – Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Bill Sykes, the Artful Dodger, Fagin, Oliver Twist and Mr Micawber – and many were inspired by his time in the City of London, where the imaginative reporter, author and social reformer lived and worked.

Dickens was born in Portsmouth, on 7th February 1812, the second of eight children.  A keen reader and writer from childhood, his over generous and sociable father, who  later  inspired Mr. Micawber, was a paymaster in the Royal Navy. His work meant regular location changes. Dickens describes being ‘packed like game’  into the London coach, when the family moved from Chatham. Sadly, bad luck struck and his impoverished father ended up in the debtors’ prison of Marshalsea, in Southwark. His family joined him there, with the exception of Charles and his elder sister Fanny. She attended The Royal Academy of Music, and he, now ‘he man of the family,’ was boarded out and sent to work in a blacking factory. near Charing Cross.

His sense of humiliation and anger never fully left Dickens. He was especially upset when his mother did not immediately support his leaving the factory, after a family legacy paid his father’s debt. These experiences  influenced his future relationships, and Dickens remained sensitive to the inequalities in Victorian England, highlighting the plight of the poor, as well as the horrors of child crime, disease and neglect.

His father eventually sent him back to school, after which Dickens was started work as a legal clerk, including Doctors Commons, near to St.Paul’s Cathedral,  in the city which he called his `Magic lantern’ …..“the toil and labour of writing, day after day, without that magic lantern, is IMMENSE…’’  That work provided research and ideas for later books, including  Bleak House.

He become a parliamentary reporter, and through friends, met and fell in love with Maria Beadnell, a part inspiration for Dora, `child-wife’ to `David Copperfield’. However, it was in 1836, when an illustrated collection of his early stories of Victorian London, `Sketches by Boz’ was published, that his writing career started.

By 1839, Dickens was successful enough as a  writer – Pickwick Papers  was serialised in a newspaper, to marry Catherine Hogarth,  a daughter of one of his editors. The couple moved to 48 Doughty street, near Clerkenwell, occupying a ‘frightfully first class family mansion, involving awful responsibilities’ .Sought after as a rising star, and soon the father of two children, he was surrounded by inspiration. Grey’s Inn, home to many barristers was nearby – as were some of London’s worst slums and areas of crime. The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and  Nicholas Nickleby’were completed in Doughty Street.

A Christmas Carol’appeared in 1843, at a time when Dickens needed to further his career. He was influenced by a visit to a nearby ragged school, near Saffron Hill and a recent trip to Manchester slums. It  also appeared at a time when Christmas customs were changing. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, had introduced Christmas trees and customs from Germany.  Carols, celebration and `seasonal greetings’ became popular. Dickens’s `carol philosphy’ – by which his character Scrooge is changed through his visions of Christmas past, present and Future, and develops human sympathy and generosity, struck a public chord.

Dickens lived and worked in London for three decades, developing his career and interests, before moving to Kent. During his London years, he also edited a weekly journal, wrote short stories, and gave speeches and readings, making three highly popular visits to Dublin. Aside from his novels, he was also a pamphleteer, involved in amateur dramatics and a campaigner for social justice, e.g. for public executions to be taken back inside prison walls.

The Magic Lantern..

Whilst changed by war and development, the City has retained many of its great buildings, ancient customs and even some old taverns. It’s quite possible to create your own Dickens walk – one useful free leaflet is published (and can be downloaded) by the City of London Information Centre, sited alongside St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Starting at Russell Square tube station, walk past Great Ormond Street Hospital to 48 Doughty Street, now The Charles Dickens Museum. Nearby is Grey’s Inn. Continue to Mount Pleasant and into Farrington Road and Lane, once close to some infamous slums. Pear Tree Court  is possibly inpirational for one site of the Artful Dodger’s pickpocketing.

Clerkenwell Road leads to Hatton Garden, now associated worldwide for its jewellery connections, but  in Dickensian times, squalor, child crime and poverty made it notorious. No. 54 was where he set the site of the local Magistrate’s Court in Oliver Twist.

Saffron Hill inspired The Artful’s Dodger’s `route’ to Fagin’s den, and The Three Cripples Pub in Oliver Twist is said to be based on the The One Tun pub, still sited there. Walk down to Smithfield market – Dickens contributed to the debate on the future of old open air market. Newgate Street and Old Bailey housed the site of the notorious Newgate Jail, (demolished in 1902) and some of its stone has been re-used in the present law courts. The Central Criminal Court was the site of the trials of Fagin and Charles Dornay, from  A Tale of Two Cities. Nearby St. Sepulchre’s Church contains the bell which rang at 8 am. to announce public executions at Newgate.

Many of London’s iconic buildings – Guildhall, The Bank of England, The Royal Exchange and Mansion House are within a stone’s throw (check websites for public access). They lead to Cornhill, Cheapside and Fleet Street,  many criss-crossed with alleys and Yards, and several with original inns and taverns. St. Paul’s Cathedral  provides a majestic conclusion, but don’t miss the original Temple Bar, once mounted at the City of London boundary.

Cross London Bridge to Borough High Street in Southwark, where the old Marshalsea Prison  (featuring in Little Dorrit) stood.One of its remaining walls forms part of St. George’s Churchyard, and the area is filled with Dickensian connections, e.g. Lant Street, where Dickens boarded as a child, remains.


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