Young Charles made the journey to his new home alone. Armed with a copy of the book his mentor Mr Giles had given him, and with his few meagre possessions in a hastily packed suitcase, Charles hopped onboard the Commodore stagecoach for the three hour journey to London. Finding himself the only passenger on the vehicle, and with nothing but the miserable sounds of the rain to keep him company, Dickens felt that his life had taken a rather unfortunate turn.
We know that Kent held a special place in the author’s affections. His first novel (Pickwick Papers) was set there, and so was his last (The Mystery of Edwin Drood). The woods, orchards, marshes and rivers of the county became an idealised haven in the writer’s mind, and once his fortune was made, Dickens returned to his beloved Kent to enjoy his golden years.
So what did young Charles make of London, that vast and unruly conglomeration of the best and worst in humanity? His thoughts on the matter were perhaps shaped by his earliest experiences of the city.
The family found accommodation in Bayham Street, Camden. In the 1820s, Camden was one of the poorest of the London suburbs. Open farmland not fifty years before, the area had experienced a building boom in the last years of the 18th century, following Sir Charles Pratt’s acquisition of the manor through marriage.
Pratt, whose full title was the 1st Earl Camden, bestowed not only his name on his new estate, but also the right to build. The result was Camden Town. Being so far from the city of London, however, the development suffered greatly, being considered both too provincial and too unfashionable.
By the 1820s, Camden Town had hit rock bottom. Without adequate town planning, houses were being built in a piecemeal fashion by speculative builders. The area thus grew in a rather ramshackle way.
The property on Bayham Street was rather small for John and Elizabeth’s growing family. By 1822, the Dickens’ consisted of eight members, with mother and father Dickens joined by six children, including baby Alfred. Although 16 Bayham Street was made up of three floors, it was a narrow house, built on land which had previously housed the garden of the once popular Mother Red Cap Inn.
Not that Charles particularly noticed the tiny cramped accomodation in which he now resided. What struck the would be author more was the lack of local children of his own age. He would later relate to his friend and biographer John Forster that he had had the feeling of having fallen “into a solitary condition apart from all other boys of (my) own age”. It was a portent of things to come. Charles did not know it at the time, but his childhood had already come to an end.
Read about Charles Dickens’ only surviving London home here: the Charles Dickens Museum