Charles Dickens – A London Life (Pt 3)

Charles Dickens – A London Life (Pt 3)

Life at Bayham Street was undoubtedly hard for the entire Dickens family, but it was perhaps hardest of all for John and Elizabeth’s eldest male child. Charles Dickens found his life unenviably altered in London, and it took him quite some time to adjust to this strange new life.

A capable and intelligent student, Dickens had excelled at Mr Giles school small school on Clover Lane in Chatham. Under the gentle and encouraging influence of Mr Giles, Charles had grown in stature and confidence, with a love of history and a voracious appetite for literature.

His two years at Clover Lane had awakened in him a world of possibilities – however, it was a world that was about to be cruelly denied him in London.

There would be no more school, for one thing. Charles’ day now consisted of a diet of drudgery: whether cleaning his father’s boots before work in the morning, running errands for his mother during the day, or babysitting his younger brothers and sisters.

To emphasis the unfairness of his present condition, Charles often compared his unhappy fate with that of his elder sister. Fanny Dickens had recently been elected to study at the newly opened Royal Academy of Music, and although Charles was delighted to see his sister succeed in her studies, he could not help but wonder what had happened to his own education.

In this difficult period, Charles sought solace in the tiniest of details, whether the thrilling rush of the city streets, the minutest expression of character from someone he knew, or a glimpse of one of London’s gleaming spires glimpsed through the dust heaps of Camden. These experiences brought a satisfying comfort to the young man, reminding him that there was more to life far than his miserable existence in Bayham Street.

As much as he missed Kent, Dickens’ interest in London was beginning to grow. He delighted in viewing St Paul’s Cathedral from a site close to his house, he enjoyed walking through the city or to the West End and he had a particular fascination with the Strand and Covent Garden. He had read about the latter in a book and once he had finished reading, he rushed out of the house to find the real thing so that he could compare it.

It was the noisy and unruly streets of St Giles which entranced him the most, however. The area, which was bounded by New Oxford Street to the north, Long Acre to the south-east, Charing Cross Road to the West and Holborn to the East, was notorious in Dickens’ day.

St Giles contained the infamous Rookery, a semi derelict warren of slum accommodation and squalor. The area had been desirable in the 17th century but as the fashionable and wealthy moved to other areas, the site fell into neglect. Houses were subdivided so that more and more families could live in them. Property owners stopped taking care of their properties and some buildings were abandoned completely. Open sewers ran through the streets and cesspits were left unattended.

In 1860 reformer Henry Mayhew wrote a paper on the area. A Visit to the Rookery of St Giles and its Neighbourhood contains a detailed description of the area, with Mayhew noting that the area has become “the synonym of filth and squalor”.

With regards to the people of the area, Mayhew pulls few punches. “They [are] a noisy and riotous lot, fond of street brawls, equally “fat, ragged and saucy;” and the courts abound in pedlars, fish-women, newscriers, and corn-cutters” He says.

The area held a peculiar fascination for Charles Dickens, however. Much later, such visions of want, neglect, poverty and deprivation would drive Dickens’ own writing, but in 1822, Dickens was facing those same foes himself.

Charles Dickens – A London Life (Part 2)

Charles Dickens – A London Life (Part 2)

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