Charles Dickens – A London Life (pt 4)

Charles Dickens – A London Life (pt 4)

Dickens would later immortalise his father’s famous advice to him by putting his words into the mouth of David Copperfield’s Mr Micawber. Micawber, incarcerated for debt at the King’s Bench Prison in the book, is fondly remembered for his simple maxim on financial matters:

“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 a lesson that young Charles Dickens learnt in the cruellest way possible many years before.

It was a tragedy, certainly not lost on his eldest son, that John Dickens could not follow his own advice. By 1823, Dickens Senior’s finances were in such a perilous state that his wife Elizabeth was forced to take action to save the family from bankruptcy.

After discussing the matter with friends, Elizabeth Dickens decided to set up a school. A family friend convinced her that she could attract pupils from ex-patriate families living in India and Mrs Dickens quickly decided to give it a go. It was the fashion in those days for the children of ex-patriates to be sent home to be schooled in England, and Mrs Dickens was certain that she could attract these children to her new institution.

A large house on Gower Street North was leased and, in the autumn of 1823, the Dickens family moved into the building. A shiny brass plate was purchased to inform passers by that the new school was open for business. The sign proclaimed in bold letters: “Mrs Dickens’s Establishment”.

Suddenly, Charles began to dream of the sort of life that had been denied him since he had left Kent. Perhaps his mother would make enough money to send him back to school, he thought.

Alas, it was not to be. For all her good intentions, Mrs Dickens’s Establishment proved a disaster. Not a single student ever entered the building on Gower Street. Norm it seems, did anyone ever enquire about the place.  Indeed, Charles later recalled that extraordinarily few preparations were ever undertaken for the school to open. It seems that the idea simply fizzled out.

With John’s creditors closing in, however, the Dickens family had nowhere left to run. The house on Gower Street would soon come under siege from those to whom John Dickens owed money. Individuals began to turn up at all hours of the day and night, with the family forced to take refuge inside as these unwelcome visitors made their presence known.

By 1824, matters had come to a head. John Dickens had played a game of cat and mouse with his creditors, but this game was suddenly at an end. On a cold winter’s day in February 1824, Dickens was arrested, going first to a sponging house, and shortly afterwards to the Marshalsea Debtors Prison.

With a reputation for cruelty and extortion, the Marshalsea was one of the most notorious prisons in England. Like most of the prisons of its time, the institution was run on a for profit basis. Those who could afford the prison’s fees enjoyed a relatively easy life. They were free to use the prison shop, as well as its bar and restaurant; they were even free to leave the prison during the day!

If you were unlucky enough to be imprisoned for debt, however, life at the Marshalsea could be harsh in the extreme. Huddled together in overcrowded cells, prisoners regularly went without food and basic necessities. Indeed, life was so harsh that a Parliamentary commission of 1729 found that over 300 inmates had starved to death in a single three month period!

So young Charles Dickens was right to worry about his father’s fate. However, what he could not have known at this point, was that his life was to take a similarly dramatic turn for the worse.

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.

Postman’s Park (Part 1)

Postman’s Park (Part 1)

The city of London has many impressive sights, but few are as magical or as enchanting as Postman’s Park. Set a short distance away from Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral, and right on the doorsteps of the Museum of London, the park is an ideal spot for City workers to while away a couple of hours or maybe even stop for a bite to eat.

With an array of beautiful flower gardens and a stunningly ornate fountain, Postman’s Park is a particularly impressive. However, the park is mostly known for George Frederic Watts’s magnificent Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice.

A stunning and moving example of 19th century social art, the memorial pays a moving tribute to those who lost their lives helping others.

Postman’s Park sits on the former churchyard and burial ground of St Botolph’s Aldersgate. One of four medieval churches dedicated to the saint, St Botolph’s once stood at the Eastern? gateway to the city.

Saint Botolph or Botwulf to his friends, was a 7th-century East Anglian saint who became the patron saint of travellers. Following his death, it became traditional to take a blessing at Saint Botolph’s church before going on a journey. That is why a church dedicated to the saint once stood at each of the four gates of the city.

In 1851, following a Royal Commission investigation into London’s burial grounds, an act of parliament decreed that no new burials could take place in the built up areas of London. This was due to the commission’s finding that it was impossible to dig a new grave in London’s funeral grounds without disturbing an old grave. The Burial Act of 1851 thus ushered in a new phase of cemetery building, with several large sites quickly opening in the London suburbs. A special railway service – the ‘Necropolis Railway’ – was built to carry the bodies of the recently departed to the new cemetries.

Shorn of its former purpose as a funeral ground, it was not long before the churchyard of St Botolph’s Aldersgate had a new purpose: as a park. Those who had loved ones buried in the area were given notice of the plans so that if they so wished, they could remove the bodies of their loved ones for reinterment somewhere else. The burial grounds were then covered over, and the work of turning the churchyard into a park began.

Postman’s Park opened on the 28th October 1880 with impressive new flowerbeds, gravel paths and a beautiful fountain. It was an immediate hit with office workers in the vicinity.

Then, in 1900, the Victorian artist George Frederic Watts’s began to install his Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice. One of the foremost artists of his day, Watts had enjoyed a long and successful career by 1900, but he had always maintained a sense of who he was and where he came from. The son a piano maker, Watts rejected the bourgeois trappings of fame and continually strived to celebrate the goodness in ordinary working class people.

Queen Victoria’s upcoming Golden Jubilee gave him his chance. He would propose a monument to those who had died during heroic moments of self sacrifice. Watts wrote a letter to the Times to suggest the scheme. Entitling the letter “Another Jubilee Suggestion”, Watts suggested that the nation capture “a complete record of the stories of heroism in every-day life”.

Although Watt’s suggestion was not acted on, the idea lit a fire in the artist’s imagination. Several years later, after a friend had spoken to the vicar of St Botolph’s Aldersgate, Watts finally had a site for his monument.

You can find information on more of London’s most exciting places here: City Countdown

The Seven Noses Of London

The Seven Noses Of London

There are as many myths about London as there are Londoners. There’s the legend of the ravens at the tower, the Black Dog of Newgate, Spring Heeled Jack, the list goes on and on. Most of these myths are just that. Myth. However, at least one of these outlandish tales is rooted in fact. Namely, the myth of the Seven Noses of London.

The legend goes that in 1997 a performance artist by the name of Rick Buckley decided to stage a protest against the proliferation of CCTV cameras in London. This was in the days when the cameras were just starting to appear on London’s streets. Fearing a descent into a 1984 style Big Brother style society, Buckley decided that he would express his disapproval at the measure. But what could he do?

Finally, he latched onto a plan. He would take his inspiration from the Situationists. The group had risen to prominence in the years following the 2nd World War. With a radical critique of the so called ‘commodity fetishism of modern capitalist societies, the group set out to express their alienation from these values with sporadic and often illegal acts.

Buckley had a similar aim – and soon he hatched an incredible plan to achieve it. He decided that he would hide 35 of his artworks in plain sight around the city – right under the noses of the powers that be. The only question was – what should he hide?

The idea came to him in a blinding flash of light – If he were to hide something under the authority’s noses – why not hide a recreation of his nose?!

Buckley began to create 35 plaster of Paris casts of his nose. Once they were finished, he set out to mount them. With nothing more than a toothpaste tube full of glue, the radical artist roamed the streets of London looking for appropriate places to mount his fleshy works of art.

Twenty something years later and most of the noses have disappeared. Whether removed by local council workers or snatched by trophy hunters, only seven of Buckley’s original thirty five noses remain.

Without any word of explanation for why they were there, the noses have become the stuff of urban legend. One of the best known myths supposes that the works were created by Londoners to mimic the features of Napoleon Bonaparte. Keen to mock the defeated general after the battle of Waterloo, the noses were attached to prominent buildings around the city and passing soldiers would then pinch Napoleon’s nose as they rode by. The story is bollocks but is was popular for a time.

Another myth suggested that anyone who found all seven of the noses would inherit great wealth.

With such legends, the seven noses of London has intrigued generations of Londoners and tourists. Indeed, the legend has proved so enduring that several walking tour companies offer tours to the sites of the remaining seven artworks.

This is where you can find Buckley’s artworks:

  1. Admiralty Arch
  2. Great Windmill Street.
  3. Meard Street
  4. Bateman Street
  5. Dean Street
  6. Endell Street.
  7. D’arbly Street

So, can you sniff out all seven of Buckley’s artworks?

For more stories of London’s history and heritage, click here: London history

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

Charles Dickens – A London Life (Part 1)

Charles Dickens – A London Life (Part 1)

Charles Dickens is intimately associated with London but he was not born there.

The novelist, author of some of the most celebrated works in the English language, was actually the native of another English town – Portsmouth.

Dickens was born in the coastal town on the 7th of February 1812. Perhaps surprisingly, the house is still standing today – 393 Old Commercial Road, although in 1812 it would have been known as No. 13 Mile End Terrace.

Charles’ mother, Elizabeth, and father, John, had married three years earlier. They had met through Elizabeth’s brother Thomas Culliford Barrow, who had worked with Charles’ father in the local Navy Office.

John and Elizabeth were married at St Mary-Le-Strand Church in London. Shortly after the wedding the couple  moved to Landport in Portsmouth.

Charles dad John was an interesting character. The son of a servant in the house of Lord Crewe, John had nonetheless risen to a respectable job at the Navy Office and a comfortable lifestyle. That he had grand desires is indicated by his use of the term esquire in written documents, as well as by his lavish spending.

If John Dickens earned 12 shillings he would indubitably  spend 13.It was a quality that Charles would come to regret as he found himself increasingly saddled with the legacy of his father’s financial indiscipline.

John was forever falling into debt. In 1824 these debts would lead to the imprisonment, but in the year preceding this, it meant that the Dickens family were forever living beyond their means.

As a young boy Charles was given lessons in reading and Latin by his mother. Charles later told his biographer John Foster that this awakened in him a lifelong love of knowledge and literature.

In 1815 John Dickens was summonsed to work at the Navy Office in London, at that time situated at Somerset House on the Strand. This wax be young Charles’ first taste of the city.

The family found accommodation in Norfolk Street (modern day Fitzrovia), close to where his brother Willliam ran a coffeeshop.

However the Dickens’ brush with the big city was to be brief as John was transferred again in 1816, this time to Kent.

After a few weeks in Sheerness the family moved to Chatham, where Charles would spend several happy years.

The town stands close to Watling Street, the old Roman road which was itself based on a much older path frequently used by the Celtics. The town was recorded in the Domesday Book as Ceteham, the name thought to derive from the old Roman element catu, which signified a valley or basin. The remains of a Roman era cemetery have been found in the vicinity of the town.

In Dickens’ day, Chatham would have been concerned mainly with seagoing, with a massive Dockyard providing the Royal Navy with a constant stream of new ships.

The Dickens family settled at No. 2 Ordinance Terrace, a modest yet respectable house at the very top of a steep hill. Charles, who was five at the time of the family’s move to Chatham, would prosper in the town. It is here that he first fell in love (with ‘peach coloured’ Lucy), here where he met his mentor, schoolmaster Giles, and here where his love of literature began to blossom into a voracious appetite for reading. Young Charles was soon reading everything he could get his hands on – beginning with the books which his father had brought into the house. This early reading included Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Smollett’s Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle and Humphry Clinker.

This seemingly idyllic life was to come to an abrupt end in 1822, however, when John Dickens was recalled to London by the Navy Pay Office. Although young Charles was allowed to stay behind finish his final term at school, his days in Chatham were numbered.