Charles Dickens – A London Life (Part 5)

Charles Dickens – A London Life (Part 5)

Once the shock of imprisonment had left him, John Dickens began to adjust to his new life in prison. With no creditors to bother him, and with his board and lodgings taken care of, perhaps now Dickens could sleep in peace.

Robbed of the man of the house, however, life at Gower Street became even more difficult. Elizabeth Dickens, in her desperation to make ends meet, had begun to pawn the family’s possessions, with Charles given the unenviable task of taking the family’s goods to the various pawnbroker’s shops.

This sad ritual continued until the house in Gower Street was virtually empty, and the Dickens family had removed to two small, cold rooms in one corner of the house. What young Charles Dickens made of his new situation can only be imagined, however, whatever he thought, as it turned out he would not have much time to dwell on it.

For, at that very moment, a friend of the family arrived on the scene, with an offer that Elizabeth Dickens would find hard to refuse. James Lamert had lodged with the Dickens family in Camden and he was moved to hear of the family’s troubles since. Realising that the family was in desperate need of money, Lamert suggested that Charles could come and work for him, at the factory which he managed by Hungerford Stairs.

Charles would be tasked with attaching labels to the pots of boot polish that the factory produced, with a weekly salary of six shillings. Lamert sweetened the offer further by promising to give Charles lessons during his lunchbreak – so that his education would not suffer.

To Dickens’ unending indignation, both his mother and his father were in favour of Lamert’s proposal. Later, in his autobiography, Dickens would express horror at his parents seeming indifference to his situation. “It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age. It is wonderful to me that, even after my descent into the poor little drudge I had been since we came to London, no one had compassion enough on me…to suggest that something might have been spared to place me at any common school” he wrote.

And so, began one of the darkest chapters of young Charles Dickens’ life.

Warren’s Blacking Factory sat in a partly disused warehouse on the Thames foreshore. Its wainscoted rooms may have spoken of better days, but the rotting floors, damaged staircases and general smell of decay would have left the casual visitor in little doubt as to the present state of the building.

The first thing Dickens noted about the place was the sound of rats running in the basement. He could hear them moving and fighting even as he sat upstairs. “The sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again” he would later write in his autobiography.

If the place itself was dreadful, the work was equally soul destroying. Charles had been tasked with affixing labels to the pots of blacking. He would first attach a piece of oil paper to the pot; then a piece of blue paper was placed over the oil paper. The combination was then tied up with string. Following that, the papers were clipped so that the pot looked attractive. Finally, the Warren’s Blacking label was attached to the pot with a dab of paste. This task would be repeated with each bottle of blacking that was sent his way – which meant he was carrying out the same actions hundreds of times a day. It was soul destroying work, especially for a boy of Dickens’ obvious talents, and how his heart sank as he did it.

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.

London’s Best Blogs

London’s Best Blogs

There are a wealth of great blogs about London out there, covering everything from the most stylish places to eat, the quirkiest museums, the coolest places to visit, and the most unusual things to do in the city. Some of these blogs are quite basic, however, others look like mini magazines, with multiple sections and multi media content.

London’s blogs are a great tool if you want to get under London’s skin, and discover the real city and its people. Londoners are an opinionated and talkative lot, and they are just dying to let you into their world.

So, if whether you are a born Londoner or a tourist looking for inspiration for your next big trip, here’s our London Echoes guide to the capital’s best blogs:

Caroline’s Miscellany

Blogger Caroline probably describes her website best. She recently told Londonist that it contained “assorted bits of London history, with a bias towards Deptford, plus other random stuff” and that pretty neatly sums up her blog. It is the fascinating morsels of London history and the dazzling quality of her images that really set Caroline’s blog apart, however. Londoner Caroline has a wonderful eye for a photo and she has an incredible knack for uncovering the type of historic details that most other history bloggers just would not even notice.

English Buildings

Not strictly a London blog but nonetheless full of information and insight into English architecture and buildings. The guy behind the site, Philip Wilkinson is a well known and respected author with a string of highly regarded publications to his name and you can immediately tell when you read the website. There is a wealth of information on architecture and Wilkinson clearly knows his subject inside out. A fascinating site and a must read for anyone who loves English buildings.

London Walks

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.