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.