2020 sees the 150th anniversary of the death of Charles Dickens, considered by many as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era; author of books such as Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend.
Many of his novels – and his journalism – were shaped by a time of hardship in his childhood and by firsthand knowledge of the cruel inequalities, poverty and hypocrisy of Victorian Britain.
London is the authentic heart of his work, vividly drawn from his encyclopedic knowledge of the city. His novels are a potent mix of melodrama, satire, comedy and tragedy, compassion, pathos, acute social observation and fierce morality; brought to life by extraordinary characters – many inspired by actual people he had come across.
With the serialisation of his novels, his journalism, public readings, and campaigns for social reform he was the most popular and celebrated writer of his day.
The River Thames flows through Dickens’ life and works as a constant presence, the atmospheric backdrop to everyday experiences, but often dark and malevolent, dangerous.
Here are nine locations, on the Thames, that have a strong association with Dickens, which not only help tell the story of his life, but also reveal the complex interweaving of his own experiences with his writing:
1. Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison, Borough, Southwark
Dickens was born into a middle class family in Portsmouth, Hampshire, on 7 February 1812. His father John was a pay clerk for the Royal Navy. In 1822, due to financial difficulties, the family ended up in a poor district of Camden. His father was constantly in debt and, in 1824, was incarcerated in Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison near the river in Southwark for a heavy debt to a baker.
Dickens’ mother and his youngest siblings joined his father in prison, as was the practice then. Little Dorrit tells the story of William Dorrit whose family was also imprisoned in Marshalsea for debt.
Charles was suddenly withdrawn from school and sent to work.
2. Warren’s Blacking Factory, Hungerford Stairs, Strand
Dickens was 12 years old with dreams of growing up a gentleman and marrying well. But now he was forced to support his family by working at Warren’s Blacking Factory.
The factory was located not far from Marshalsea Prison in a rotten rat-infested building above the river at Hungerford Stairs, off the Strand (which at that time sloped down to the river). In this harsh environment, he was paid six shillings a week for wrapping bottles of shoe blacking paste in oil paper and sticking on labels.
Dickens was full of shame; humiliated, lonely and desolate; resentful of his family. His experiences – which he kept secret for decades – had a powerful influence on his future writing:
A recurring theme was children alone, abandoned, persecuted (Oliver in Oliver Twist; Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop; David in David Copperfield – thought to be Dickens’ most autobiographical novel; Pip in Great Expectations.)
Among other subjects were shocking working conditions, poverty, the workhouse (Oliver Twist, Christmas Carol), the criminal underclass and prisons (Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations), industrialisation (Hard Times), and the legal profession (Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, Bleak House).
3. London’s Bridges
Dickens would often sit on London Bridge observing the comings and goings of everyday life. David in David Copperfield does the same. This bridge is one of the most mentioned locations in Dickens’ novels.
Dickens also knew well the dark primeval power of the river. As a journalist, he had accompanied the Thames river police as they patrolled between Waterloo, Blackfriars and Southwark bridges. He wrote about suicides, water thieves and murders in his Down With the Tide essay.
4. Doctors’ Commons
After a few months of imprisonment, Dickens’ father was released, having received a timely legacy and paid off his debt. Dickens briefly went back to school, leaving in 1827 aged 15 to become a junior clerk at a law firm and learning shorthand.
Within two years Dickens was promoted to legal reporter at Doctors’ Commons, a society of lawyers practicing civil law. (David in David Copperfield became an articled clerk here). Bleak House reflects the corruption of the legal system, inspired by his experiences of the law.
Dickens became a parliamentary reporter and, in parallel, began writing sketches about life in the city and the characters he had met as he constantly walked the streets of London. Titles included Doctors’ Commons, The River, A Visit to Newgate (prison).
These sketches were collected together and published in 1836 as Sketches by Boz: Illustrative of Everyday Life and Everyday People. (Boz was Dickens’ pseudonym – a pet name of one of his brothers).
The sketches were hugely popular and led to him to write his first novel Pickwick Papers, full of comic spirit, published in installments and illustrated by ‘Phiz’ – Hablot K Browne – the main illustrator of most of his novels. (All Dickens’ future novels first appeared in serialised form). Dickens became the most read author in England. He was just 25.
In the same momentous year, Dickens married Catherine Hogarth – daughter of his editor friend George Hogarth. Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby at Doughty Street. The couple travelled widely abroad to Italy, France and Switzerland, as well as making a working trip to America.
5. Jacob’s Island, aka Folly Ditch, Bermondsey
Around this time, Dickens accompanied the river police to Jacob’s Island to experience one of London’s most notorious riverside slums; squalid, stinking, the tidal water awash with rubbish and rotting animal carcasses. In Oliver Twist, Dickens made it the disturbing setting for the murderer Bill Sikes accidentally hanging himself while fleeing an angry mob.
6. Royal Coburg Theatre, Waterloo
Dickens loved the theatre. It became a life-long obsession. As a child, he would write, produce and act plays in the family living room.
When he was working at Doctors’ Commons he went to the theatre almost every night, especially to the Apollo on the Strand. He wrote plays. He acted. Astley’s Amphitheatre – a mix of circus and theatre – makes an appearance in Bleak House and The Old Curiosity Shop.
Dickens wrote about the Royal Coburg Theatre in Household Words, a literary magazine he edited from 1850 with reforming zeal and a social conscience. One of his articles criticized the upper and middle classes for failing to understand the importance of theatre and musical entertainment to the working classes.
Dickens was also involved in amateur theatricals and in 1857, when he was 45, had a role in his friend Wilkie Collins’ melodrama, Frozen Deep. 18 year old Ellen (Nelly) Ternan was a professional actress in the same play. He fell in love with her. The scandal was hushed up.
In 1858 he separated from Catherine from whom he had already become estranged (he had written about unhappy marriages in Dombey and Son), and Ellen became his secret mistress until he died.
After the break up of his marriage, Dickens embarked on a series of gruelling paid tours across Britain, reading extracts from his novels and short stories.
Huge crowds turned out to hear him. He was alone on stage, but the readings were highly theatrical events. People reputedly fainted from the sheer power and emotion of his story-telling. He delivered more than 470 readings over the next decade, including in America.
7. Gad’s Hill, Higham, Kent
Dickens always wanted to live at Gad’s Hill after seeing it as a child.
In March 1856, having acquired wealth and critical acclaim he bought the property, which stood about 3 miles from the Thames estuary, moving in the following year. He loved the house. He lived there with most of his children, loyally looked after by his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth.
Dickens entertained many leading figures at Gad’s Hill, including Charles Fechter – a theatrical manager – who presented him with a Swiss chalet. This was installed in the garden and survives today in the grounds of Eastgate House, Rochester, Kent.
Dickens worked in an upstairs room of the chalet where he could see the Thames estuary across the marshes, writing A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend and the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Dickens’ writing reflected the eerie melancholy of the estuary landscape. In Great Expectations, completed in 1861, the ‘five little stone lozenges’ – believed to refer to the graves pictured above – is the orphan Pip’s memory of the bleak lonely graveyard in the marshes where he was frozen with fear when confronted by the escaped convict Magwitch.
8. Shadwell, Near Wapping
Dickens began a series of ‘Farewell Readings’ round Britain between 1886 and 1889, but his health was deteriorating through overwork and the psychological scars of surviving an earlier fatal rail crash. He collapsed.
Further tours were cancelled and he began writing his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The book opens with a graphic account of an opium den and an old female addict.
Dickens’ writing was based on firsthand knowledge. In the autumn of 1869, accompanied by police, he had visited the opium dens of Shadwell in the East End docks, witnessing Chinese and Lascar addicts and meeting an elderly addict, ‘Lascar Sal’.
9. Westminster Abbey
Dickens’ huge workload had put a tremendous strain on his health. Despite this, he undertook a final series of readings between January and March 1870.
Three months later he was at Gad’s Hill, halfway through his work on Edwin Drood, when he suffered a stroke, never regaining consciousness and dying the next day, 9 June. He was 58.
Although he wished to be buried in a private low key ceremony at Rochester Cathedral, he was laid to rest at Westminster Abbey, a building that, at the date of Dickens death, had stood for 800 years near the River Thames.
Written by Nicky Hughes.
Header image – ‘Dickens Dream’: Charles Dickens in his study surrounded by characters from his novels. Painted in oils by Robert William Buss in 1875, five years after the author’s death. Public Domain.