Inside Dickens’ London draws on descriptions of life in the capital from original letters, diaries and newspapers, as well as Dickens’ own social commentary, to paint a vivid portrait of a city undergoing massive social changes. No author has ever described the city of London as well as Dickens. His eye for detail and his gift for characterization moved and entertained readers throughout the world who might never have been to the city. Many of the clichés that crowd our imaginations when we think of London, or of the Victorians, can be traced back to his writings. A unique gazetteer section with a modern-day map allows the reader to discover where places and attractions mentioned in the text can be seen in today’s London
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The journey from our town to the metropolis was a journey of about five hours. It was a little past mid-day when the four-horse stage-coach by which I was a passenger got into the ravel of traffic frayed out about the Cross Keys, Wood Street, Cheapside, London. We Britons had at that time particularly settled that it was treasonable to doubt our having and our being the best of everything: otherwise, while I was scared by the immensity of London, I think I might have had some faint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked, narrow and dirty.
Thus Pip, the hero of Great Expectations, headed for London as a boy by coach from the north Kent coast. Charles Dickens had made the same journey, at the age of ten, in 1822, and we can assume that his experience was similar. To retrace this route provides an insight into the city as he first encountered it. If you had seen London from afar, as he did, your first impression would have been of a distant, dirty smudge of smoke. Coming nearer, you would have made out the steeples of churches and (often just as tall) the masts of shipping in the Thames. St Paul's Cathedral would have been unmistakable, set on the top of Ludgate Hill and rising head and shoulders above its surroundings. At this point, if not before, the imaginations of those seeing the great metropolis for the first time would almost certainly have begun to stir.
Another impressionable small boy created by Dickens, David Copperfield, described the combination of excitement and fear that the sight evoked in him: What an amazing place London was to me when I saw it in the distance, and I believed all the adventures of my favourite heroes to be constantly enacting and re-enacting there, and I vaguely made it out to be fuller of wonders and wickedness than all the cities of the earth.
By the time the city's landmarks were clearly visible, the coach would perhaps be crossing the great expanse of Blackheath and descending the steep hill into the village of Deptford (the passengers might be asked to get out and walk down, to ease the burden on the horses). There would be more traffic on the road: carriages filled with people; carts, many of them pulled by donkeys, laden with produce; enormous broad-wheeled wagons lumbering behind teams of slow-moving horses, their cargoes covered with tarpaulins. There would also be scores of men, women and children on foot, many of them carrying heavy and awkward loads. Before the invention of the bicycle or the arrival of cheap public transport, it was usual for people to walk, even though it might take all day to reach their destination.
Market gardens were another sign that the city was near. The road would be lined with potato patches, fields of turnips or cabbage or onions, and in summer raspberry canes or rows of strawberries. On the way in from Kent, a visitor would see such gardens in profusion around Deptford. Slow transportation meant that freshness could only be assumed if the produce travelled the shortest possible distance from grower to consumer, and in all directions around London thousands of plots were given over to feeding the city. Whatever was in season was packed in baskets, loaded on to backs or into carts, and carried to the markets. As these began their business early in the morning, the farmers and gardeners – or more likely their wives and children – might well have to travel for half the night. In addition, flocks and herds of livestock, driven perhaps for days from the farms of Kent, blocked the traffic and strayed to nibble the roadside grass, their bellowing and bleating accompanied by the crack of drovers' whips, the shrill whistles of small boys or the yaps of darting sheepdogs.
Cheek by jowl with these rural elements was a distinctly urban feature, and one that also suggested the city was close at hand: the vast rubbish tips, or 'dustheaps', in which London's refuse was piled. These were often swarming with people, sorting through the garbage in search of usable items. Henry Mayhew, the author of studies of the London poor, described them in 1851:
The dust-yards ... are generally situated in the suburbs, and they may be found all round London ... Frequently they cover a large extent of ground in the fields, and there the dust is piled up to a great height in a conical heap, and having much of the appearance of a volcanic mountain.
Located on the road to London from Kent there were numerous inns and stables, outside which swarms of grooms and stable-boys washed down vehicles, curry-combed horses or swept the yards. However quaint this seems, it would have been no more remarkable to contemporaries than a petrol station would be to us. Much else was so functional that it barely merited a glance: milkmaids labouring under wooden yokes; crowds of red-sailed Thames barges on the river; and the creaking sails of the windmills found all over the city's outskirts.
There was no clear distinction between town and country. Along the Old Kent Road was a good deal of what would now be called 'ribbon development'. Behind Georgian terraces or pretty rows of Regency cottages (many of which are still there) a traveller could glimpse fields with haystacks or sheep and cattle grazing. At the Bricklayer's Arms the built-up area began in earnest. By now the coach would be rattling over cobblestones and the passengers would notice an increase in both noise and discomfort as the coach turned right toward London Bridge.
However noisy today's traffic may be, it is insignificant by comparison with the din that filled the city in Dickens' time. Countless iron-shod wheels rattled all day over cobbled streets behind clopping horses. Shouting was constant as, without any form of traffic control, drivers relied on aggression to push their way through the crush of vehicles. The sound, thrown back by the walls of narrow streets, was so loud that it would not be possible to hold a conversation on the pavement, nor to leave street-facing windows open, even in summer.
London Bridge was one of the city's sights. Though it would soon (in 1831) be replaced by a modern structure, the bridge that Pip and Copperfield crossed was over 600 years old. It had been built as a series of narrow arches, buttressed with solid piers or 'starlings', which slowed the flow of the river and gave the upstream side the stillness of a lake. The bridge had once been cluttered with shops and houses, but these had been cleared away 60 years earlier and the sides tidied up with Georgian balustrades. David Copperfield saw it in the company of a young teacher while on his way to Salem House School:
We went on through a great noise and uproar that confused my weary head beyond description, and over a bridge which, no doubt, was London Bridge (indeed I think he told me so, but I was half asleep).
To look north across London Bridge toward the towers and steeples of the ancient city must have seemed the most awe-inspiring sight ever, though what would probably strike us would be the untidiness of everything. The embankments that now stretch along both shores, with their solid granite walls and elegant iron lamp-posts, would not be built for another 40 years. Without them the river was much wider, and its banks were a jumble of warehouses, cranes, docks, jetties and slime-covered flights of stone or wooden steps.
The river itself, which we now associate largely with leisure, was a vital, bustling workplace. London had the largest port and shipyards in Britain, as well as being the world's biggest industrial centre, and much of its life revolved around the import, export and processing of goods. Below the bridge was the Pool of London, where ships from all over the globe could be seen lying at anchor, their decks and holds alive with activity as sailors and stevedores went about their work. Hosts of small craft – skiffs, lighters, cutters – plied to and fro or bobbed in the wake of larger vessels. Among the sailing ships with their masts and spars there might be a paddle-steamer, its massive side-wheels thrashing the water as it came about, its whistle shrieking and its funnel belching clouds of noxious black smoke that hung and drifted. Crossing London Bridge, visitors of Dickens' time could see, as we cannot, the source of London's wealth and power set out before them.
By the time they reached the Thames, our visitors would long since have noticed another abiding aspect of London life: the smell. To anyone coming from the country, the smell of London must have been overwhelming. First, there was the smell of coal fires. The vast forest of reeking chimneys filled the air with smoke, which covered buildings with unsightly layers of soot and left dirty black smuts on clothing and faces. There were the multifarious stenches of industry: breweries, foundries and forges, chemical works and, worse than all of them, tanneries, with which the coach passengers would already have become acquainted while travelling through Bermondsey. There was also the aroma of horses, on which so much of London's transport and commerce depended – the smell of a stable multiplied a millionfold. There was the scent of hundreds of thousands of people, whose tightly packed lives did not allow them opportunities to keep themselves, their clothes or their homes clean. At dusk, when the 'parish lamps', or streetlights, were lit, the air filled with the cloying stench of burning whale-oil, for gas would not be introduced until 1828. George Augustus Sala, journalist, friend of Dickens and fellow-observer of the life of London, analysed this aspect of the city in great detail:
The fumes of the vilest tobacco, of decaying vegetables, of escaping (and frequently surreptitiously tapped) gas, of deceased cats, of ancient fish, of dubious mutton pies, and of unwashed, unkempt, reckless humanity; all these make the night hideous and the heart sick.
Worst of all was the stink that assailed the nostrils at London Bridge. The murky, greenish-brown waters below were filled with the sewage of a million people, and the river was not only the destination of much of the city's bodily waste but also the source of a good deal of its drinking water. Crossing the bridge in a coach would cause the inside passengers to slam the windows shut, no matter how warm the day, while those sitting outside would hold handkerchiefs over their faces. Only people who spent their lives on or near the river ever got used to it. Small wonder that town-dwellers looked so unhealthy, or that those visiting from the country could expect quickly to become ill.
Across the river, travelling up Bishopsgate and left into Lombard Street, the coach would pass through what was then, and remains, London's banking district. Progress would be slow through the narrow and congested streets, but a large vehicle and a robust coachman, using language that would probably shock some passengers, could usually force a way without difficulty. On the right was the Bank of England – its impressive new building, designed by the great architect Sir John Soane, still taking shape (it would not be completed until 1833) – while on the left was the Mansion House, the home of London's Lord Mayor. Going westward along Cheapside, a much broader thoroughfare, Pip would have seen the towering steeple of St Mary le Bow, to be born within the sound of whose bells is the traditional definition of a Cockney. As the coach turned right into Wood Street, the great bulk of St Paul's would have been glimpsed a short distance to the west, and he might have heard the tolling of its huge 17-ton bell, 'Great Paul'.
No visitors to the city could have remained unaffected by what they had seen, especially country people accustomed to knowing everyone in their town or village by sight, and to seeing them in the street perhaps dozens of times a day. In London there were more people than they would ever have encountered before. The sheer size and volume of everything must have been profoundly disconcerting. In foul weather London's dirtiness, overcrowding and rudeness would have been even more in evidence. Dickens wrote of it in Bleak House:
Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes. Dogs, indistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot-passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foothold at street corners, where tens of thousands of other foot-passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke.
Everywhere there was dirt and a visible lack of hygiene. From street-corner pumps, people would be drawing drinking water that was an unpleasant brown colour and smelt disgusting. Scuttling out of sight behind barrels or under warehouse doors, rats would be ubiquitous in broad daylight, as would mangy feral cats and dogs, which might make a grab at meat hanging outside a butcher's shop until chased away by an apprentice with a broomstick (dead dogs and cats, unless they had been someone's pet, would not merit a glance as they lay in the street or floated in the Thames). This same meat, hung outdoors, would be covered with flies and spattered by passing traffic. And there was worse. Half-concealed under rags down a back alley, one might glimpse the bluish corpse of an abandoned baby or, early in the morning and especially in winter, the stiffened body of someone who had frozen to death overnight while sleeping in the street. There would be casual cruelty towards animals, the kicking of dogs or the whipping of horses by angry drivers, without anyone intervening.
The traffic in Dickens' London was terrifying. Vehicles did not keep to the left, but drove as near the middle of the road as they were able. Unless a constable happened to be nearby, there would be no prospect of crossing a busy road except by taking the plunge and risking the wheels and hooves. Drivers, perched high above the pedestrians and armed with whips, could be formidable obstacles to safe passage. Small boys often hopped on the backs of carriages and wagons to ride, causing passers-by to call to the driver, 'Whip behind!' At least the pavements were safe from traffic. There were iron bollards on the corners to prevent the wheels of wagons mounting the kerb. Though the rumble and rattle of vehicles was deafening, there were occasions on which the noise might be reduced: on residential streets in which someone was ill, their family could pay to have straw strewn, a practice that continued into the 1930s.
Only on Sundays did the city seem less intimidating. Then it was free of commercial traffic and a dreary emptiness settled over the streets. Other than the churches, almost everything was shut – shops, libraries and places of entertainment. Even the 'improving' spectacles so beloved of the 19th century – picture-galleries and museums – were unavailable. In winter, especially, the gloom could be utterly dispiriting. Arthur Clennam experienced it in the opening pages of Little Dorrit:
It was a Sunday evening in London, gloomy, close and stale. Maddening church bells of all degrees of dissonance made the brick-andmortar echoes hideous. Melancholy streets, in a penitential garb of soot, steeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look at them out of windows in dire despondency ... Everything was bolted and barred that could by possibility furnish relief to an overworked people. No pictures, no unfamiliar animals, no rare plants or flowers, no natural or artificial wonders of the ancient world – all taboo with that enlightened strictness, that the ugly South-Sea gods in the British Museum might have supposed themselves at home again ... Nothing for the spent toiler to do but compare the monotony of his seventh day with the monotony of his six days, think what a weary life he led, and make the best of it.
Though London was overwhelmingly impressive to Dickens' contemporaries, it would seem to us small and parochial. There were large structures that attracted admiration, most of which are still standing – St Paul's and Westminster Abbey, the Tower, Mansion House, Somerset House, Carlton House – but almost all of the great public buildings and spaces that we associate with the 19th century, such as the Houses of Parliament, the Royal Courts of Justice, the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square, belong to a later period. These, like the enormous steel-and-glass office buildings of recent decades, have given us a sense of scale that was entirely lacking in the reign of George IV. Virtually no secular building was higher than five storeys. The skyline was low (as it still is in central Paris) and punctuated by graceful spires and steeples, with only an occasional eyesore in the form of a factory chimney.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Inside Dickens' London"
Copyright © 2011 Michael Paterson.
Excerpted by permission of F+W Media, Inc..
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Table of Contents
1 THE PLACE,
2 THE PEOPLE,
3 SHOPS AND SHOPPING,
4 CITY AND CLERK,
5 TRANSPORT AND TRAVEL,
7 THE POOR,
8 CRIME AND PUNISHMENT,
9 THE RESPECTABLE,
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