The main character in so many of Dickens books could be the city of London. The two are synonymous and his writing on London life has formed what we imagine Victorian London to be like - at once filthy, dangerous yet exciting, full of life and opportunity. Dickens himself described London as his “magic lantern”, inspiring his stories and his characters.
Many of Dickens protagonists come to London to make their fortunes and strike out for themselves - David Copperfield, Pip from Great Expectations. And what a city awaited them. Due to careful preservation, you can walk the streets Dickens would have walked and nearly imagine yourself back there with him.
If you love literature, why not plan your trips around visiting the sites that might have inspired some of Britain’s greatest works?
The Early Years
At 12 years old, Dickens father was in the debtors prison in Southwark and Charles was sent to live with a family friend at 112 College Place in Chatham. Mrs Roylance, with a little embellishment, is the inspiration for Mrs Pipchin in Dombey and Sons.
He also lived briefly in an attic room of Archibald Russell and his family in Lant Street, Southwark. Described as a “fat, good-natured, kind old gentleman ... with a quiet old wife”, they would inspire the Garland family in The Old Curiosity Shop.
To pay for his board and help his family, Dickens worked long hours at Warren’s Blacking Wharehouse, located where the Charing Cross Station is presently. He earned 6 shillings a week to paste labels onto pots of boot blacking. His father came into some money, enabling him leave prison and for Charles to leave his employment at the warehouse. He went on to attend Wellington House academy, in Camden Town. This was not a positive experience for him. He experienced not only a poor education but also the headmaster’s “sadistic brutality”. This inspired his most autobiographical book, David Copperfield, when David was sent to Mr Creakle’s Establishment, a poorly run and seedy boy’s academy.
Dickens worked as a junior clerk for attorneys Ellis and Blackmore of Holborn Court, Grays Inn. His time and education would deeply inform Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son and Bleak House, in not only the detailed portrayal of the bureaucratic maze but also a strong sensitivity for the plight of the poor who were often at the mercy of the “law”.
The Garrick Club
Dickens loved the theatre and was a fan of amateur dramatics and the popular entertainment of the day, even briefly working as an actor. He was a member of the Garrick Club, a gentleman’s club for those in the Arts.
Furnival's Inn in Dickens's Day,
by Shepherd in 1828
In 1833, he published his first story, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk” in London’s Monthly Magazine. Through his uncle, he was able to get a job as a political journalist, reporting on Parliamentary debates and local election campaigns. He rented rooms at Furnival’s Inn.
48 Doughty Street, now the Dickens Museum.
Photo from victorianweb.org
In 1837, after the birth of their first child, Charles and his wife Catherine moved into the family home at 48 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury, along with Charles’ younger brother and Catherine’s sister, Mary. Mary died that year after a short illness. Charles’ was very close to her and immortalised in several of his beloved female characters, such as Little Nell in Old Curiosity Shop and Florence Dombey.
This was the height of his fame, and Dickens traveled widely, lecturing in America and living briefly in Italy. A committed Francophile, he visited Paris often and was well acquainted with the literati of the time, which include Alexandre Dumas, Theophile Gautier and Victor Hugo.
In 1851, the Dickens family would move to Tavistock House where he would write three of his great works: Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Hard Times. He enjoyed success and a healthy income and was able to buy a country home in Kent.
Dickens was a regular patron of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub on Fleet Street in London. He even included it in A Tale of Two Cities.
The Poet's Corner
Dickens died of a stroke in 1870. He was buried in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey.
The official Charles Dickens museum is located in Dickens' family home.
The Old Curiosity Shop, 13-14 Portsmouth Street, Holborn, WC2A 2ES.
One of the oldest shops in London and probably Dickens' inspiration for the novel.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub,145 Fleet St, London EC4A 2BU
One of Dickens' favourite watering holes, even featured in several of his books.
The George Inn, Southwark, London SE1 1NH
Although it's never recorded that Dickens' went here, it is one of London's oldest and most authentic public houses.
With cottages dating back to the early 1600s, walking down here is like being transported back to Dickens' day.
The Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey
Our Charles Dickens Map. Zoom In!
Some of my favourite Dickens' quotes...
"Out of my thoughts! You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read since I first came here… You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since,—on the river, on the sails of ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be."