A Charles Dickens Walk: The Farringdon Slums

A Charles Dickens Walk: The Farringdon Slums

When Dickens was away from London, he found it difficult to write 'in the absence of streets'. He wrote in a letter to his friend John Forster that a "day in London sets me up again and starts me. But the toil and labour of writing, day after day, without that magic lantern, is IMMENSE!!!".

The dining room at the Charles Dickens Museum

This walk takes in the area around 48 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury, where Dickens lived a decade earlier. He completed Oliver Twist and wrote Nicholas Nickleby here. The house is now the Charles Dickens Museum. Dickens moved here with his young wife and first child when he was 24 years old in 1837, describing it as a "frightfully first-class family mansion, involving awful responsibilities". The house is now fitted out as if the family still lived there, and displays many things they owned, including Dickens's writing desk and walking stick.

Despite his glittering social circle of admiring guests and friends, here he was close to poverty, the crime, the law, the abandoned and neglected child, and the prison. They were images from which he could never escape, and they constitute a powerful part of the world of contrasts and extremes that is so much Dickens's London.

Photo: Joe Dunckley

On leaving the museum, turn left then left again onto Roger Street. Cross over Gray's Inn Road onto Elm Street and follow it as it becomes Mount Pleasant, which is thought to have acquired this ironic name from its historic role as a dump site for human waste. Dickens makes Mount Pleasant the home of the Smallweed family in Bleak House, in rooms "always solitary, shady and sad, closely bricked in on all sides like a tomb."

Looking towards Farringdon Road, you see the Mount Pleasant Post Office complex. If Dickens had stood in the same spot as you, he would have seen the Middlesex House of Correction (or Coldbath Fields Prison). His friendship with the reformist prison governor George Chesterton enabled him to observe the treadmills, the "wheels", in operation, as he describes it in The Last Cab-driver in Sketches by Boz (1836).

The site Dickens had in mind for where Oliver Twist sees the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates pick Mr Brownlow's pocket? Photo: EZTD

Now go to the junction of Mount Pleasant and Farringdon Road and turn right. The construction of Farringdon Road in 1845-6 cut through some of London's most infamous slums. Walk down Farringdon Road, past the Betsey Trotwood pub (named after David Copperfield's aunt), until you come to Pear Tree Court on your left. This is thought to be the site Dickens had in mind for where Oliver Twist sees the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates pick Mr Brownlow's pocket.

Continue down Farringdon Road, turn right onto Clerkenwell Road and then, after a short walk, left onto Hatton Garden. This street is now well-known for expensive jewellery shops, but was once at the heart of a notorious area of great squalor, poverty, misery and crime — and, most horrifying of all, child crime. Number 54 Hatton Garden is where Dickens sets the police office and magistrates court run by Mr Fang in Oliver Twist. That's where Oliver is brought after being arrested for picking Brownlow's pocket.

A ragged school in Saffron Hill influenced A Christmas Carol. Image: public domain

From Hatton Garden, turn left onto St Cross Street and right onto Saffron Hill. The last section of Saffron Hill was called Field Lane and was cleared in the Holborn Viaduct development (1863-9). This was the location for Fagin's Den in Oliver Twist. It was also among the inspirations that led Dickens to write his minor masterpiece, A Christmas Carol. In September 1843 he visited a ragged school for impoverished children here and was powerfully struck by what he witnessed. Dickens campaigned for it to receive charitable support. After visiting it almost a decade later at its new premises on Farringdon Street, he saw improvements but pleads for more to be done in his essay ‘A Sleep to Startle Us’ (1852; browse ‘Articles’ at djo.org.uk). The school's successor charity is Field Lane, which today supports adults with learning difficulties and vulnerable families.

From Saffron Hill, turn left down Greville Street, cross over Farringdon Road and down Cowcross Street, where animals were held before heading for nearby Smithfield, the meat market described in Oliver Twist and Great Expectations. From Cowcross Street turn left down Turnmill Street, right down Benjamin Street, and left onto Britton Street where, at number 55, you will find the Jerusalem Tavern. This might look Dickensian, but in fact only dates back to the mid 1990s.

Tony Williams is President of the Dickens Fellowship and author, with Alex Werner, of Dickens’s Victorian London 1839-1901 (Ebury Press, 2012).

Restless Shadow: Dickens the Campaigner reveals how important walking was to Dickens’s method. He walked every day, and sometimes at night, at a pace and over distances that would leave most of us breathless and exhausted. They brought him face-to-face and into 'sympathetic relations' with his subjects. Vitally, his walks helped him develop novel kinds of investigative writing that moved through all ‘nooks and corners’, exposing what life was like for the most desperate to an unaware public. Dickens’s walking stick, then, was perhaps almost as important for his writing as his pen.

The exhibition runs until 29 October 2017 at the Charles Dickens Museum, 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, WC1N 2LX.

Last Updated 10 May 2017