Charles Dickens’ London

When I studied abroad at the University of London as a junior undergraduate student, I explored the nooks and crannies of the elegant city with London Walks, “the oldest urban walking tour company in the world.” Owing to their excellent guides, I have probably seen more of London than many lifelong Londoners. In July my family elected to take the walk called Charles Dickens’ London, starting at the Temple Underground Station.

Dickens and London? “He knew it all,” recalled a friend, and here are remarkable survivals from his life and works. Pip’s lodgings in Great Expectations (“who enters here leaves noise behind”) and the bank which employed “resurrection man” Jerry Cruncher in A Tale of Two Cities. Tulkinghorn’s chambers (“where lawyers lie like maggots in nuts”) from Bleak House, even the original Old Curiosity Shop (or is it?). Dickens’s immortal Sam Weller had “extensive and peculiar” knowledge of London, and this walk continues the tradition. Tradition and peculiar being the watchwords. Because this walk’s a sojourn into a lost city – an Atlantis. A London of nooks and crannies and alleyways and gas lamps and 18th- and 19th century houses – and no cars! Yes, this London – Dickens’s London – has kept the 20th century at bay. It’s an eye-opener. And a mind opener. The thought that this is where he lived and worked and despite the passage of nearly two centuries he’d feel right at home here. It’s “Inimitable” – like Dickens himself. Let alone the 21st century! 

On the walking tour, I felt like Pip in Great Expectations, who received an unexpected fortune that permits him to leave the “marsh country” of Kent for the “nearest town” of London.

No more low, wet grounds, no more dikes and sluices, no more of these grazing cattle,—though they seemed, in their dull manner, to wear a more respectful air now, and to face round, in order that they might stare as long as possible at the possessor of such great expectations,—farewell, monotonous acquaintances of my childhood, henceforth I was for London and greatness; not for smith’s work in general, and for you!

Pip’s first stop was the “most dismal” office of Mr. Jaggers located at Little Britain. By contrast, there is a dignified area of London known as The Temple, which has been associated with the legal profession for centuries. When we strolled through Pump Court Chambers, which houses some of the city’s leading barristers, I imagined Mr. Jaggers and his clerk Mr. Wemmick carrying out their hurried business.


Pump Court Chambers, The Temple

Dickens scholar David Parker addresses of the importance of the Temple in Great Expectations:

Pip’s final London residence is in the Temple, a complex of buildings between the Thames and Fleet Street, housing two of the Inns of Court I’ve spoken of, the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple.  For a significant part of his writing career, Dickens was a member of the Middle Temple.  He first resolved to be called to the bar in 1834, was admitted to the Middle Temple as a student in 1839, was still intending to be called in 1846, and petitioned to withdraw only in 1855.  He would have known that persons other than lawyers could become tenants of legal chambers.  Buildings in the Inns of Court were often erected or refurbished at the expense of members proposing to occupy them.  In return, they were granted long leases on favourable terms, which they were able to assign to whomever they chose.  

A legal centre from about 1320, the Temple was originally developed in the twelfth century by the Knights Templar.  It’s organised on the mediaeval collegiate model: an enclosed complex in which communal needs are met by chapel, hall and library, private needs by squares and courts of terraced houses.  The sense of enclosure fascinated Dickens—a sense he dramatically violates with the message left by Wemmick with the porter at Whitefriars Gate: ‘Don’t go home.’

Pip’s chambers are in Garden Court—in the building that preceded the late Victorian one standing today—at ‘the top of the last house … down by the river.’  It’s a mark of the topographical precision of Dickens’s imagination that he took friends to see the actual chambers where, in his mind’s eye, Pip had lived.

Middle Temple Hall

Middle Temple

Pip began his London odyssey at Barnard Inn, which he described as having “the most dismal trees in it, and the most dismal sparrows, and the most dismal cats, and the most dismal houses,” but moved his chambers to “Garden Court, down by the river” (photographed below). It was here when Abel Magwitch, his secret benefactor, makes himself known to Pip on a stormy night.

Alterations have been made in that part of the Temple since that time, and it has not now so lonely a character as it had then, nor is it so exposed to the river. We lived at the top of the last house, and the wind rushing up the river shook the house that night, like discharges of cannon, or breakings of a sea. When the rain came with it and dashed against the windows, I thought, raising my eyes to them as they rocked, that I might have fancied myself in a storm-beaten lighthouse. Occasionally, the smoke came rolling down the chimney as though it could not bear to go out into such a night; and when I set the doors open and looked down the staircase, the staircase lamps were blown out; and when I shaded my face with my hands and looked through the black windows (opening them ever so little was out of the question in the teeth of such wind and rain), I saw that the lamps in the court were blown out, and that the lamps on the bridges and the shore were shuddering, and that the coal-fires in barges on the river were being carried away before the wind like red-hot splashes in the rain.

Milford Lane

Milford Lane

Finally, Lincoln’s Inn Fields made an impression upon me during the walking tour. Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin explains its role for the Victorian novelist.

Charles Dickens’s first job was as a lawyer’s clerk with offices in Holborn in the 1820s: he amused himself by spitting cherry stones from the windows on to the heads of passers-by. Chancery Lane, Lincoln’s Inn and the other Inns of Court figure greatly in his novels, most notably in Bleak House. His closest friend, John Forster, lived at 58 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the house Dickens gave to the sinister lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn, and where he had him murdered. 


Lincoln Inn’s Fields, Holborn



7 thoughts on “Charles Dickens’ London

  1. I love this post! It would be fascinating to see the places Dickens wrote about–making his novels even better than they are!.

    • Sandy: Thanks for dropping by Bensonian. I recall that you’ve undertaken the Herculean labor of reading Dickens’ 1,000+ page novel, Bleak House. Much of that work’s focus on the inefficiency and injustice of the legal profession was inspired by Dickens’ experience as a law clerk in The Temple area that we visited on our walking tour.

      • Is Great Expectations your favorite if I want to follow up with another of his books?

      • Yes, Great Expectations is my favorite novel by Dickens: it’s a cautionary tale about what happens to a young man when “he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul” (Matthew 16:26).

      • We’ve watched it on Masterpiece Theatre I think. So, even though I know the story, would it still be worth reading?

      • Yes! A film-adaptation of a novel is no substitute for the novel itself because there are limitations to visual storytelling. Dickens has such a way with words that it’s always a treat to read and re-read his work, even if you’re familiar with the story.

      • Okay–this is my last comment–I promise! I should have known the answer to my question.
        After I read Bleak House, we saw an adaptation of it. It could not have had everything in it that the book had. I had told John the basics of the plot and now when we see a movie or tv show that has a legal case that’s tied up forever, we both say “Just like Jarndyce and Jarndyce.”
        Wasn’t Dickens such an amazing observer of humans and our foibles?
        Okay…enough.Wish I could be in one of your classes!
        Thanks for writing back.

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