“Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart” – Ebenezer Scrooge’s personal transformation in A Christmas Carol is almost as dramatic as that of the London he lived in to today’s.
The sound of trundling waggons, fat with geese and chickens, and the glare of gas lamps – Scrooge’s view from his counting house in the City – are long gone, replaced by the whoops of bankers on their Christmas parties and the blaze of festive lights.
But there are still remnants of Dickens’ London…if you know where to look.
Britain’s great novelist wrote A Christmas Carol over the course of six weeks, writing frenziedly by day and spending his nights wandering the streets of the capital – often covering 15 miles or more. Spectator Life takes a tour of the city that became one of Dickens’ most memorable characters.
48 Doughty Street
Behind the teal door of this elegant Georgian townhouse was where Charles John Huffam Dickens set works including Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby down on paper. The terrace – Dickens’ London address from 1837 to 1839 – is now a museum. You can inspect the family’s table, laid out for tea, and read handwritten drafts of the writer’s stories. Dickens paid £80 a year in rent for his Holborn residence.
Wander along Chancery Lane, parallel to Doughty Street, past the red brick inns of court, to get a feel of the London Dickens knew when he worked as a clerk at a local law firm, often mimicking the lawyers and clients around him and taking inspiration for future novels.
Meander 10 minutes towards Farringdon Station to find yourself standing on Saffron Hill, the site of Fagin’s lair, where Oliver Twist is initiated into his den of thieves.
Once a hub for watchmakers, Clerkenwell is now better known for its trendy brunch spots and beer bars. Although you can no longer squeeze “down the little court by the side of the workhouse; across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole” as Oliver did with the Artful Dodger, you can take a stroll around Clerkenwell Green, where Oliver learns his trade as a pickpocket, and admire the tall 18th-century spire of St James’ Church.
If you thought Dickens’ descriptions of prison are too real to be fiction you’d be right. The author would wander down to watch public executions taking place outside Newgate Prison and even ventured inside its walls to meet the men, women and children imprisoned there. Newgate appears in Dickens’ sketches and is where Oliver goes to watch Fagin’s hanging.
The jailhouse, which was torn down in 1904 and replaced by the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey), stood at the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey within London’s ancient city walls. It is a 10-minute walk south from Saffron Hill.
You can still visit the the Viaduct Tavern across the road, a Grade II-listed Victorian gin palace whose (supposedly haunted) cellars are thought to have been Newgate Prison’s cells.
Dickens knew the realities of imprisonment from a young age. His own father was incarcerated at Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison in Borough when he was just 12 years old.
The Old Curiosity Shop
Head west from the Old Bailey towards Covent Garden and suddenly, among the historic law chambers and swanky new outposts of the London School of Economics, you chance upon a strange painted frontage and wonky roof. Its pseudo-Gothic script declares “The Old Curiosity Shop – immortalised by Charles Dickens”.
Whether this is the odds and ends shop that inspired Dickens’ novel of the same name is debatable, but he certainly visited on many occasions. Plus, the place has a charm all of its own. One of the oldest shops in London, dating back to the 1500s, it now sells designer shoes. Navigating its uneven floors and creaky ships wood doors, you can easily imagine it as the antiques emporium of Dickens’ story: “one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust”.
A 10-minute stroll towards Covent Garden and Leicester Square brings you to the author’s favourite place to eat in the capital: Rules.
The restaurant is well located, in the midst of the theatres Dickens so loved to visit. Established in 1789, it claims to be the oldest restaurant in London. Once you’ve been let in by the doorman, tuck into a hearty portion of slow-cooked game followed by one of Rules’ traditional English puddings and the bustling streets outside will quickly melt into Victorian London.
Dickens dedicates whole sections of A Christmas Carol to describing his dream festive feasts, with heaps of meats, plum puddings, red-hot chestnuts and “seething bowls of punch”.
Aside from Charles Dickens, other famous diners have included H.G. Wells, Laurence Olivier and Charlie Chaplin. Who knows who you might see huddled within one of its red velvet booths today…
One mile west along the Thames bank and you’re greeted with the familiar face and cheerful chime of Big Ben’s clock. The Palace of Westminster played an important role in Dickens’ life – his role here as a parliamentary reporter kickstarted his writing career – and in his work. The only one of his novels to contain no reference to Westminster is the unfinished Edwin Drood. Westminster Abbey is also Dickens’ final resting place, in Poet’s Corner alongside William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters.