The Old Curiosity Shop: A little piece of 16th century London with a literary link
A historic shop proclaims to have inspired the classic novel, but what’s the real story?
Down a little unassuming side street in the back roads of Holborn is historic shop. Just two storeys high, it is dwarfed by the modernity surrounding it. At first glance, fans of Charles Dickens may be thrilled to see the author’s name emblazoned across the upper storey as it claims to be his Old Curiosity Shop from the Victorian novel of the same name. Perhaps on close inspection the truth isn’t so clear-cut.
Built in 1567, the building is believed to be the oldest surviving shop in London. It was constructed using wood from old ships, with a tiled, hipped roof. The ground floor windows today still feature 17th or early 18th century frames, with 19th century glazing. It managed to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 as the fire died out before it reached the Holborn area. At one point the building was used as a dairy on an estate owned by Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth (1649-1734) – one of the mistresses of King Charles II (1630-1685) and mother to one of his illegitimate children. The estate was a gift from Charles and the road takes its name from the Duchess.
Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870) originally serialised The Old Curiosity Shop in his serial Master Humphrey’s Clock from 1840-1841, before publishing it as a complete book in 1841. The novel told the story of orphan ‘Little’ Nell Trent and her grandfather, who live at The Old Curiosity Shop. The book was incredibly popular with the Victorian public, with even the Queen remarking it was ‘cleverly written’.
The idea that Dickens was inspired by this very shop in Holborn is untrue – although he lived for many years in the area and knew of the building. In The Old Curiosity Shop, the author himself writes “the old house had been long ago pulled down, and a fine broad road was in its place”. The actual shop which inspired Dickens’ tale is widely believed to be either 10 Orange Street (behind the National Gallery) or 24 Fetter Lane (off Fleet Street).
Nearly 30 years after book was published, the shop’s proprietor decided to cash in on Dickens’ popularity. A bookbinder and bookseller named Tesseyman (d.1877) renamed it The Old Curiosity Shop, proudly declaring it was the very one ‘immortalised by Charles Dickens’. It’s been claimed Tesseyman was given the idea by Dickens’ illustrator Clayton Kyd Clarke (1857-1937) following the author’s death in 1870. Tesseyman’s brother confirmed to the Pall Mall Gazette in 1884 that the Curiosity Shop sign had been painted on the façade “for purely business purposes, as likely to attract custom to his shop, he being a dealer in books, paintings, old china, and so on”. According to the Gazette, Tesseyman ran the shop from 1868-1877 and was known as ‘Thackeray’s bookbinder’ and was acquainted with William Makepeace Thackeray, Douglas William Jerrold and Dickens, the latter he referred to as “lightning”. (See a watercolour of the shop during Tesseyman’s time).
From the 1880s until 1911, 13-14 Portsmouth Street was home to Horace Poole’s waste paper and jobbing stationery business. It was then taken over in the 1910s by stationers Gill and Durrant. In January 1925, it fortunately escaped destruction by a fire on the first floor, which made the Westminster Gazette headlines. By 1937, it appeared to be split into two businesses; The Society Tailors and Souvenir and Gifts with projecting signage and lamps erected on the first floor façade. The various businesses which resided at the address all preserved the Dickens’ signage, which surely ensured its survival, despite being untrue. The nearby Clare Market slums and shops were demolished in 1905 to create Aldwych and Kingsway, including the tramway subway. The Clare Market area today is mostly occupied by the London School of Economics (LSE).
At some point before 1950, the building became an antiques store, eventually closing in the 1970s. When it shut its doors, receipts and documents dating back as far as the 1920s were found. The building was Grade II listed by Historic England in 1958. Since the 1990s, the shop has been selling shoes by Japanese designer Daita Kimura. Why not pop in to see the low ceiling beams and winding staircases?
- The Old Curiosity Shop, 13-14 Portsmouth Street, Holborn, WC2A 2ES. Nearest stations: Holborn or Temple.
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