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 stories 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 believed to have been the inspiration for Dickens’ tale is widely believe 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 who he referred to as “lightning”.
From the 1880s until 1911, 13-14 Portsmouth Street was home to Horace Poole’s Waste Paper Merchant business. It was then taken over in the 1910s by stationers Gill and Durrant. By 1937, it appeared to be split into two businesses; The Society Tailors and Souvenir and Gifts with hanging 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. 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 during mid 20th century, 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 station: Holborn or Temple.
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For a guide to Dickens’ London hotspots, click here.
Hidden in the side of a chain restaurant on Bankside is a tiny part of London’s history. Embedded in the wall of The Real Greek restaurant at Riverside House on Bear Gardens is a slab of flint, called The Ferryman’s Seat. Although it’s long been out of use, it’s a hark back to a time when the River Thames was heaving with boat traffic at the peak of its use.
Prior to the 19th century, there were hardly any bridges in London, with London Bridge being the only permanent river crossing until old Putney Bridge was built in 1729. For hundreds of years, Londoners and visitors made do with just one bridge. It was only in the mid 17th century with the increasing use of horse and carriages that there became growing demand for another bridge. As an alternative to a bridge, ferrymen were used to transport people across the Thames, essentially providing a water taxi service. In the 16th century and early 17th century, Bankside was a thriving entertainment destination with its theatres, bear-baiting pits, inns and brothels, so ferrymen in the area would have been in high demand taking City-dwellers back and forth. The seat is erected on the entrance from the river walk to Bear Gardens – named after the Beargarden which stood in the area during the Elizabethan era, where bear-baiting and other animal ‘sports’ (eg. what today we would consider as animal cruelty) would take place. Within a short distance of the seat were the theatres The Hope (1614-42), The Globe (1599-1642) and The Rose (1587-1606), where plays by the likes of William Shakespeare and others would be performed. In 1628, there were a recorded 2,453 watermen working along the Thames. Transporting drunken patrons back to their homes on the north side of the river every night would have been quite a task for the ferrymen so it’s no wonder they would need a rest now and again. This unassuming piece of flint would have provided a small place to perch for these hard-working men as they waited for their fares. Although no one has been able to date this seat, it was previously erected on an older building before being protected and replaced on the modern Riverside House.
- Riverside House, Bear Gardens, Bankside, SE1 9HA. Nearest station: Blackfriars, Cannon Street or London Bridge.
To read about the history of nearby 49 Bankside, an 18th century house, click here.
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Thanks to the Great Fire of London and the Blitz, there aren’t many buildings left in the City of London dating back to before the mid 17th century. However, thanks to a stroke of luck – namely a Georgian Londoner who cared little for Tudor architecture – one historic piece of London dating back to the 13th and 16th century still survives today.
Situated on West Smithfield, a stone’s thrown from the historic St Bart’s Hospital, is the St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse. Sandwiched between a French restaurant and a red brick Georgian-style structure, the narrow gatehouse comprises of a 13th century arch, topped by a two-storey, 16th century Tudor building. The name St Bartholomew’s comes from the nearby church St Bartholomew-The-Great, which was formerly an Augustinian Priory, founded by Rahere (d.1134) in 1123 (Rahere is buried in the church). When King Henry VIII (1491-1547) ordered the dissolution of the monasteries, a lot of St Bartholomew’s was demolished in 1539, including the nave, although the Norman crossing and choir still remain today. The original Priory church measured a whopping 300 feet by 86 feet.
Also surviving is part of the west doorway into the southern aisle of the church, an archway dating back to the 13th century. Following the dissolution, Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich (1496/7-1567) bought the church and surrounding land in 1546/47, sub-dividing it for housing. In 1595, a Tudor, timber-framed building was added by William or Philip Scudamore. The simple, narrow structure features two-storeys with a small attic above. Under the first floor window is a coat of arms. In between the two windows on the second floor is a statue of St Bartholomew, one of the 12 Apostles, who the Priory and adjoining hospital were named after.
Miraculously, the gatehouse managed to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 due to the protection of the priory walls. The fire actually ended just a three-minute walk away on Giltspur Street and is commemorated by the Golden Boy of Pye Corner. At some point in the 18th century, whoever owned the gatehouse didn’t care much for its ‘old-fashioned’, Tudor façade so it was given a Georgian makeover and was used as a shop for two centuries.
Finally, in 1916, it was the destructive act of war that ended up uncovering the building’s original design. A nearby German Zeppelin bomb raid caused damage to the Georgian shop front, revealing the Tudor origins underneath and exposing more of the 13th century stonework from the original nave. Following the end of World War I, it was fully restored by 1932 and is now Grade-II listed. If you walk through the arch and turn right to see the doorway leading into the building, you will see ‘1240’ and ‘1932’ inscribed in the stonework – commemorating the year of the arch’s construction and restoration. The interior of the building includes bolection panelling from around 1700, with original panelling dating back to 1595 in the attic. When the building was restored in the 1930s, it was dedicated the memory of architect Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930), his brother Edward Alfred Webb (former churchwarden of St Bart’s) and Frederick L Dove, ‘who worked together on the restoration of the fabric of the church for over forty years’. A plaque to mark their work and the Webbs’ coat of arms has been erected within the gate.
Today, the gatehouse is a private building, but served as the rectory for the church for many years. Between 1948 and 1979, the then-rector’s wife Phyllis Wallbank MBE (b.1918) set up and ran the Gatehouse School, an independent Montessori school. Obviously due to the size, the building couldn’t educate too many students and it eventually moved to a larger site in Bethnal Green, East London, in the 1970s. Today, the surviving church of St Bartholomew-The-Great is the oldest Parish church in London.
- St Bartholomew’s Gatehouse, West Smithfield, Smithfield, EC1A. Nearest station: Barbican or Farringdon. The Gatehouse is not open to the public, but can be admired from the outside. For more information about St Bartholomew-The-Great church, visit their official website.
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To read about the nearby 41-42 Cloth Fair, a 16th century London home, click here.
For over 2,000 years, our beloved London has been ravaged by invasions, fires, war and terrorism. For every loss of an architectural wonder, we fortunately also have another preserved. The 16th century, Grade I listed Middle Temple Hall is one such historic wonder – amazingly it survived the Great Fire Of London and just about scraped through World War II with some damage to the eastern end. While many other buildings of its era have been turned into a museum, Middle Temple Hall is still functioning for the legal profession – as it was designed for – so is rarely open to the public. It is widely considered as the finest example of an Elizabethan hall in London and has hosted many historical figures over the years.
Middle Temple Hall is located in the Temple area of London – near where the City of London meets the City of Westminster. History of the area stems back to the 13th century when legal students used to lodge and study in the vicinity. The Temple Church nearby was built in the 13th century and remains open to the public, services permitting. Construction on the Hall began in 1562 by law reporter Edmund Plowden, who was Treasurer of the Inn at the time. He has been immortalised as a bust by Morton Edwards, which stands in the Hall. Completed in 1573, the Hall is 100 feet long and 41 feet wide. One of the main attractions is the stunning wooden hammer-beamed roof, which prompted an audible ‘wow’ from me when I first walked into the Hall. The oak wood panelling on the walls feature hundreds of coats of arms and stained glass windows above them of the Readers and other notable Middle Templars.
At the west end of the hall are seven oil paintings of past Royals, including Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), Charles I (1600-1649), Charles II (1630-1685), James II (1633-1701), William III (1650-1702), Queen Anne (1665-1714) and George I (1660-1727). Queen Elizabeth opened the Hall in 1573 and often dined at the hall. It is even rumoured she watched what is believed to be the first production of William Shakespeare‘s Twelfth Night in the Hall on 2 February 1602. Underneath the paintings is the High Table – made of three 29 foot planks of a single oak, which was floated down the River Thames from Windsor Forest, apparently a gift from Queen Elizabeth.
At the east end of the hall is an elaborate screen, which was built in 1574. Two double-leaved doors were added in 1671 in an attempt to prevent boisterous behaviour by junior members of The Bar. However, the screen was heavily damaged in World War II by flying masonry from nearby Elm Court, which was destroyed by a landmine in October 1940. The remains of the screen were stored in 200 sacks until the War was over and it has since been painstakingly restored. During World War II, a total of 122 out of a total of 285 chambers at the Temple were destroyed.
Over the centuries, a host of historic figures became members of Middle Temple, including R D Blackmore, Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, Inigo Jones, Sir Walter Raleigh, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and William Makepeace Thackeray. In 1852, the Four Inns of Court (together with Inner Temple, Gray’s Inn or Lincoln’s Inn) ceased to be responsible for legal education. However, the Bench, Bar and students still meet for lunch in the Hall and host functions. Today, the Inns provide training and support to newly qualified lawyers.
Although the building is usually off-limits to the public, I was fortunate enough to visit during Open House London this September. While the building looked impressive from the outside, I wasn’t quite prepared for how magnificent it was inside. Occasionally the hall is open to the public for its annual Christmas fair and other events.
- Middle Temple Hall, Middle Temple Lane, EC4Y 9AT. Nearest station: Temple. For more information, visit the Middle Temple website.
To find out the history of the Temple Bar arch, a gate to the City of London named after Temple which stood nearby, click here.
For other Open House London posts, read:
- Open House London 2015: Royal residences, Roman baths and more.
- Regency London, John Nash and the Third Reich: Visiting The Royal Society’s Carlton House Terrace with Open House.
For more of Metro Girl’s history blog posts, click here.