Discover the history of one of London’s most famous prisons, where Charles Dickens’ father John was jailed.
Up until the late 19th century, there were dozens of prisons in central London. While a few, such as The Clink or the Tower of London – are still standing (albeit without prisoners), most have been long demolished. One of these lost London prisons may have been closed for over 170 years, but its name has been immortalised thanks to Charles Dickens (1812-1870).
The Marshalsea prison stood in Southwark for nearly 500 years. The Marshalsea originally opened at what is now 161 Borough High Street in 1373. The name is adapted from the old English word “marshalcy” which means “the office, rank, position of a Marshal”. In its early years, it housed men accused of crimes at sea, as well as other ‘land’ crimes. Among the famous prisoners of Marshalsea included the playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637), who was imprisoned in 1597 for his “lewd” play The Isle of Dogs, which caused much offence and was suppressed by order of Queen Elizabeth I. Prior to prison reform in the 19th century, prisons were run for private profit. Prisoners had to pay for rent, food and clothes and furnish their own cells. A community sprung up within Marshalsea, with shops and restaurants being run by prisoners.
By the late 16th century, the prison was already in bad condition, but it wasn’t until 1799 the government decided it was time to rebuild. The new Marshalsea was rebuilt 130 yards at the current site of 211 Borough High street, costing £8,000. When it opened in 1811, it was split into two sections – one for debtors and another for mariners under court marshal. By the 18th and 19th century, debt was responsible for nearly half of England’s prison population. Usually, those in debt only spent a few months in the prison. Conditions were cramped and unpleasant, with sometimes up to four people sharing a cell measuring 10ft 10in by 8ft high.
Charles Dickens Museum: Discover the man behind the books at the author’s only surviving London home
Review: A visit to Charles Dickens’ former home.
Charles Dickens is without a doubt one of our greatest authors. Although he was born in Portsmouth and died in Kent, he spent an awful lot of his life in London. During his decades in the capital, the writer lived in many residences, most of which no longer exist.
Today, the only remaining home is now a museum dedicated to his life and work. The author and his wife Catherine (1815-1879) moved to 48 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury in March 1837 – just a few months before Queen Victoria came to the throne. Previously they had been living in rented rooms at Furnival’s Inn in Holborn, but the birth of their first son Charles Jnr (1837-1896) meant they required more space. He signed a three-year lease on the five-floor Georgian terrace, costing around £80 a year. Built in 1807-9, the building is now Grade I-listed.
During the Dickens family’s three years in Doughty Street, Catherine gave birth to their eldest daughters Mary (1838-1896) and Kate (1839-1929), as well as raising their son Charles Jnr. Mrs Dickens’ 17-year-old sister Mary Hogarth also lived with the couple to help them with their expanding brood. Charles became very attached to his sister-in-law and she died in his arms following a short illness in May 1837. She is believed to have inspired several of his characters, including Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist and Little Nell Trent in The Old Curiosity Shop, among others.
While living at the Bloomsbury terrace, Dickens completed The Pickwick Papers (1836), wrote Oliver Twist (1838) and Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39) and started on Barnaby Rudge (1840–41). As he became more successful in his career and his family expanded, Dickens and the family left Doughty Street in December 1839 and moved to the grander 1 Devonshire Terrace in Marylebone. They lived at Devonshire Terrace until 1851 before moving on to Tavistock House, where the family remained for a further nine years. One Devonshire Terrace was demolished in the late 1950s and now an office block called Ferguson House stands on the site on Marylebone Road.
While most of Dickens’ London residences are long gone, the Doughty Street premises nearly ended up consigned to the history books as well. By the 1920s and 1930s, demolition of Georgian properties was becoming popular with the government, the majority of those being part of the ‘slum clearance’ programme. Many homes from this period had not been maintained well over the decades, providing unsanitary and unsafe living quarters for predominantly poor Londoners. Forty-eight Doughty Street was ear-marked for demolition in 1923, but was fortunately saved by the Dickens Fellowship, founded 21 years earlier. They managed to buy the property and renovate it, opening the Dickens’ House Museum in 1925. In 2012, the museum was re-opened following a £3.1million restoration project and now encompasses neighbouring No.49.
After having it on my ‘to do’ list for some time, I finally paid a visit recently and really enjoyed it. Upon entry you are given an audio tour which guides you around the five floors, including the kitchen and the attic. The museum really brings to life the man behind the books – his complicated private life, his feelings about his tough childhood and his many inspirations. The rooms have been decorated as the author may have known it, in a typical Victorian style and often with his actual furniture – many of which had been bought from Gad’s Hill Place – the Kent home where the author died in 1870. If you’re a fan of Dickens or history, I highly recommend a visit.
- Charles Dickens Museum, 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, WC1N 2LX. Nearest station: Russell Square or Chancery Lane. Open Tues-Sun 10am-5pm. Tickets: Adult £9, Child 6-16 years £4. For more information, visit the museum website.
For a guide to London’s Dickens landmarks, click here.
Read about the history of, Marshalsea Prison, where Charles’ father John was imprisoned for debt.
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”. (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. 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 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.
Follow Metro Girl on Instagram for more insider London photos.
For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.
For a guide to Dickens’ London hotspots, click here.
Down a small side street near the Aldwych campus of King’s College is an extraordinary piece of hidden London.
Known as the ‘Roman’ Bath on Strand Lane, the building is rarely open to the public. I visited a few months ago during Open House London and found the origins of the baths weren’t quite as romantic as they sounded. At one point there were two baths on the site – named ‘Essex’ and ‘Roman’ respectively, however it is the latter (which is also the oldest), that can be seen today.
Thanks to centuries of redevelopment, bombing and fires, there isn’t much left of Roman London today. Within the borders of old Londinium, we have some of the Roman wall at Tower Hill, the remains of the Amphitheatre at Guildhall and an old bathhouse at Lower Thames Street. While the bath at The Strand continues to be named ‘Roman’, it turns out it is significantly younger than two millennia.
Recent research by historians at nearby King’s College London has found the bath was originally constructed in 1612 as a feeder cistern for an elaborate fountain in the gardens of an earlier incarnation of Somerset House (prior to the current building, which dates back to 1796). At the time, the house was the residence for Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), Queen Consort of King James I of England (1566-1625). Following their deaths, it is believed the fountain was demolished around 1630 during extensive remodelling under the reign of their son King Charles I (1600-1649). This research by Professor Michael Trapp and Dr Kevin Hayward rejects an earlier theory the bath was a spring water reservoir for Arundel House, home to Thomas Howard, 21st Earl Of Arundel (1586-1646). Read the rest of this entry
A guide to Charles Dickens’ London landmarks – where he lived, worked and socialised.
Nearly two centuries after Charles Dickens’ first works were published, the author is still considered a legend in the literary world and is still read by millions across the world in many different languages. Many visitors (and residents) come to London in search of Charles Dickens every year. Sadly, many of the locales he frequented or wrote about are long gone, but there are still some homes in existence and sites for those wanting to make a Dickensian pilgrimage. Metro Girl has composed a list of where to find your own Dickens experience. To help you find them, some have been marked on the map below.
- Charles Dickens Museum
Dickens lived in this Bloomsbury house from March 1837 until December 1839 when he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. He had a three-year lease on the property, costing £80 a year. Now a museum, the Georgian house contains many artefacts and rare editions. Open daily 10am-5pm. Tickets: Adults £8, Children £4. Charles Dickens Museum, 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, WC1N 2LX. Nearest station: Russell Square. For more information, visit the Museum website. For Metro Girl’s review of the museum, click here. (No.1 on map)
- Westminster Abbey
Charles Dickens was buried in Poets’ Corner on 19 June 1870 – five days after his death. This went against his own wishes to be buried in his home county of Kent in Rochester Cathedral. Tickets: Adults £18, Children £8. Westminster Abbey, 20 Dean’s Yard, Westminster, SW1P 3PA. Nearest station: Westminster. For more information, visit the Westminster Abbey website.
- Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
This famous pub on Fleet Street has stood on the site since the 16th century, with the present building rebuilt after the Fire of London in 1666. As a young reporter, Dickens is known to have drunk here and also featured the establishment in his novel A Tale Of Two Cities. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, 145 Fleet Street, EC4A 2BU. Nearest station: Blackfriars. (No.2 on map)
- Charles Dickens’ Coffee House
A café on the ground floor of Dickens’ former offices at No. 26 Wellington Street near Aldwych. The building housed the author’s offices for his weekly magazine All The Year Round and he also resided in an apartment in the building following his separation from wife Catherine. 26 Wellington Street, WC2E 7DD. Nearest station: Covent Garden. (No.3 on map)
- The Old Curiosity Shop
This 16th century shop was actually named The Old Curiosity Shop after Dickens’ 1840/41 novel of the same name was published, probably in a bid to cash in. However, given that Dickens lived in the area for many years, it is likely he visited it. Regardless, it’s unusual to have such an old shop still in use. The Old Curiosity Shop, 13-14 Portsmouth Street, WC2A 2ES. Nearest station: Holborn. Read Metro Girl’s blog post on the full history of the shop. (No.4 on map)
- Angel Place (Marshalsea Prison – demolished)
A brick wall is all that is left of Marshalsea Prison, where Dickens’ father John was imprisoned for debt in February 1824 when the author was just 12. Two months later, his mother and his three younger siblings also ended up at Marshalsea. Dickens, who was working at Warren’s blacking factory at Hungerford Stairs in Charing Cross at the time, visited them at the prison every Sunday until he was able to move closer at lodgings at Lant Street (the road is now home to a primary school named after him), a few minutes walk away. He used his experiences to write Little Dorrit, where the main character is born at Marshalsea. The prison was closed in 1842, although many of the buildings remained in use by small businesses throughout the Victorian era. Today, Angel Place is an alley running along the brick wall leading from Borough High Street (near the John Harvard Library) going down to Tennis Street (near Southwark Coroner’s Court), SE1. Nearest station: Borough. For the history of the prison, click here.
- Gray’s Inn
After leaving Wellington House Academy, Dickens got a job as a junior clerk working in the offices of Ellis and Blackmore at Holborn Court in Gray’s Inn in May 1827. He worked there for 18 months, before leaving to become a reporter. The site of Holborn Court is now known as South Square. To access South Square, you can walk through Gray’s Inn Gate on High Holborn – next to the Cittie Of York pub. South Square, Gray’s Inn, Holborn, WC1R 5HP. Nearest station: Chancery Lane. For more information about Gray’s Inn, visit their official website. (No.5 on map)
- Holborn Bars (Furnival’s Inn – demolished)
The Holborn Bars building is built on the site of Furnival’s Inn – a 14th century Inn of Chancery which was attached to Lincoln’s Inn. Dickens rented rooms at the Inn between 1834 and 1837, during which time he worked as a political journalist and started to write The Pickwick Papers. Unfortunately, the Inn was demolished in 1897, with Holborn Bars being built on the site soon afterwards. Holborn Bars, 138-142 Holborn, EC1N 2NQ. Nearest station: Chancery Lane. (No.6 on map). (see a sketch of Furnival’s Inn from 1830).
- 15 – 17 Marylebone Road (1 Devonshire Terrace – demolished)
Dickins and his family lived at 1 Devonshire Terrace in Marylebone from 1839 until 1851. The building was demolished in the late 1950s and now an office block called Ferguson House stands on the site. A mural of Dickens has been carved into the wall, featuring the author and some of his creations, including Scrooge, Barnaby Rudge, Little Nell and Granddad, Dombey and daughter, Mrs Gamp, David Copperfield, and Mr Micawber. 15-17 Marylebone Road, NW1 5JD. Nearest stations: Regent’s Park or Baker Street. (see a photo of 1 Devonshire Terrace in 1957).
- 22 Cleveland Street
Dickens lived in this house as a boy on and off from 1815-16 and 1828-31. The Georgian building was a few doors down from the Cleveland Street Workhouse – which is believed to have inspired the workhouse where Oliver Twist was living at the beginning of the novel. The Grade II-listed, 18th century Workhouse building still exists, but is under threat of demolition. To find out about the campaign to save the Cleveland Street Workhouse, click here. Cleveland Street, W1T. Nearest station: Goodge Street.
- Chandos Place and Charing Cross Station (Warren’s Blacking Warehouse – demolished)
The site of the TGI Fridays restaurant on 6 Chandos Place was one of the two locations of Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, where Dickens had to work 10 hour days to pay for his board after his father John was imprisoned at Marshalsea from 1824-25. Initially, Dickens worked on Hungerford Stairs, near the present site of Charing Cross station, where he earned six shillings a week pasting labels on bottles of boot polish. He later worked slightly north at the site on Chandos Place. Dickins hated his time there, which inspired many of his later tales. Today, a blue plaque is on the TGI Fridays building commemorating him. Nearest station: Charing Cross.
- Le Méridien Piccadilly Hotel (St James’ Hall – demolished)
The Le Méridien Piccadilly Hotel stands on the site of St James’ Hall – where Dickens gave his last public ‘Farewell Readings’ in March 1870 – less than three months before his death. St James’ Hall was a Victorian, Gothic designed music hall which stood on the quadrant between Piccadilly and Regent Street. It was demolished in 1905, with the Piccadilly Hotel built on the site four years later. 21 Piccadilly, W1J 0BH. Nearest station: Green Park or Piccadilly Circus.
For more of Metro Girl’s blog posts on London history, click here.
To retrace William Shakespeare’s steps in London, click here.