When he arrived in London at the age of ten, the first place that the young Charles Dickens wanted to visit was Covent Garden. This voracious young reader had come across vivid stories in his books and wanted to see with his own eye, whether what he had read in black and white could really be true. This fateful day in 1822 sowed the seeds in a fertile imagination that would flourish over the next 50 years into the most famous and popular London literature of the Victorian age.
Much as Samuel Pepys had documented London society in the 17th Century, Dickens’ witty and bittersweet output gives the modern reader a window into the people of Covent Garden and its surrounding areas throughout the 19th.
Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812 to John and Elizabeth Dickens, the family’s peripatetic early years gained some stability when John was summoned to take a position with the Navy Pay Office at Somerset House.
On seeing London, Charles was awestruck by the richness and splendour but equally horrified at the fœtid reaches of society that he encountered. Although the family was perfectly respectable, circumstances soon meant that Charles himself became a member of the masses: His father was incarcerated for debt and, as was the norm, Charles (still only 12) was sent out to find a job of work.
This work was sticking labels onto pots of boot polish in a factory where Charing Cross Station now stands. It was tedious, monotonous and unedifying but, this was real life and Charles had little choice. Those who are familiar with ‘David Copperfield’ will immediately recognise semiautobiographical undertones throughout the storyline, indeed Dickens himself acknowledges this in the preface of early editions: “Like many proud parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child, and his name is…”
As he became a man, Charles Dickens’ career progressed in Covent Garden, until he was able to establish his own weekly journals which were published from Wellington Street. He also lived at a number of addresses in Covent Garden and further afield.
Dickens found great comfort in walking the streets, observing all the specimens of humanity as he did so. Sometimes he’d cover up to 20 miles and would often take these long invigorating walks at the dead of night. It is no surprise then that he knew the streets of London so well. In each of his books, the characters occupy any number of named and unnamed Covent Garden locations: much of the dialogue in ‘The Pickwick Papers’ and ‘Great Expectations’ occurs in the Piazza, other examples include Mortimer Knag’s stationers on Tottenham Court Road (‘Nicholas Nickleby’), Dick Swiveler’s lodging above the Drury Lane tobacconist (‘Old Curiosity Shop’), Mr Venus the taxidermist on [now] Monmouth Street (‘Our Mutual Friend’) and the legal proceedings of Jarndyce and Jarndyce (Bleak House) at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Indeed the only Dickens book without a verifiable Covent Garden location is ‘A Christmas Carol’.
During the years that Dickens lived and worked here, London was experiencing a massive population surge. In 1800, circa 1million people lived in the capital; by 1880 that number was 4.4million. Victorian society was notorious for the chasm between rich and poor and Dickens managed to straddle the two, he was a very wealthy man when he died, but early episodes at the polish factory and suchlike influenced his fondness for rapscallions and urchins, most famously ‘Oliver Twist’. While Dickens may be guilty of whimsy, he didn’t allow sentimentalism to overshadow what he witnessed. In one description of Seven Dials from his journal ‘Household Words’ in 1851, he described the Irish workers living in one tenement: “Ten, twenty, thirty – who can count them! Men, women children… heaped upon the floor like maggots on cheese… Infected, vermin-haunted heaps of rags”. His later works would tone this down a notch but he remained acutely aware of the struggles that faced everyday folk.
Many of Dickens’ locations have since been lost to property developers but a few candidates remain as they were in his day. There is some argument amongst scholars as to whether the retrospectively-named Old Curiosity Shop at 13 Portsmouth Street is in fact the same place that Dickens wrote about, but the building itself is certainly one that Dickens would have known since the streetscape here has not changed since 1830.
Perhaps the finest accolade, and one which Dickens himself would chuckle at, is that one street of Covent Garden is now named after him, indirectly though. There is no “Dickens Street” however, the unassuming Manette Street abutting Foyles bookshop is named after his character from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. In Victorian times it was called Rose Street and this is where Dickens chose to place the fictional home of Dr Alexandre Manette. “The Doctor occupied two floors of a large stiff house, where several callings purported to be pursued by day… gold to be beaten by some mysterious giant who had a golden arm sticking out of the wall of the front hall–as if he had beaten himself precious.”
Visiting Manette Street today is not possible as it is part of the Tottenham Court Road regeneration scheme, but in earlier days you would have seen a humorous, subtle memorial to Dickens just as he described above. There is no plaque or explanation for this incongruous golden arm, and people stroll by oblivious, but if the ghost of Charles Dickens were to come by during one of his long night-time walks, he would surely be amused too.