Dickens London A Walk
This eventful section of your journey through Charles Dickens London features the house of Dickens great Friend John Forster and also visits Ye Olde Curiosity Shop.
Keep ahead past the museum (if you choose to visit it turn right out of it) and follow the square when the road turns left. You will pass number 65 on your right where a blue plaque remembers it as the former home of William Marsden (1796-1867) one of the great figures of 19th- century healthcare and founder of both the Royal Free and the Royal Marsden hospitals. A few doors further along you will pass a salmon coloured building, numbers 59 and 60.
This building dates back to 1641 and is known as Lindsey House, after its first owner, Robert Bertie, the first Earl of Lindsey. Unfortunately his tenure was cut short by his becoming Charles 1sts commander-in-chief, in which capacity he was killed at the battle of Edgehill in 1642, the first major skirmish of the English Civil War. A dark plaque on the wall commemorates Spencer Perceval (1762-1812) the only English Prime Minister to have been assassinated. He was gunned down in the lobby of the House of Commons by a Liverpool grocer named John Bellingham, a failed businessman from Liverpool who blamed Perceval for his financial difficulties.
The next building along comprising numbers 57 and 58 dates from the 18th century and the grand porch was designed by Sir John Soane. Dickens friend, business adviser and primary biographer, John Forster (1812 -1865) lived at number 58. Dickens based the character of Mr Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend (1864-65) on Forster. Later he used this house as the residence for Mr Tulkinghorn -legal adviser to Sir Leicester Dedlock and evil blackmailer of his wife, Lady Dedlock - in Bleak House. Dickens was at his lawyer-bashing best when he wrote:
‘The crow flies straight across Chancery Lane…into Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Here, in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr Tulkinghorn. It is let off in sets of chambers now, and in these shrunken fragments of its greatness lawyers lie like maggots in nuts.’
On the 2nd December 1844 Dickens, who had travelled especially from Italy - where he was living for a year - gave a private reading at Forster’s house from his new Christmas story The Chimes. The select gathering included, Forster, Thomas Carlyle, and Daniel Maclise. ‘There was not a dry eye in the house,’ Maclise later wrote to Dickens wife, Catherine, who had remained in Italy. ‘Shrieks of laughter -there were indeed - and floods of tears as a relief to them - I do not think that there ever was such a triumphant hour for Charles…’ Maclise also did a pencil sketch of the occasion, showing Dickens seated at the desk, the book open in front of him. Streaks of light radiate from him and he is surrounded by his enraptured audience. Forster considered it an accurate depiction of the occasion, although he did comment that there was a touch of caricature of which he considered himself ’chief victim.’
A second reading two evenings later was equally successful, and thus were sown the seeds of Dickens foray in amateur theatricals and, according to Forster, ‘those readings to larger audiences by which, as much by his books, the world knew him in later life.’
Continue and keep straight ahead into Portsmouth Street where, a little way along on the left is:-
Ye Olde Curiosity Shop.
This quaint little building dates from 1567 and was reputedly built from old ship timbers. The legend ‘Immortalized by Charles Dickens’ emblazoned on its wall is a bit of wishful thinking. Dickens emphatically states at the end of The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) that the building of which he wrote was ‘long ago pulled down.’ In a letter to The Echo in 1883, a Mr Charles Tesseyman confessed that his brother, who had dealt in old china, books and paintings from the premises between 1868 and 1877, had added the ‘Immortalized by appellation to his shop front for ’business purposes.’ The letter Following his brother’s death in 1877, the new tenant painted over his name but left the claim displayed on the wall. Around 1881, an American journalist writing about Dickensian landmarks arrived at the shop and ’straightaway wrote an article in Scribner’s Monthly … [assuring] …his readers that this was the old original Old Curiosity shop of Dickens.’
The George 1V pub on the right past the shop, rebuilt since Dickens’s day, is thought to have been the original of the Magpie and Stump, where in Pickwick Papers, Jack Bramber tells Mr Pickwick some very bizarre and extremely gruesome stories.
Backtrack to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and turn right. Keep ahead until you arrive at the classical, Ionic- columned frontage of:-
The Royal College of Surgeons.
The building was originally built by George Dance and James Lewis between 1806 and 1813. In 1835 it was completely rebuilt by Sir Charles Barry, although he did keep the grand portico with its giant Ionic columns.
Commenting on the lawyers of Lincoln’s Inn, Mr Boythorn in Bleak House says that they should have their “necks wrung and their skulls arranged in Surgeon’s Hall, for the contemplation of the whole profession, in order that its younger members might understand from actual measurement in early life, how thick skulls may become!’ Today you can do likewise, as all manner of gruesomely fascinating artefacts and anatomical specimens - lawyers skulls excepted - are now on display and open to the public in the college’s two museums.