The London That Charles Dickens Knew.
Return to Holborn, turn right and keep ahead over Gray’s Inn Road. Continue until, just before you arrive at the Cittie of Yorke Pub (it has a clock outside) turn right through the gates and keep ahead through the barrier into Gray’s Inn. Keep ahead into South Square and pause outside the building immediately on the right.
Bear right out of the passageway and continue ahead into South Square. Gray’s Inn Hall (built 1556), can be seen on the opposite side of South Square. In Pickwick Papers Dickens mentions how ‘Clerk after clerk hastened into the square by one or other of the entrances, and looking up at the hall clock accelerated or decreased his rate of walking according to the time at which his office hours nominally commenced’.
To the modern eye this is a delightful piece of bygone London, but Dickens was particularly unimpressed by it. ‘Indeed’, he wrote in The Uncommercial Traveller, ‘I look upon Gray’s Inn… as one of the most depressing institutions in brick and mortar, known to the children of men.’ Either there has been a great deal of change since he wrote those words, or else the drudgery of the 18 months he spent working as a clerk, clouded his judgement!
No 1 South Square, outside which you are now standing was the office of Ellis and Blackmore Solicitors who occupied ‘a poor old set of chambers of three rooms… ’ It was here that Charles Dickens came to work in May 1827. In those days it was No 5 Holborn Square, and it is the only building in the immediate vicinity to have survived the bombs of World War II. So little has changed that you can just picture the ‘good looking and clever’ young boy, his ‘healthy pink – almost glowing’ complexion, ‘expressive eyes’ and ‘beautiful brown hair worn long, as was then the fashion… ’ stepping across its threshold on his first day of employment. A copy of the Daniel Maclise portrait of him, painted in 1839, hangs on the wall of the corridor just beyond the doors to commemorate the building’s associations with the budding author-to-be.
With your back to Number 1 cross over South Square and pass to the left of Gray’s Inn Hall. Go first left through the covered passageway and pass by the beautiful Gardens of Gray’s Inn on your right. Turn right and keep ahead to Raymond Buildings walking to number one.
Ellis and Blackmore moved to number one (rebuilt after the bombs of World War 2) in December 1827 and Dickens remained with them until November 1828. The desk at which he worked is preserved in the Dickens House Museum, to which you will shortly be making your way.
Evidently the office comic, Dickens used to delight his fellow clerks with his talent for mimicry, whilst his knowledge of London, even at the age of 15, was both impressive and unrivalled. One of his amusements was to drop cherry stones from the second floor offices onto the hats of passers-by below. Should anyone complain he would confront them ‘with so much gravity and with such an air of innocence, that they went away… ’ It was whilst working here that Dickens began to learn shorthand and, by 1829, he had left their employ to become a shorthand writer in Doctor’s Commons. But his experiences at Ellis and Blackmore would resurface time and again in his fiction. Indeed, in the firm’s petty cash book, now preserved in America, can be found such names as Weller, Bardell and Rudge, all of which he would use later in his novels.