Charles Dickens from Furnival's Inn to Doughty Street
Chancery Lane station
Hello, my name is Lucinda Dickens Hawksley. I'm an author and a great great great granddaughter of Charles and Catherine Dickens. Today, I'm going to take you on a tour of the London that Charles Dickens knew. We'll be travelling from his first adult home to the house in which he and Catherine lived in their early marriage.
Before you start walking, take a moment to look around you. You should be standing outside Chancery Lane station, at the silver dragon statue. This dragon, often erroneously called a Gryphon, is the symbol of the City of London – that’s City with a capital “C”. The statue refers to St George, the dragon-slaying patron saint of England. The dragon holds the City’s coat of arms.
The City is also known as the “Square Mile". Today, as it was in Dickens’s day, it's at the heart of financial and legal London. We are going to walk to where Dickens lived as a young man. Chancery Lane is mentioned in several Dickens novels, most notably in Bleak House, but also in Sketches by Boz and Pickwick Papers – which were written while he was living here.
The black-and-white “half-timbered” building across the road on your right is Staple Inn. It gives an idea of what London would have looked like before the Great Fire of London, which happened in 1666. Staple Inn was built in 1585. Dickens saw this building every day when he lived here as a young man, at the time when he was beginning his career as a journalist. Today, the word “inn” usually means a “pub”, but this was an Inn of Court, a boarding school for young lawyers.
Now, if you are standing looking at the the black-and-white building across the road, you need to walk towards your left. Keep walking straight on this major road, which is called High Holborn. I'll tell you how this will work as we move. Let's go.
VoiceMap uses your location to play commentary automatically. You can put your phone away, and focus on the surroundings. There might be silence now and again, but just keep walking until I say otherwise.
Furnival's Inn, Charles Dickens' Home from 1834-1837
Stop here at the imposing red-brick building on your left, known as the Prudential Building – it stands on the site of what was once Furnival’s Inn. We're going to go inside and look around in a moment. Before we go in, turn your back to the building and look to the other side of the road. The building to the left of the short, narrow structure is Gresham College, another former Inn of Court – Barnard’s Inn.
It is named after Tudor nobleman, Sir Thomas Gresham, who set up free public lectures in his home. It still offers free lectures today – something of which Dickens would have approved. In Great Expectations, Pip and Herbert Pocket have their lodgings there. On his first visit, Pip was not at all impressed, as Dickens describes: “I now found Barnard to be a disembodied spirit, or a fiction, and his inn the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together.”
Now turn back to the former Furnival's Inn and walk through the archway into the courtyard of the building, which is now a hotel. As you go in, look for the brown plaque on the right hand wall. It records that the young Charles Dickens lived in a building on this site. The plaque is just above the first window on your right, once you've passed through the archway. This was his first home after he left his parent’s house. His younger brother Fred, lived here with him.
The original Furnival’s Inn was built in the 14th century and managed to survive the Great Fire of London. Sadly that medieval building was demolished in the early 19th century, to make way for the Furnival's Inn that Charles Dickens lived in. He moved in in 1834, six years after it was completed. After his marriage to Catherine Hogarth, the young couple and Fred Dickens moved into a bigger apartment in the same building, and their first son, Charley, was born here in January 1837. The building they lived in was demolished in the mid-19th century. The current building was named the Prudential Assurance Building, and was completed in 1879. It was designed by the great Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse, who was also the architect of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington.
Now walk back out through the archway. Turn left when you reach the road and keep walking.
Continue on Holborn
Charles took his 14-year-old brother Fred with him when he left home. This was for two reasons: he was now earning money, as a freelance writer, and wanted to help his parents financially, and he wanted to get Fred away from what he saw as the bad influence of their father, John Dickens. Charles was very fond of his father, but he knew John wasn’t a good role model. Sadly, years later, after a scandalous divorce case, Fred would end up in a debtors’ prison, just like their father.
It was while living at Furnival's Inn that Charles Dickens started writing The Pickwick Papers. It was also where he had a birthday party in 1835 and invited the family of his editor, George Hogarth. His eldest daughter, Catherine Hogarth, wrote afterwards that it was a fun party and that "Mr Dickens improves on acquaintance"; he must have "improved" very much because, just a few weeks later, Charles proposed to Catherine and she accepted. After their first child, Charley, was born, they had to move house. Dickens’s lease expressly forbade the presence of children!
We're going to turn left here, but before you, do so stop and have a quick look at the statue in the middle of the intersection ahead. That's Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, on horseback.
Now let's turn left and walk away from the statue.
[3 SECOND PAUSE]
The street you're walking on is called Hatton Garden, and it is famous as the centre of the diamond and jewellery trade in London. You can see how built up this area is now. It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like when this neighbourhood was full of gardens. This land was once owned by the very powerful Bishop of Ely and became famous for the strawberries grown in his gardens. The nearby Ely Place is still home to a Strawberry Fayre every summer – a tradition that dates back to the middle ages. In Tudor times, this area became the property of Sir Christopher Hatton. He was very wealthy and famously gave financial backing to the round-the-world voyage of Sir Francis Drake, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. By the 19th century, the Hatton family had died out and the area had been sold off, piece by piece, to developers. By the time Charles Dickens knew this area, many of the surrounding streets had become dangerous slums. It was the small streets around Hatton Garden that Dickens used for many of his scenes in Oliver Twist. In the late 19th century, the inventor Hiram Maxim lived in Hatton Garden – he was a prolific inventor, but is best remembered today for his most deadly invention: the machine gun.
Keep walking straight.
Turn Right to Bleeding Heart Yard
Now turn right here. We're on our way to Bleeding Heart Yard. I'll tell you about it as we walk.
In Dickens's novel Little Dorrit, Bleeding Heart Yard is where the impoverished Plornish family live. It is also where the inventor Daniel Doyce has his factory, which Dickens describes as “often heavily beating like a bleeding heart of iron, with the clink of metal upon metal”. It is most likely that the name Bleeding Heart Yard derives from the nearby Bleeding Heart pub. There are, however, other legends, including a ghost story about the death of Lady Elizabeth Hatton, who was allegedly found brutally murdered here in the 17th century. There is little basis to the story, but Dickens liked to refer to the yard’s possibly bloodthirsty history.
Keep walking straight. I'll catch up with you a little further ahead.
Bleeding Heart Yard
Stop for a moment. On your right is the entrance to Bleeding Heart Yard. We're going to turn around again to walk back in the direction we came from, but have a look down the alleyway to the left of the Bleeding Heart Bistro before we do. Please be aware that this is a popular turning point for lorries, so keep on the pavement to stay safe.
In Little Dorrit Dickens relates the legend of a young woman imprisoned by her father to stop her marrying her lover. She would look down onto the yard, singing of her heart bleeding for love, until she wasted away.
Be thankful that you are standing here in the 21st century – when Dickens knew this area, much of it ran with sewage waste, which caused regular outbreaks of disease. It wasn't until the 1860s that London's sewage problem began to be dealt with properly.
[2 SECOND PAUSE]
Now cross to the other side of the road and walk back the way you came, all the way to the end of the road.
[3 SECOND PAUSE]
This area was once home to London's Italian community. Just down the road used to be Hatton Garden Police Court, which Dickens describes in Oliver Twist as “a very notorious metropolitan police office”. When Oliver was accused of thieving, that's where he was brought before the magistrate, Mr Fang. The kindly Mr Brownlow, the victim of the robbery who refuses to believe in Oliver’s guilt, is very concerned about the way the child is treated by the police and especially the magistrate. Dickens was passionate about making his readers see how unequal British society was – and how huge the gap between the rich and the poor.
When Dickens was writing Oliver Twist, he wrote to the journalist Mr Haines, who specialised in writing about the police and magistrates. In his letter, Dickens said he wanted to make rumours he had heard about the behaviour of a magistrate at Hatton Garden Police Court public. He wrote: “In my next number of Oliver Twist I must have a magistrate; and casting about [for one] whose harshness and insolence would render him a fit subject to be shown up ... I have ... stumbled upon Mr Laing of Hatton Garden”. The identity of the ridiculed Mr Laing – who was later barred from working as a magistrate – is barely disguised in the name Mr Fang.
Keep walking until you get to Leather Lane at the end of the road. I’ll meet you there.
Right on Leather Lane
Turn right here. This is Leather Lane. Keep walking to the very end of the road.
If you are lucky, you will be here on market day. There has been a market here for over 400 years. Despite its name, it was not a market that specialised in selling leather goods, the name of the street derives from the corruption of an ancient landowner's name, Le Vrunelane. He was a wealthy merchant who lived here. The first market here was set up in the time of King Charles II, and was the result of a bad gambling debt incurred by the king. The man to whom he owed the money, asked instead for a royal charter to set up a street market. The king had no choice but to agree. Running parallel to this street is a road known as Saffron Hill, which was once, as its name suggests, a place where fields of saffron could be found. In Charles Dickens's time, the area was very dangerous and crime-ridden. In 1850 a book entitled The Hand-Book of London described this area as: “densely inhabited by poor people and thieves." Saffron Hill is also home to The One Tun pub. The previous pub of that name is believed to have inspired the author to create The Three Cripples. This is the pub in Oliver Twist where Bill Sikes, Nancy and Fagin are regulars.
Keep walking straight.
Keep walking straight.
By the mid-19th century, this part of London was known as Little Italy and St Peter's Church was opened for the Italian community. For fans of Sherlock Holmes - this is where Arthur Conan Doyle's short story 'The Adventure of the Six Napoleons' was set.
Dickens knew this area so well because, after they left Furnival's Inn, he and Catherine moved to nearby Doughty Street in Bloomsbury. Dickens was always bursting with energy and he found the long periods of sitting, that writing required, made him desperate to get up and walk as much as he could. Whenever he needed to take a break, to work out a new plotline, or to think up a new character, he would go for walks. He often suffered insomnia and many of his walks would happen at night.
Dickens knew so well the kind of Londoners who would feature in his novels, because of his impoverished childhood and the times he had to walk around the meanest streets of Georgian London, on his own. When his father was arrested for debt in 1824, Charles's mother and his younger siblings all ended up living in the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison too. So the young Charles had to live by himself, in a lodging house. On most days he would walk an 8-mile round trip: from his lodgings, to work, to the prison and then back again. All of this was usually in the dark, as he worked a 10-hour day, six days a week. Criminals like Bill Sikes and Fagin were the kind of people the young Charles Dickens had to learn to recognise and avoid.
Carry on walking to the end of the street.
Left on Clerkenwell Road
Turn left here and keep walking.
Hundreds of years ago, Clerkenwell was a little hamlet outside the City of London. It was surrounded by religious communities. They came to the area because of its water source, which became known as "Clerks' Well". Dickens would not, however, have known this road that you're walking along. Clerkenwell Road was a new thoroughfare that opened in 1878, eight years after Dickens had died. The building of this road not only got rid of some of the worst slum areas, but also destroyed many beautiful old roads and buildings that Dickens would have recognised.
A short journey away was the old Charterhouse School. This is where the young William Thackeray was a pupil. Thackeray entered Charterhouse in 1822, while the young Charles Dickens was still at school in Kent. The two men were destined to meet many years later. In 1824, while Thackeray was still a privileged, albeit unhappy, schoolboy at one of the top schools in Britain, Dickens had been forced to leave school and start work as a child labourer. He worked at Warren's Blacking Factory.
Just as Dickens would write with anger about bullying headmasters in Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby, William Thackeray also wrote about his school days. In his essay ‘On Two Children in Black’, Thackeray recalled: “hard bed, hard words, strange boys bullying, and laughing, and jarring you with their hateful merriment..."
Dickens and Thackeray had a complicated relationship. They were very good friends, but also firm rivals. Both were highly respected novelists who edited their own magazines, in which their own books were serialised. Both men also had a baby daughter who died in infancy and 2 daughters who survived. These four little girls became lifelong friends. In 1858, however, Charles Dickens and William Thackeray had a furious, and notorious, row which ended their friendship. The two men were reconciled five years later – thanks to Dickens's daughter Katey and Thackeray's daughter Anny. They made up shortly before Thackeray's sudden and unexpected death.
Keep walking straight.
Gray's Inn Road
We're going to turn right here, so carefully cross the road and keep walking.
[3 SECOND PAUSE]
We are still in the heart of legal London. Just south of here is South Square, which was once home to the offices of a law firm named Ellis & Blackmore.
Some months after the Dickens family were released from the debtors' prison, Charles was able to stop working at the factory and go back to school. He was unable to go back to the school he had loved in Kent, but was sent instead to a school in Hampstead. The headmaster was a deeply unpleasant man named William Jones. Jones was a bully who unwittingly inspired many of Dickens's cruel fictional characters.
When Charles was 15, his father was arrested for debt again. This time John Dickens was not imprisoned, but both Charles and his older sister Frances had to leave school and find jobs. Unlike her brother, Frances had been able to stay in school when the rest of the family had been in prison and Charles had been working. This is because she was a scholarship student at the Royal Academy of Music. She became a professional musician.
At the age of 15, Charles was found a job as a solicitor's clerk at Ellis & Blackmore. Many years later 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”. An incident from his 18 months at Ellis & Blackmore emphasises what a street child Dickens had been forced to be while his parents were in prison. On his first day at work, he was sent out on an errand, but returned to the office with a black eye. He had got into a fight with another errand boy.
Keep walking straight.
Left on Roger Street
Turn left into this small side street and keep walking.
Now turn right on this small, cobbled street. This is Brownlow Mews.
As you walk, take a moment to appreciate how quiet it is. Mews were originally the unsalubrious back streets behind wealthy houses. They were where the stables and coach houses were and where animals were kept. The word "mews" comes from the French verb "muer", which means "to moult". This is because the original Royal Mews was where the king's hunting birds were kept during their moulting season.
Although most people only know about A Christmas Carol, Dickens actually wrote five Christmas books. One was called The Chimes, and was written while Dickens and his family were living in Genoa, in Italy. Its title was inspired by all the church bells around their Genoese home - although the story itself is set in London. In The Chimes, the main character, Trotty Veck, invites a lost stranger to spend the night at his home in a mews and apologises for living in such a poor, humble home.
Today, in contrast, mews houses are amongst the most expensive properties in London. It’s often believed that this street, Brownlow Mews, was named after Mr Brownlow in Oliver Twist. Actually, it was the other way around. The street takes its name from the wealthy Brownlow family, who once owned the land in this area. Dickens liked the name and used it for his character.
Dickens often took inspiration from the people and places he encountered on his long walks around London. When Dickens was very stressed he would walk for miles. In the 1850s, when his marriage was in trouble, he walked all night from his house in central London to his house in Kent. That’s over thirty miles.
Continue to the end of this street.
Left on Guilford Street
Cross to the other side of the street, then turn left and walk straight. You will see a brown sign directing you to the Charles Dickens Museum, but please ignore that for the moment. We have a little further to go before arriving at the museum.
[5 SECOND PAUSE]
You are now walking along an 18th-century street. Dickens lived in this neighbourhood between 1837 and 1839 and walked here every day. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, this area of London was built up by property developers. They realised that there was money to be made by building homes for middle-class families.
Keep walking straight.
As you walk, look to your right.
This imposing building is not somewhere Dickens would have known. While Dickens was living here, much of this street bordered the grounds of the Foundling Hospital. It used to be behind the white walls up ahead, on the right.
The Foundling Hospital was a children's home, where desperate, poor parents could place babies they couldn't afford to keep. The home was founded by the philanthropist Thomas Coram, in 1739. He was a merchant seaman who had made his fortune and then returned to England. When Coram came home, he was horrified by how many abandoned babies he saw on the streets of London. He received a royal charter from King George II to set up the hospital. Coram worked tirelessly to help poor babies and their mothers. In doing so, he spent his entire fortune.The musician George Frideric Handel and the artist William Hogarth supported Coram. Hogarth donated some of his paintings and encouraged other artists to do the same. Members of the public then paid to see the paintings, raising funds for the charity. This made the Foundling Hospital the first public art gallery in Britain.
A century later, Charles Dickens was a fan of William Hogarth's work. He decorated his home with prints of Hogarth's paintings and admired his philanthropic work. The children of the Foundling Hospital inspired Dickens to write the story of Oliver Twist.
Keep walking straight.
Stop here and have a look through the gates, now the entrance to a playground, on your right. This is all that remains of the Foundling Hospital's once-extensive gardens. As you can see from the sign, adults can only go into this playground if they "are accompanied by a child".
[2 SECOND PAUSE]
Now turn your back to the gate, and look across the road. There’s a statue on the island on the other side. When you’re ready to continue, please cross the road via the zebra crossing and make your way over to the statue. I’ll meet you there.
Guilford Place statue and Lamb's Conduit Street
Stop here and have a look at the statue. The woman holding an urn represents the water source or "conduit" which once provided water for the local community. This conduit was man-made in the Elizabethan age, by damming the Fleet River. The person who created the conduit also provided water pails for poor women, so they could take the water to their homes. His name was William Lamb. Now, if you're still facing the statue, head down the road ahead of you. This is Lamb's Conduit Street, named after William Lamb. I'll be back when you get to the next four-street junction.
Great Ormond Street
Stop at the intersection for a moment, and look to your right. The big, brick complex is another famous children's hospital, Great Ormond Street Hospital. Dickens was one of its first supporters. He helped to raise vital funds, and wrote articles which raised public awareness of the hospital.
When you’re ready to move on, cross the road ahead and walk down the pedestrianised section of the street.
Great Ormond Street Hospital was a radical new place: a hospital solely for children. The nurses who worked here were the first nurses to be specially trained in children's health. Dickens was approached to help publicise the hospital at a very poignant time in his life. Charles and Catherine Dickens had ten children: three daughters and seven sons. Nine of their children lived to adulthood, but their youngest daughter, baby Dora, died when she was a few months old. It was not long after Dora's death that Dickens was told about the plans for a new hospital.
In his article he wrote about the large number of infant deaths – this was an era when one-third of all children born in London died before their fifth birthdays. Dickens helped to create an awareness of how important it was that London should have a hospital specifically for children and babies.
Keep walking straight. You might want to stop in one of the shops or cafes on this section of Lamb's Conduit Street. If you do, just continue down this street when you're ready, and the tour will resume automatically at the next location.
On the right hand side, you're passing Dombey Street. Have a quick look down it if you like, but we're going to continue straight on Lamb's Conduit Street. Dombey Street is another name made famous by Dickens's novels, in this case Dombey & Son. Keep walking along Lamb's Conduit Street, and enjoy a few moments of silence. I'll be back when you get to the end of it.
Turn left here and carry on walking.
When Charles Dickens moved into the house that is now the Charles Dickens Museum – and the place at which we will end our walk – he was just 25 years old. He had started to find fame as an author with The Pickwick Papers, which was the first work of fiction published under his real name. His earlier short stories had all been published under the pseudonym of "Boz". It was while living in this area that he completed The Pickwick Papers and wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. Throughout this time, Dickens was also working on the plot of the very first novel he had thought about writing – although it would actually be the fifth of his novels to be published. That novel was Barnaby Rudge. It is one of only two historic novels that Dickens wrote, the other one being A Tale of Two Cities.
Keep walking straight.
Although you can't see it from here, behind some of the houses on your left is a small courtyard called Cockpit Yard. Its name gives an indication as to its history. In the 18th century, the bloodsport of cockfighting was very popular. This little yard was known back then as the Gray's Inn Cockpit and was said to be the most popular cockfighting arena in London.
Carry on walking until the end of the block. We're almost at our last location.
Left on John Street
Turn left here into John Street and walk straight, keeping to the pavement on the right-hand side.
John Street will eventually turn into Doughty Street, the road on which the Dickens family lived in the late 1830s. When they lived here, this was a very respectable middle-class area. Then, it would not have been possible to walk along the road unchallenged: there was a sentry box at either end of the street and anyone wanting to enter the road needed either to be recognised as a resident, or to have a good reason for visiting. This helped to keep away thieves and beggars.
Although Charles Dickens lived here for only two and a half years, it was a time that changed his life forever. When he arrived, he was a young journalist who was starting to make a name for himself as an author. By the time his family moved on from Doughty Street, Charles Dickens had become a household name in Britain and was well on his way to becoming an international celebrity.
Lady Ottoline Pub
Stop here and look to your right. On this corner is the Lady Ottoline pub. It is named after a famous Society hostess named Lady Ottoline Morrell. She was not a contemporary of Charles Dickens, in fact she was not born until 1873, which was three years after his death. But she was part of another very famous group of people to live around here. She was friends with the artists, writers and thinkers who became known as The Bloomsbury Group, in the early 1900s.
Now continue walking down the road.
Charles Dickens moved into Doughty Street in March of 1837. He must have felt as though he had finally left behind him the spectre of his impoverished childhood. The fact that he was making enough money to enable his family to live on such a genteel street, proved that he had come a long way from his time labouring in a factory. Although, today, it is well known that Dickens was a child labourer, and the son of an imprisoned debtor, it was not common knowledge in his lifetime. In the year that the Dickens family moved to this street, Queen Victoria was a very young and new queen. The Victorian Age was a time of great achievement and discovery, but it was also an extremely harsh society. Dickens confided in only a few people the truth about his childhood. We know that he told his wife Catherine and his great friend John Forster, but most other people only found out after his death.
Keep walking straight.
58 Doughty Street
Now stop here for a brief moment. On your right is 58 Doughty Street. Have a look for the round blue plaque to the writers and reformers Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, who lived together in this house. It’s just above the two windows. Vera Brittain's most famous book is "Testament of Youth", a memoir about her life during the First World War. Winifred Holtby is best known for her novel "South Riding".
When you're ready, continue on this street. You are almost at the Charles Dickens Museum.
Charles Dickens Museum
Now you're outside number 49 Doughty Street on your right, which is the entrance to the Charles Dickens Museum, and the end of our tour. The museum is made up of two houses – if you go into the museum, once you have bought your ticket you will be directed through to number 48 Doughty Street. That is the house in which the Dickens family lived. The museum has a lovely shop, cafe and little garden, which you can visit even if you don't have time to go around the museum today. The cafe has delicious cakes!
48 Doughty Street is the only home in London, in which Charles Dickens lived, that has survived both of the world wars as well as London's property developers. I am a Patron of the museum, as well as being a great great great granddaughter of Charles and Catherine. The museum has a very special place in my heart. If you are lucky enough to have done this walk on a day when the museum is open, I would recommend you go inside and take a look around. It has a wonderful atmosphere and still feels like a much-loved family home. Amongst the museum's many treasures is the desk at which Dickens wrote so many of his novels. I hope you enjoyed this tour as much as I enjoyed writing it for you. I'll say goodbye now, but do look out for my books.