By Mike Pentelow
Charles Dickens did many moonlight flits in Fitzrovia in order to dodge the creditors of his debt-ridden father, John, so has many local addresses associated with him. In later years Charles housed his secret young lover in the area, while also helping its child prostitutes.
And he found the locality rich in characters, which he used as models for those in his novels – such as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.
Here are the addresses he inhabited or visited regularly:
22 CLEVELAND STREET
This was 10 Norfolk Street when he lived here as a toddler from 1814 to 1816 (he was born on February 7, 1812) and again as a youth from 1829 to 1831.
Previously known as Green Lanes the street had only recently been paved over during his first spell. During his second stay he gave this address to the British Museum for his reading room ticket immediately after his 18th birthday in 1830 – and used it to study the works of great writers such as Shakespeare, Goldsmith, and Holbein (having had a disrupted school education).
The Strand Union Workhouse was at 44 Cleveland Street (No 6 at the time) just 120 paces from his home, leading to credible speculation by author Ruth Richardson that the workhouse in Oliver Twist (“Please sir, I want some more”) was based on it. It later became the Outpatients Department of Middlesex Hospital, and last year was listed and saved from demolition.
The street appeared in his novel Barnaby Rudge, where a mob sought refuge after the Gordon Riots. His description of the area in Chapter 4 was “colourful rather than accurate” according to Nick Bailey in his book Fitzrovia (published in 1981). Dickens described the street as occupied by the poor in a crazy tangle of huts, with stagnant pools overgrown with grass and duckweed.
The house Dickens lodged in was on the corner with Tottenham Street, occupied now by the Greek Pie Shop and Taylors Buttons and Belts (who are producing a special Dickens button to mark the bicentenary of his birth).
147 GOWER STREET
This was 4 Gower Street North when Dickens lived here from 1823 to 1824.
His mother, Elizabeth, put up a brass plate outside the large house proclaiming “Mrs Dickens’s Establishment” as a school aimed at the children of colonialists in India. Charles was hoping he might receive some schooling there himself, so eagerly distributed circulars advertising it. But there was no response, not a single pupil being signed up.
The largeness of the house meant his father’s creditors were more determined to be paid up so he had to hide upstairs. He was finally arrested for debt in February 1824, and ended up in Marshalsea debtors’ prison in Borough High Street.
Charles had to pawn his beloved books in Hampstead Road, as well as most of the furniture, so the family were left camping in two freezing bare rooms. Even worse, Charles at the age of just 13 was sent to work in a factory by the river where Charing Cross is now, covering and labelling pots of shoe blacking, ten hours a day for six shillings a week, for two years.
He hated the work and walked there from Gower Street, his only consolation being that he “could not resist the stale pastry put out on half price trays at the confectioners’ doors in Tottenham Court Road; and I often spent in that the money I should have kept for my dinner. Then I went without my dinner, or bought a roll, or a slice of pudding.”
The site in Gower Street is now occupied by the old University College Hospital (now taken over by UCL), which was built ten years later, in 1834, when it was called North London Hospital (it indeed being in the north of the then much smaller London). The nomadic Dickens family also lived for a while at 41 Upper Gower Street, which was in that part of the current Gower Street between University Street and Torrington Place.
16 BERNERS STREET
His maternal great aunt, Mrs Charles Charlton, ran a lodging house here, and Dickens was often taken here by his mother, and got a job as a result in 1827. One of the lodgers was a young lawyer called Edward Blackmore, who was impressed by the youngster and employed him as a solicitor’s clerk at Ellis & Blackmore in Grays Inn at the age of 15 (for more than twice the pay of the dreaded blacking factory job).
And it was in Berners Street that as a boy he saw a wandering woman, upon whom Miss Havisham was clearly based. Dickens described her as “a conceited old creature, cold and formal in manner” who was “dressed entirely in white with a ghastly white plaiting round her head and face inside her white bonnet.” He added that she “went simpering mad on personal grounds alone – no doubt because a wealthy Quaker wouldn’t marry her. This is her bridal dress. She is always walking up here… we observe in her mincing step and fishy eye that she intends to lead him a sharp life.” This was in his essay “Where We Stopped Growing” which was published in “Household Words” on January 1, 1853.
7 CHARLOTTE STREET
His Aunt, Janet Brown, lived here from 1829.
70 MARGARET STREET
He lived here, on the corner with Great Titchfield Street, in 1831, for a few months before having to dodge his father’s creditors yet again and move to Hampstead.
13 AND 25 FITZROY STREET
These were his homes for short periods between 1830 and 1833. He liked to walk at night around the shabby artists quarters of nearby Fitzroy Square, which he mentions in the novel Nicholas Nickleby. Even late in life, when famous, he continued night walks to seedy areas, such as the opium dens of Limehouse.
4 LITTLE PORTLAND STREET
Dickens was a regular attender from the winter of 1842-1843 at the Unitarian Church here, just 100 paces from his old home at 70 Margaret Street. Although brought up nominally in the Anglican church, he wrote that he was “disgusted with our Established Church, and its Puseyisms [a movement agains rationalist and individual trends], and daily outrages on common sense and humanity” and so “I have carried into effect an old idea of mine, and joined the Unitarians, who would do something for human improvement, if they could, and who practise Charity and Toleration.”
He was particularly impressed by the minister, Edward Taggart, whom he befriended.
34 KEPPEL STREET
This was where Dickens attended to his dying father, aged 65, in March, 1851. It was an unpleasant death from “rupture of the urethra and mortification of the scrotum from the infiltration of urine.”
Six days earlier he had undergone – without chloroform – “the most horrible operation known in surgery, as the only chance of saving him,” wrote Dickens, who saw it here where his parents lodged, with Dr Robert Davey. Dickens described the room as “a slaughter house of blood” and could not prevent himself shaking uncontrollably “as if I had been struck by a bludgeon.” Three days after the operation his father did not recognise him or anyone else. Dickens stayed with him for a further three sleepless nights until he died early in the morning of March 31. Dickens took his mother in his arms and they wept bitterly. He then paid off his father’s debts and bought a house for his mother in Ampthill Square, off Hampstead Road.
The Keppel Street lodging was near Gower Street, and the site is now part of the University of London’s Senate House, where a free exhibition “Charles Dickens and Popular Culture” is open to the public in the fourth floor library until July 9.
31 BERNERS STREET
This was where Dickens installed his secret young lover, the actress Ellen Lawless Ternan (nicknamed Nelly), who at 19 was 27 years younger than him, and the same age as his eldest daughter.
It was September 1858 when she moved in accompanied by her mother Francis, who was an actress, and two sisters, Maria, another actress, and Fanny, a singer.
After just a month Ellen and Maria reported to him that they were being pestered by a policeman, whom Dickens suspected of having been bribed by a man sexually interested in either or both of them. He complained of this “extraordinary, and dangerous and unwarrantable conduct in a policeman” whom he thought should be dismissed. But fear of publicity prevented him pursuing it. Perhaps that was why they all moved in March 1859 to Ampthill Square.
Ellen had a habit of wearing scarlet geraniums and white heather in her hair. She was persuaded to give up acting by Dickens in August 1859, and received regular payments from his Coutts Bank account. On her death at the age of 75, she was buried in Southsea, close to where Dickens was born.
See more about her in Sue Blundell’s article (top right).
18 MARKET PLACE
Child prostitute Eliza Wilkins lived here in 1850 when it was 18 Market Row, Oxford Market. Dickens was campaigning to rescue young prostitutes and sent money in July 1850 to a Mrs Morson asking her to buy underclothing and a warm bath for Eliza, who was living here with her father. It was just 250 paces from Dickens’s old home at 70 Margaret Stteet.
Oxford Market is now the square called Market Place; and Market Row was the section of it now running into Great Portland Street, closest to Oxford Circus.
35 OXFORD STREET
William Dickens, the uncle of Charles, lived in a coffee shop he ran here from 1814 until he died at the age of 43 in December 1825. His mother, Elizabeth (1745-1824), the grandmother of Charles, lived here for the last two years of her life, and gave him a large silver watch which had belonged to her husband. Young Charles then carried it about in his pocket, even when working in the blacking factory.
Less than three months before his death in 1870 Dickens was walking along Oxford Street when he complained his failing eyesight meant he was once again unable to read the right hand side of names written on the shop fronts. Also his piles were worse because the laudanum he was taking to help him sleep had caused constipation.
The street also features in Sketches by Boz (1837) and Nicholas Nickleby (1839).
TOTTENHAM COURT ROAD
Dickens visited the notorious Rat’s Castle rookery, at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, to research one of his novels (and wrote about it in Chapters 21 and 22 of Sketches by Boz). He was terrified by the experience. It was a murky labyrinth of narrow alleys and underground passages so full of dangerous criminals that it was a no-go area for police.
Just north of here, at 14 Great Russell Street, a plaque proclaims that: “Here lived Charles Kitterbell as related by Charles Dickens in sketches by Boz, ‘The Bloomsbury Christening’.”
Another local address he gave to a fictional character was 26 Newman Street for the dancing academy in Bleak House.
Great Portland Street also features in his short story “The Steam Excursion” in Sketches by Boz, as the home of Mrs Briggs and her five children. Dickens lived a few yards north of this street at 9 Osnaburgh Street (now an office block) in the 1840s when he also had his Devonshire Terrace home.
33 Foley Street, where his friend the painter and sculptor Edwin Landseer (1802-73) lived. Dickens was present when a dying lion was delivered for Landseer to model for the Trafalgar Square statues. Dickens was amused when the manservant drily enquired: “Did you order a lion, sir?”
71 Newman Street, where the artist Richard Dadd (1817-86) was living in 1843 when he murdered his father by cutting his throat – about which Dickens wrote Martin Chuzzlewit shortly afterwards.
22 Mortimer Street, where Daniel Maclise (1806-70), who illustrated his novels, lived (as well as 14 Scala Street then called Pitt Street, 85 Charlotte Street, Newman Street, and Fitzroy Street).
7 Gower Street, where his friend, the artist John Everett Millais (1829-96), lived and formed the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood. When Dickens died on June 7, 1870, Millais drew his dead face, already bound by the undertakers.
Mike Pentelow is editor of Fitzrovia News and co-author of Characters of Fitzrovia.