29 February 2012
On a dark, cold October night in 1857, so the story goes, Charles Dickens stepped out of his London home in Tavistock Square at two o'clock in the morning, and walked to his country house, Gad’s Hill Place, near Rochester, some 30 miles away.
He was 45-years-old, and, according to author Peter Clark, the walk - through Holborn, across Blackfriars Bridge to Elephant and Castle, down the Old Kent Road and into the distance - marked something of a crisis in the great writer’s life.
It was the year that Dickens met eighteen-year-old actress Ellen ‘Nelly’ Turnan, a girl who was to become his secret mistress. Unable to publicly leave his wife of 20 years, Catherine, for fear of scandal, Dickens set Nelly up in a ‘villa’ in Nunhead, near the trainline to London for convenience.
In fact, Claire Tomlin, Nelly’s biographer, even goes as far as to speculate on stories that it was in this house; Windsor Lodge in Linden Grove, overlooking Nunhead Cemetery, that Dickens died, his body being transported to his family home in Gad’s Hill Place by horse and cart in the dead of night.
Of course none of this is certain, but what is certain is that on that cold night in October 1957, something compelled Dickens to take that long walk to Kent.
Following in his footsteps, in the middle or November 2011, Dickens expert Peter Clark enlisted the help of two friends and walked the same route, also leaving Tavistock Square at 2am. It took Dickens seven hours. Peter and company took twelve. But then, Peter points out, Dickens was 45 when he did the walk; the combined age of the three of them was 194.
The walk sparked the idea for Peter’s new book, Dickens’ London, which traces five walks that Dickens would have trodden through the capital.
“Dickens would have known the streets of London like the back of his hand from Barnet to Bermondsey," he says.
"He was a voracious walker, and walking long distances was much more the norm in his day. "You can see that in his books. Young Oliver Twist, at the age of ten or eleven walks from Mudford - which may have been Peterborough or Market Harborough – around 70 miles to London.
"In the first day he walked 20 miles. David Copperfield walks from London to Dover in search of his aunt Betsie Trotwood. "Dickens would have walked all over London, and all over Southwark, and he would have known Bermondsey well."
In one of his chapters, Peter explains the influence of the then Borough of Bermondsey on Dickens’ writing.
Two of Dickens' characters have links to Bermondsey. The first is the infamous Bill Sykes, who Dickens described as "a stoutly-built fellow of about five-and-thirty, in a black velveteen coat, very soiled drab breeches, lace-up half boots, and grey cotton stockings, which inclosed a bulky pair of legs, with large swelling calves".
Sykes was to finally meet his end in Jacob's Island, which Dickens called Folly's Ditch. Dickens would have known this place in the 1830s when it was one of the most awful slums in London and the waterways around there were almost sewers."
“Near to that part of the Thames on which the church at Rotherhithe abuts, where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants.
"...In such a neighborhood, beyond Dockhead in the Borough of Southwark, stands Jacob's Island, surrounded by a muddy ditch, six or eight feet deep and fifteen or twenty wide when the tide is in, once called Mill Pond, but known in the days of this story as Folly Ditch.
"...Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud, and threatening to fall into it--as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations; every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.
The other person associated with Bermondsey is the malignant Daniel Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop.
Quilp had his family house for his wife and mother-in-law in Tower Green, but he had his batchelor pad more or less where Butler’s Wharf is today. He would travel by ‘wherry’ from one to the other.
In The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens describes Quilp's yard: “On the Surrey side of the river was a small rat-infested dreary yard called 'Quilp's Wharf,' in which were a little wooden counting-house burrowing all awry in the dust as if it had fallen from the clouds and ploughed into the ground; a few fragments of rusty anchors; several large iron rings; some piles of rotten wood; and two or three heaps of old sheet copper, crumpled, cracked, and battered.”
It seems unfortunate for Bermondsey, as Peter Clark points out, that the area is associated in Dickens' novels with two such vile characters.
"Neither of them have any redeeming features," Peter says. "Sykes, as is very well known, was a conscious less, lecherous bully, whilst Quilp is a midget and a malign being all the way through. "With Quilp he is so outrageous, there is something almost Falstafian about him. You wonder what he is going to get up to next. You have no sympathy with him, he is so bullying, so awful, he is like Falstaff. He’s always up to some trick."
But while the characters from Bermondsey may have been foul, Dickens himself had great sympathy for the stricken inhabitants of such awful slums as Jacob's Island.
When a magistrate of the day named Sir Peter Laurie, a man who had been Lord Mayor of London, said that Jacob’s Island only existed in Oliver Twist, Dickens went for him in a high profile tirade ridiculing Laurie's claims and campaigning for improvement of education, housing and health care for the destitute.
It was largely thanks to that great writer, who walked the streets of London from the highest courts to the lowest slums, that the plight of so many of Bermondsey and Southwark's poor was finally heard.
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