Episode 14: London and Charles Dickens

London Dickesn House

Last Updated on March 13, 2024 by Marian Jones

London certainly pops up frequently in the novels of England’s best-known 19th century author, Charles Dickens, and traces of him can be found all over the city. This episode investigates the links between the author and his work and takes in visits to two London museums which are closely connected to him: the Dickens Museum and the Foundling Museum. We finish with some recommendations for walking Dickens’s London yourself.

charles dickens and london

Charles Dickens had links to many parts of London. There’s more detail on the podcast, but areas he knew well include the city, where he worked in Warren’s Blacking Factory as a child, Southwark, where his father was imprisoned in the debtors’ prison of Marshalsea, the Inns of Court where he worked as a clerk, Westminster where he was a parliamentary reporter and Fleet Street where he worked as a journalist. He lived in a number of different houses, one of which – 48, Doughty Street – is now the Dickens Museum.

dickens’s writing on london

London weather: ‘Implacable November weather. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their footing at street corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke.’
Bleak House

Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison: ‘It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms, environed by a narrow paved yard; hemmed in by high walls, duly spiked on top.’
Little Dorrit

Early Morning London: ‘Then came straggling groups of labourers going to their work, then men and women with fish baskets on their heads, donkey carts laden with vegetables, chaise-carts filled with livestock or whole carcasses of meat, milk women with pails, an unbroken concourse of people, trudging out with various supplies to the eastern suburbs of the town’
Oliver Twist

the dickens museum

Dickens rented 48, Doughty Street for 3 years from 1837 and called it ‘my house in town’. Here you can visit his study and learn all about his writing routine, working on many journalistic commissions as well as writing novels. He worked all morning from 8.00 am and while here he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickelby concurrently, spending two weeks on one before reverting to the other. In this room you can see the reading desk he designed for his public lectures, as well as many editions of his works and discover how he spent the rest of his time: lunching at one of his favourite clubs and attending meetings or visiting the charities he supported in the afternoons.

In the dining room you can see where he often hosted dinner parties, inviting a dozen or so guests, including authors and publishers and serving plenty of hearty food such as roasts and puddings. He encouraged lively parlour games and often liked to read aloud to his guests. He was a flamboyant host, dressing in gaudy colours and definitely the life and soul of the party.

The rest of the house includes the wash house and scullery where the servants worked, the morning room where the family gathered and the bedroom where Catherine, his wife, gave birth to the first two of their ten children, daughters Mary and Kate in 1838 and 1839. Mary Hogarth’s Room is where his wife’s young sister, staying with the family to help with the children, slept and where she died suddenly, aged just 17. The distraught Dickens wrote her epitaph: ‘Young, beautiful and good, God numbered her with his angels’. In the nursery is a display of items from Dickens’ own childhood, including a window grille from Marshalsea Prison.

the foundling museum

Dickens was a key supporter of this children’s orphanage, visiting, sponsoring a pew in the chapel and writing articles to raise their profile. Today it’s a museum where you can learn about the foundlings who lived and were educated here as they grew up. A visit helps explain some of the themes which were so important in Dickens’ work, such as poverty and social justice. There is a poignant collection of tokens – a button perhaps, or a piece of thread – left to identify each child, a system which seems to have come straight from a Dickens novel. There is much more about the Foundling Museum on the podcast, including stories of children who grew up here.

learn more on a dickens walk

The City of London Corporation has produced a self-guided walk around the London that Dickens knew, in conjunction with the Charles Dickens Museum. It’s called Dickens’s Magic Lantern and will take you past many of the places he knew, explaining their significance as you go. You should allow about 2 hours for the walk. In addition, a number of companies which offer guided walks around the London of Charles Dickens are listed below. Most combine biographical details with visits to the places he knew or where he set some of his famous scenes, sometimes with readings from the works as well.

Listen to the POdcast

Reading suggestions

Charles Dickens A Life by Claire Tomalin
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
The Foundling Museum An Introduction
London’s Forgotten Children by Gillian Pugh
Inside Dickens’ London by Michael Paterson

links for this post

The Charles Dickens Museum
The Foundling Museum
Dickens’s Magic Lantern Self Guided Walk
City of London Guides Dickens Guided Walk
London Walks Dickens Guided Walk
Dickens London Tours Guided Walk

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