Making your way towards Doughty Street in London’s Holborn you soon become aware of a change in the architecture around you. Gone are the glass and steel contemporary structures from the capital’s centre, replaced with a mixture of Georgian, Victorian and post-war buildings. With every step taken you truly feel as if you were walking back into the past…
A tree-lined street greets you upon your arrival with Regency architecture aplenty, for number 48 was once the home of one of the world’s greatest authors: Charles John Huffam Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870).
Dickens’ time here was short, two years to be precise, from the end of March 1837 to December 1839. He was yet to become a household name at this point. That doesn’t diminish its cultural and historical significance however. This is the very house where Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers (1836), Oliver Twist (1838) and Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39), and Barnaby Rudge (1840–41) also began here.
Dickens (still using his pen name ‘Boz’ at the time) had, in fact, a three-year lease on the property at £80 a year, but when success began to flourish he soon moved on to bigger and grander properties.
‘a frightfully first-class Family Mansion, involving awful responsibilities.’ Charles Dickens on 48 Doughty Street
During his time here, Dickens lived with his wife Catherine Hogath Dickens, and three of their children (they would have ten during their marriage), daughters, Mary Dickens and Kate Macready Dickens (both born in the house).
Dickens’ brother Frederick also lived with the family as too did his wife’s sister Mary. Indeed Dickens had become very attached to Mary and she inspired many characters within his works. She tragically died in her room at Doughty Street of suspected heart-failure at the tender age of 17. Her death was even fictionalised in his story Little Nell.
Though this grade I listed property has clearly been dressed to appear as it would during Dickens’ ownership that doesn’t take away any of the authenticity or indeed the atmosphere. His side table, writing desk, chair, and many other personal possessions are here together with manuscripts, first editions of his works and letters. Many of these items were moved back from the family home at Gads Hill in Kent after his death. Doughty Street, his only London home to survive was itself marked for demolition in 1923. Thankfully the Dickens Fellowship managed to save it in time and The Charles Dickens House Museum opened in 1925.
Whilst at Doughty Street Dickens indulged his past-time for frequent nightly walks around the city – a place he called his ‘magic lantern’. Dickens even wrote a piece about his nocturnal trips entitled ‘Night Walks’ and captured the gritty twilight underworld of Covent Garden in a short piece on Seven Dials in ‘Sketches by Boz’. Back then this area was a cesspit of squalour, disease, and crime, very different to the hustle and bustle of today’s busy tourist area. It’s well worth a read.
“The stranger who finds himself in “The Dials” for the first time, and stands Belzoni-like, at the entrance of seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity and attention awake for no inconsiderable time. From the irregular square into which he has plunged, the streets and courts dart in all directions, until they are lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-tops, and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined; and lounging at every corner, as if they came there to take a few gasps of such fresh air as has found its way so far, but is too much exhausted already, to be enabled to force itself into the narrow alleys around, are groups of people, whose appearance and dwellings would fill any mind but a regular Londoner’s with astonishment.”
Charles Dickens on ‘Seven Dials’, Chapter 5 in ‘Scenes’, Sketches by Boz.
Each room of this five storey building grants you a genuine feel for the family who once resided here, but maybe more importantly, what it would have been like to have lived here back in the Victorian era when London was a very different place to what we are accustomed to today.
48 Doughty Street is a must for anyone with a love of literature or of London history. At £9.50 for the entrance fee it is very reasonably priced in comparison to many key London attractions, many of which are of lesser historical importance. Some personal highlights of my visit are documented below.
For more information on the Charles Dickens Museum click here.