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Dickens' Southwark

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens has a long and deep association with Southwark, both personal and literary, and particularly with the area known as the Borough.

Marshalsea Debtors prison

He first came to Southwark at the age of 12, when his parents and all the Dickens children except for Charles and his sister Fanny, were imprisoned at Marshalsea Debtors Prison in Borough High Street. In his writings Dickens described many places in Southwark which he had known as a child and some are still recognisable today.

At the other end of Borough High Street, what remains of the high prison wall of Marshalsea forms one side of a pathway leading to Southwark Local Studies Library. Opposite the prison site is the church of St George the Martyr, built in 1734 and commonly known as 'Little Dorrit's Church' after the character in Dickens' tale of the same name.

Little Dorrit was born in Marshalsea Prison and was christened at St George's. One night she returned to the prison too late and was locked out for the night so she slept in the vestry of the church with the register for a pillow. It was this same church in which she was married to Arthur Clennam, and in the bottom right-hand corner of the modern stained glass window at the east-end of the church is a representation of Little Dorrit wearing a poke hat.

Jacob's island

One place that has been transformed since Dickens' day is the riverside area known as Jacob's Island. The Local History Library has a deed of 1835 for a house in Eckett Street, which is traditionally said to be the house that Dickens was thinking of for Bill Sykes' lair.

Eckett Street was just off the present day Jacob Street, 'Near to that part of the Thames on which the church at Rotherhithe abuts... 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 neighbourhood beyond Dockland, in the Borough of Southwark, stands Jacob's Island, surrounded by a muddy ditch... a creek or inlet from the Thames and can always be filled at high water by opening the sluices at the lead mills .... At such times a stranger, looking from one of the wooden bridges thrown across it at Mill Lane, will see the inhabitants of the houses on either side, lowering, from their back doors and windows, buckets, pails, domestic utensils of all kinds, in which to haul the water up...every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot and garbage - all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.'

Dickens' Southwark today

Today developments of luxury apartments and lofts, restaurants and art galleries make it a highly desirable place to live.

In Great Expectations, Dickens indicates that Camberwell was a more genteel place to live as '...anyone who could lay claim to an acquaintance with people of rank and title had a sure passport to the table of the Maldertons who lived at Oak Lodge, Camberwell' 

In the southern tip of the present day borough, Dickens was a regular visitor of the Dulwich Club which used to meet at The Greyhound in Dulwich Village, which stood opposite the site of the present Crown & Greyhound.

Dickens is also known to have rented a house, under the pseudonym Charles Tringham, for himself and his mistress Ellen Ternan in Linden Grove, Nunhead between 1868 and his death in 1870.

In the Pickwick Papers, Dickens describes the wedding of Mr Snodgrass and Emily Wardle at a 'Dulwich Church', after which the wedding party was said to have returned to Mr Pickwick's for the wedding breakfast.

'The house I have taken,' said Mr Pickwick, 'is at Dulwich. It has a large garden, and is situated in one of the most pleasant spots near London.'

Dulwich remains much as Mr Pickwick describes it, an almost rural retreat in the middle of the urban sprawl of London, where he was seen 'contemplating the pictures in the Dulwich Gallery, or enjoying a walk about the pleasant neighbourhood....' There is even a Pickwick Cottage in College Road that is commonly thought to be the house that Dickens was thinking of when describing Mr Pickwick's retirement idyll at the end of the book

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