Dickens’ bank is an impressive, well preserved building that’s still standing. It’s no longer a bank, but you’ll be relieved to hear that doesn’t mean it’s now an overpriced Italian restaurant complete with waiters with dodgy Italian accents mispronouncing “calzone”. The bank is rather tucked away, off the beaten track. In Dicken’s time affluent areas could stand cheek by jowl with some of the worst slums in London (some of my photographs of Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel are shocking, not just for the levels of poverty shown, but for the fact they were taken just a few minutes walk from the heart of the City of London). Dickens’ bank was located in what was an affluent area, and Dickens lived in a simirly affluent area, but to get to his bank on foot Dickens had to walk through an area known as “thieve’s kitchen”, the very place where he had the Artful Dodger show Oliver Twist how to pick a pocket or two. And Bill Sikes’ hunting ground and what was Fagin’s Den, aren’t far away. Dickens went on many a research trip into the slums and prisons for his novels of course, but much of what he wrote about was right there around him, anytime he wanted to see it.
You can’t wander around Clerkenwell or Holborn for long before stumbling across a house or rooms (or blue plaque where they once stood), where Dickens used to live. There’s one house down a narrow little street heading south off Holborn towards the Chancery of Jaundice v Jaundice fame; another place was just north of Holborn in a huge celebration of gothic style architecture originally built as the Prudential Building (many decades after Dickens lived on the spot); one was in beautiful Gray’s Inn Fields, and another home further north in Doughty Street is now a Dickens Museum. And he lived in all of these in a very short space of time. You could be forgiven for thinking he had shares in Pickfords. But it was actually simple practicality. He (or to be totally accurate his wife) was producing children at about the same speed as he was prodcing novels, so not only did he keep moving to more upmarket properties in keeping with his increasing affluence and standing in society, he also needed additional bedrooms and square footage.
Most pubs in the Clerkenwell and Holborn area, where Dickens set much of Oliver Twist and Bleak House respectively, claim Dickens used to drink there. The pub opposite Charing Cross station (built on the spot where Dickens worked in a blacking factory as a boy; an experience he used in David Copperfeld) also claims he drank there. Fleet Street’s most famous pub, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, lists Dickens amongst the many notables it states drank there. Down in Wapping, another famous pub, the Prospect of Whitby, does likewise, and cross the river to the Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich and guess what? Yep, you guessed it, but Dickens didn’t just drink there, apparently it was his favourite pub no less. If all this is to be believed I’m surprised he ever had enough time to do do any writing! Or that he was ever sober enough! I wonder if there was a fella going round London scamming pubs by claiming “I’m Charles Dickens you know”. “Really” says the barman, “well in that case yer money’s no good ‘ere, ‘ave a pint on the ‘ouse.” In the days before photography, and before newspapers and periodicals had the technology to reproduce drawn images, you’d be amzed what you could get away with!
And talking of scams, there’s Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. This shop (still a shop today, now selling shoes that if you have to ask their price you can’t afford them) just off Lincoln’s Inn Fields, appears in the London A-Z, guide books, Wikipedia and countless other places as the very shop on which Dickens based his book The Old Curiosity Shop. The story goes that Dickens lived nearby and popped into the shop from time to time. You can almost see Little Nell coming out the front door. Only trouble is, it’s complete nonsense. It has nothing to do with Dickens’ story. A while after Dickens was dead, the owner of this ordinary Victorian shop, thought it would be a good advertising ploy to start calling his place Ye Olde Curiosity Shop as featured by Dickens. It certainly worked. Still does!