DICKENS'S LAW MAKERS AND LAW BREAKERS – BARNARD'S INN AND BEYOND
Professor Andrew Sanders
London. Michaelmas term lately over and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters were but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.
Thus Dickens famously opened the first chapter in the first monthly part of Bleak House in March 1852. Readers are reminded that it is not March they are reading about. It is an 'implacable', foggy, damp November and London is bogged down in mud. The mud is so pervasive that at that notoriously inconvenient section of Holborn, Holborn Hill, where one of the only old east-west axes of central London dipped down into the valley of the Fleet and then climbed up again as it approached the boundaries of the City, Dickens fantasizes that it would not be a surprise to encounter one of the beasts of the primeval morass, a megalosaurus, the 'great lizard' so named some twenty-five years earlier by the naturalist William Buckland. Dickens's images are of Noah's flood newly retreated and of a prehistoric monster. The first image might imply hope and a new beginning, but the second threatens a return to an earlier phase of creation when, as Tennyson had recently phrased it in In Memoriam,'dragons of the prime / … tare each other in their slime' (Section LVI). What Dickens seems to be implying in the opening paragraph of Bleak House is that human civilisation as a whole is threatened with regression. The London of the present is clogged with mud underfoot and its air is polluted with fog, smoke and a disease-bearing miasma. Without change and without reform, its future seems bleak. The 'bleak' house of the title is as yet unidentified, but those readers who purchased a title-page and a frontispiece to the completed novel with its last serial part in September 1853 would have been confronted with two contrasted images The frontispiece shows Chesney Wold bleakly exposed to the elements while the title-page bears a vignette showing the conspicuously house-less Jo.
It is not simply the implacable weather and the bleakness of the urban and social prospects before us that Dickens seeks to emphasize in the opening to Bleak House. He also wants to suggest a relationship between the physical fog and mud and the metaphorical chaos inspired by a complex, befuddled and befuddling legal system, exemplified in the novel by the workings of the Court of Chancery ('at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery'). In the novel the court is sitting in the old hall of Lincoln's Inn where it sat out of session rather than in Westminster Hall. What Dickens is doing is setting what we still call 'legal London', the central swathe of the city stretching from Gray's Inn in the north to the Temple in the south, as the topographical core of his story. It is a sclerosis that clogs central London, just as the Law itself seems to impede any reforming process in the nation as a whole. It is significant that both here and in A Tale of Two Cities that Temple Bar, the historic barrier in the Strand between the City and Westminster, is specifically mentioned. In Bleak House, on that raw November afternoon 'the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest, near the leaden-headed old obstruction: Temple Bar' while at the opening of Book Two of A Tale of Two Cities (set some eighty years earlier) we are told that Tellson's Bank has its windows both 'always under a shower-bath of mud from Fleet-street' and heavily overshadowed by the gateway from which the surviving severed heads of traitors seem to 'ogle' clients 'with an insensate brutality and ferocity worthy of Abyssinia or Ashantee.' The rotten, severed heads were long gone by Dickens's day but Temple Bar itself was only removed from its historic site in 1878 in order to facilitate the construction of the new Law Courts but it had long been disparaged as an inconvenience and a severe impediment to the circulation of traffic in central London. Like the descent to and from Holborn Hill it formed blockage in one of the only great east-west axes in Dickens's London.
Contemporary maps of London reveal quite how important were Holborn and the Strand/Fleet Street as the main arteries linking the residential and administrative West End with the commercial and industrial City and beyond it the all-important docks. 'Legal London' straddling Holborn and the Strand and stretching as far as the river, coupled with certain of its attendant geographical and architectural features which figure in Bleak House, can thus be seen as clogging those already muddy arteries in a way that can properly be called sclerotic. Significantly too, Lincoln's Inn and its surroundings form the central site of the novel much as, as again contemporary maps reveal, it stood at the geographical heart of the metropolis. Even today, if we were to draw a Union Jack on a map of modern London, Lincoln's Inn Fields represents a largely unacknowledged core, a central axis at a mid-point between the City and Westminster and between the northernmost and southernmost tips of the capital. This seems to me exactly why Dickens determined to set so much of the action of Bleak House where he did. Holborn and the Strand/Fleet Street transect London from west to east, but, in Dickens's time no major thoroughfare crossed this central area from north to south. Crossing Waterloo Bridge from the south side of the Thames, and passing the offices of All the Year Round in Wellington Street, a visitor to London would find that Bow Street reached a dead end at its junction with Long Acre. To the east of Wellington Street 'Legal London' sat in the way of a north-south artery. The only historic street of any significance, Chancery Lane, which is iself so important a site in Bleak House, could scarcely be called a major thoroughfare, either then or now. London had to until the very end of the nineteenth century for the wholesale demolitions and dynamic reconstructions of the Aldwych and Kingsway to give the city that major route. Though long planned, work began only in 1900 and the still unfinished scheme was opened in 1905 by King Edward VII (in whose honour the new street was named). Kingsway replaced a tangle of lanes, alleys and streets which linked Covent Garden to Lincoln's Inn Fields. Their disappearance was not much mourned at the time, though antiquarians and admirers of the very variety of London's historic townscape did regret the demolition between 1890 and 1903 of the old houses in Drury Lane and Wych Street. Their last days were beautifully, and memorably, recorded by the photographer, Henry Dixon, for the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London.
The demolition of the old wooden houses in Wych Street deprived readers of Dickens of a topographical context. Ironically perhaps, the only surviving wooden house between Lincoln's Inn Fields and the Strand is the so-called 'Old Curiosity Shop', but the links between this and Dickens are tenuous at best. Readers of The Old Curiosity Shop might feel satisfied by this odd survival, but readers of Bleak House have the more satisfying sensation of considering the last relic of what might have been in Dickens's mind when he created Tom-all-Alone's. The shift in social pretension remains remarkable. By stepping out of Lincoln's Inn Fields, with its public institutions and its substantial seventeenth- and eighteenth-century brick houses, we move immediately into what was once a far less salubrious area of narrow streets and overhanging wooden buildings. Ths may or may not be the site of Tom-all-Alone's. Dickens not only invented his slum he also did not precisely locate it. This might strike some readers as anomalous. He carefully places other sites in and near Lincoln's Inn (Kenge and Carboy's in the Inn itself; Tulkinghorn's house, 'formerly a house of state', in the Fields: Snagsby's shop in Cook's [Took's] Court, Cursitor Street; Mrs Jellyby's house in Thavies Inn, and the 'narrow back street, part of some courts and lanes immediately outside the wall of the Inn' where Krook's warehouse is situated off Chancery Lane), but he leaves the location of his slum imprecise. This is, of course, deliberate. We know that Tom-all-Alone's is near enough to Lincoln's Inn (Hawdon, who lodges at Krook's off Chancery Lane, frequents it and Tulkinghorn walks to it from his house in the Fields) but it is essentially a composite fiction of a London slum, one made up of elements of Seven Dials, St Giles's and, possibly, the lanes off the lower part of Drury Lane as it neared the Strand. It is described in Chapter 16 as a 'black, delapidated street, avoided by all decent people; where the crazy houses were seized upon, when their decay was far advanced by some bold vagrants, who, after establishing their own possession, took to letting them out in lodgings.' Certainly, Phiz's exaggerated illustration which accompanied Chapter 46 makes it look very much like Wych Street (though the Gothic church tower that Phiz included resembles neither the baroque spire of St Mary-le-Strand nor that of St Giles-in-the-Fields). Raffish though it was in the 1850s Wych Street itself had never descended to the social depths represented by Tom-all-Alone's (the Olympic Theatre stood at nos. 6-10 until it burned down in March 1849 and was rapidly rebuilt and reopened in the same year; Dickens's friend, Mark Lemon, was for a time landlord of the Shakespeare's Head at no. 31, a public house much frequented by actors and journalists). The point Dickens seems to be making about the unlocated Tom-all-Alone's is that it is representative of a mid-century urban slum of the worst kind. Moreover, this representative slum not only sits centrally amid the prosperity of Victorian London but also that it stands cheek-by-jowl with respectability, and especially legal respectability. Characters in Bleak House move, just as real Londoners did, between juxtapositioned areas of relative riches and dire poverty. Tom, we are reminded in Chapter 46 will have his revenge on the uncaring governmental, aristocratic and bourgeois worlds which lie beyond it by propagating 'infection and contagion somewhere'. As Dickens insists 'there is not an atom of Tom's slime, not a cubic inch of any pestilential gas in which he lives, not one obscenity or degradation about him, ot an ignorance, not a wickedness, not a brutality of his committing, but shall work its retribution, through every order of society …'. Bleak House, ostensibilty a fiction with a plot centred on muddle and non-communication, ultimately proves to be about interconnections, unhappy ones as well as fulfilling ones.
Dickens had played with a similar juxtaposition and interconnection of criminality and respectability in Oliver Twist (1836-37). In that novel, however, he was explicitly suggesting to his readers that there was a link between a broader society's indifferent response to poverty and the engendering of a permanent criminal sub-class. As Dickens sees it, early Victorian society was tough in crime, but largely indifferent to the causes of crime. By Chapter 8 of the novel Dickens has switched his satirical focus away from the Workhouse System produced by the 1834 New Poor Law and has turned instead to exploring how and why London's poor, exemplified by Fagin's boys, are so systematically and inevitably drawn into crime. In joining their number Oliver seems literally to descend into his new and insalubrious life. Having first fallen into the company of the Artful Dodger on the hill at Barnet the two boys journey together towards Fagin's den, gradually working their way down in darkness to an urban Hell. Unlike Tom-all-Alone's Saffron Hill is no unplaced or fictionalised site. The account of Oliver's night-time descent is very precisely topographical:
As John Dawkins objected to their entering London before nightfall, it was nearly eleven o'clock when they reached the turnpike at Islington. They crosseed from the Angel into St Johns'-road; struck down the small street which terminates at Sadler's Wells Theatre; through Exmouth-street and Coppice-row; down the little court by the side of the workhouse; across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole; thence into Little Saffron-hill; and so into Saffron-hill the Great: along which the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace; directing Oliver to follow close at his heels … a dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy; and the air was impregnated with filthy odours … Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in the filth; and from several of the doorways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging; bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands.
This last, arch phrase seems to prefigure the threatening appearances of Bill Sikes later in the story. What Dickens is doing in Chapter 8 of Oliver Twist is to specifically place Saffron Hill in its London context. To the north of it lies Clerkenwell and the dully respectable squares of Islington (inhabited by Mr Brownlow, and, incidentally by the novel's illustrator, George Cruikshank). To the east is the City, but to the west we are again bordering on the Legal London most familiar to Dickens (Thavies, Staple, Furnival's and Gray's Inns in particular). Saffron Hill may have lost its saffron fields long ago, but it was still a defined but low hill which descended to the valley of the Fleet. Like Holborn Hill much of it was to disappear under the road improvements made when Holborn Viaduct was constructed by the Corporation of the City of London in 1868-69. The Fleet valley (or ditch) was bridged and the low-lying slums were substantially eliminated being replaced by warehouses. The houses that fringed the ditch had been notably convenient for those criminals who cherished the opportunity a making a quick getaway. If the police came in at the front door, various alternative exits at the back and sides greatly assisted escape. The very preponderance of crime in the area necessitated a police presence and a court to deal quickly with the misdemeanours committed locally. In Chapter XI of the novel Oliver appears before the magistrate, Mr Fang, having been arrested for attempted robbery 'in the immediate neighbourhood of a very notorious metropolitan police office'. Oliver is escorted from Clerkenwell Green via Mutton Hill (alias Brook Hill which, as Vine Street, ran steeply down towards Hatton Wall). Fang's court was in fact that presided over by the famously abrupt and peremptory magistrate Allan Stewart Laing at 54 Hatton Garden. Laing and his 'notorious' court had been observed personally and unsympathetically by Dickens on 3 June 1837 (he had asked to be smuggled in by his friend Thomas Haines). Yet again, the fiction is barely disguised fact.
The other notable slum which figures prominently in Oliver Twist is Jacob's Island. Like those areas fringing the Fleet Ditch, Jacob's Island was attractive to criminals because of its ramshackle construction in, by and over water. It stood on the south bank of the Thames, was intersected by streams (including the River Neckinger, the name of which is supposed to derive from the devil's neckerchief) and was subject to the rise and fall of the water levels of the tidal river. It is an obvious place for the desperate and guilt-ridden Sikes to take refuge in Chapter 50 of the novel. Dickens carefully describes Jacob's Island as
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 these days as Folly Ditch. It is a creek or inlet from the Thames, and can always be filled at high water by opening the sluices at the Lead Mills from which it took its old name. At such times, a stranger, looking from one of the old 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 untensils of all kinds, in which to haul the water up; and when his eye is turned from these operations to the houses themselves, his utmost astonishment will be excited by the scene before him. 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.
Dickens was, we know, describing a scandalously real place and he was deeply offended to find his integrity impugned by one who should have known better. In 1849 Sir Peter Laurie, a Middlesex magistrate, an alderman of the City of London and a former Lord Mayor, had been reported as insisting to a Marylebone vestry meeting that Jacob's Island 'ONLY existed in a work of fiction, written by Mr Charles Dickens'. Dickens had already been so infuriated by Sir Peter's recorded pomposity on the bench (too often, it seems, interpreted by contemporaries as sound common sense) that he had lampooned him as Alderman Cute in The Chimes, but in the Preface to the Cheap Edition of Oliver Twist published in 1850 he launched into an extended and full-frontal attack. What Sir Peter considered to be fiction was to Dickens plain truth. Sir Peter Laurie ought to have know better for Jacob's Island, though well into the parish of Bermondsey, lay close enough to the boundaries of the Borough which since 1550 had come under the direct jurisdiction and control of the very City of London of which he had been Lord Mayor. What this notable alderman and magistrate chose to ignore in a grand sweep of rhetoric, was to Dickens not only a glaring counter to social complacency, but the proper matter of a socially conscious fiction.
Dickens's juxtapositions of slum and suburbia, of crime and respectability, of proletarian misery and middle-class comfort, of nightmare and domestic security all of which serve to shape the plot of Oliver Twist can also be seen to figure steadily through the length and breadth of his work. They figure so steadily in the fiction largely because they are integral to Dickens's vision of Victorian London. It was an often haunted vision which must have been formed early on in his childhood. He may well have first encountered the awfulness of Jacob's Island during his wanderings from his lodgings in Lant Street in the Borough. He would certainly have known the dire living conditions of the inhabitants of the Mint, a notorious slum some five minutes walk form Lant Street and a place which he was later to vividly describe in his Household Words essay 'On Duty with Inspector Field'(1851). Dickens's vicarious thrill at experiencing the horrors of the London slums was established early and formed an essential part of his awareness of the inherent ambiguity of the nineteenth-century metropolis.This is evident in the account of his boyhood experiences of London described so memorably by John Forster in his The Life of Charles Dickens:
As time went on, his own education still unconsciously went on as well, under the sternest and most potent of teachers; and, neglected and miserable as he was, he managed gradually to transfer to London all the dreaminess and all the romance with which he had invested Chatham. There were then at the top of Bayham-street some almshouses … and to go to this spot, he told me, and to look from it over the dust-heaps and dock-leaves and fields … at the cupola of St Paul's looming through the smoke, was a treat that served him for hours of vague reflection afterwards. To be taken out for a walk in the real town, especially if it were anywhere about Covent-garden or the Strand, perfectly entranced him with pleasure. But, most of all, he had a profound attraction of repulsion to St Giles's. If he could only induce whomsoever took him out to take him through Seven-dials, he was supremely happy. Good Heaven!' he would exclaim, 'what wild visions of prodigies of wickedness, want and beggary, arose in my mind out of that place!'
'Supreme happiness' might at first strike us as an odd emotion to be occasioned by the evidence of human misery, but any reader of Dickens recognises why this greatest of urban writers felt able to respond so wholeheartedly, so enthusiastically, and, one might add, so creatively. London, with all its variety, complexity and anomaly, 'sternly' and 'potently' taught Dickens to be the kind of writer that he is.
What his boyhood experiences also opened up to him was an acute awareness of the thin barriers that separated security from insecurity. Dickens's father, like the Wilkins Micawber whom seems to have been so closely modelled on him, knew the extent to which pecuniary happinness and pecuniary misery were near allied. In the case of John Dickens pecuniary misery led inexorably to the Marshalsea prison. For Charles it meant the shame of a debtor father, the humiliation of Warren's Blacking and residence at Lant Street in the Borough in order to be near his family precariously lodged in the Marshalsea. As many commentators on Dickens have noticed, the novelist's vision of London is pervaded by the shades of various prison houses: King's Bench, the Fleet, the Marshalsea, the Tower and, above all, by Newgate. Unlike a modern citizen, an early Victorian Londoner was as aware as Dickens was of the fact that these prisons formed part of the fabric of the central areas of the city. The debtors' prisons may have looked more like barracks than later Victorian gaols, but both the Tower (which figures most notably in Barnaby Rudge) and Newgate had burned themselves on the public imagination as the very types of a prison: grim, dark and evocative of oppression. To Dickens the older London prisons were active reminders not so much of the majesty of the law, but of the misery of those condemned by the law.The Marshalsea, which figures so prominently in the pages of Little Dorrit may have been tucked away off Borough High Street, but Newgate, memorable for its appearances in Sketches by Boz, Oliver Twist, Barnaby Rudge, A Tale of Two Cities and (albeit briefly) in Great Expectations, was monumental both in the sense of its prominent site on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey and in the sense that its windowless architecture inspired awe. For Dickens in his 'Boz' essay 'A Visit to Newgate' it is a frightful place replete with gloomy reminders of judicial execution. Take, for example, his account of the prison chapel 'situated at the back of the governor's house': Whether the associations connected with the place – the knowledge that here a portion of the burial service is, on some dreadful occasions, performed over the quick and not upon the dead – cast over it a still more gloomy and sombre air than art has imparted to it, we do not know, but its appearance is very striking … The meanness of its appointments – the bare and scanty pulpit, with the paltry painted pillars on it – the women's gallery with its great heavy curtain – the men's with its unpainted benches and dingy front – the tottering little table at the altar, with the commandments on the wall above it … are strange and striking. There is one object, too, which rivets the attention and fascinates the gaze, and from which we may turn horror stricken in vain, for the recollections of it will haunt us, waking and sleeping, for a long time afterwards. Immediately below the reading desk, on the floor of the chapel, and forming the most conspicuous object in its little area, is the condemned pew; a huge black pen, in which the wretched people, who are singled out for death, are placed on the Sunday preceding their execution, in sight of all their fellow prisoners, from many of whom they may have been separated but a week before, to hear prayers for their own souls, to join in the responses of their own burial service and to listen to an address, warning their recent companions to take example by their fate, and urging themselves , while there is yet time – nearly four and twenty hours – to 'turn, and flee from the wrath to come!'
'At one time', Dickens continues, 'the coffins of the men about to be executed, were placed in that pew, upon the seat by their side, during the whole service'. One such coffin is exaggeratedly, if clearly, shown in the picture of the chapel in Rudolph Ackermann's The Microcosm of London (1808-1810). For Dickens the macabre nature of this last Sunday service for the condemned seems to confuse the living with the dead and theatricality with and all too fragile mortality. This is terror without any evident recourse to pity. Reading this passage with the knowledge of his later fiction in our minds, we can can readily see why he was so drawn to the ghastiliness of Newgate's rituals of death.When he so vividly describes Fagin's last hours in Oliver Twist there is, of course, no Sunday sermon (Fagin has, we are told, even refused the prayerful ministrations of 'venerable men of his own persuasion'). What we have instead is a scene of wretched and lonely despair. It is a representation of a man barely self-aware but tormented by the prospect of death for which he has not prepared himself.
Fagin would have been tried at the Old Bailey, the court adjacent to Newgate Prison. The architecture and fittings of the court are carefully delineated in the first Book of A Tale of Two Cities on the occasion of Charles Darnay's trial for High Treason. Darnay, if convicted, would have been condemned to die horribly at Tyburn (though the fact of his prospective hanging, drawing and quartering distresses Jerry Cruncher less for its brutality than for the fact that this judicial butchery of the human body would leave scant profit for the resurrection men). Darnay would also have been amongst the last of Tyburn's victims (public executions were held at Newgate after 1783). Fagin will be hanged in the constricted open space in Old Bailey, the kind of spectacle only brought to an end, much to Dickens's relief, only in 1868. Justice, as pre-Victorian Londoners had conceived of it, was no longer to be so nastily seen to be done. The extended and humiliating journey of the condemned to the old gibbet at Tyburn had also been abolished in 1783. It had long been both celebrated and abhorred in criminal literature and Dickens may well have been indirectly recalling its horrors when he described Sydney Carton's last journey through Revolutionary Paris. Despite their elevated libertarian principles French Revolutionaries shared with their benighted 'aristocratic' predecessors on both sides of the channel the belief that the humiliating exposure of the condemned formed part of the act of social retribution.What should concern us here is that the route of the old journey to Tyburn had been as affected by later changes in street plan as had the route of the tumbrils in Paris been by the urban reconstruction initiated by Napoleon. Significantly for the theme of this lecture, the journey from Newgate to Tyburn had followed the old east-west axis along Holborn and Oxford Street. It was often a slow muddy and inconvenient transit. Criminals had been taken from the Prison along Skinner Street, down Holborn Hill (crossing the Fleet Ditch), westwards along Holborn and High Holborn, and taken a dog-leg in St Giles's High Street until they finally reached the long, straight stretch of Oxford Street with Tyburn at its extreme western end. We have already considered the significance of Holborn Viaduct in eliminating the difficulties associated with Holborn Hill. Towards the middle of Dickens's life, other most notorious blockage in this east-west route had been aleviated when the inconvenient and sometime perilous dog-leg of St Giles' High Street was by-passed by the construction of New Oxford Street. This 'improvement', like the abolition of executions at Tyburn, was precisely the kind of reform of which Dickens heartily approved. He may, properly enough, have found himself wondering in 'On Duty with Inspector Field' as to 'where the wretches whom we clear out' had removed themselves, but the new street that replaced much of the worst of the St Giles rookery would surely have appealed to his progressivist sympathies.
Thanks to the Metropolitan Board of Works, established in 1855, mid-century London was beginning to reconstruct much of London's infrastructure. London, as Dickens's novels make manifest, had long been enmired in inefficient local government, an inefficiency which the national government at Westminster had regarded with indifference. Dickens was not to live to witness many of the Board's most substantial changes to London's physical well-being, but, as many Victorians might have argued, his novels had continuously alerted his contemporaries to the physical and moral consequences of national desuetude. It was not idly that, early on in his career, Dickens had invented an ineptly and corruptly run provincial town called 'Mudfog' .When he came to write Bleak House in the early 1850s the mud and the fog had re-emerged to befuddle and smother London's life, and, beyond it, that of England as a whole. At the centre of the fog, and of England's much-vaunted legal system, sits the Lord Chancellor in his Court of Chancery. Around the court Londoners struggle through a tangle of mud-defiled street. This may be a London with which we barely familiar now, but it does not necessarily require archaeology to physically trace its bones and in Dickens's fiction it retains a stupendous imaginative continuity.
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© Professor Andrew Sanders, Gresham College, 7 November 2006