Charles Dickens has a heavy presence in Southwark.
As a child he spent some time living in Lant Street whilst his father was imprisoned for debt in nearby Marshalsea Prison. Then in his early adulthood, as a roving journalist, he visited many of the local establishments to assess the quality or lack of social care and industrial workers' rights. A lot of this experience fed into his later novels.
In dedication to Mr Dickens, a number of streets in the Southwark area are named after characters in his works. There are also two parks linked to him. These streets are quite close to each other and you can visit them to take the mandatory selfie beside the street signs. Below is a list of each of them.
1. Pickwick Street
There are in fact references to three characters from the Pickwick Papers in the local area. This was Dickens' first book, published in 1837. It is a collection of loosely coupled stories, based around Mr Samuel Pickwick esq, a retired and wealthy, if somewhat naive, gentleman who is also president of the Pickwick Club. He travels around the English countryside on fishing and hunting expeditions with fellow compatriots, reporting back on his observations.
Whilst you walk around this part of Southwark, take in the gorgeous old industrial buildings that are dotted around and which contribute immensely to the character of the local area.
2. Weller Street
Samuel Weller is a savvy cockney who works at the local White Hart Inn. He is employed by Mr Pickwick as a personal servant. His astuteness is a wonderful foil to the older, but lesser experienced in life, Samuel Pickwick.
Weller Street is just adjacent to Mint Street Park, which I talk about in my earlier blog of interesting places to visit in Southwark. You might want to include this in your itinerary if you decide to take the tour of street signs. Also to note that the St Saviour's Workhouse that previously stood on Mint Street (and which forms part of the park) was most likely visited by Darwin whilst he was a reporter. It is likely that this was the very workhouse where Oliver Twist would have asked for more food.
3. Sawyer Street
In the Pickwick Papers, Bob Sawyer entertains some guests, including Samuel Pickwick at his home on Lant Street. The real Lant Street is actually where Dickens lived whilst his father was at Marshalsea Prison. It is also directly across the road from Sawyer Street.
Here is a description of Lant Street as it appears in Pickwick Papers:
"There is a repose about Lant Street, in the Borough, which sheds a gentle melancholy upon the soul. There are always a good many houses to let in the street: it is a by-street too, and its dulness is soothing. A house in Lant Street would not come within the denomination of a first-rate residence, in the strict acceptation of the term; but it is a most desirable spot nevertheless. If a man wished to abstract himself from the world — to remove himself from within the reach of temptation — to place himself beyond the possibility of any inducement to look out of the window — we should recommend him by all means go to Lant Street."
Worth noting, too, that just along Lant Street is Charles Dickens Primary School, built in 1877.
4. Copperfield street
Named after David Copperfield in the book of the same name, which was printed in 1850. This story is actually semi-autobiographical and follows the early life of the protagonist to middle age and the start of a successful writing career. Parallels to Dickens can be found with David working in a factory as a boy and the deep love he has for his wife, Dora.
Whilst you are on Copperfield Street, take a look at All Hallows Church. It was designed by George Gilbert Scott Junior in 1877. Sadly the church was practically destroyed by bombing during the Second World War, but part of it remains and can be viewed in this greeting card on the left that I have for sale on my website (click the image to view). Unfortunately it is not in a very good state of repair having been occupied in the 80s and 90s as a music studio. These days it is used as a temporary shelter.
All Hallows has a rather nice walled churchyard where you can sit and admire the late nineteenth century Winchester Cottages opposite, devised by Octavia Hill who went on to co-found the National Trust.
5. Little Dorrit Court
Just like Dickens' father, Amy Dorrit's father spent some time in Marshalsea Prison for debt. Amy, or Little Dorrit, was born and raised in the prison and marries in the next door St George the Martyr church. This book is a commentary on society's treatment of the poor and how many, such as those in debt, fell through the safety net in Victorian Britain. It is also an accurate portrayal of the lack of protections for industrial workers. Darwin clearly draws upon his own experience in the local area with this novel. Little Dorrit was published in 1855-57.
Little Dorrit Court leads to Little Dorrit Park. For years during the nineteenth century it was where the notorious Falcon Court residence was situated, which was a popular haunt of prostitutes, pimps and thieves. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, social reformer Charles Booth organised an enormous study of poverty in London, which was published between 1891 and 1903. The extract here mentions the area around Red Cross Place and Falcon Court, which possibly helped in the removal of these slums. These reports are available online to view on the LSE website.
Falcon Court was indeed converted into a small park in 1902, but which, following an World War II air raid, then lay derelict until 2001. The park now includes a small children's playground. What a turnaround!
6. Quilp Street
Daniel Quilp appears in the Old Curiosity Shop, published in 1840. He is a monstrous character, described in the novel as: Finally, this is a rather surprising choice for a street name. This street cuts across Mint Street Park and is partly a pathway.
"so low in stature as to be quite a dwarf, though his head and face were large enough for a giant. His black eyes were restless, sly and cunning, his mouth and chin, bristly with the stubble of a coarse hard beard; and his complexion was one of that kind which never looks clean or wholesome. But what added most to the grotesque expression of his face, was a ghastly smile, which appearing to be the mere result of habit and to have no connection with any mirthful or complacent feeling, constantly revealed the few discoloured fangs that were yet scattered in his mouth, and gave him the aspect of a panting dog... he ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with the heads and tails on... drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon till they bent again, and in short performed so many horrifying and uncommon acts that the women were nearly frightened out of their wits, and began to doubt if he were really a human creature."
Quilp really is a nasty piece of work, and by today's standards would probably be considered to be a perpetrator of domestic abuse against his wife, Betsy. He is manipulative and a really horrible character, lusting after Nell and cheating her grandfather out of his fortune, which allows him to seize ownership of the Old Curiosity Shop. Finally he meets his untimely death when he falls into the Thames whilst chased by the Police during a foggy night.
Capturing the atmosphere of Dickensian London
I live in the Southwark area and spend a lot of my time photographing buildings and general sights that interest me. I have created a collection of these images which provide a glimpse into the kind of London that Dickens might have known. This greeting card that I have for sale was taken on Lant Street. Although this particular building dates from 1904, it helps to provide some idea of the local atmosphere that Dickens either as a child or during his days as a roving reporter in the local area, might have known. He certainly knew Lant Street well enough to include it in some detail in Pickwick Papers.
More of a bonus street sign to selfie with is Dickens Square, a tribute to the man himself rather than to one of his characters. The square is a bit unremarkable other than the Baitul Al Aziz Islamic Cultural Centre but worth a visit for the photo opportunity with the street sign. Additionally Dickens Fields is just next to it!
Try our suggested other things to do in Southwark!
social history things to do in Southwark urban