The Dickens Connection in Marylebone

Charles Dickens - carving at Ferguson House (detail)Recently I noticed the name plaque “Copperfield House” erected on a building at the junction of Beaumont Street with Marylebone High Street. It was named after the Dickens character David Copperfield which was one of six novels written between 1839-51 at the house 1 Devonshire Terrace, situated a few hundred meters away:

1 Devonshire Terrace, where Dickens lived, from Marylebone Road (Image sourced from The Victorian Web)

1 Devonshire Terrace, where Dickens lived, from Marylebone Road (Image sourced from The Victorian Web)

Despite protests, this house situated on the south side of Marylebone Road was demolished in the late 1950s to make way for an office block, Ferguson House. To get some idea what this house’s interior might have looked like, why not visit the house he occupied in Doughty Street WC1?

St Marylebone Church and back of Ferguson House

The Dickens household moved to Tavistock Square in 1851 with the ending of the Devonshire Terrace lease. 1851 was a traumatic year for Dickens – it included the death of his father, his wife’s illness and the death of their youngest daughter Dora in April, so it was not surprising that he did not renew the lease. The rate book entry includes the hand written comment “house empty from November 1851”.

Conveniently this year coincided with a national Census, so I visited Westminster Archives to consult the microfilmed Census enumerator returns for a snapshot of the household. To my surprise the Devonshire Terrace household on Census night only consisted of the Dickens children, who had been left in the care of a cook, a nursery maid and also a wet nurse for seven month old Dora. Where were the parents? Using Ancestry and Find My Past I found them. On Census night Charles Dickens is listed as a visitor at an address in Keppel Street, Bloomsbury, attending to his dying father. His wife Catherine, suffering from a nervous condition, was at Malvern taking the water cure. She was in Malvern when her daughter died two weeks later.

It is worth braving the Marylebone Road traffic fumes to visit Ferguson House at number 15 for the unexpected sight of a huge panel sculpted by Estcourt J Clack (1906-1973) commemorating some of the characters Dickens created while resident Devonshire Terrace – including David Copperfield.

Ferguson House plaque featuring Dickens characters

The parish church was used for a baptism scene in his novel Dombey and Son. You can read this scene on pages 12-13 of a pdf Full History of the Church guide on the St Marylebone Church website.

10 Norfolk Street (now 22 Cleveland Street W1)

Dickens’ father John was born in Marylebone and had been baptised at the previous Marylebone Church, situated immediately to the south of the current church. Dickens also had a number of relations on his mother’s side who lived in the Marylebone and Oxford Street area. Thus it is not surprising that when his parents first moved to London from Portsmouth in 1814 (when Dickens was two), they lodged in the Marylebone/Fitzrovia area at 10 Norfolk Street (now 22 Cleveland Street W1). Although the family initially resided here for two years, Dickens returned to the same house in 1829. He gave this address as his residence when he applied for a reader’s ticket at the British Museum in 1830.

North of this house, the St. Marylebone and St. Pancras parish boundary ran north south following the line of an ancient track Green Lane which with urbanisation became Cleveland Street. At the junction with Tottenham Street the boundary veered off south east thus incorporated Dickens’ house within St. Marylebone. A subsequent amendment of administrative boundaries has meant that the Camden and Westminster boundary now continues along the line of Cleveland Street south towards Goodge Street so that this house now falls within Camden.

Parish Boundary - Cleveland Street

The former boundary is graphically illustrated by this image of a 19th century St Pancras parish marker placed on the side wall of a house on Tottenham Street. Note the “plaque wall” continues as the back wall of number 10 Norfolk Street. The blank wall meeting it at right angles on the right of the image is actually the side of Dickens’ former residence.

A good description of the Norfolk Street area and local observed influences upon his works e.g. the Cleveland Street workhouse, are highlighted in a recent book Dickens and the workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London poor by Ruth Richardson. The book also includes several recent photographs of the house interior which has not been greatly altered since.

The author describes how she identified the house from using a number of sources including maps and rate books held at Westminster Archives (see a previous blog on this work). Note that there has been some controversy over the author’s claim that the house location was unknown. Several people have pointed out that it was accurately located in several previous Dickens’ studies. What is not in doubt is that the book and controversy has resulted in the house being recognised by the Dickens Fellowship who has now erected a blue wall plaque on the house front. The book also describes the successful preservation campaign to save from demolition the adjacent Cleveland Street Workhouse building, the probable inspiration for Oliver Twist.

Ruth Richardson also found several local names that are linked with characters. For example Bill Sykes and Sam Weller have their real life name counterparts in two local shop keepers. William Sykes was an oil lamp oil seller and also within this street was a shoe seller Dan Weller. These links were highlighted in a Guardian interview with Dalya Alberge dated Thursday 2 February 2012. This can be read using the 24/7 newspaper resource NewsBank (log in with your library card number).

Charles Dickens is not the only major Victorian novelist with Marylebone roots. His great friend the novelist Wilkie Collins was born and lived much of his life in the Marylebone area. There is a recently erected Westminster green plaque to mark the site of his birth on the block of flats at 96-100 New Cavendish Street.

Both authors are included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Charles Dickens surprisingly also merits an entry in the Contemporary Authors literature resource. You can access both these reosurces from home with your library card. Finally, both authors’ writings are discussed in the multi-volume Nineteenth-century literature criticism series held at Marylebone Library. This is a valuable resource for literature students and anyone else interested in researching a specific author and their work.

Finally, an exciting Dickens discovery was announced in July 2015 by The Independent. Dickens was editor of a journal “All the Year Round”. A researcher, after purchasing bound volumes of this journal, found that these were Dickens’ own copies and they had a number of handwritten annotations identifying the anonymous contributors to the journal who included major authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins and Lewis Carroll! You can read more about this discovery on Library Press Display or NewsBank (log in with your library card).

[Francis]

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