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Charles Dickens and Southwark

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by Sandra Lawson (subscribe)
To paraphrase Dorothy: 'There is no place like London.' I hope I can convince you of that here. Also check out my blog at and my theatre reviews at
Published February 4th 2012
If you find yourself in Southwark on Charles Dickens's two-hundredth birthday on Tuesday, 7 February, you could visit Southwark Cathedral and take part in their bicentenary celebrations. There will be a day long exhibition of letters and first editions; a full peal of bells between midday and 4 o'clock; a guided walk of the area at 2.30; Choral Evensong will mark the writer's birthday at 5.30 and Claire Tomalin (his most recent biographer) will be giving a talk at 6.30.

Charles Dickens and Southwark
Southwark Cathedral at Night

If you can't make it to the Borough on that date, you could visit some of the locations associated with Dickens at your own leisure.

Although he was born in Portsmouth, Dickens is arguably associated more closely with London. He is famous for taking long walks around his adopted city, especially at night, and the capital features prominently in his novels. His association with Southwark begins with his father's period of incarceration in the Marshalsea prison in 1824. In his biography of the writer, Peter Ackroyd relates that 'Marshalsea was the place and the area which haunted Dickens throughout his life'. You can still see the last remaining wall of this infamous prison along one side of St George's Gardens, opposite Borough Tube Station. The gardens were once the grounds of the prison and are decked with old gravestones, many of them now unreadable.

Charles Dickens and Southwark
Wall of the Marshalsea Prison

Close by St George's Gardens is the church of St George the Martyr, built during the 1730s. The church features in Little Dorrit; the eponymous heroine is born in the Marshalsea and marries Arthur Clennan in the church. She is also portrayed in one of the church's stained glass windows.

Charles Dickens and Southwark
St George the Martyr

A little further along the High Street, Angel Place, the alleyway between the prison wall and the John Harvard Library (the man who founded the famous American university was born in Southwark) bears reminders of Dickens and his father. The connection with Little Dorrit is again underlined with illustrated extracts from the novel high up on the wall.

Charles Dickens and Southwark
Flagstone by the Marshalsea Wall

Charles Dickens and Southwark
Extracts from Little Dorrit

Walking back along the High Street in the direction of London Bridge you will pass the former yard of The White Hart, where Mr Pickwick encounters Sam Weller cleaning boots (in The Pickwick Papers). You can also visit The George, London's only remaining galleried coaching inn. The pub is mentioned by name in Little Dorrit, but the description of The White Hart (in The Pickwick Papers) could equally apply to the galleries and staircases of the George.

Charles Dickens and Southwark
The George

Charles Dickens and Southwark
The George Pub Sign

You can pop into Borough Market on your walk and remind yourself that a drunken Ben Allen (again in The Pickwick Papers) knocked on the door of the Market Office, although the present day office has since moved.

Charles Dickens and Southwark
Borough Market

Make your way from here round to Southwark Cathedral. When the twelve-year-old Dickens was working at Warren's Blacking Factory at Blackfriars Steps (whilst his father was in prison) he would have passed the Cathedral (or St Saviour's church as it was then called) on his journey from the Marshalsea to his place of work. In The Uncommercial Traveller he refers to Gower's tomb in the Cathedral.

Sometimes it can be difficult to separate the London that inspired Dickens from the London he inspired. He borrowed names of characters from people he met in London. Mr Pickwick's name is taken from the Bath stagecoach line that was run by Moses Pickwick and the boy Charles worked with Bob Fagin in the blacking factory. Reciprocally you can spot Dorrit, Copperfield, Pickwick and Quilp Streets in the local area.

Charles Dickens and Southwark
Quilp Street

It is not easy to walk the street of the Borough and not be reminded of Charles Dickens.

Please visit the following WeekendNotes articles for more information on Charles Dickens:

Dickens 2012 Bicentenary Celebrations

Dickens at the Museum of London

A Hankering After Ghosts
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Why? To remind yourself of how Charles Dickens was inspired by Southwark
When: During the daylight hours are best
Where: Along and around Borough High Street
Cost: Free
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