Dickens and London
     Dickens and Covent Garden

Old clothes shop in St Giles 
from Street Life in London  (1878)

Seven Dials
by Gustav Doré from London: A Pilgrimage (1872)

St Giles and nearby  Seven Dials, ‘where seaven streetes make a starr from a Doric Pillar plac’d in the middle of a Circular Area’, were among  the worst slums in Dickens' London.  Monmouth Street in St Giles was ‘the only true and real emporium for second-hand wearing apparel’.  In his essay Seven Dials in Sketches by Boz, Dickens wrote ‘the streets and courts dart in all directions, until they are lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-tops, and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined.  … On one side, a little crowd has collected round a couple of ladies, who having imbibed the contents of various “three-outs” of gin and bitters in the course of the morning, have at length differed on some point of domestic arrangement, and are on the eve of settling the quarrel satisfactorily, by an appeal to blows, greatly to the interest of other ladies who live in the same house, and tenements adjoining’.   

A short walk south west from Seven Dials will take you through Covent Garden market to Somerset House.  In 1809 Dickens' father John Dickens married Elizabeth Barrow in the nearby church of St Mary-le-Strand.   He was working at the Navy Pay Office in nearby Somerset House and met her through her brother who also worked there.  It must have seemed the foundation of a safe middle class family, built on secure civil service employment.  But in 1810 Elizabeth's father, who also worked for the Navy Pay Office, was found guilty of embezzling money and fled to the Isle of Man. And in 1824 John Dickens was imprisoned for debt and had to resign his post.  

Somerset House (entrance to Strand)
Photograph Sue Gane (2001)

Somerset House was the first purpose built block of Government offices and originally housed the Royal Navy, the Royal Society and the Royal Academy. A palatial building set around a large courtyard, it illustrates the prestige of civil service employment in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The Royal Navy was particularly important, having played a key part in the British defeat of Napoleonic France.  It became the largest and strongest navy in the world and underpinned the growth of the British colonial empire and  Britain’s major role in world trade in the 19th century.

Until the civil service reforms of 1855 to 1870 jobs in government offices were filled through family connections.  Dickens satirised this patronage in Little Dorrit.  ‘The Barnacles were a very high family, and a very large family.  They were dispersed all over the public offices, and held all sorts of public places.  Either the nation was under a load of obligation to the Barnacles, or the Barnacles were under a load of obligation to the nation.  It was not quite unanimously settled which; the Barnacles having their opinion, the nation theirs.’  But Dickens himself benefited from patronage.  His father was the son of a butler and a housekeeper who worked for the wealthy Crewe family, and Lord Crewe's influence got John Dickens his respectable middle class job as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office.