shop in St Giles
from Street Life in London (1878)
by Gustav Doré from London: A Pilgrimage (1872)
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’.
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)
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
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