Tucked away in a quiet road behind Great Ormond Street Hospital, 48 Doughty Street was the home of a pre-fame Charles Dickens and provided the setting for many significant events in the young man’s life. In the two short years Dickens lived there, the house played host to the tragic death of his sister-in-law Mary (who was only 17) and the birth of his two eldest daughters. However, the property was also the birthplace of his first three (and possibly most loved) novels: ‘The Pickwick Papers’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Nicholas Nickleby’. The house is now the Charles Dickens Museum and has been preserved to appear as it would have done when the author was living there.
Dickens’s writing desk
This iconic desk, which originally sat at Dickens’s final home, Gad’s Hill Place, was thought to be where the author wrote famous titles, including ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Immortalised in the painting ‘The Empty Chair’ it looked out over the front lawn and long drive of his Kent home.
Wash House Copper
‘A great deal of steam. The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like washing-day. That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundressess’s next to that.’ (‘A Christmas Carol’). Probably the closest thing to a washing machine without actually being a washing machine, a wash house copper was a large metal bowl suspended over a fire and covered with a wooden lid. Filled with water and dirty clothes, the contents were stirred continuously until clean. Once a year, however, the bowl would be washed out and used for boiling the Christmas pudding as described in the above extract.
St James Theatre Poster
Not many people know that Dickens also won a great deal of merit as a playwright and actor but this poster is evidence of this little known talent. From early on in Dickens’s career (he is still writing under the pseudonym ‘Boz’), it refers to a farce called ‘Is She His Wife?’ and a dramatised scene from The Pickwick Papers, ‘A White Bait Dinner at Black Wall’. The latter part of this duo of dramas remains a mystery as no record of it has ever been found. The poster also marks a time of tragedy in the young man’s life: it would be on the night of one of these performances, that his young sister-in-law would have a stroke and die in Dickens’s arms.
This bejewelled ring in the shape of a coiled serpent was owned by Dickens’s wife, Catherine. When Charles and Catherine separated in 1858, her younger sister Georgina remained with Charles as his housekeeper and there were rumours of an affair between the two. After Charles died, Catherine gave the ring to Georgina as a sign that she could not forgive her.
Charles Dickens’s will was changed exactly one week before he died in 1870. The first person mentioned is his close friend of 13 years, actress Ellen Ternan, or Nelly, who received a sum of £1,000 (almost half a million in today’s money). Many have speculated about the nature of Charles and Nelly’s relationship which was kept notoriously private. In 1865, when travelling back from France with Nelly and her mother, Dickens’s train was involved in a serious accident. Although Dickens was active in helping the wounded, he refused to give a statement or attend the inquest – probably because the identity of his companions would have been discovered and made public.
The Little Midshipman
This portly little figure of a midshipman taking a reading is a wonderful example of the way Dickens would adapt elements of his environment in his writings. He grew fond of the little figure, which stood guard outside a shop in the shipping quarter around Leadenhall Street, ‘affectionately patting him on the leg of his knee-shorts for old acquaintance sake’ when walking through the city. The figure is mentioned in Dickens’s novel ‘Dombey and Son’ as the sign of Sol Gil, a nautical equipment maker , and can be seen in two of the illustrations that accompany the writing, described as ‘the woodenest of that which thrust itself out above the pavement’.
Though Dickens lived to become incredibly famous and wealthy, his childhood lacked the stability and financial security that he was to find in later life. Charles’s father, John Dickens was a clerk employed by the Navy Pay office and had to travel as and when required by his employer. In 1822, The Dickens family moved to Bagham Street in Camden and this is the window that Charles would have looked out of as a child. It was not long after this that his father John and the rest of his family were arrested and sent to debtor’s prison while Charles was sent to find work and lodgings elsewhere.