Changing London

Grim realities of south London

With gleaming waterfront apartments around London Bridge on the market today for sums that only those on bankers salaries could afford, it is hard to imagine upmarket parts of south London like Borough and Shad Thames tarred by heavy industry and nothing short a miserable place to live.

But in the shadow of Europe’s tallest building, ultra-modern Shard, in the 19th century this gloomy picture was a reality. Many people were in desperate poverty and living in slums where sewage, from factories making the likes of dyes and blacking, running through the streets.

Charles Dickens, the celebrated Victorian author and journalist, would have known the north part of Southwark well as his father was imprisoned for debt at the Marshalsea Prison, on the site of what is now John Harvard Library on Borough High Street and where a wall from Dickens’ time survives. As a 12-year-old Charles was forced to leave school and support his family by heading out to work, walking through the streets of Borough every day and across Blackfriars Bridge to a blacking factory over the river, near where Charring Cross station is today.

With these strong local connections, it is appropriate that as the world celebrates 200 years of the Dickens’ birth that a new self-guided walk has been created showing the world the south of the river that he would have been familiar with. Organised by the Cuming Museum, where an exhibition on the same theme is running until 24th November 2012, walkers are taken to the places that Dickens’ in later life used to inspire the locations and characters of his novels; Marshalsea Prison became a setting for Little Dorrit for example.

Staying in lodgings in Lant Street, near to the his father’s prison, young Charles would have witnessed awful conditions; the spot would later on in the century be described by a researcher working for social reformer Charles Booth as ‘a set of courts and small streets which for number, viciousness and poverty and crowding, is unrivalled in anything I have hithero seen in London’. Dickens used the street as the location of Bob Sawyer’s lodgings in Pickwick Papers, portraying it as dull and “which sheds a gentle melancholy on the soul”.

The majority of Southwark consisted of ‘liberties’, essentially outside the jurisdiction of the City of London authorities and neglected by the forces of law and order. Borough and its surroundings became a sanctuary for debtors and thieves. Dickens would later write about one of the most notorious ‘rookeries’ called Jacob’s Island, a slum next to St Saviour’s dock which was ‘surrounded by a muddy ditch’ and with sluices from lead mills. At high tide, he noted, ‘a stranger…. will see the inhabitants on either side, lowering from their back doors and windows, buckets, pails, domestic utensils of kinds, in which to haul the water up… every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of the filth, rot and garbage.’

Even though there has been extensive re-development work in recent decades, there are such vivid traces of the 19th London century as you walk about the streets of northern Southwark. The wonderful galleried George Inn on Borough High Street, despite being partly demolished decades ago, would have been familiar to Dickens today and was featured in Little Dorrit. Other inns along the stretch, like the White Hart, that the author wrote about in his novels are long gone but plaques mark their original positions. The Church of St. George the Martyr is also still there, the setting where Amy Dorrit was christened and married.

While this self-guide walk gives nowhere as much information as you would get if you had a ‘live’ guide taking you round the key sites, it does still encourage people to stop and look at buildings they have probably passed quickly many a time. The text encourages walkers to also imagine what a smelly, noisy and dirty place the streets of Borough and surrounding areas must have been. For anyone wanting to find out more about Dickens’ inspirations or indeed simply about Dickensian Southwark, it’s worth picking this free leaflet up from the Cuming Museum.

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