At Charles Dickens’ Childhood Home
A gathering of Dickensians
Yesterday, I turned away from the throng of Saturday shoppers in Oxford St to seek the quiet streets of Fitzrovia, where around a hundred people met outside 22 Cleveland St for the unveiling of a new plaque upon Charles Dickens’ childhood home. Originally known as 10 Norfolk St, Dickens lodged here with his parents as a child, during 1815 and 1816, before his father’s imprisonment for debt, returning in adolescence, from 1828 until 1831, as he began to make his own way in the world.
Until recently, it was widely understood that the only one of Dickens’ places of residence to have survived in London was in Doughty St, Bloomsbury, but Ruth Richardson uncovered the existence of his childhood home in Fitzrovia while she was researching the history of the Cleveland St Workhouse, as part of a campaign to save it from demolition. This discovery led her to compare the distinctive regime and circumstances at the Cleveland St Workhouse with that described in ‘Oliver Twist’ and she realised that Dickens had used this workhouse just a few doors from his childhood home as the template for the one in his novel. Richardson tells the compelling story of her detective work in Dickens & the Workhouse and the success of her research led to a Grade II listing for the building, thereby ensuring its survival.
A key discovery for Richardson was the calling card that Dickens produced to gain employment as a shorthand writer while resident here. When she contacted the owner of the only-known copy of the card, Dan Calinescu of the Toronto branch of the Dickens Fellowship, he asked her why there was no plaque upon the building and, when she told him that there was no money for a plaque, he offered to pay for it. Thus I found myself shaking hands with Mr Calinescu yesterday, amidst a diverse crowd of fans – many in historic garb – that gathered to celebrate Dickens and consider the influence of this immediate environment upon the nascent writer.
Living in lodgings here above a grocer’s shop, young Dickens learned to read and write, and suffered the domestic insecurity brought about by his father’s gambling. Returning after his father’s imprisonment, Dickens learnt shorthand here and sought to establish his independence, applying for a reader’s ticket at the British Museum from this address. For the five years that he lived in this street, Dickens could not ignore the presence of the workhouse upon his doorstep – as the fate that he struggled to avoid – and the impression it made upon him inspired one of his greatest novels.
Preparing for the unveiling.
Lucinda Dickens Hawksley, Dickens’ great-great granddaughter, pulls away the cloth..
Dickens’ calling card while resident in Fitzrovia. (reproduced courtesy of Dan Cilanescu)
The door where Charles Dickens once walked in.
Jennifer Emerson as Dolly Varden.
Cleveland St, with Dickens’ childhood home at number 22 – originally 10 Norfolk St.
Jane Wildgoose as Lady Dedlock
The Cleveland St Workhouse that served as the inspiration for the workhouse in Oliver Twist.
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