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Dickens in Spitalfields

January 26, 2010
by the gentle author

It is my great pleasure to welcome Charles Dickens as a guest writer for Spitalfields Life. On 5th April 1851, Dickens published a feature entitled “Spitalfields” in Household Words, his weekly journal. Here, to whet your appetite, is the opening of the piece written by Dickens in collaboration with his sub-editor W.H.Wills. The article will be serialised here over the coming weeks.

When Dickens came to Spitalfields, the weaving industry was in decline, unable to compete with cheaper imports and the mechanised mills of the North. Liverpool St Station had not yet been built, instead there was an Eastern Counties Rail terminus at the junction of Shoreditch High St and Commercial St, fragments of which still survive. Fascinated by the precarious ramshackle wooden constructions upon the tops of houses, used for breeding pigeons and as weavers’ workshops, Dickens and his colleague Wills entered Spitalfields from Bishopsgate, walking into Spital Sq, site of the former Priory of St Mary Spital.

Have you any distinct idea of Spitalfields, dear reader?

A general one, no doubt you have – an impression that there are certain squalid streets, lying like narrow black trenches, far below the steeples, somewhere about London – towards the East perhaps – where sallow, unshorn weavers, who have nothing to do, prowl languidly about, or lean against posts, or sit brooding on doorsteps, and occasionally assemble together in a crowd to petition Parliament or the Queen; after which there is a Drawing Room or a Court Ball, where all the great ladies wear dresses of Spitalfields manufacture; and then the weavers dine for day or two, and so relapse into prowling about the streets, leaning against the posts, and brooding on doorsteps.

If your occupation in town or country ever oblige you to travel by Eastern Counties Railway ( you would never do so, of course, unless you were obliged) you may connect with this impression, a general idea that many pigeons are kept in Spitalfields, and you may remember to have thought, as you rattled along the dirty streets, observing the pigeon-hutches and pigeon-traps on the tops of the poor dwellings, that it was a natural aspiration in the inhabitants to connect themselves with any living creatures that could get out of that and fly into the air. The smoky little bowers that you may have sometimes seen on the house-tops, among the pigeons, may have suggested to your fancy – I pay you the poor compliment of supposing it to be a vagrant fancy, like my own – abortions of the bean-stalk that led Jack to fortune: by the slender twigs of which, the Jacks of Spitalfields will never, never, climb to where the giant keeps his money.

Will you come to Spitalfields?

Turning eastward out of the most bustling part of Bishopsgate, we suddenly lose the noise that has been resounding in our ears, and fade into the great churchyard of the Priory of St Mary, Spital, otherwise “Domus Dei et Beate Mariæ, extra Bishopsgate, in the parish of St Botolph.” Its modern name is Spital Square. Cells and cloisters were, at an early date, replaced by substantial burgher houses, which, since the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, in 1685, have been the chief depositories of silk manufacture introduced into London, by the French Huguenots, who flew from the perfidy of Louis the Fourteenth. But much of the old quiet cloistered air still lingers in the place.

The house to which we are bound, stands at an angle with the spot where the Pulpit-cross was anciently planted; where on every Easter Monday and Tuesday, the Spital sermons were preached, in the presence of the Lord Mayor and Corporation, and children of Christ’s Hospital. We cross the many cornered “square” and enter a sort of gateway.

Along a narrow passage, up a dark stair, through a crazy door, into a room not very light, not in the least splendid; with queer corners, and quaint carvings, and massive chimney-pieces; with desks behind thin rails, with aisles between thick towers of papered-up packages, out of whose ends flash all the colours of the rainbow – where all is as quiet as a playhouse at dawn, or a church at midnight – where, in truth, there is nobody to make a noise, except one well-dressed man, one attendant porter (neither of whom seem to be doing anything particular), and one remarkably fine male cat, admiring before the fire, the ends of his silky paws – where the door, as we enter, shuts with a deep, dull, muffled sound, that is more startling than a noise – where there is less bustle than at a Quakers’ meeting, and less business going on than in a Government office – the well-dressed man threads the mazes of the piles, and desks, and cupboards, and counters, with a slow step, to greet us, and to assure us, in reply to our apology, that we have not made any mistake whatever, and that we are in the silk warehouse which we seek: a warehouse in which, we have previously been informed, by one whose word we never before doubted, that there is “turned over” an annual average of one hundred thousand pounds, of good and lawful money of Great Britain.

We may tell our informant, frankly, that, looking round upon the evidences of stagnation which present themselves, we utterly disbelieve this statement…

In the next installment, we shall meet Mr Broadelle, the proprietor of the silk warehouse and encounter the silk-buyer of Messrs Treacy & McIntyre and discover the circumstances of their business. In further installments, we shall accompany Dickens and Wills on their tour of Spitalfields to a ragged school, a weaver’s loft and a young artist’s studio.

Spital Sq (with the Spitalfields Market beyond in Lamb St) seen from the Bishopsgate end where Dickens entered Spitalfields. Although this picture was taken by C.A.Mathew in 1912, the square had altered little from when Dickens paid his visit in 1851, it is today as you see below.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. mcneill permalink
    January 26, 2010

    Dickens took such pleasure in his language! Even here tying himself closely to the earth you get the feeling of a balloon tugging at its anchor.

    As for the photographs – sometimes I think it unfair of the past to be so alluring and mysterious. Often the present is hard-pressed to compete.

    Looking forward to more …

  2. January 26, 2010

    What fabulous writing!

  3. touchstone permalink
    December 15, 2012

    ^ Are you serious?? How is sticking a clone glass office block and a ghastly grey car park in the place an ‘improvement’? ‘Visionaries; lol!

  4. Chris Love permalink
    June 9, 2013

    Why oh why do planners think they are enhancing an area, when in truth they are ruining it, do they have no vision. I’m sure if Charles Dickens returned to Spittal Square today he’d be horrified at so called building improvements………future planners please have “vision”.

  5. Cheryl Devall permalink
    April 4, 2016

    I’ve taken great delight in reading this opening script of Charles Dickens. There is indisputable genius in his skill as a writer. If you read through his composition again, please be sure to take note of his mastered use of the language as his words playfully tumble from your mouth. As examples, “the Jacks of Spitalfields will never, never, climb to where the giant keeps his money”, “pigeon-traps on the tops of the poor dwellings”, “with queer corners, and quaint carvings”, “one remarkably fine male cat, admiring before the fire, the ends of his silky paws”…absolutely exquisite writing. As a writer myself, I stand in unbridled awe of this man, this iconic Charles Dickens.

  6. Stella permalink
    June 30, 2022

    Cheryl – yes, I agree, what wonderful use of words. And John from 2011 – you’re being sarcastic, surely?

  7. Stuey the time traveller permalink
    April 27, 2023

    Well, John’s post from 2011 rattled a few cages! However, it has for an unknown reason gone from the page by this date.

    Reading the fleeting remarks attributed to John makes me wonder, other than the word vision or visionary, what was written. One thing’s for sure though, Dickens’ words will last, probably for ever – unlike the hapless John’s.

  8. Mr Peter J Washington permalink
    July 14, 2023

    Take a look at that black and white picture, Lowry got his perspective spot on for that time.

    Matchstick cats and dogs, and sparking clogs.

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