To know Dickens one must be familiar with half a dozen major novels, but this knowledge is incomplete without some familiarity with his journalism. This month we present a sample of it set in London.
By 1850 London was the largest city in the world. In less than forty years its population had more than doubled to reach 2,500,000. London grew faster than any other city in Europe.
Dickens’s reportage of this great, rapidly growing metropolis was renowned, undertaken as it was by his lengthy nocturnal walks—often more than 30 kms at a time—through the capital. His relentless energy and voyeuristic impulse led him to visit and report on prisons, law courts, churches, mortuaries, dockyards and workhouses. All grist for his keen powers of observation and desire for social reform. London, as Dickens knew it, reached the pages of his works, not through imagination but by direct observation.
In an article entitled Down with the Tide (Household Words, 5 February 1853), he rides for a night in a four-oared Thames Water Police boat as it patrols the river searching for bodies and other human flotsam. Dickens drew on this experience to frame the first chapter of Our Mutual Friend (1865), where Gaffer Hexham and his daughter Lizzie trawl the Thames for bodies to plunder and sell. In the words of a contemporary author Walter Bagehot, Dickens wrote of London ‘like a special correspondent for posterity’.
One of his most memorable accounts is On Duty with Inspector Field (Household Words, 14 June, 1851).
On a dull, wet, windy night—‘the long lines of street lamps are blurred, as if we saw them through tears’—in late 1850 Dickens made a tour of several dangerous East London slums. The excursion lasted till dawn. His guide was Inspector Charles Frederick Field (1805–1874) of the Metropolitan Police—the model for Inspector Bucket in Bleak House: ‘... a middle-aged man of a portly presence, with a large, moist, knowing eye, a husky voice, and a habit of emphasising his conversation by the air of a corpulent fore-finger, which is constantly in juxtaposition with his eyes or nose.’
Accompanying them was an Assistant Commissioner—‘... weary of speaking French all day to foreigners unpacking at the Great Exhibition’, a Detective Sergeant and Rogers, a local constable with a lamp strapped to his belt. Backed by a squad of local police within whistle distance they entered the notorious area known as ‘Rats’ Castle’ in St. Giles.
We stoop low, and creep down a precipitous flight of steps into a dark close cellar. There is a fire. There is a long deal table. There are benches. The cellar is full of company, chiefly very young men in various conditions of dirt and raggedness. Some are eating supper. There are no girls or women present. Welcome to Rats’ Castle, gentlemen, and to this company of noted thieves!... Inspector Field’s eye is the roving eye that searches every corner of the cellar as he talks. Inspector Field’s hand is the well-known hand that has collared half the people here, and motioned their brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, male and female friends, inexorably to New South Wales... Every thief here cowers before him, like a schoolboy before his schoolmaster. All watch him, all answer when addressed, all laugh at his jokes... but, let Inspector Field have a mind to pick out one thief here, and take him; let him produce that ghostly truncheon from his pocket, and say, with his business-air, ‘My lad, I want you!’ and all Rats’ Castle shall be stricken with paralysis, and not a finger move against him, as he fits the handcuffs on!
Yet they encounter still worse sights along New Oxford St and Ratcliffe Highway:
...the dilapidated door of a dark outhouse as we open it, and are stricken back by the pestilent breath that issues from within. Rogers to the front with the light, and let us look!
Ten, twenty, thirty—who can count them! Men, women, children, for the most part naked, heaped upon the floor like maggots in a cheese! Ho! In that dark corner yonder! Does anybody lie there? Me sir, Irish me, a widder, with six children. And yonder? Me sir, Irish me, with me wife and eight poor babes... And what’s this, coiling, now, about my foot? Another Irish me, pitifully in want of shaving, whom I have awakened from sleep—and across my other foot lies his wife—and by the shoes of Inspector Field lie their three eldest—and their three youngest are at present squeezed between the open door and the wall....
They are all awake now, the children excepted, and most of them sit up, to stare. Wheresoever Mr. Rogers turns the flaming eye, there is a spectral figure rising, unshrouded, from a grave of rags. Who is the landlord here? —I am, Mr. Field! says a bundle of ribs and parchment against the wall, scratching itself. —Will you spend this money fairly, in the morning, to buy coffee for ’em all? —Yes, sir, I will! —O he’ll do it, sir, he’ll do it fair. He’s honest! cry the spectres. And with thanks and Good Night sink into their graves again.
At the Old Mint, a district in Southwark, they visit a famous farmhouse almost buried in slums and kept clean and orderly by a landlady who Field treats with careful civility.
There is a piano going in the old Farm House as we approach. It stops. Landlady appears. Has no objections, Mr. Field, to gentlemen being brought, but wishes it were at earlier hours, the lodgers complaining of ill-conwenience. Inspector Field is polite and soothing...Deputy [a girl in this case] shows the way up a heavy, broad old staircase, kept very clean, into clean rooms where many sleepers are...The sight of whitewash and the smell of soap... make the old Farm House a phenomenon.
After midnight they travel back across ‘the creeping, black and silent Thames’ and return home through the worst of all London slums, ‘The Rookery’. Here for the only time that night, the police are defied. Dickens recounts the proprietor of a lodging house—a notorious ‘fence’ (receiver of stolen goods) he calls Bark, swearing vociferously and threatening to rip up the intruders:
We enter, and Bark flies out of bed... Bark’s parts of speech are of an awful sort—principally adjectives. I won’t, says Bark, have no adjective police and adjective strangers in my adjective premises! I won’t, by adjective and substantive! Give me my trousers, and I’ll send the whole adjective police to adjective and substantive!... I’ll put an adjective knife in the whole bileing of ’em. I’ll punch their adjective heads. I’ll rip up their adjective substantives...
You refuse admission to the Police, do you, Bark? —Yes, I do! I refuse it to all the adjective police, and to all the adjective substantives. If the adjective coves in the kitchen was men, they’d come up now, and do for you! Shut me that there door! says Bark, and suddenly we are enclosed in the passage. They’d come up and do for you! cries Bark, and waits. Not a sound in the kitchen! They’d come up and do for you! cries Bark again, and waits. Not a sound in the kitchen! We are shut up, half-a-dozen of us, in Bark’s house in the innermost recesses of the worst part of London, in the dead of the night—the house is crammed with notorious robbers and ruffians—and not a man stirs. No, Bark. They know the weight of the law, and they know Inspector Field and Co. too well.
And as dawn breaks over the city, ‘the special correspondent for posterity’ surveys the just visited residences from Holborn Hill and concludes his account: ... they are quiet, and no light shines through the chinks in the shutters. As undistinctive Death will come here, one day, sleep comes now. The wicked cease from troubling sometimes, even in this life.
HISTORICAL POSTSCRIPT. These slum districts were also well known to the journalist and social reformer Henry Mayhew (1812–1887)—author of the classic, London Labour and the London Poor (1851)—who described its ‘nests of close and narrow alleys and courts inhabited by the lowest class of Irish costermonger (a street seller of fruit and vegetables) ... (it) has passed into a byword as the synonym of filth and squalor’.
Kellow Chesney, The Victorian Underworld (1970). Although published more than 40 years ago, still the best book on the subject. Now Out of Print, but we have a Good Condition Second Hand Hardcover Copy of the First Edition available in a chipped and torn Dustjacket. $35.00. Stephen