There were few, if any, districts of the great metropolis of Dickens’s time with which he was not thoroughly acquainted. His love of walking took him into many strange places, afterwards to be introduced into his novels and minor writings. To students of his books these places are familiar to a great extent, and have been sought out by the devoted pilgrim in many a tramp with guide-book in hand. One of the lesser-known districts connected with Dickens and his works, however, is Whitechapel, yet Dickens made the East End of London the venue of many a ramble. “My day’s no-business beckoning me to the East-end of London,” he says on one occasion, “I had turned my face to that point of the Metropolitan compass on leaving Covent Garden, and had got past my Little Wooden Midshipman, after affectionately patting him on one leg of his knee-shorts for old acquaintance sake, and had got past Aldgate Pump, and had got past the Saracen’s Head (with an ignominious rash of posting bills disfiguring his swarthy countenance), and had strolled up the empty yard of his ancient neighbour, the Back or Blue Board, or Bull, who departed this life I don’t know when and whose coaches are all gone I don’t know where; and I had come out again into the age of railways, and I had got past Whitechapel Church and was in the Commercial Road.” And in more than one of his Uncommercial papers he speaks of having found himself drawn in the same direction to visit the district where he had “pleasantly wallowed in the abundant mud of that thoroughfare.” The district had a fascination for him, as all places had where he could find abundant material for the study of humanity, the state of humanity which wanted lifting, as we know he attempted to lift it and throw the limelight of his pen upon for the world to see and help.
In the following pages it is my intention to follow in the footsteps of Dickens through Whitechapel, and visit the places he visited, as well as those introduced into his writings.
Starting from Bishopsgate Street, we turn up Brushfield Street, and continue until Commercial Street is reached, then turn to the right to Flower and Dean Street, where at the corner of Commercial Street is a dull and elegant-looking warehouse of four floors, now in the occupation of a wholesale clothier. There is nothing in the building calculated to attract the passer-by, or even the sightseer, until he knows its history. But the building has a history and an interest for the Dickensian. Years ago and up to the early eighties it was a cooking depôt for the workers in the district, and the excellence of its fare, the cheapness of its food, the cleanliness of its building, the expeditiousness of its serving, and the co-operative system upon which it was worked, attracted the keen eye and the philanthropic spirit of the creator of the two immortal Samuels. Accordingly he went there one day and dined with the rest, for fourpence-halfpenny. So satisfied was he that by way of emphasizing the quality of this fourpence-halfpennyworth, he says “I dined at my club in Pall Mall a few days afterwards for exactly twelve times the money, and not half as well.” He had been attracted by a rose-coloured handbill, on which the virtues of the place were displayed.
Open from 7 a.,. till 7 p.m.
Then followed the list of “All Articles of the Best Quality,” with their prices affixed. All the details of this bill, and the full account of the working and merits of the establishment, comprises the paper in the Uncommercial Traveller, entitled “The Boiled Beef of New England.” The building to-day coincides with Dickens’s description, except that it no longer is used as a “cooking depôt.”
Leaving the building, we turn back again along Commercial Street into Hanbury Street, across which runs Brick Lane, a name that will recall to the reader recollections of a famous meeting given by “The Brick Lane Branch of the United Grand Junction Ebenezer Temperance Association,” where the ladies sat upon forms and drank tea “until such time as they considered it expedient to leave off.” The meeting was held “in a large room, pleasantly and airily situated at the top of a safe and commodious ladder.” This building and its ladder exist to-day up a passage leading out of Brick Lane by the side of No. 160. The only way it differs from the original description is that the Mission Hall is at the bottom of the ladder instead of at the top, whilst the room at the top is used as a carpenter’s shop. But there is the self-same ladder up which Brother Tadger “stumbled with Mr. Stiggins,” on the memorable occasion described with so much humour in the Pickwick Papers, and where later on, in the evening, Mr. Stiggins “hit Brother Tadger on the summit of the nose with such unerring aim” as to knock him “head first down the ladder.” Stepping into the Mission Hall downstairs, one’s mind reverts to the scene which took place overhead, as Sam Weller and his father found it, where everybody was drinking tea at such a rate as to cause Mr. Weller much anxiety about the “young ’ooman as has drunk nine breakfast cups and a half; and she’s swellin’ wisibly before my wery eyes,” and where he afterwards, in a remote corner of the room, “attacked the reverend Mr. Stiggins with manual dexterity.”
In the original editions of Pickwick this incident, although well suited to Phiz’s pen, was not illustrated. But Phiz did a spirited piicture of Mr. Weller attacking Mr. Stiggins for the Household Edition, and another of the scene as a frontispiece to the first cheap edition. We reproduce here, however, a photograph of the outside as it is today.
From the Mission Hall we journey to Thomas Street, not far distant, which will recall a different scene altogether. Here is the entrance to the casual ward of the Whitechapel Workhouse. It was here that Dickens, who had sallied out one wintry rainy evening in November, 1855, for one of his night walks, full of thoughts of Little Dorrit, which he was then writing, almost suddenly “pulled himself up” at a strange sight which arrested him. Against the dreary enclosure of the house were leaning, in the midst of the downpouring rain and storm, what seemed to be seven heaps of rags - “dumb, wet, silent horrors,” he described them, “sphinxes set up against the dead wall, and no one likely to be at the pains of solving them until the General Overthrow.” He tried to help them by appealing to the master of the workhouse, but the casual ward was full, and help in that direction was not possible. The rag heaps were all girls, and after giving each a shilling, for which he received no thanks whatever, he walked silently away with his mind full of reflections on the low ebb to which humanity may sometimes come.
From here, too, we turn, with the scene as described by Forster in our mind, and wend our way down Vallance Road into the great highway of Whitechapel Road, undoubtedly one of the finest roads in London, and turn to the left until the spot known as Mile End Gate is reached. Here the old Gate House stood until recently.
Mr. Pickwick’s journey to Ipswitch took him, of course, down the Whitechapel Road. “Take care o’ the archway, gen’l’men,” was Sam’s timely warning as the coach started from the Bull Inn, referred to at the beginning of this article, which was situated where Aldgate Avenue now stands. It was long since demolished. At the time Whitechapel Road was noted for its array of oyster-stalls, which prompted the loquacious Sam’s remarks about “poverty and oystery” always going together, and by way of emphasizing the coincidence he added, “Blessed if I don’t think that ven a man’s wery poor he rushes out of his lodgings, and eats oysters in reg’lar despration.” And Mr. Pickwick promised to make a note of the “remarkable fact” when the coach next stopped. In passing through the gate Mr. Weller senior offered some dissertation on pike-keepers, whilst many other points in the road attracted the attention of the travellers.
The Bull Inn, kept by Mrs. Ann Nelson at the time, was one of the very best of the old coaching inns, and there is no doubt Dickens was well acquainted with its solid and restful comfort. An illustration of it forms a frontispiece to the present issue. It was noted for its specially reserved room for coachmen and guards, where those worthies regaled themselves with the best the house could provide. It was more sacred and exclusive than the commercial-rooms of the old bagmen days, and was strictly unapproachable by others than those for whom it was set apart. On one occasion, however, says Mr. Harper in his book Stage Coach and Mail in Days of Yore, Dickens had a seat at the table, and “the chairman, after sundry flattering remarks, as a tribute to the novelist’s power of describing a coach journey, said, “Mr. Dickens, we knows you knows wot’s wot, but can you, sir, ‘andle a vip?’ There was no mock modesty in Dickens. He acknowledged he could describe a journey down the road, but he regretted that in the management of a ‘vip’ he was not expert.”
Near by the “Bull” was that other old coaching inn, the “Blue Boar,” to which David Copperfield came on that memorable journey from Yarmouth. “We approached London by degrees,” he says, “and got in due time to the inn, in the Whitechapel district. I forget whether it was the ‘Blue Bull’ or the ‘Blue Boar,’ but I know it was the Blue something, and that its likeness was painted on the back of the coach.” Naturally this inn has also been swept away, but a sculptured effigy of a boar, with gilded tusks and hoofs, buit into the wall of a tobacco factory, marks the site where it once stood.
Continuing our journey farther along into Mile End Road, we come upon the Vintners’ Alms-houses. There is no doubt that Dickens had these in his mind when writing the twenty-ninth chapter of the Uncommercial Traveller, which he called “Titbull’s Alms Houses.” He refers to them as in the east of London, in a great highway, in a poor, busy, and thronged neighbourhood. There is “a little paved courtyard in front enclosed by iron railings, which have got snowed up, as it were, by bricks and mortar; which were once in a suburb, but are now in the densely-populated town; gaps in the busy life around them, parenthesis in the close and blotted texts of the streets.” All this, and much more in the same paper, notably the piece of sculptured drapery a-top the inscription stone “resembling the effigy of Titbull’s bath towel,” applies to the Vintners’ Almshouses as they are to-day. Let us stand and conjure up the picture of the Greenwich pensioner with an “empty sleeve,” accompanied by his friend the Chelsea pensioner with one leg, calling and taking Mrs. Mitts away to be married, as delightful a picture as Dickens presented, and then return towards Aldgate again, passing on our way once more Whitechapel Church, which attracted the attention of Dickens so often.
“The Little Wooden Midshipman,” referred to previously, also appears in Dombey and Son as the original of Sol Gills’s sign which thrust itself out above the pavement, right leg foremost, with a suavity the least endurable … and bore at his right eye the most offensively disproportionate piece of machinery … taking observations of the hackney coaches. This “woodenest” of effigies can still be seen at Messrs. Norie and Wilson’s, 156, Minories, E., who once occupied premises in Leadenhall Street, as did Sol Gills.
It has been noted many times how Dickens made use of nearly everything he saw in his peregrinations, and it was not likely that such an historic monument as Aldgate Pump would escape his notice. He several times makes passing references to it, and introduces it into Dombey and Son. It will be remembered that Mr. Toots took a walk to it and back again for relaxation. There are many references to it in a general way, and it was to the neighbourhood that Fagin removed for fear of Oliver’s “peaching,” and it was from Whitechapel that the Gordon Rioters’ procession started for Newgate.