- The Boot
- Lord John Russell
- Marquis Cornwallis
- The Queen’s Larder
- Tavistock House
- Map: Days 1 & 2
As I stepped out into the London air from my hotel near St. Pancras train station, the streets were buzzing with drunk football fans. Pubs were overflowing with red and white shirts. I uneasily weaved thru the rowdy crowds along Euston Road like walking beside a pressure vessel nearing its bursting point. One intersection was blocked by a solitary fan waving his beer bottle in the air and yelling obscenities as a mother ushered her children in a different direction. One pub had appeared to have abruptly closed down; a line of police riot vans outside perhaps giving a clue as to the reason. I suppose it was just a normal Saturday evening during football season.
London is, indeed, an ignoble mixture of beer and bible, of gin and gospel, of drunkenness and hypocrisy…John Bull and His Island by Max O’Rell (1884)
If there exists a counterpart to beer, gin, and drunkenness in London, it appeared to be the religion of football. While Euston Road was the pulpit and nave for many, for a few other unfortunate souls, there was no sanctuary to be found. Practically swept into the maelstrom of spectators and passersby alike were a handful of homeless, almost apologetic in their manner as pedestrians tried to navigate the human obstacle course.
…of unheard-of squalor and unbridled luxury, of misery and prosperity, of poor, abject, shivering, starving creatures, and people insolent with happiness and wealth…John Bull and His Island by Max O’Rell (1884)
I turned off Euston Road onto Judd Street thinking that in certain ways London hasn’t changed much since the 19th century. And despite the existence of life’s inequity of fortune and the ignominious beginning, I was hoping to find more positive ways in which the 19th century still existed in London. And as such and with the din of the rabble-rousers behind me, I tried to shed the trappings of the 21st century off me like a layer of dead skin. As I metaphorically kicked the final remnants of my grey, shriveled outer shell to the London street, I was hoping to emerge into an age of top hats, petticoats, fancy bonnets and umbrellas, horse-drawn carriages, men with big moustaches doing men-with-big-moustache things. I was greeted by none of these, but within their essence I immersed myself.
London, its life and its stones, has ever been immortalized by authors and artists, but more than all else, the city has been a part of the very life and inspiration of those who have limned its virtues, its joys, and its sorrowsDickens’ London by Francis Miltoun (1903)
I didn’t realize at the time how every footstep I was taking was carrying on a pilgrimage which began in 1870 and perhaps earlier. I hadn’t yet learned the names of my ancestors, those travelers-cum-authors who forged the frontiers of travel writing with enthusiastic and critical abandon, creating a genre by which I would soon find myself perhaps intoxicated more than the English bitter. I was under no false impression that what I was embarking on was anything ground-breaking, yet there was an ignorant and innocent bliss about it. I wanted to explore London in the shadow of Charles Dickens, a genre pas unique.
…my admiration of the genius of one of the greatest novelists of any age led me to suggest a visit to the numerous localities associated with incidents in Dickens’s inimitable and immortal works.In Kent With Charles Dickens by Thomas Frost (1880)
I had a framework, but not a path. Perhaps what made my pilgrimage different than those in the past was this idea of spontaneity. I was only a casual fan of Dickens at this point. I had only read a grand total of one of his novels, Great Expectations. But there was a spark inside that indicated some far greater connection existed. By the time I reached the first pub The Boot, my brain was swirling with ideas and my thirst for beer was reaching a crescendo.
As they were thirsty by this time, Dennis proposed that they should repair together to The Boot, where there was good company and strong liquor.Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens (1841)
As you walk into The Boot, a framed print on the left of the entrance details the Dickens link to the pub. Barnaby Rudge is a historical novel about the anti-Catholic riots that occurred in London in 1780. Barnaby is a simple man who gets mixed up with the Protestant mobs. The Boot became a headquarters for Barnaby’s group and appears for the first time in Chapter 38, described as “a lone house of public entertainment, situated in the fields at the back of the Foundling Hospital”. The Boot is indeed not far from the old Foundling Hospital which today is the Foundling Museum. Just as in the book, the tavern was used as an actual headquarters for the rioters.
The Boot has a friendly, untouristy local neighborhood pub atmosphere. Unfortunately for me, the keg of the house lager, The Boot, brewed by Belhaven, was out for the duration of my stay in London.
The Boot was one of two Dickens-related locations I had planned to visit on the first evening. Before seeking out the second, I had a few other pubs marked on my map that I wanted to check out. Ones targeted simply by virtue of England’s tradition of inviting pub names. Ironically, as I wandered the Greater London streets, I would later learn that street-naming, at least in a literary sense, does not have the same reputation as its pubs.
What strikes one at first sight, is the nomenclature of these streets. England, who can boast with reason of the finest literature in the world, does not name her streets after her great literary worthies. When names were wanted, no one thought of Shakespeare, of Spenser, of Gibbon, of Sterne, of Goldsmith, of Burns, of Thackeray, of Dickens, of the hundreds of names that alone would be sufficient to make England glorious for ever.John Bull and His Island by Max O’Rell (1884)
Lord John Russell
The Lord John Russell comes across as a student pub. There is nothing blue collar or particularly traditional about it. However, for a guy out for a solo pub crawl on a Saturday night, it has a welcoming atmosphere. So I found a table and enjoyed a Lighterman ale.
Lord John Russell (also known as Earl Russell) was a two-time Prime Minister1, both terms coming during Dickens’ lifetime. It would seem quite probable that two men in London at the peaks of their profession and constantly in the public eye would have known each other. In an 1866 printing of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens dedicates it to Earl Russell and later in 1869, Dickens refers to him in a speech.
…there is no man in England whom I respect more in his public capacity, whom I love more in his private capacity, or from whom I have received more remarkable proofs of his honour and love of literature than another obscure nobleman called Lord RussellThe Speeches of Charles Dickens (1841-1870)
This lively pub was a chaotic mixture of party goers and straggling dinner guests. The crowd in front of the taps waiting to order beer felt like the floor of the stock exchange. Fortunately, I managed to catch the attention of a bartender who was amazingly calm under the onslaught of thirsty patrons to exchange some pounds for a share in Northern Monk Session IPA. The Marquis Cornwallis was a merchantman ship, named after a British general who surrendered at Yorktown during the American Revolutionary War, which was infamous for bringing convicts from Ireland to Australia in 17962. No records of the ship exist after 1806. Alas, no Dickens link.
The Queen’s Larder
Located on the hidden Queen Square Gardens, tucked away off Russell Square, this pub defines the word ‘cozy’ and for me was easily my favorite of the evening. The name comes from the food cellar of Queen Charlotte which was located here while her husband King George III was in the neighborhood getting treatment for his mental illness3. The only Dickens link is very tenuous at best. George III happened to be king when Dickens was born but died when he was eight years old. No special beers here so it was a good opportunity to toast my first evening in London with a London Pride.
Walking back to Euston Road by way of Tavistock Square, one finds one of several blue plaques scattered about the city of London which indicate some historical significance of the location. One mounted on the side of a nondescript office building gave an obscure reference to Dickens.
In Tavistock Square stands Tavistock House. This and the strip of garden in front are shut out from the thoroughfare by an iron railing. A large garden with a grass-plat and high trees stretches behind the house, and gives it a countrified look, in the midst of this coal and gas steaming London.A Week’s Tramp in Dickens-Land by William Hughes (1891)
Dickens lived in Tavistock House from 1851-1860 as noted in the plaque. The above quote actually comes from Robert Louis Stevenson who visited Dickens in 1857.
It was here in this house that Dickens wrote all or parts of several of his most notable works such as Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Little Dorrit, and Hard Times4. But it was another book that seemed to define the early years at Tavistock. Bleak House. Dickens and family moved into Tavistock in October 1851 and by November, Dickens was already starting on Bleak House, which was published serially from March 1852 until August 1853.
“To let you into a secret,” he had written to his lively friend, Miss Mary Boyle, from Dover, “I am not quite sure that I ever did like, or ever shall like, anything quite so well as Copperfield. But I foresee, I think, some very good things in Bleak House.”Dickens by Adolphus William Ward (1882)
Unbeknownst to me as I stood gazing at the blue plaque, Bleak House would become a special part of the narrative of my London trip over the next several days. It is a book with a dual storyline; one about a long-standing court case called Jarndyce v. Jarndyce and the other the coming of age of the book’s heroine Esther Summerson. Along the way, Dickens pokes fun at the futility of the London legal system and not one lawyer mentioned in the book has a single redeeming quality about them. The actual Tavistock House referred to on the plaque was demolished in 1901. I wasn’t aware of any of this yet, so I shrugged my shoulders and finished my walk back to the hotel.
The very next day Bleak House came into my life.
Map: Days 1 & 2
- Yellow = Site associated with Dickens or has a strong anecdotal link
- Purple = A pub not associated with Dickens but strongly recommended
- Black = A pub or brewery not associated with Dickens