David Copperfield is widely acknowledged as the most autobiographical of Dickens' novels and much of the misery of the author's early life is heart-rendingly described in its pages. One of the most enduring and painful recollections that Dickens suffered was that of being sent to work in a blacking (polish) warehouse as a child. The warehouse was situated just off the Strand, on part of the site now occupied by Charing Cross station and this area features strongly in the novel.
In the following section of the book, the place Dickens knew as Warren's Blacking Factory becomes Murdstone & Grinby's wine warehouse.
'Murdstone and Grinby's warehouse was at the water-side. It was down in Blackfriars. Modern improvements have altered the place; but it was the last house at the bottom of a narrow street, curving down hill to the river, with some stairs and the end, where people took boat. It was a crazy old house with a wharf of its own, abutting on the water when the tide was in, and on the mud when the tide was out and literally overrun with rats. Its panelled rooms discoloured with the dirt and smoke of a hundred years, I dare say; its decaying floors and staircase; the squeaking and scuffling of the old grey rats down in the cellars; and the dirt and rottenness of the place; are things, not of many years ago, in my mind, but of the present instant. They are all before me, just as they were in the evil hour when I went among them for the first time, with my trembling hand in Mr Quinion's.'
Immediately East of Charing Cross station is a walkway which leads down to Villiers Street. As in Dickens' description, it is a narrow street, curving downhill to the river. Before the Victoria Embankment was built, the river came to a point almost half way up this street. At the end would have been the wooden steps described by the author and, close by, the hated blacking factory. The steps were known as the Hungerford Stairs and they were then a point of embarkment for emigrants. Again, Dickens cleverly places his fictional characters against a factual backdrop and uses this location for the Micawber family's impending flight to Australia.
'Thus Traddles and I found them at nightfall, assembled on the wooden steps, at that time known as Hungerford Stairs, watching the departure of a boat with some of their property on board. I had told Traddles of the terrible event, and it had greatly shocked him; but there could be no doubt of the kindness of keeping it a secret, and he had come to help me in this last service. It was here that I took Mr. Micawber aside, and received his promise.
The Micawber family were lodged in a little, dirty, tumble-down public-house, which in those days was close to the stairs, and whose protruding wooden rooms overhung the river. The family, as emigrants, being objects of some interest in and about Hungerford, attracted so many beholders, that we were glad to take refuge in their room. It was one of the wooden chambers upstairs, with the tide flowing underneath.'
The reader can easily imagine the jumble of decrepit old hostels which then crowded around the Thames shoreline. One of the better known was the Golden Cross inn, which had been around long enough to become a local landmark. It is here that Copperfield and Steerforth are made to stay before going on to SteerforthÕs home in Highgate.
'We went to the Golden Cross, at Charing Cross, then a mouldy sort of establishment in a close neighbourhood. A waiter showed me into the coffee-room; and a chambermaid introduced me to my small bedchamber, which smelt like a hackney-coach, and was shut up like a family vault. I was still painfully conscious of my youth, for nobody stood in any awe of me at all: the chambermaid being utterly indifferent to my opinions on any subject, and the waiter being familiar with me, and offering advice to my inexperience.'
The Golden Cross has long since disappeared, but it used to stand near the corner of the Strand and Whitehall. The view of the statue of King Charles I at that side of Trafalgar Square is described at the beginning of Chapter 20, when Dickens has Copperfield tell how the chambermaid: 'stood peeping out of the window at King Charles on horseback, surrounded by a maze of hackney-coaches, and looking anything but regal in a drizzling rain and a dark-brown fog.'
Another, and rather happier, memory that Dickens refers to in David Copperfield is that of enjoying a cold dip in his favourite bathing pool, which was situated a little further down the Strand. Then as now, the pool was known as the Roman Bath, although its true date is unknown. The author mentions it in chapter thirty-five:
"There was an old Roman bath in those days at the bottom of one of the streets out of the Strand - it may be there still - in which I have had many a cold plunge. Dressing myself as quietly as I could, and leaving Peggotty to look after my aunt, I tumbled head foremost into it, and then went for a walk to Hampstead."
There is another brief reference to the bath in Chapter thirty-six
Copyright © Jan Collie 2002
Published on Britannia by permission of the author.
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