Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Dickens' houses

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is an interesting source of information about period houses. Dickens’ writing is full of first hand observations as well as drawing on his own experience. His illustrators also give us many details of both Regency and early Victorian interiors such as the way rooms were still lit by candles.

 A candlelit interior illustrated by George Cruikshank from Sketches by Boz (1836) 

Dickens’  earliest published work is a series of sketches of his contemporaries and their domestic arrangements during the early 1830s. His first short story, A dinner at Poplar Walk, appeared in Monthly Magazine in 1833 but was also included in his first book Sketches by Boz (1836). (Dickens used Boz  as a pen name but the book had the explanatory sub-title : Illustrative of Everyday Life and Everyday People). In the short story, he described a wealthy clerk,  Augustus Minns, who lives on the first floor of a house in Tavistock-street, Covent-Garden.

Mr Minns is invited to dinner by his cousin, a retired corn chandler who lives in a cottage in Poplar-walk, Stamford-hill. He travels by stage coach to the occasion where he joins his fellow guests in the first floor drawing room. From here they process down to a dining-room on the ground floor. It was relatively new development to have a permanent dining-room but it was old fashioned for a medium sized house to have a first floor drawing room.

a tea party in Camden town in which the kettle sits on the coals in the grate

The other domestic arrangements in these early sketches are more modest; in Miss Evans and the Eagle he describes a tea party in Camden town at which the kettle is boiled by placing it directly on the coals of an open hob grate. This would have been common practise in rooms where the occupants did not have access to a proper kitchen. George Cruikshank’s illustration shows a typical modest interior with a hearth rug over bare floor boards and light table and chairs which could be arranged for a meal or pushed back against the walls.

17 Buckingham Street. Dickens lived next door at number 15

Before the development of suburban railways brought about the building of outlying suburbs; renting a floor or a pair of rooms was a common arrangement. In 1831 Dickens himself lived in a pair of rooms in Buckingham Street. He was working as Parliamentary reporter for the Morning Chronicle. In David Copperfield  he installs David Copperfield in a singularly desirable, and compact set of chambers, forming a genteel residence for a young gentleman,  in Buckingham Street. It is at the top of the house and promised a view of the river. It consisted of a little half-blind entry where you could see hardly anything, a little stone-blind pantry where you could see nothing at all, a sitting-room, and a bedroom. The furniture was rather faded, but quite good enough for me; and, sure enough, the river was outside the windows.

 In The Mistaken Milliner a wedding party dine in Somers Town in a small house –no lodgings or vulgarity of that kind– four rooms and a delightful little wash-house at the end of the passage. The parlour has a beautiful Kidderminster carpet– six bran new cane-bottomed stained chairs–three wine glasses and a tumbler on each sideboard – farmer’s girl and farmer’s boy on the mantlepiece… long, white dimity curtains in the window

recreation of a Regency interior with a fitted carpet (Geffrye museum)
 This tells us that even modest interiors had fitted carpets. These came up to about a foot short of the walls. They were one of the first products of mechanised production for the mass market. Although Dickens praises it, by the middle of the century critics such as John Ruskin would deride the contents of that parlour as the products of  ‘soulless, repetitive industrialism’ 

48 Doughty Street, Dickens home from 1837-9 (now the Charles Dickens museum)

 Dickens’ own houses moved steadily up the social scale. About the time that The Pickwick Papers was published (1837) he moved into a large, (late Georgian) terraced house in Doughty Street (which is now the Charles Dickens museum).

A house in Devonshire Terrace. Dickens lived at number One 1839-1850

Characters like the Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend had to live in a newly built house because they were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London.  People wanted houses with more rooms, especially bedrooms. In 1839, Dickens and his growing family moved to a larger newly built  house in Devonshire Terrace. This was in Paddington which was then a bran-new quarter of London. In fact, fashionable London was moving West so fast that Cruikshank drew a satirical cartoon entitled 'London Going out of Town - or - The March of Bricks and Mortar!'

London Going out of Town - or - The March of Bricks and Mortar!'

In 1851, Dickens moved to an even larger house, Tavistock House, in Tavistock Square. It was large enough for him to stage amateur theatricals in front of 90 people in the schoolroom. Here he wrote Bleak House,  Hard Times, Little Dorrit  and A Tale of Two Cities.
 Tavistock House, Dickens' home from 1851-1857

 Dickens at work in his final home, Gads Hill Place

 In 1857 he moved to Gads Hill Place in Kent, a (late Georgian) country house.