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Charles Dickens' Camden: Hiding out in Hampstead, bemoaning the coming of the railway, and more literary links

PUBLISHED: 08:45 15 August 2019

The railway coming to Camden Town featured strikingly in Dicken's Dombey and Son. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

The railway coming to Camden Town featured strikingly in Dicken's Dombey and Son. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

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Charles Dickens' links to Camden are perhaps well-known.

Charles Dickens, who sat so long writing his books, he visited St Mark's Hospital. Picture: Charles Dickens MuseumCharles Dickens, who sat so long writing his books, he visited St Mark's Hospital. Picture: Charles Dickens Museum

He lived much of his life in the Victorian parishes which became the modern borough, and his books developed an idea of literary London - particularly north London - that continues to this day.

But, as a revived exhibition at the Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre makes clear, modern-day Camden is pockmarked with places which featured in his life, his work, or both - and it's not just Holborn and Fitzrovia that carry memories of the great author, either.

At the exhibition, curated by staff at the centre, panels explain the extent of Dickens' fascination with his immediate surroundings.

The most southerly parts of Camden are the most often asssociated with Dickens - 48 Doughty Street is where the Dickens Museum is, while Lincoln's Inn Fields was where he worked as a legal clerk. (And where he threw cherry stones at surprised passers-by.)

The Spaniards Inn in Hampstead was another of Dickens' haunts. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives CentreThe Spaniards Inn in Hampstead was another of Dickens' haunts. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

But as his father's financial troubles - he infamously spent time in debtors prison in Marshalsea, Southwark - afflicted the family, a young Charles bounced from home to home.

He spent time living in the Polygon - a building in Somers Town where Mary Shelley had once lived - and turned that into the home of Bleak House character Harold Skimpole.

A Christmas Carol is one of the most recognisable portraits of Camden Town in literature

It would be a mistake, the exhibition reminds visitors, to confine Dickens' London to the inner city.

St Pancras Old Church had bodysnatchers in A Tale of Two Cities. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives CentreSt Pancras Old Church had bodysnatchers in A Tale of Two Cities. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

Kenwood House featured in Barnaby Rudge when protestors aimed to burn it down, and David Copperfield spent time in Highgate.

Then there's the odious Bill Sikes who legged it up to North End - via Highgate Hill - when he had murdered Nancy in Oliver Twist.

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And in the real world, Charles Dickens used Hampstead and Highgate as places to escape to.

Wyldes Farm in North End, Hampstead at the start of the 20th century. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives CentreWyldes Farm in North End, Hampstead at the start of the 20th century. Picture: Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre

The exhibition notes reveal that North End played host to a the mourning writer after sister-in-law Mary Hogarth suddenly died aged 17. They explain: "Dickens secluded himself in Collins' Farm, Hampstead with his wife for a fortnight while he came to terms with the sudden death of his young sister-in law Mary."

He was, of course, also a noted patron of the Spaniards Inn and Jack Straw's Castle pubs, while characters in Bleak House, The Pickwick Papers, Dombey and Son and the Old Curiosity Shop all end up in Hampstead village - where characters find somewhere to live, a shop, a good walk or even an inquest.

Although the author himself was buried in Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner, Highgate Cemetery holds the remains of his younger brother Alfred - a railway engineer - along with both his parents, his wife, and his infant daughter Dora, too.

Another highlight of the exhibition is a snapshot from John Foster's Dickens biography.

Foster became his friend - they may have even met in Hampstead - and wrote about his life, publishing a book just two years after Dickens died. In it, he recalls a schoolfriend's letter about the "prankster" Dickens who attended the Wellington House Academy in Mornington Crescent.

"I quite remember Dickens on occasion heading us in Drummond Street in pretending we were poor boys and asking the passers-by for charity," Dr Danson wrote.

Camden Town - where Dickens once lived in Bayham Street - features prominently in A Christmas Carol, but the description of it which might chime most with residents of NW1 comes in Dombey and Son.

In that novel, Dickens' prose takes the coming of the railways as its target, and in an echo of the upheaval caused in Euston, Primrose Hill and beyond by HS2 work, he describes a scene of urban disarray. where "a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre".

There was "a chaos of carts" and "a hundred thousand shapes and substances of incompleteness, wildly mingled out of their places" - in short, semi-fictional Camden was in the grip of construction the author wasn't quite sure the area really wanted. Sounds familiar.

The exhibition, entitled Streets of Inspiration: Holborn, Hampstead and St Pancras in the life and works of Charles Dickens runs in the Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre. It will continue at the centre, above Holborn Library in Theobald's Road, until September 30.

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