Dickens’ Southwark: Jacob’s Island

DickensAs a journalist in the early 1830s, Dickens would occasionally go out on patrol with the River Police. It was accompanying them that he visited Jacob’s Island and witnessed the poverty and foul stench of Folly Ditch.

“There exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London… In Jacob’s Island, the warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the windows are windows no more; the doors are falling into the streets; the chimneys are blackened, but they yield no smoke. Thirty or forty years ago… it was a thriving place; but now it is a desolate island indeed.” Charles Dickens paints a bleak picture of this part of Southwark in his novel, Oliver Twist.

Engraving published in a newspaper depicting the area known as Folly Ditch, Jacob's Island about 1860

This so-called island was created alongside the Thames by the River Neckinger, the docks and a series of tidal ditches. Known as ‘The Venice of Drains’, it’s little wonder that the area was one of the main hotspots for the cholera epidemics in the latter half of the 19th century as the ditches were used for both sewers and drinking water. Sluices at the mills could be opened, allowing the ditches to be filled from the Thames and Dickens writes, in Oliver Twist, that at these times you “will see the inhabitants of the houses on either side, lowering, from their back doors and windows, buckets, pails, domestic utensils of all kinds, in which to haul the water up…every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot and garbage – all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.”

Jacob's Island, 1813

Such a place seems a fitting location for the lair, and ultimate demise, of Dickens’ monstrous character, Bill Sykes. A specific property in Eckett Street is traditionally said to be the location Dickens’ had in mind for Sykes’ grim abode, and the 1835 deeds for this house are held by the Southwark Local History Library and Archive.

Eckett Street was just off the present day Jacob Street and, like most of this area, it has been transformed since Dickens’ day. Most of the early buildings were demolished by 1860, replaced by Victorian buildings. The majority of these were cleared following heavy bombing in the Second World War, though New Concordian Wharf is one survivor.

Horwood map of London, 1819 edition

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This is our final Dickens blog in the series – for now. We will look at other Dickens links to the borough in future. If you can’t wait and want to know more about some of Dickens’ old haunts you can wrap up warm and step out onto the streets yourself. Download our app (for iPhone or Android), and let the narrator take you on a journey that unveils Dickens’ Southwark. You can also use the Literary Map to see where Dickens’ books (and those of other authors) relate to the streets of Southwark.

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Dickens’ Southwark: Mint Street Workhouse

Mint Street Workhouse c.1920 PS03225 web

 

The workhouse in Mint Street dates back to 1729. The initial number of residents was relatively small, and conditions were recorded in ‘An Account of Several Workhouses’ in October 1731.

“There are now in it 68 Men, Women, and Children, of which all that are able, spin Mop-Yarn, and Yarn for Stockings, which are knit by the Women; and beside this Work, 25 Children are taught to read, and say their Catechism.”

Dickens 3 cropThe St. Saviour’s Union Workhouse at Mint Street is thought to have provided Dickens with the model for the scene in Oliver Twist where the starving boy ‘asks for more’. When Dickens was young, lodging in nearby Lant Street, he passed Mint Street on his way to work. He would have seen the pauper children on their way to work in nearby workshops and factories. Dickens revisited the area as an adult, including Marshalsea Prison. His journalistic writings show he frequently went on fact finding missions to schools, hospitals, factories, workhouses and slums. It is very likely he would have visited the workhouse on Mint Street.

Map of St Saviour's Union Workhouse, Mint Street. 1872The Lancet investigated conditions in London workhouses and their infirmaries for a series of articles. Their description paints an abysmal picture of life in Mint Street Workhouse:

 For the last three years and a half this house appears to have suffered from various epidemics, and especially from typhus. Many cases are admitted into the house from the neighbourhood; but many are developed in the house, and apparently in this way: The tramp ward for the women is a miserable room, foul and dirty, with imperfect light and ventilation, the floor being simply bedded with straw. Into this open sty the women are passed in, often with little or no clothing; and there, in considerable numbers, they pass the night. There being no watercloset attached, a large can or tub is placed in the room. This is the sole accommodation which the apartment possesses. The master informed us that there is no matron to look after the women, and that the place was really ‘a den of horrors’… We cannot doubt that, with such a history and so many surroundings, it is our duty to condemn this workhouse, which ought to be removed, and one built better adapted to fulfil its duties to the poor and sick of the neighbourhood.

They recorded the meagre food rations in Mint Street Workhouse as follows:

Full Diet (Male and Female.)
Breakfast:           Bread-and-butter, 4 oz.; tea, 1 pint.
Dinner:                Bread, 4 oz.; broth, 1 pint; potatoes, 8 oz.; meat, 4 oz.
Supper:                Bread-and-butter, 4¼ oz.; tea, 1 pint.

Mint Street Copper C05140 webThe pot, or ‘copper’ from the workhouse was donated to the Cuming Museum by the Workhouse Board of Guardians in 1921. It stood in the corner of the large stone hall at the workhouse and the broth or gruel was ladled out to hungry inmates. A circular brick wall around the base held in the fire, but was damaged when the museum was hit by a bomb during the Second World War.

Though the The Lancet articles caused an outcry which was a significant factor leading to the passing of the Metropolitan Poor Act in 1867, the Mint Street Workhouse itself remained in use until the 1920s.

Today, much of the former site is home to Mint Street Park, with just a small stretch of original workhouse wall remaining.

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This month we will be looking into some of Dickens’ old haunts, and if you want to wrap up warm and step out onto the streets yourself, you can download our app (for iPhone or Android), and let the narrator take you on a journey that unveils Dickens’ Southwark. You can also use the Literary Map to see where Dickens’ books (and those of other authors) relate to the streets of Southwark.

Dickens’ Southwark: Marshalsea Debtors Prison

Charles DickensCharles Dickens first came to Southwark at the age of 12, when his parents and all the Dickens children except for Charles and his sister Fanny, were imprisoned at Marshalsea Debtors Prison for a £40 and 10 shillings debt owed to a local baker. Charles moved to nearby Lant street to be close to his family in the prison. His experiences of poverty as a child strongly influenced his writing and are found in descriptions and characters in many of his novels. He described many places in Southwark which he had known as a child and some are still recognisable today.

What remains of the high prison wall forms one side of a pathway which runs alongside Southwark’s John Harvard and Local History Libraries on Borough High Street.

A cast iron water pump stood in the courtyard of Marshalsea when Dickens’ family was imprisoned there in 1824. Charles must have passed this pump when visiting his family at the prison. It was donated to the Cuming Museum, after the prison building was demolished, in 1924.

Key to Marshalsea PrisonThe museum’s collection also includes a key to Marshalsea prison with a label attached which reads: “The key of Marshalsea Prison. Given to S. W. by her father 1884. Where little Dorrit was born. Written by Charles Dickens.”

Little Dorrit Stained Glass WindowLittle Dorrit, one of Dickens characters from a novel of the same name, was indeed born in Marshalsea Prison, and was christened across the road at St George the Martyr church, built in 1734 and commonly known as ‘Little Dorrit’s Church’ . One night she returned to the prison too late and was locked out for the night so she slept in the vestry of the church with the register for a pillow. It was this same church in which she was married to Arthur Clennam, and in the bottom right-hand corner of the modern stained glass window at the east-end of the church is a representation of Little Dorrit wearing a poke hat.

This month we will be looking into some of Dickens’ old haunts in a series of blogs. If you want to wrap up warm and step out onto the streets yourself, you can download our app (for iPhone or Android), and let the narrator take you on a journey that unveils Dickens’ Southwark. You can also use the Literary Map to see where Dickens’ books (and those of other authors) relate to the streets of Southwark.

Happy Birthday, Mr Dickens

Young Dickens - colourCharles Dickens has a long and deep association with Southwark, both personal and literary, and particularly with the area known as the Borough.

Born on 7 February 1812, to John and Elizabeth Dickens at 1 Mile End Terrace (now 393 Commercial Road), Portsmouth. The young Charles Dickens spent his seemingly idyllic early years on the move, as his family relocated from Portsmouth to London, then Sheerness, before settling in Chatham, Kent until the age of 11. At this time Dickens’ father was recalled to London amid rising debts as the family lived beyond its means. John Dickens was sent to Marshalsea Debtors Prison in the area known as the Borough and was joined by his wife and youngest children, as was customary at the time.

Lant St PS02087 webPoor Charles was left to lodge alone, at the age of just 12 years old, in nearby Lant Street. And this is where his long and deep association with Southwark, both personal and literary, began.

This month we will be looking into some of Dickens’ old haunts in a series of blogs. If you want to wrap up warm and step out onto the streets yourself, you can download our app (for iPhone or Android), and let the narrator take you on a journey that unveils Dickens’ Southwark. You can also use the Literary Map to see where Dickens’ books (and those of other authors) relate to the streets of Southwark.