Flight by Water; or, Nell sat in the open air by Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz). Wood engraving, 3 ⅛ x 4 ½ inches (8 cm by 11.2 cm). — Chapter 43, The Old Curiosity Shop. Date of original serial publication of Part 24: 17 October 1840 in Master Humphrey's Clock, Part 27, Vol. 2: 34.

Context of the Illustration: Escape by Commercial Barge to the Black Country

Nell was rather disheartened, when they stopped at a kind of wharf late in the afternoon, to learn from one of the men that they would not reach their place of destination until next day, and that, if she had no provision with her, she had better buy it there. She had but a few pence, having already bargained with them for some bread, but even of these it was necessary to be very careful, as they were on their way to an utterly strange place, with no resource whatever. A small loaf and a morsel of cheese, therefore, were all she could afford, and with these she took her place in the boat again, and, after half an hour’s delay during which the men were drinking at the public-house, proceeded on the journey.

They brought some beer and spirits into the boat with them, and what with drinking freely before, and again now, were soon in a fair way of being quarrelsome and intoxicated. Avoiding the small cabin, therefore, which was very dark and filthy, and to which they often invited both her and her grandfather, Nell sat in the open air with the old man by her side: listening to their boisterous hosts with a palpitating heart, and almost wishing herself safe on shore again though she should have to walk all night.

They were, in truth, very rugged, noisy fellows, and quite brutal among themselves,  though civil enough to their two passengers. Thus, when a quarrel arose between the man who was steering and his friend in the cabin, upon the question who had first suggested the propriety of offering Nell some beer, and when the quarrel led to a scuffle in which they beat each other fearfully, to her inexpressible terror, neither visited his displeasure upon her, but each contented himself with venting it on his adversary, on whom, in addition to blows, he bestowed a variety of compliments, which, happily for the child, were conveyed in terms, to her quite unintelligible. [Chapter the Forty-third, 34]

A Shift in the Landscape and Characters Encountered

Dickens now explains how a reversal in their fortunes has driven Nell and her grandfather from their refuge with Mrs. Jarley, even as the Single Gentleman and Mrs. Nubbles travel west to find them. When the London travellers arrive in a four-horse post-chaise at the inn the next morning, they discover that Quilp has anticipated them. The Trents' situation is far more complicated than the Single Gentleman has imagined since Nell has had to remove her grandfather in order to forestall Quilp’s intention to pilfer her cash-box to continue gambling. In Phiz's depiction of the barge scene, the helmsman, who should be conscientiously directing the vessel, consumes beer from an enormous tankard, giving the Trents considerable cause for apprehension.

This illustration, then, marks a shift in the Trents' fortunes on the high road. Here they leave the relatively benign society of the traditional English town, which represents a way of life that is already an anachronism (as suggested in the picture by the cottage and church, upper right). Nell and her guardian are about to enter the violent, discordant, unhealthy, and socially unstable manufacturing city in the Midlands' Black Country. At the beginning of their journey westward they encountered relatively altruistic characters (the puppeteers, the owner of a troupe of dancing dogs, Highland dancers, and the waxworks exhibitor). After escaping the Gypsy encampment and the card-sharps, Nell and her grandfather fall in with a dissolute, disreputable crew as they drift toward the highly polluted northern industrial city somewhere in the Midlands. As the downward spiral of the Trents continues, the Single Gentleman and Mrs. Nubbles seem powerless to effect their rescue since they can uncover no information as to their whereabouts. Furniss's interpretation of the Trents' travelling by barge (see below) intensifies the reader's unease by focussing on the bargemen's drunken nocturnal singing,

Little Nell and Grandfather Trent traverse the Black Country

Angus Easson’s notes to the Penguin Classic edition of the novel explain the route that the Trents take from the south of England by narrow barge to the northern industrial town, probably Birmingham . According to Easson, the phrase "hard by some water" in Chapter 43 refers to the Grand Union Canal (also known as the Grand Junction Canal). Although Dickens casts an air of a dreamscape about this part of their journey by deliberately omitting place names, we can nonetheless trace the fugitives' journey through Warwick (the walled town where Mrs. Jarley has been displaying her waxworks), then by the Canal to Birmingham, through the Black Country to Wolverhampton, then west (perhaps to Shrewsbury), and so finally to a village in sight of the distant Welsh mountains. The ultimate destination has long been identified as the village of Tong in Shropshire, where annually locals place a wreath on a spot regarded as Little Nell's grave. Easson includes Warwick on his "possible route" because Dickens mentions that the wayfarers pass an "old grey castle" (31) on a steep hill as they leave the country town where Mrs. Jarley has set up her exhibition. In April 1840 John Forster and Dickens took the very road that Nell and her grandfather take through the Black Country in Chapter XLV. On 14 October 1840, Dickens wrote John Forster that in reading this passage "You will recognize a description of the road we travelled between Birmingham and Wolverhampton" (The Pilgrim Letters of Charles Dickens, II, 131–32).

Illustrations for the Same Chapter in Later Editions (1876, 1910)

Left: Charles Green's choice of scene for this chapter repeats that of Dickens and Phiz in the original serial, showing how the wayfarers encounter the bargeman after escaping temptation at the Gypsy encampment, A man of very uncouth and rough appearance was standing over them.e (1876). Right: Harry Furniss depicts not the initial meeting with the bargeman but their nocturnal trip on the barge, showing how their drunken singing disturbs the villages through which they pass that night in Night on the Barge (1910).

Related Resources Including Other Illustrated Editions

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]


Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop in Master Humphrey's Clock. Illustrated by Phiz, George Cattermole, Samuel Williams, and Daniel Maclise. 3 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1840.

Easson, Angus, ed. "Introduction." Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1977.

The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens. Ed. Madeline House, Graham Storey, and Kathleen Tillotson. 12 vols. (1820-70). Oxford: Clarendon, 1965-2002. Volume Two, 1840–1841 (1969).

Last modified 22 October 2020