Dickens: 10 Norfolk Street, Fitzrovia, London
Dan Calinescu, Toronto, Ontario — photographer
See commentary below.
Text by Philip V. Allingham.
[This image may be used without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose.]
No. 10, Norfolk Street, Fitzroy Square,is the address that Dickens has given on his short-hand writer's card, c. 1830. Since only three of his letters survive from the period ending 1831 and since none of those three gives this address, the business card is significant corroborative evidence. In fact, Fitzroy Square is some blocks away from 10 Norfolk Street, so that young Dickens, ever aware of appearances, may have crafted the address to look "toney." During the three years that he lived at 10 Norfolk as an adult, he went from being a freelance reporter in the police and law courts to working in the Doctors' Commons and acting as a Parliamentary reporter for the Mirror of Parliament. Within two years, he would publish his first sketch, and within three years he would join the staff of the Morning Chronicle. [Ruth Richardson, "Table 5: Dickens's Occupations in Relation to His Address," Dickens & The Workhouse: "Oliver Twist" and the London Poor (2012): 312]
However, the Dickens family had spent a formative period in Charles Dickens's childhood (January 1815 to late December 1816) in that very house on Norfolk Street, just a stone's throw from the Cleveland Street Workhouse. John Forster in his authoritative biography notes of No. 10 Norfolk Street only the family's initial residence there:
When his father was again brought up by his duties to London from Portsmouth, they went into lodgings in Norfolk Street, Middlesex Hospital; and it lived also in the child's memory that they had come away from Portsea in the snow. [Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, vol. 1]
Transferred from Portsmouth at the close of the Napoleonic Wars, John Dickens in January 1817 found himself without his "Outport Allowance" and working on reduced wages as a clerk for the Naval Pay Office in Somerset House, London. Of this period when the family had to take cheaper lodgings than those at the new suburb of Portsea, biographer Peter Ackroyd has a little to add to Forster's brief remark about Norfolk Street:
They went into lodgings at 10 Norfolk Street, now 22 Cleveland Street, on the corner of Tottenham Street. The house is still there; now the ground floor contains a sandwich shop, but then it was a grocer's. The grocer was also the landlord, a certain John Dodd who was later to become one of John Dickens's many creditors, and it seems possible that it was during this London period that Dickens's father first ran into debt. They stayed here two years — Aunt Fanny and perhaps a servant with them — and although nothing else is specifically recorded of their life in that period there can be no doubt that it affected Dickens. [Dickens (1990), 18]
Ackroyd comments of the family's return to 10 Norfolk that it was but the first in a series of houses and lodgings that the Dickenses would rent over the next few years, "each one in turn seeming to be a way to escape the attentions of creditors" (127); however, Ackroyd never once makes the connection between 10 Norfolk Street and the Cleveland Street Union Workhouse opposite, which Ruth Richardson, citing several pieces of evidence, contends probably served as a model for the scene of the opening chapters of Oliver Twist (1838). Only recently, in fact, under the auspicies of the London Dickens Fellowship was a blue historic marker added to the front of the building, the generous act of Dan Calinescu of Toronto.
The brown cloth of Oliver's pauper uniform in the novel is the same regulation colour as that in use at the Cleveland Street Workhouse, the meagre dietary and the apprenticeship system for pauper children fits, too. So too does the connection with the 'branch' workhouse baby farm in rural Hendon, seven (not seventy) miles away, the mistress of which is named Mann in the novel, but Merriman in reality. [Richardson 301]
Dickens lived just nine doors away between 1828 and 1831 in a building now distinguished by an historical plaque unveiled by the novelist's great-great granddaughter, Lucinda Dickens-Hawkesley, on 8 June 2013. Although only a handful of Dickens's letters from the period 1820-1832 survive, tantalizingly the only one from 1831 is dated tentatively "7 March" and bears the address "21 George Street" (Letters, Vol. 1, 1820-39, p. 2), near the Adelphi, off the Strand; however, a series of letters from 30 July 1832 through to the end of that same year were written at "Fitzroy Street," a location between the thoroughfares of Euston Road and Oxford Street — the very neighbourhood of 10 Norfolk Street, now "Fitzrovia." It is safe to assume that this was Dickens's "comfort zone" in London where he lived from age sixteen until he was almost twenty (he applied for his reader's card at the British Museum Reading Room using the Norfolk Street address), and that 22 Cleveland must now join Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, as one of the two surviving London residences of Charles John Huffam Dickens, the rooms above a grocery store hardly being as fashionable as the address to which he took his bride in 1836 and which now serves as a world-class museum of Dickensiana.
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.
Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. London: Chapman and Hall, 1871.
Richardson, Ruth. Dickens and the Workhouse: "Oliver Twist" and the London Poor. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Created 18 March 2015