Welcome to this festive special in which I’ll be taking you on a tour of the sites in London connected with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
I have also compiled a video version of this tour for the robslondon YouTube Channel which can be viewed below.
During his celebrated career, Charles Dickens wrote a number of Christmas stories including The Chimes in 1844, The Cricket on the Hearth in 1845 and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain in 1848.
His first- and by far most famous- however, is of course A Christmas Carol, which first appeared in December 1843.
Considering the long-standing, legendary status of A Christmas Carol, it may come as some surprise to learn that it was written out of desperation…
By the early 1840s Dickens was already an established author, with The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge already under his belt.
In 1843, his latest work- The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit– was being serialised, but wasn’t selling as well as expected. As such, Dickens’ publishers- ‘Chapman and Hall’ who were based at 186 The Strand- were looking to decrease the author’s monthly pay.
Considering Dickens was in debt and expecting a fifth child with his wife, Catherine this drop in income posed a significant problem.
It was under these circumstances that Dickens sat down in the autumn of 1843 to write A Christmas Carol in the hope of making some quick money.
He managed to complete the novel in just six weeks. Chapman and Hall moved fast to get it into print and 6000 copies of A Christmas Carol were released in shops on the 19th December, all of which sold out within days.
Dickens made £230 (approximately £14,000 in today’s money) from the initial print run.
However, within just a few weeks, the book’s popularity meant that a pirated copy had emerged, forcing Dickens to take legal action. Although he won the case, he was forced to pay out £700 in legal costs after the guilty party conveniently declared themselves bankrupt.
Despite the bitterness this caused for Dickens- the experience would later inspire him to write Bleak House– A Christmas Carol has remained in print ever since and has become an integral part of the festive season.
As with most of Dickens’ work, the book is inspired by the streets and characters he would observe whilst walking around the city. As such, there are a number of locations in London associated with A Christmas Carol…
St Paul's Cathedral EC4
St Paul’s Cathedral receives a mention in the opening lines to A Christmas Carol.
At the beginning, Dickens makes it crystal clear that Scrooge’s old business partner, Jacob Marley is very much dead. And to emphasis how important this is to the story, he compares the situation to the ghost of Hamlet’s father:
“There is no doubt that Marley was dead” he tells us. “This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.
If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot- say St Paul’s Churchyard for instance- literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.”
Scrooge's Counting House EC3
The figure at the centre of A Christmas Carol is the miserly businessman, Ebenezer Scrooge.
It’s believed Dickens based this mean, tight-fisted grump on a real figure: one of the main contenders being John Elwes.
Born into a wealthy family in 1714, Elwes inherited a fortune whist he was still in his childhood. He attended Westminster School and later went on to become the Member of Parliament for Berkshire.
Despite this immensely privileged background, Elwes refused to spend a single penny of his wealth, and became notorious for the state of abject poverty in which he languished.
His clothes were so ragged he’d often be mistaken for a beggar- and he would happily accept any coins offered to him by those who took pity.
Large holes were left to fester in his dilapidated roof and Elwes would climb into bed as soon as darkness fell so as to avoid spending money on candles. Worst of all, he thought nothing of eating rotting food- including any dead animals he happened to find on London’s muddy streets.
Although Scrooge isn’t quite that bad, he does lead an unnecessarily frugal existence and this is reflected in his small, freezing cold counting house.
The exact location of this office isn’t mentioned by Dickens. However, using some detective work, we can take an educated guess.
One thing we do know is that it’s situated off of Cornhill- because, when Scrooge’s long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchitt is finally allowed to finish work, Dickens tells us that Bob slid up and down Cornhill 20 times in honour of it being Christmas Eve.
Dickens also informs us that the “ancient tower of a church” with its “gruff old bell” can usually be seen from Scrooge’s counting house, although on this Christmas Eve it is obscured by the fog and darkness.
The most likely contender for the church is St Michael’s Cornhill which was founded in the 1130s. The current building, give or take a few alterations, dates from the 1670s.
Directly opposite St Michaels is the cramped, enclosed square known as Newman’s Court… so maybe this is where you would have found Scrooge’s counting house has you been traipsing around the streets of London in the 1840s.
As the Christmas Eve afternoon draws on, Scrooge’s cheerful nephew, Fred pops by to wish his uncle a merry Christmas- even though he knows the greeting won’t be returned.
Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchitt however is more than happy to return Fred’s Christmas wishes, which Scrooge overhears, leading him to mutter, “My clerk with fifteen shillings a week, and a wife and family, talking about a merry Christmas. I’ll retire to Bedlam…”
Bedlam is the popular, shortened name for the Bethlem Royal Hospital which, during Dickens’ time, housed patients suffering from mental health disorders. It was founded in the 13th century and, as you can probably imagine, was a brutal institution for many, many years.
The Bethlem Royal Hospital has had several homes over the centuries; it’s currently located in Bromley.
In 1843, when A Christmas Carol was first published, you would have found it in Lambeth in a grand, purpose built complex which opened in 1815. You can still see this building today… it now houses the Imperial War Museum.
The Mansion House EC4
Located on Bank Junction, the Mansion House is the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London. This post is not to be confused with the Mayor for London (currently Sadiq Khan) which is a recent creation.
The Lord Mayor is more of a ceremonial post for the Square Mile; the oldest part of London which is defined by financial institutions.
In contrast to the miserable atmosphere in Scrooge’s counting house, Dickens tells us that the Lord Mayor in the nearby “Stronghold of the mighty Mansion House, gave orders to his fifty cooks and butlers to keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor’s household should.”
Scrooge's Local EC4
Once Scrooge finally decides to close business for the day, we are told he “took his melancholy dinner in his usually melancholy tavern.”
The exact name of the tavern isn’t given. However, going by what we know about Scrooge’s office being in the vicinity of Cornhill, there are two strong contenders for his local.
The first is Simpson’s Tavern which is tucked away up and alley and has been in business since 1757- so it was already over 80 years old when Dickens penned A Christmas Carol.
Just around the corner is the George and Vulture. There has been an inn on this site since 1142 and the George and Vulture is mentioned many times in Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers. Dickens himself enjoyed drinking here, so perhaps this is more the place he had in mind?
Scrooge's Home EC3
Today, London’s financial Square Mile is dominated by offices meaning very few people live there. However, during the Victorian period it was far more common, and Scrooge lives very close to his place of work.
His house, we are informed, was “a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again…”
Amongst all of today’s modern architecture, perhaps the best place to get a feel for the yard in which Scrooge lived is Brabant Court, off of Philpot Lane.
As for the location of Scrooge’s home, a good contender is a spot off of Lime Street, the reason for which I’ll explain more later…
Bayham Street NW1
Scrooge’s poor clerk, Bob Cratchit lives with his family- including the sickly Tiny Tim- in Camden Town which, in the 1840s, was an area blighted by immense poverty.
The Ghost of Christmas Present take Scrooge here to witness the Cratchits who, despite living off of Bob’s income of just 15 shillings a week (which is about £45 in today’s money), do their utmost to enjoy the day.
As a youngster, Charles Dickens himself spent time living in Camden- on Bayham Street to be precise- in the early 1820s. It doesn’t require too much of a stretch of the imagination therefore to assume he had Bayham Street in mind when conjuring up the Cratchit’s modest home.
The Henson NW1
Although not associated with Dickens’ original text in the sense that the other locations in this video area, there is another Christmas Carol link in Camden which really deserves a mention.
Head up Camden High Street, cut across Jamestown Road and you’ll find Oval Road. Here, beside the canal, is an apartment block named ‘The Henson’ which has been converted from former railway offices.
The Henson is named in honour of the late Jim Henson; the American creator of The Muppets. For this old site was once home to Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop; a studio where many of Muppets were lovingly created. And yes, that includes ones used in one of the most beloved- and surprisingly accurate interpretations of Dickens’ story; ‘The Muppet’s Christmas Carol’ which was made shortly after Jim Henson’s sudden death in 1990 at the age of just 53.
The film- which stars the legendary Sir Michael Caine as Scrooge- was shot at Shepperton Studios on the south-western outskirts of London. The Creature Workshop in Camden remained in use until 1995.
The Royal Exchange EC3
We now return to the heart of old London.
Dominating the eastern side of Bank Junction is the Royal Exchange; an institution dating back to the 16th century.
It was founded by Sir Thomas Gresham, who recognised the need for an official centre of commerce in the City of London; he was inspired by a similar building in Antwerp.
The present building dates from the early 1840s; the same period during which Dickens wrote a Christmas Carol.
Although the Royal Exchange is now occupied by a luxury shopping mall, it was still very much a place of business in Dickens’ time and as such Scrooge- who, as we’ve seen worked very close by in the vicinity of Cornhill- would’ve popped by here to discuss business. Indeed, it’s mentioned (in its shortened form) in the very opening lines to A Christmas Carol:
“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
More significantly, the Royal Exchange is one of the places to which the third- and most terrifying of all the spirits; the Ghost of Christmas yet to Come- takes Scrooge.
Here, the voiceless phantom forces the miser to watch his business acquaintances as they blithely discuss his death…
“They they were, in the heart of it: on ‘Change, amongst the merchants; who hurried up and down, and chinked the money in their pockets, and conversed in groups, and looked at their watches, and trifled thoughtfully with their great gold seals; and so forth, as Scrooge had seen them often.
The spirit stopped beside one little knot of businessmen. Observing the hand that pointed to them, Scrooge advanced to listen to their talk.
‘No’, said a great fat man with a monstrous chin, ‘I don’t know much it, either way, I only know he’s dead…”
The group then proceed to joke about Scrooge’s funeral; one says that “It’s likely to be a very cheap funeral, for upon my life I don’t know of anybody to go to it…”
Leadenhall Market EC3
Following his ordeal with the the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, Scrooge has become a changed man and, full of joy, he throws open his windows, allowing the glorious morning light to shine through.
It’s at this point Scrooge calls to a passing boy to enquire what day it is, to which the lad famously replies; “To-day? What Christmas Day!”
Scrooge then goes onto ask the boy if he knows “the poulterer’s in the next street but one, at the corner?” where a prize turkey has been on display as he wishes to purchase it for Bob Cratchitt’s family.
In the 1840s, the best place to buy a Christmas bird would have been Leadenhall Market which is located in the heart of the City, very close to Cornhill, the Royal Exchange and the Mansion House.
As I mentioned earlier, a likely contender for Scrooge’s home is somewhere around Lime Street; the reason being that it is connected to Leadenhall Market by two short lanes; Lime Street Passage and Leadenhall Place- as Scrooge says, the poultry shop is in the next street but one.
Going slightly off tangent for a moment, another Christmas tale connected with Leadenhall Market is the true story of ‘Old Tom’,
Old Tom was a goose who, shortly before the Christmas of 1797 was brought to along with thousands of other geese to Leadenhall Market for slaughter.
However, moments before he was due to receive the chop, Tom made a break for freedom and proceeded to run and flap around the market for the next couple of day, skilfully avoiding capture.
As such the market traders at Leadenhall decided to grant Tom a reprieve and he was adopted as a pet and mascot. Tom made the market his home, and no doubt grew rather tubby on the many scraps which those working at Leadenhall gave him.
Tom finally passed away in 1835, just a few years before a Christmas Carol was published. He was 37 years old; not bad for a gander! He even had his obituary printed in The Times and he’s now buried somewhere beneath the site. In Leadenhall Market today there is a bar named Old Toms in honour of this extraordinary bird.
Once the boy brings Scrooge the turkey, the former miser exclaims, “Why, it’s impossible to carry that to Camden Town…you must have a cab!” which he obligingly pays for; another sign that his thrifty ways are now behind him.
Scrooge then strives to make the most of his newfound Christmas joy, including a visit to his nephew, Fred’s for dinner, and Dickens concludes by telling us that the redeemed Scrooge “became as good as a man as the good old city knew…”
Merry Christmas! And the best of luck for the New Year.