Tuesday, 16 December 2014


During his long and prolific writing career, Charles Dickens wrote many Christmas stories, but the best known one must surely be A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843.  The main character of the story is Ebenezer Scrooge, a man whose penny-pinching and mean spiritedness was such that his surname  has become synonymous with mendacity in the English language.  You will often hear people say things like "Oh, he's a right old Scrooge".  During the course of a series of chapters, or staves, Scrooge is visited by a series of ghostly apparitions who take him to see a variety of Christmas scenes designed to make him change his ways, the most heartbreaking of which is when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows him a time in the future when Tiny Tim, the son of Scrooge's long-suffering and poorly paid clerk Bob Cratchit, has died because Cratchit's pay is insufficient to look after his sickly son properly.  By the end of all this, Scrooge undergoes a transformation, his new-found largesse leading him to donate a Christmas turkey to the Cratchit family.

The opening paragraph includes a reference to 'Change.  This was how the Victorians referred to the Royal Exchange, a London centre of commerce founded in the 16th century by the merchant Thomas Gresham.  The building was devastated by the Great Fire of London, and suffered another fire in 1838, but has been returned to its former glory.  Commerce is still alive and kicking today at the building, which is next to the Bank of England: it is now a luxury shopping centre with designer stores and smart restaurants.  The building's grand facade, with the appearance of an ancient Greek temple, is as pretty as a picture at this time of year, with its columns all lit up and a huge Christmas tree in front.

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The Royal Exchange. Photo by Peter McDermott, via Wikimedia Commons

As for Scrooge's hangouts, his counting house lay in an alley in the heart of the City, off Cornhill, which runs east from the Bank underground station.  Dickens describes the building as facing an ancient church tower, "whose gruffold bell was always peeping down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall".  His house was at 45 Lime Street, off Leadenhall Street, "a gloomy suite of rooms", where the yard was so dark that even Scrooge, who lived there, "was fain to grope with his hands".  The well-known Leadenhall Market (known as much as anything for its role in the Harry Potter films) lies nearby, and may well have been where Scrooge went to get the turkey for the Cratchits.  Today, Lime Street is home to the futuristic Lloyds Insurance building, on the site of the former East India House. 

The wretched Bob Cratchit and his family lived in Camden Town, which in those days was a filthy slum.  The area around Agar Grove in the east part of Camden is described by Dickens as "a complete bog of mud and filth".  Hard to believe today, since Camden Town is now an achingly hip and trendy part of London, most famous for its amazing market which is guaranteed to be heaving on weekends.  Another place referred to in the novel is Mansion House in Walbrook, the Lord Mayor's official residence.  This neoclassical house was built by George Dance in 1753 and it has its own court and prison cells.  Dickens recounts how the fifty cooks and butlers were ordered to "keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor's household should".  

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Camden Market. Photo by CherryX, via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Dickens fans visiting London who want to explore the areas featured in the novel can join an A Christmas Carol walkingtour.  The Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street in Holborn occupies the house where Dickens lived from 1837 to 1839.

Map of the area around Lime Street.

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