On my shelf is an old book that was brand new when my ma was given it aged 9 and where she wrote her name in careful ink. She is long gone but the book remains as living and well known as ever, it is of course A Christmas Carol. The greatest Christmas story ever written.
Charles Dickens wrote about the places he lived and the people he met, ferociously taking notes, sometimes “…in regular order on different shelves of my brain, ready ticketed and labelled to be brought out when I want them” and sometimes crazy jottings and scribblings. He wrote his most famous story, A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas to give it its full title and set it in the place he knew best and published it here with his own money; Martin Chuzzlewit had suffered from poor sales, but he knew this one needed to be a quality standalone book. So with my own notes and scribblings I set out in search of Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ old London, to find where he worked, where he ate and where he failed to sleep that Christmas night.
The story begins, after a reference to a breezy spot such as St. Paul’s Churchyard,
“once upon a time-of all the good days in the year on Christmas Eve-old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house…he could hear the people in the court outside go wheezing up and down.” But where was his counting house?
The truth is no one knows for certain, but we know there was an ancient church spire with a gothic window that could be seen by Scrooge from his open door, which means many have speculated the counting house is at Newman’s Court, just opposite the church of St Michael, Cornhill, and from where Bob Cratchitt runs out to slide down the ice on Cornhill (which is in fact a hill) before running home to Camden Town to play blind man’s buff.
Newman’s Court is in the heart of the Dickensian financial district. It’s quiet there now but it’s not hard to imagine “The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms.”
There is no shortage of pubs near Cornhill which claim to be that tavern. Simpson’s chop house on Ball Court is a strong contender. Garraways which used to be on Change Alley is another. But as soon as I saw the George and Vulture in Castle Court, I knew, I wanted it to be here. We know Dickens drank here and he references it in other books and even now it looks arcane and gloomy. Dickens’ family still meet here each Christmas, and that’s good enough for me.
When he had finished reading the papers and perusing his banker’s book, off he goes to bed. But where is a little more difficult to fathom. We know it was so dark he had to grope his away along, and we know about the knocker, which incidentally was inspired by a real one in Craven Street which is no longer there. Sadly it was put into storage to protect it and became lost to the world.
White Lion Court? There’s a house here where it has so little place to be. Brabant Court is another contender, from Richard Jones of London Walking Tours. Lime Street is another possibility, now thoroughly developed, all glass and chrome. We know Mr. Scrooge was lonely, it was pitch dark, and there was no one else there, the rest had been turned into offices. We also know the next morning it was bright and he could hang out of the window and see a boy who had wandered in. We find out the next street but one is the location of the poulterer. I’m not sure anyone will be able to pin it down, if only I could find map of 1840s merchants who kept wine in their cellar, but White Lion Court fits the bill.
The clock strikes 12 and the spirits come one by one to haunt him. He is transported to his childhood, his boarding school (we don’t know where) and Bob Cratchitt’s house. All we know is that was in Camden and is likely based on 16 Baynham Street, the tenement building Dickens’ family washed up at when they arrived in London. The last spirit brings him to a sinister Christmas yet to come. On ’Change, or the Royal Exchange, Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come are watching the merchants discussing a death and a very cheap funeral.
Of the handful of contenders, and there are not so many walled-in graveyards, I am most convinced by Richard Jones’ contention it must have been St. Peter Upon Cornhill, a stone’s throw from White Lion Court. Nowadays it’s more of a pocket park and the graves are gone, none that carries the name Ebenezer Scrooge.
The name incidentally was inspired by an actual grave hundreds of miles away in Edinburgh‘s Canongate Kirkyard: Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie, a meal man, which Dicken’s read incorrectly as ‘a mean man’, or so the story goes. Unfortunately that inspiration is now lost as the stone is missing.
Finally, the morning dawns brightly and Scrooge, reinvigorated and reborn, hails a passing lad. By the way, the best film version of this scene is Scrooge (1951) starring Alastair Sim, although you might be tempted to say otherwise. It is not the Muppets, a common misconception.
It’s likely, although no one can say for sure, that the poulterer’s was within Leadhall Market. After all, the lad can race there and back, two streets away and bring the man and the turkey back with him in less than 5 minutes. That’s a small radius. You can still buy a turkey for Christmas there today.
If you’ve been inspired to search for Scrooge here is an itinerary which makes a good walk through Dickens’ London. I suggest you begin at the Foundling Museum, one of London’s best and most moving museums dedicated to abandoned children. Dickens visited Field Lane Ragged School, since demolished, and was so moved to write about child poverty, “From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable.”, think of the children hiding within the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and the workhouse in Oliver Twist. From here it’s a short walk to Doughty Street and Dickens’ house, now the Charles Dickens Museum.
Head down to Chancery Lane where just opposite you’ll see a snickelway next to the Cittie of York pub. Down here is 1 South Square, no blue plaque to help you but it’s where Dickens was first employed aged 15 at Ellis and Blackmore solicitors and where he began his writing career. In the petty cash book are many names which reappeared in his novels. The desk you will have seen in the museum.
Next go left along Holborn and you’ll pass the site of Furnival’s Inn, marked with a blue plaque, where Dickens rented rooms for several years from 1834. As you head towards St. Pauls you’ll see the black and white frontage of Staple Inn, “It is one of those nooks, the turning into which, out of the clashing street, imparts to the relieved pedestrian the sensation of having put cotton in his ears and velvet soles on his boots” (Edwin Drood).
Keep walking towards St. Pauls along the ostentatious Holborn Viaduct and look for the Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court) where Dickens was a court reporter in the days when Newgate Prison was attached. He wrote many times about characters here, including ‘Old Bailey’ in Sketches By Boz.
The next stop is St. Pauls’s Churchyard, then the Royal Exchange for a bit of merchant gossip and shopping. Then slide down Cornhill to Scrooge and Marley’s counting house at Newman Court (you can be misled by the Counting House pub opposite if you like), his house at White Lion Court and the grave site opposite at St Peter upon Cornhill.
More shopping at Leadenhall Market which looks splendid at Christmas, and end up at the George and Vulture. Should it be closed or too busy there is no shortage of inns and chophouses, the Counting House, Simpsons on Cornhill, Jamaica Winehouse next to the graveyard or even Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese where Dickens drank in the corner (near Old Bailey). One thing you will not be short of, now as then, is a place to get “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese,” and a strong ale before bed but mind you don’t have nightmares.
This walk and blog post was originally inspired by The Rest is History podcast, #132 which you can find here or click the download link below.
I also used the following articles amongst other research, and of course my ma’s old book: London walking Tours, Time Out, Londonist, Rob’s London, National Library of Scotland’s map archive, Footprints of London and Mercat Tours
The suggested map of this walk is here, it’s not a long walk:
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