diamond geezer

 Thursday, March 14, 2019

Let's visit... Charles Dickens Museum
Location: 48-49 Doughty Street, WC1N 2LX [map]
Open: 10am-5pm (closed Mondays)
Admission: £9.50 (free with a National Art Pass)
Website: dickensmuseum.com
Five word summary: home to an emerging novelist
Time to allow: about an hour

Charles Dickens lived in more than a dozen houses during his life, many of them in London, only one of which still stands. That's his newlywed home in Bloomsbury, a Georgian terrace which the great man described as "a pleasant twelve-room dwelling of pink brick, with three stories and an attic, a white arched entrance door on the street level, and a small private garden in the rear." Dickens lived here from early 1837 until late 1839, just as his career was taking off thanks to the Pickwick Papers. The house has been a museum since 1925, and was updated in 2012 by tacking on the nextdoor neighbour's house, allowing for a gift shop, cafe and exhibition space.

Don't feel pressured into buying a guidebook or audio guide before you enter, because a volunteer will hand you a free printed guide just beyond the cashdesk. The tour begins in Dickens' former entrance hall, where some of his everyday pocketfodder has been arranged on a table beneath the clock. The "as lived in" vibe continues in the dining room, which is laid out for a lively meal with friends. Food also provides the theme for the museum's current temporary exhibition, a mix of apposite quotes from the literature and relevant tales from the author's life, intelligently scattered throughout the building. This includes the Victorian basement kitchen, where Charles would have been a regular presence because he enjoyed planning meals and shopping for food rather more than the average Victorian gentleman.

Follow the shadow of Dickens up the stairs to the finest room in the house - the Drawing Room. The armchairs and tables here, like much of the furniture in the house, aren't from Doughty Street but from Charles' final home at Gad's Hill - the only one he bought rather than rented. Expect the voice of Simon Callow to boom out while you look around, narrating a favourite passage from The Pickwick Papers or Oliver Twist, both of which were completed while Dickens was living here. All twenty parts of Nicholas Nickleby were serialised in the adjacent study, which now contains the writing desk from Gad's Hill at which The Mystery of Edwin Drood was never finished.

Up again to the bedrooms, one the marital suite, the other occupied by Charles's 17-year-old sister-in-law Mary. She tragically died six weeks after the family moved in, an event which affected Charles deeply and which he often referenced in his work. The two attic rooms were the preserve of Dickens' servants so have been used as exhibition spaces rather than recreations. One's all text, while the other includes a metal grille from the Marshalsea Prison where Charles's father was imprisoned, a window lifted from Charles's teenage attic room and the Chertsey window through which proto-burglar Oliver Twist is supposed to have been shoved by Bill Sikes.

Nextdoor at 49, rather than 48, are several food-related exhibits, mostly text-based, plus a reading area where you can flick through some of the great man's many published works, but probably won't. Dickens was always a top-notch observer of everyday life, and his comment that shops "were not for the poor" rings true even today. I don't know what he'd say to the special 'soup, cake and tea' deal in the cafe for £10, but I suspect he'd have enjoyed the quiche. The cafe and giftshop are open to all, if you're interested, but don't expect to pass through into the up-and-coming novelist's home without forking out.

n.b. A short distance away is another intriguing historical museum. If visiting both without an Art Pass, make sure you visit the Charles Dickens Museum first. Here you can pick up a "50% off admission" voucher for the Foundling Museum, whereas the corresponding voucher there merely offers a paltry reduction in the Charles Dickens cafe.

Let's visit... Foundling Museum
Location: 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ [map]
Open: 10am-5pm (closed Mondays)
Admission: £10 (free with a National Art Pass)
Website: foundlingmuseum.org.uk
Five word summary: second chance for abandoned babies
Time to allow: about an hour

Let's nip back a century. In 1739 the merchant Thomas Coram finally succeeded in opening a charitable institution devoted to the long-term care of abandoned children. Poverty in the capital was rife, and illegitimate offspring were often cast aside by destitute mothers. Thomas's new Foundling Hospital was built in open country to the north of Great Ormond Street, then the edge of the built-up city. A grand affair, one wing was for boys and the other for girls, the two sides only coming into distant contact at Sunday chapel. Children were given new names on arrival, then bed, board and an education, before being sent out to make their living in the world.

Coram's Fields remains a green oasis in the heart of Bloomsbury, including a modern educational campus and a playing field no adult may enter without an accompanying child. The Hospital itself is long demolished, after children and staff decamped to Berkhampstead in the 1920s, so the building you're about to enter is actually the 1937 HQ of the Thomas Coram Foundation. Downstairs history, first floor art, top floor music.

The history chunk is well done, balancing the need for welfare against the rigours of institutional living. Hospital uniforms reflected the employment children were expected to enter on departure - military for boys and domestic service for girls. Mothers preparing to hand over their babies would be ushered into the Committee Room, leaving behind a personal token which was added to their child's records in case they ever became prosperous enough to take them back. Officially only Anglicans were accepted, but rules were usually bent. You'll know much of the background if you've read Jacqueline Wilson's Hetty Feather, or the excellent CBBC series of the same name. One unexpected section features testimony from foundlings like Phyllis and Matthew who are still alive today - the last adoptions took place as recently as 1954.

The Court Room upstairs was rescued from the original hospital and has a magnificent Rococo interior... all the better for impressing potential patrons. One of Coram's most important benefactors was the painter William Hogarth, so he's well represented among the paintings and portraits on show today. One of his larger works - The March of the Guards to Finchley - was raffled off in 1750 and serendipitously/suspiciously/conveniently won by the hospital itself. Another generous benefactor was George Frideric Handel, who gave benefit performances in the hospital's chapel, including the newly-written Messiah, and bequeathed a manuscript of his masterwork to the hospital. On the top floor you can see a small selection of memorabilia including his will, amended at the last minute in the hospital's favour, and sit in red leather armchairs to listen to the great man's music.

Which leaves the basement, where the latest temporary exhibition is housed. At present it's Bedrooms of London, which sounds cosy but turns out to be anything but. A researcher from the Childhood Trust visited the overcrowded bedrooms of several children living in poverty and took photos, displayed here accompanied by a short commentary on each family's situation. Jason uses the toilet seat as a desk. Peter's mum is worried he'll join a gang so she doesn't let him have friends. Sanjit's family lost all their cash in a fire and now live in one room. Four year old Rachel says she sleeps in her dad's bed. It's shocking stuff, and a jolting reminder that the poverty Thomas Coram devoted his life to never really went away.

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan19  Feb19  Mar19  Apr19  May19  Jun19  Jul19  Aug19
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18  Aug18  Sep18  Oct18  Nov18  Dec18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream