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.

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