Wednesday 14 October 2020

In Search of Victorian London

When wandering the streets of London it’s not hard to see remnants of the nineteenth century city - from the grand sweep of John Nash’s parks and surrounding streets, the extravagant museums of South Kensington to the imposing memorials in the likes of Highgate cemetery, and many churches dotted across the city. In honour of Victober, a month-long celebration of literature from Britain’s golden age of writing, I’ve put together this post of places to visit to walk in the footsteps of some of your favourite creatives.

Charles Dickens Museum at Christmas
Charles Dickens

The author most closely associated with Victorian London, famous for walking the streets at night, his writing evokes the darkness and squalor of many of the areas he knew. A great place to start in your search for Dickens’ London is the Charles Dickens Museum. His home between March 1837 and December 1839, it is decorated similarly to how it would have been when he lived and worked there. The museum also owns the property next door, meaning they’ve been able to expand their exhibition space. The interior has been digitised on Google maps, so even if you can’t get there in person, you can still explore the home of this most famous of authors.

If you really want to experience London through Dickens’ eyes, why not indulge in a self-guided walking tour, this one put together by the BBC is excellent.

Mary Shelley

St. Pancras Old Church
A little north of the site of Dickens’ home lies the birthplace of Mary Shelley, in Somers Town. The building itself is no longer standing, having been demolished in 1904, and now being home to Oakshott Court, a plaque nonetheless commemorates her birth on 30th August 1797. Not far away is the grave of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, in the graveyard of St. Pancras Old Church. Those familiar with the legend of Shelley will know that it’s believed her father taught her to write her name by tracing the lettering on her mother’s grave, as well as being a meeting place for secret liaisons with Percy Bysshe Shelley in the early days of their relationship. The house where she lived her final five years is still standing at 24 Chester Square, a blue plaque marks its historic significance.

Wilkie Collins

There is a blue plaque at 65 Gloucester Place, Marylebone, marking the house in which Collins once resided, but it is perhaps Hampstead that is most associated with him. He lived in Hampstead as a child, when it was yet to be consumed by the city. Fans of The Woman in White will delight in walking across the Heath, the location of Hartright’s walk immediately before his first encounter with the eponymous figure at the junction of modern day Finchley Road and Frognal Lane. Hampstead also makes an appearance in both Armadale and The Moonstone. It remains a beautiful place to explore and has retained its village feel despite now being much better connected to the rest of the capital. While you’re in the area, it’s also worth making a stop at another literary location - Keats House. One final stop for those so inclined is Collins’ grave in Kensal Green Cemetery.

William Morris' Red House
William Morris 

The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow is a wonderful place to start your William Morris journey. Housed in a villa that he lived in during his late teens and early twenties, it is an inspiring museum that delves beyond his famous designs  (although you'll find plenty of them there too) into his wider creative and political work, and it’s free to visit. South of the river is Red House, a home Morris commissioned his friend Phillip Webb to build shortly after his wedding to Jane. The house was designed and decorated by Morris and his friends, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, and has been described as a ‘palace of art’. Sadly, the dream only lasted for five years, when he had to move his family back to central London. Finally, a visit to the William Morris Society, housed in the basement of Kelmscott House where he lived for the final eighteen years of his life. Unfortunately, their exhibition space remains closed due to Covid, but there is a virtual tour available on their website.

The Royal Observatory
Joseph Conrad

You can find a blue plaque on Conrad’s former residence at 17 Gillingham Street, Victoria, but to delve into the London of his novel The Secret Agent, it’s Soho and Greenwich that you want to explore. Soho is the location of Verloc’s shop and the area is portrayed as dark, confusing, and threatening. It oozes with atmosphere and the air of corruption that it was known for during the nineteenth century. The novel revolves around a plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, inspired by a real life attempt in the late nineteenth century. It remains a brilliant place to visit and dwell upon the importance of it at its creation, as well as offering panoramic views across the city.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Braddon serialised her novels Birds of Prey and Charlotte’s Inheritance in the magazine Belgravia, for which she was editor. In these novels she places London centre stage as she dissects the veneer of respectability, and the darkness hidden beneath, in areas such as Bloomsbury. The buildings in the area are largely still in tact, and it is a pleasant area to wander around, keeping in mind also, of course, the literary associations of the later Bloomsbury Group. Braddon also has connections to the outer suburb of Richmond. She lived with her husband John Maxwell in Lichfield House from 1874 until her death in 1915. The House no longer stands however, having been replaced by the modern development, Lichfield Court. Her final resting place is Richmond Cemetery, where her grave can still be visited, as well as a commemorative plaque in St Mary Magdalene Church in Richmond.

Another literary landmark not too far from Richmond is Strawberry Hill House, Horace Walpole’s famous Gothic Revival house. In Richmond itself, Virginia Woolf’s former home and the place where Hogarth Press was established, can be seen on Paradise Road. It is now a private residence.

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