While we don’t have to contend with the ‘pea-soupers’ (polluted fog) of the 19th century, London’s air quality is still a topical news story. In Dickens’s time, the fog was sometimes known as the ‘London ivy’ as it crept across the work and life of Charles Dickens.
A Great and Dirty City: Dickens and the London Fog is the latest exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum. Dickens lived at 48 Doughty Street from 1837 to 1839 and this is the building we now get to explore as the museum.
Coal had fuelled the industrial advances of Victorian Britain, and was used to power factories and steam engines. It was also used to heat people’s homes. While we may think of a roaring fire at home with a sense of comfort, cheap coal plagued the city. Soot and smoke turned laundry and buildings black from the dirt.
But we simply didn’t know of an alternative so Victorian homes all had multiple open fireplaces. At 48 Doughty Street, Dickens replaced the hearthstone in the Drawing Room. And his fire poker from the dining room at Gad’s Hill Place (his home in Kent from 1856 until his death in 1870) is also on display.
His leather armchair is here near the fireplace. His brother-in-law, Henry Burnett, recalls observing Dickens sitting in the corner of this room one evening, writing Oliver Twist.
London is in a river basin so natural fog was never unusual. But when this mixed with the growing air pollution of an 1800s smoky metropolis it created foul-smelling dense fogs tinged with greens, yellows, rust colours or black.
Dickens regularly referred to the fog in his novels. The opening of Bleak House is: ‘Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes‘. David Copperfield‘s early glimpses of London were: ‘From the windows of my room I saw all London lying in the distance like a great vapour, with here and there some lights twinkling through it‘. And the ‘blinking, wheezing, and choking‘ of Our Mutual Friend shows how the smog could be used in atmospheric writing.
Pollution is often used by Dickens to represent a malevolent force or a shady character. Among the items on display, there are original first edition parts of Dickens’s ‘foggiest’ novel, Bleak House. This original pen and wash illustration is by Frederick Barnard, who was employed by Dickens’s publisher, Chapman & Hall, to illustrate the ‘Household Edition’ of nine of Dickens’s works (1871–1879). The drawing shows Martin Chuzzlewit, Mary Graham, and Mark Tapley and relates to this passage from the novel: ‘Seeing that there was no one near, and that Mark was still intent upon the fog, he not only looked at her lips, but kissed them in the bargain.’
The museum has a dedicated exhibition room but you can find references to the theme throughout.
The ground-floor dining room has an introduction that explains how these fogs were an inspiration and a menace.
And the basement kitchen describes the reliance on coal power. Coal was delivered to houses and poured down a round, metal coal chute on the pavement. There’s an example of a coal chute cover here so you can look more closely.
Not relevant to this exhibition, but I always like to see the kitchen hedgehog. We were first told that a hedgehog was kept here to eat the bugs although that’s not true. But it is a quirky find to show your friends.
Again, not totally relevant to the exhibition, but the basement laundry room must have seen a lot of work trying to rid whites of London grime.
Head upstairs to the first floor and you can see Dicken’s chair in the Drawing Room. As mentioned before, this was where he wrote Oliver Twist.
In chapter three, Oliver nearly becomes apprenticed to a chimney sweep called Gamfield. However, during a hearing in front of the Magistrate, Oliver manages to sway the Magistrate’s mind after pleading to do anything but chimney sweeping. This work was not only dirty but dangerous as the ‘chimney boys’ would often be badly burnt, injured, could choke from inhaling soot, or even get stuck in the chimney and suffocate.
In Dicken’s Study, you can see this article by Dickens’s subeditor William Henry Wills which focuses on the fabric weaving district of Spitalfields in east London. A merchant called Mr Broadelle recounts that a December fog ‘got into the white satins’, ruining one hundred pounds’ worth of stock and causing them to be stained black in an ‘ugly, foxy, unsaleable half-mourning’.
Across in the exhibition room, there are books, drawings, objects and more.
This drawing by the artist Phiz shows Lady Dedlock and Jo from Bleak House. Lady Dedlock is disguised on a secret journey to a cemetery with Jo acting as her guide. Heavy fog in the novel symbolises blindness and disguise. Fog also symbolises ill health.
Jo goes on to develop smallpox, with the cemetery visit seen as a possible site where he caught the disease.
I’d never really considered if there was a practical reason for the use of glass bell jars that you often see on the mantlepiece in photos of Victorian homes. But I learned that these were used to protect items from grime and soot.
This wooden figure was on a shop sign on Leadenhall Street in the City of London. Dickens knew it well and immortalised it in Dombey and Son.
Air pollution was also harmful to plants. There are herbarium specimens on display that were gathered in the gardens of Dickens’s homes.
While we now don’t have the same problems today, London still has air pollution alerts where vulnerable people are advised to stay home. (The most recent was in January 2023.) Covid as an airborne virus is another example of the air not always being safe. My 88-year-old neighbour initially didn’t believe Covid was dangerous as he couldn’t see it in the air. (I do sometimes wonder if he says such things to wind me up but it’s hard to know with old people who enjoy teasing, isn’t it?)
While we soon got used to face masks during the pandemic, in Victorian times we would have covered our nose and mouth with a handkerchief. This one was owned by Dickens’s wife Catherine.
Title: A Great and Dirty City: Dickens and the London Fog
Location: The Charles Dickens Museum, 48-49 Doughty Street, London WC1N 2LX
Dates: 29 March – 22 October 2023
Opening hours: 10am to 5pm, Wednesday – Sunday (closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
Official Website: www.dickensmuseum.com
Leave a Reply