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Dickens, Scrooge and the Victorian poor

Dickens and Chancery Lane

View of exterior of the Maughan Library, covered in snowThe Maughan LibraryKing's Maughan Library stands between two ancient north/south thoroughfares of old London: Chancery Lane and Fetter Lane. Much of the original site taken over by King's in 1998 from the old Public Records Office (after the National Archives moved to Kew) was previously inside the 'Liberty of the Rolls', and the Library's present Weston Room was once the Rolls Chapel. As London parishes go, the Rolls Liberty was small, both geographically and in population terms, and a historical anomaly: it consisted of that part of St Dunstan's in the West outwith the City of London.

The district around the Inns of Court is associated in Dickens's works with the drudgery of clerkdom, the mischances of poverty, and London's northern suburbs. In his sketch London Streets - Morning, Dickens describes:

'... the early clerk population of Somers and Camden Towns, Islington and Pentonville, are fast pouring into the City, or directing their steps towards Chancery-lane and the Inns of Court. Middle-aged men, whose annual salaries have by no means increased in the same proportion as their families, plod steadily along, apparently with no object in view but the counting-house ...'

The life of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's clerk in A Christmas Carol, reflects these observations: his family manages a thin living on his fixed salary of fifteen shillings a week in Camden Town. Dickens's father worked as a clerk in Somerset House on a fixed salary during Dickens's childhood in London, and as a young adult, Dickens himself looked to have no other future than as a legal clerk.

Charles Dickens knew the area around Chancery Lane very well. The lane itself appears in three of his Sketches, and the district arises repeatedly in his later works, especially in Bleak House.

Cursitor Street - further up Chancery Lane from the Maughan Library and inside the Liberty of the Rolls - he knew intimately, because it was the site of a 'sponging house' in which his father had been held. Debtors were squeezed for any money they could possibly raise from relatives or friends in such places, to prevent incarceration. It's known that as a child, Dickens was sent hither and yon to pawn family belongings so as to try to prevent his father's imprisonment: to no avail. A decade later, when he was 22, in November 1834, Dickens rescued his father from a sponging house in Cursitor Street (see Pilgrim Letters) and swiftly turned the experience to good account by including a close description of it in a new sketch, 'Passages in the Life of Mr Watkins Tottle', which appeared in February 1835 in the Monthly Magazine.

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