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'Waterloo Bridge, Gray Day' (1903) by Claude Monet | Chester Dale Collection/Wikimedia Commons
'Waterloo Bridge, Gray Day' (1903) by Claude Monet | Chester Dale Collection/Wikimedia Commons
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A Literary Tour of London: Charles Dickens's Holborn

Picture of Simon Leser
UK Literary Editor
Updated: 24 July 2017
As part of our ongoing literary tour of London, we’re taking a look at the Holborn and environs featured in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House.

Built on an intricate base of plots and subplots, Bleak House can be said to center—more than anything else—on the English judicial system. Most of its action therefore takes place in central London, and in particular in Holborn, where the Court of Chancery used to be located. It follows (for the most part) the travails of Esther Summerson, an apparent orphan with connections to the long-running inheritance case known as Jarndyce v Jarndyce—a litigation originally set about by the existence of conflicting wills, and which has over the years led a great many people to their psychological and material ruin.

The book’s famous opening pages, with their long description of London fog, work their way to Lincoln’s Inn on Chancery Lane, a professional association of barristers whose buildings have existed in Holborn since 1422. The Old Hall, where Jarndyce v Jarndyce drones on, is still around to be visited:

“The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.”

Lincoln’s Inn Chapel
Lincoln’s Inn Chapel | ©Christine Matthews

Krook’s shop, which houses Miss Flite and Nemo (and whose gin-soaked owner, Krook, is known mostly for having succumbed to spontaneous combustion), is written as not far away “in a narrow back street, part of some courts and lanes immediately outside the wall of the Inn.” Though the exact location is left unclear, Little Turnstile alleyway, which has been around since the 16th century, is a plausible look-alike.

Meanwhile Mr. Snagsby, the law stationer involved—much against his will—in criminal affairs surrounding both the case and Esther’s provenance, lives above his shop in a small street a jump away from the Inn, named Took’s Court. Dickens took the liberty of renaming it for the novel: “On the eastern borders of Chancery Lane, that is to say, more particularly in Cook’s Court, Cursitor Street, Mr. Snagsby, Law-Stationer, pursues his lawful calling.”

Widening the search, one finds that post-bankruptcy, the Jellyby family has moved to “a furnished lodging in Hatton Garden,” a street immediately north of Chancery Lane, and which had a poorer reputation back in the 1830s, when the novel is set. They moved from their original location near Thavie’s Inn, right off of Holborn street. Going a little further north reveals the approximate location of the Smallweed family home, as the unscrupulous moneylenders were based “in a rather ill-favored and ill-savored neighborhood, though one of its rising grounds bears the name of Mount Pleasant.”

In the south, “by the cloisterly Temple, and by Whitefriars […], and by Blackfriars Bridge, and Blackfriars Road” is where the Bagnet family music shop is located, the site of many scenes of good cheer and a few apprehensive interviews.

Likewise, a look westward reveals a number of areas in which some action of Bleak House takes root. From George’s Shooting Gallery “in that curious region lying about the Haymarket and Leicester Square,” to the Turveydrop Academy on Newman street, where Caddy Jellyby goes to live once married to its dancing master, Prince. The most probably location for the slum of Tom-all-Alone’s—”a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people; where the crazy houses were seized upon, when their decay was advanced, by some bold vagrants”—is St. Giles, where London’s most famous Rookery, known as Rats’ Castle, was located. We know Charles Dickens was given a tour of the area in 1850, shortly before he started writing Bleak House.