Covent Garden may be a hub of shops, theatres, restaurants and bars, but it’s also a must-see stop on a literary tour of London. From Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop to countless blue plaques, Covent Garden’s importance in British literary history is not to be underestimated.
A 16th-century, half-timbered building, The Old Curiosity Shop is a key – although somewhat contentious – figure in British literary history. Legend has it that it was the model for the very shop in Dickens’ novel of the same name, and the sign outside the shop itself claims that it is as ‘immortalised by Charles Dickens’. However, as well as the unsubstantiated literary history, it can claim to be the oldest shop in London, having been built in 1567. And Dickens, who lived in nearby Bloomsbury, would almost definitely have been familiar with the building, which was old even by Victorian standards. These days, it’s inhabited by a shoemaker.
The oldest restaurant in London, Rules was established by Thomas Rule in 1798. First an oyster bar, it became renowned by the city’s elite for its porter, pies and game. Over the centuries it has been the popular meeting place of many writers, artists, lawyers and actors, including Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, John Galsworthy and H.G. Wells. As well as being a frequent haunt of the literary world, it has also featured in many novels, including those by Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and John Le Carré. Latterly, it has also appeared in the James Bond film Spectre, and multiple episodes of Downton Abbey.
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The blue plaques that you see on buildings throughout London are part of a project that started in 1866, with the aim of linking the buildings of the present with the people of the past. You can find out where people were born, lived, worked and died simply by looking up whenever you see a plaque.
Thomas Davies, Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell
On the wall of 8 Russell Street, Covent Garden, lies a plaque bearing the motif that ‘[i]n this house occupied by Thomas Davies Bookseller Dr. Samuel Johnson first met James Boswell in 1763’. Boswell’s biographical work, Life of Samuel Johnson has been described as one of the most famous work of biography in the whole of literature, so this meeting place of the two writers in the home of Thomas Davies has great importance in British literary history.
Samuel Pepys (1633-1703)
Renowned diarist Pepys is in fact recorded as having lived at two different locations in Covent Garden. He firstly resided at 12 Buckingham Street, Covent Garden in 1679 after he was released from the Tower of London, where he had been imprisoned for Piracy, Popery and Treachery during the reign of Charles II. Then, in 1688, he moved to 14 Buckingham Street and lived there until he left London in 1701.
Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859)
Notable author and essayist de Quincy wrote his most famous work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, at 36 Tavistock Street, Convent Garden. This was an autobiographical account of his addiction to opium – related to heroin – and how it affected his life. It was first published anonymously in 1821.