Dickens and London Pubs

By other museum staff on 23 May 2012

Following on from her blogs about William Raban’s film Nightwalks, the key objects within our Dickens and London exhibition and Dickens’ family portraits, this week PhD student, Joanna Robinson, looks at London pubs then and now. Joanna is a PhD student working collaboratively with the Museum of London and the English department at King’s College, London.

Coming, as I do, from a small village, the local pub has been a central feature in the landscape of my childhood. And being ignorant, as I am, I assumed that having a local was a big thing for most people. Yet although, needless to say, my experience of different pubs has been extended significantly in London, I have never found a pub in the city with such a community feeling. London’s huge population and high prices seem obvious reasons for the shifting clientele, yet it made me wonder what the pubs were like in Dickens’ day, when the city was smaller and it was safer to drink beer than water. Would attempts to shelter from cholera have fostered a community in spite of the dislocating effects of the city?

During the nineteenth century the ever increasing industrialisation of urban spaces had a massive knock-on effect on pubs. For instance, the expansion of the railway meant that historic coaching inns died a slow death. Moreover, in an attempt to control the social problems caused by the unlicensed production of gin, the Gin Act of 1751 relegated the sale of gin to licensed vendors. Thus by the 1820s the fashion for gin palaces replaced squalid Georgian gin-shops. Gin palaces were designed as an escape from the often wretched conditions of home, and featured all the mod-cons including gas lighting.

Bull and Mouth pub sign

The Dickens and London exhibition showcases old pub signs from Dickens’ era, which (given the exhibition’s intention to reveal the seamier side of the city that inspired Dickens) hints that these pubs were less than reputable locations. Indeed, the sign for The Bull and Mouth, used in The Pickwick Papers, is really quite creepy! This and the sign from the Goose and Gridiron are displayed beside a modern copy of the crescent moon sign from an eighteenth century Mercer’s Shop, which was for many years a feature of Holywell Street. In Victorian Babylon, Lynda Nead examines Holywell Street’s association with obscene literature and lower-class subversion in detail, and with this in mind it seems to me that the exhibition is keen to emphasise the links between pubs and the lower-classes in Dickens’s work. However, knowing that (especially as a student) dives are often the best places for a good night out, I was keen to see how Dickens actually used pubs in his novels. Could a gin palace or a coaching inn gone to seed be the Victorian equivalent of that brilliant bar that you love in spite of having to throw away your shoes afterwards?

Shop sign from Hollywell Street, 18th century

In David Copperfield, the reader is presented with several different drinking establishments in the course of David’s Bildungsroman. The first, which seems closest to my idea of a local, is The Willing Mind in Yarmouth – Mr Peggotty and Ham frequent it fairly often, yet contrary to the scenes of vice that we may have expected in London, it is a community hub. Well, for the men at least. Compared to the scenes describing a gin shop in the Seven Dials section in Sketches by Boz (another poor community) we may be inclined to believe that Dickens thought a rural setting conducive to moral behaviour. Indeed, even within the text a comparative city location could be The Golden Cross, which used to be at Charing Cross. Contrary to its rural counterpart, this inn is a liminal space, and David feels strange and isolated here until he runs into his old school fellow, Steerforth. However, from Steerforth onwards, The Golden Cross is repeatedly linked to meetings with disreputable people – it is outside it that David first rediscovers the prostitute Martha, for example. To me, Dickens seems to be giving a fairly clear message – respectable people do their drinking in private. The real scenes of conviviality are when Mr Micawber is mixing punch for his friends, something that Dickens himself frequently did for his associates. In these scenes the atmosphere is inclusive and jovial – even the women and children are allowed to share in the fun.

Although this is a brief synopsis, I believe we can historicise the division between community-focused rural pubs and the bustling dislocation of those in the city back to Dickens’s era: then, as now, the city forces people to seek inclusivity in small groups of friends rather than a communal location. Nevertheless, even in the city Dickens’ legacy can help to create an imagined community between those eras, as modern-day Londoners visit the pubs that claim him as an ex-patron such as Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street. When you walk into these places, even if you know no one in the room, you can feel linked not only back to Dickens, but to anyone who has raised a glass to him there. Therefore, if the job of a local pub is to help you to feel connected to a place, then even disconnected Londoners may feel an affinity through a shared history.

The Bull and Mouth street sign is on display in Dickens and London at the Museum of London until 10 June 2012.

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