From vanishing coaching inns and submerged riverside stairs to hidden burial grounds and apocryphal shops…
In his new book Dickensland, Lee Jackson traces the fascinating history of Dickensian tourism, exploring both real Victorian London and a fictional city shaped by fandom.
In this extract, Lee explores a peculiar memorial to a much-loved Dickensian character.
Present-day London Bridge (built 1967–73) is a minimalist concrete affair, the epitome of mid-twentieth-century modernism, an unlikely place to find relics of ‘Dickens’s London’. Nonetheless, a narrow set of stone steps, leading down from the bridge to the vicinity of Southwark Cathedral, regularly receives visits from modern-day literary pilgrims. The blue plaque at the base of these stairs, underneath the bridge’s supporting arch in Montague Close, explains their appeal:
These steps and arch are surviving fragments of the 1831 London Bridge designed by John Rennie and built by his son Sir John Rennie. The steps were the scene of the murder of Nancy in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist.
Many people, of course, simply come across these steps by accident, without consulting a tour guide or guidebook. The riverside walk hereabouts is dominated by groups of tourists seeking out Borough Market, Shakespeare’s Globe and Tate Modern. Those who happen to notice the plaque are doubtless gratified to discover this ‘surviving fragment’ – a charming piece of Dickensian urban heritage. Indeed, these are precisely the sort of chance encounters with historic sites that make London so appealing to sightseers.
The plaque itself, however, is something of an oddity. The colour and design approximate the blue plaques produced by English Heritage, but no one seems willing to claim ownership of this wholly unofficial memorial. The contents are also rather questionable. It is true that Rennie’s London Bridge was constructed between 1824 and 1831, alongside the famous medieval Old London Bridge (which was then finally demolished,c.1831–3). The steps probably belong to that period. But the plaque’s précis of the plot of Oliver Twist raises questions – at least, for anyone who knows Dickens’s original novel. The text would certainly puzzle the Victorian literary tourists who first visited London Bridge in the late nineteenth century. They would know full well that, in the book, Nancy is killed in Sikes’s lodgings, ‘a mean and badly- furnished apartment, of very limited size … abutting on a close and dirty lane’ (Oliver Twist, Chapter 39). Nancy’s death in the novel is a horrific moment of domestic violence, hidden away from prying eyes.
Dickens’s original story, however, does feature a crucial scene located upon a flight of riverside stairs, a little earlier in the narrative. The stairs are the site of the meeting between Nancy, Rose and Mr Brownlow, where she reluctantly divulges secrets concerning Oliver’s persecutors. Victorian literary tourists, therefore, would come to ‘Nancy’s Steps’ to see where this encounter took place. Dickens describes the locality in some detail:
‘These stairs are a part of the bridge; they consist of three flights. Just below the end of the second, going down, the stone wall on the left terminates in an ornamental pilaster facing towards the Thames. At this point the lower steps widen: so that a person turning that angle of the wall, is necessarily unseen by any others on the stairs who chance to be above him, if only a step.’
(Oliver Twist, Chapter 46).
Unfortunately, these three broad flights of stairs, leading down to the river, vanished when Rennie’s bridge was demolished in the late 1960s. Compare Dickens’s description with the modern reality and it will quickly become clear that the present-day narrow Nancy’s Steps are merely a shortcut to Montague Close, and nothing like the stairs in the novel. The modern blue plaque, in other words, marks the site of neither the pivotal meeting (which ultimately leads to Nancy’s death, when news of her betrayal reaches Sikes) nor the dreadful murder.
Nonetheless, Dickensian tourists have sought out Nancy’s Steps – in one form or another – for nigh on one hundred and fifty years.
About the Author
Lee Jackson is a well-known expert on Victorian London. He is the author of Dirty Old London, Walking Dickens’ London, and Palaces of Pleasure. Lee has lectured on Victorian topics for libraries and museums throughout London and is an academic advisor to the Dickens Museum.