Next week marks the official Charles Dickens Bicentennial, but commemorations have been taking place around the world for months. Now a new book by Cambridge University Professor Ruth Richardson has uncovered the real-life people who inspired Dickens’ iconic characters.
Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor (Oxford University Press) explores the London neighborhood where Dickens lived as a child. It began when Richardson discovered a four-story workhouse from the 1770s in Cleveland Street, London, which was likely the inspiration for the notorious workhouse in Oliver Twist. Richardson then uncovered a surprising fact previously missed by Dickens scholars: Cleveland Street was formerly known as Norfolk Street. Researchers had long known that Dickens lived in an apartment above a corner shop at 10 Norfolk Street, but they assumed the building had disappeared ages ago. Richardson re-discovered the building, now at the address 22 Cleveland Street. Dickens actually lived a just nine doors away from the infamous workhouse. Richardson then delved deeper into the life and times of the Cleveland Street neighborhood in Dickens’ day, revealing several more surprises:
- A “William Sykes” sold tallow and wax at 11 Cleveland Street. (Possible inspiration for Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist)
- A “Mr. Sowerby” owned a nearby pub. (Possible inspiration for the undertaker Sowerberry in Oliver Twist)
- A “Dan Weller” cobbled shoes across the street from Dickens’ flat. (Possible inspiration for Sam Weller in the Pickwick Papers)
- A “Mrs. Corney” sold and repaired gloves nearby and a “Mrs. Malie,” the wife of a local doctor, also lived on the same street. (Possible inspiration for Mrs Corney and Mrs. Maylie respectively in Oliver Twist).
- A dancing master was a fellow lodger in Dickens’ building. (Possible inspiration for the dancing master in Sketches by Boz).
- A pawnbroker shop was located just up the street. (The plot of Oliver Twist hinges upon a locket pawned from Oliver’s dead mother).
- Two tradesmen operated a nearby shop under the name of their partnership, “Goodge and Marney.” (Possible inspiration for “Scrooge and Marley” in the Christmas Carol).
In this Youtube video Richardson visits the London setting that inspired Dickens:
- Charles Dickens’ 200th Anniversary (englishforeso.wordpress.com)