Covent Garden, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Newgate prison and Smithfield market are some of the historic sites that feature in Dickens Great Expectations.
London, “ugly, narrow and dirty” as Pip, the main character of Great Expectations, describes it, is the background of many Dickens novels. A historical or literary tour of the British metropolis must include the historic places and buildings that inspired Dickens, many of which feature in the Victorian author’s 1861 novel, Great Expectations.
London Buildings in Charles Dickens Novel
Some of the buildings that appear in Great Expectations are well-known historic landmarks of London; others are either long demolished or not so famous. Among them are:
Barnard’s Inn: a 13th-century building in Holborn, the place where Pip takes residence when he comes to London. Dickens describes it as “the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together in a rank”, attired in “a frouzy mourning of soot and smoke”.
Newgate Prison: a notorious London building in use as a prison from the 12th century to 1902. A “grim stone building” which felons “seldom set to fire to… with the excusable object of improving the flavour of their soup”, writes Dickens. Today the historical site is occupied by the Central Criminal Court, or Old Bailey.
St Paul’s cathedral, an iconic London building was designed by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London destroyed its predecessor which stood on this historic site since 604AD. As in many a Dickens novel St Paul’s in at the background in Great Expectations too: “St Paul’s and all the many church-clocks in the City struck that hour”.
London Historic Places in Great Expectations
Historical sites that feature in Dickens novel include:
Covent Garden, the famous London market which was developed in the borough of Camden in the 17th century. A hub of traders of all sorts, Covent Garden market offered even exotic goods carried there via the river Thames. In Great Expectations, Pip’s friend says that he thought Pip “would like a little fruit after dinner and… went to Covent Garden to get it good”.
Smithfield market: the centuries-old London open-air cattle market in Faringdon, City of London. It was deplored in Dickens time for its unhygienic conditions and brutal treatment of the animals. Dickens comments: “Smithfield… the shameful place, being all asmear with filth and fat and blood and foam”.
Little Britain is near St. Bartholomew’s Hospital (or St Barts), the oldest surviving hospital in England, and it is the place when lawyer Jaggers has his offices in Great Expectations.
London Bridge, or Old London Bridge, features in many Dickens novels, such as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. It was the only bridge over the Thames until the 1750s. It has 19 arches and the waters were dangerous: “at certain states of the tide there was a race and a fall of water there which gave it a bad reputation”.
London Historical Sites and Dickens
A tour of the historical buildings and sites of London associated with Dickens novels gives a sense of how the metropolis used to be in the 19th century as many of those London buildings and historic places remain intact today.