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Dickens' London and the Railroad

Dickens in North London

A map of Dickens' regular stomping grounds in North London, where he lived as a child and would later live with his family as an adult.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870), or Boz, a pseudonym he used in his early journalism career, is generally regarded as one of the most prolific and greatest novelists of the 19th century, let alone the English language. Dickens was born into a large middle-class family; not much exact knowledge is known about Dickens' early years, except some key aspects that he would later use in his own novels. Dickens was educated in London as his family settled in the Camden Town area for a time (pictured on the map). Charles' father, John Dickens, is often portrayed as a mysterious figure in Dickens' life, aside from his more infamous time in debtor's prison during which Charles stepped in to help support the family. Dickens' most traumatic childhood experience involved his time at Warren's Blacking Warehouse, where his spot in the front window humiliated him in front of his friends and family. This experience colored the rest of Dickens' life experiences and would manifest itself in many of his novels through suffering children and the working poor.

Rain, Steam, Speed - The Great Western Railway (1844)

Joseph Mallord William Turner's Rain, Steam, Speed - The Great Western Railway (1844), is an oil on canvas that depicts the Maidenhead Railway Bridge across the Thames. It is housed at the National Gallery, London.

At the time Dickens' serialized novels were taking off in the 1840s, the railway made its way into London. Moreover, travel outside of the city became more commonplace for the middle-class. As a sign of industrialization, the railroad sparked much British anxiety not only over real threats of accidents and death caused by the rail, but also over the impending modernization and change that industrialization would bring to British society.

While many rail accidents were reported in the newspapers of 1847 and 1848, there were often very few fatalities. However, news articles would often describe the great speed at which trains traveled and details about mechanical errors that caused accidents. Turner's painting (left), with the merging landscape of sky, railway, and river, depicts the chaotic nature that the rail evoked for many Londoners. Ironically, Dickens himself was involved in a rail crash at Staplehurst in 1865 while traveling with his mistress, Nelly. He stayed on board to tend to those who were hurt, an experience that shook him greatly.


Charles Dickens
Dickens' London and the Railroad