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The outer surviving wall of the Marshalsea Prison.


By Richard Jones

Start: Monument Underground Station Duration: 2 Hours
Best of Times: Anytime. Worst of Times: There are none!

Dickens first came to know Southwark in the traumatic days of his childhood when his father, John, was incarcerated for debt in the Marshalsea Prison. He was left alone and unhappy in lodgings in Camden Town, but after pleading with his father, he was found new lodgings in Lant Street, close to the prison. There is no doubt that this period of his childhood affected his later life profoundly, both personally and professionally. References to debt and debtors prisons crop up time and again in his novels, most notably in Little Dorrit ("The child of the Marshalsea"), and in David Copperfield, where John Dickens appears as Mr Micawber, and Charles's memories of the Marshalsea are transferred to the nearby King's Bench Prison.



Leave the station and turn right to descend Fish Street Hill and pause alongside:-


The Monument itself, which is 202 feet (61.6 metres) high, and the tallest isolated stone column in the world.

It was built between 1671 and 1677 to commemorate the "dreadful visitation" of the Great Fire of London (c.1666), which began in Pudding Lane, which is the adjacent street.

Dickens mentions the Monument several times. In Martin Chuzzlewit, Tom Pinch gets lost in London and then finds himself "hard by the Monument".

He is about to ask the attendant for directions when a couple arrive and pay their "tanner" (sixpence) to ascend to its viewing platform.

Having let them in through the "dark little door", the attendant sits down and laughs, "They don’t know what a many steps there is! It's worth twice the money to stop here."

Should you be considering a similar ascent, the spiral stone staircase has 311 steps, but the view from the top is worth the effort.


Continue down Fish Street Hill. Cross Lower Thames Street, bear right and pause alongside the church of:-


St Magnus the Martyr was constructed between 1671 to 1676.

Before the rebuilding of London Bridge (1823–31), during which its location was moved upriver, the churchyard had formed its roadway approach.

In Oliver Twist, as Nancy heads for her secret meeting with Mr Brownlow and Rose Maylie on London Bridge, Dickens notes how the tower of old Saint Saviour's Church (passed later), "and the spire of Saint Magnus, so long the giant warders of the ancient bridge, were visible in the gloom..."

A few remnants of the old bridge can be seen in the churchyard, whilst a detailed model of it is displayed inside the church.


Exit left from the churchyard. Walk under the bridge. Go left up the steps and follow the signs marked "London Bridge West Side".

Arriving on the bridge, go right at the bus stop and cross the bridge, about which Dickens wrote many times, sometimes referring to the old one and sometimes to the 1832 reconstruction.

It was over the former that Pip in Great Expectations walked in agonies of despair upon hearing that Estella was to marry Drummle. David Copperfield was "wont to sit, in one of the old stone recesses watching the people going by, or to look over the balustrades at the sun shining in the water and lighting up the golden flame on top of the Monument."


On arrival on the opposite side, take the stairs on the right (an arrow points to Glaziers Hall), and at the bottom, pause to look at the only remaining arch of John Rennie's 19th-century bridge.

The rest was shipped off to America when the present structure was built between 1967 and 1972.

It was on the steps of the old bridge that Nancy's fateful meeting with Mr Brownlow and Rose Maylie took place in Oliver Twist. Here she betrayed Fagin, Sikes and Monks and was overheard by Noah Claypole. When Sikes learnt what she had done, he murdered her at his house in Bethnal Green.


Go right off the steps. Keep ahead and go left through the gates into:-


Once inside, go left along the side aisle and pause alongside the tomb of John Gower (d.1408).

The church did not become a cathedral until 1905, so Dickens would have known it as St Saviour's.

In his essay "City of London Churches" in The Uncommercial Traveler he wrote that he was "profoundly ignorant" of the names of "at least nine-tenths" of London"s churches, "saving that I know the church of Old Gower's tomb (he lies in effigy with his head upon his books) to be the church of St Saviour's, Southwark..."

Today Gower's colourful effigy still reclines, exactly as Dickens described, and an information board details his achievements as the first English poet.


With your back to Gower, cross to the opposite aisle and, having paused to admire the memorial to William Shakespeare and the window above, resplendent with sundry characters from his plays, go right and exit the church through the glass doors.

Ascend the steps to the right.

Go left along Cathedral Street and, opposite "Fish" restaurant, go right into Borough Market, said to be the oldest fruit and vegetable market in London. Take the first passage left and walk between the fenced-in stalls.


The market has retained its steel and glass structure, dating from 1851, and still has a decidedly Victorian air.

Dickens used it as the setting in Pickwick Papers, when a very drunk Bob Sawyer, attempting to find his way home, "double knocks at the door of the Borough Market Office" and takes "short naps on the steps...under the firm impression he lived there and had forgotten the key."


Continue through Borough Market and exit left onto Borough High Street. Go right at the traffic lights into St Thomas Street, and, on the left, enter the red brick tower of:-


Ascend the winding wooden stairway to the roof space of the church, which was once used as the herb garret of St Thomas's Hospital, and from 1822 until 1862 as its female operating theatre. Rediscovered in 1956, it was restored, and is now one of the most unique and atmospheric of London's museums.

The displays provide vivid glimpses of the science of surgery in the days before anaesthetic or even basic hygiene were an accepted ingredient of medical practice.

This informative exhibition gives the history of both England's oldest operating theatre and St Thomas's hospital, where Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) founded her School of Nursing.

It also provides a lot of detail on the surrounding area when, in the 19th century, it was one of the capital's worst slums.


Giving thanks that you were born into a more medically advanced age, go left from the church, and continue along St Thomas Street.

Go over the crossing. Bear right and turn left through the gates into Guy's Hospital, where a statue of the founder, Thomas Guy, greets you.

Cross to the covered passage ahead, and pause by the quad on the left, where you will find one of the recesses from the old London Bridge, of the type in which David in David Copperfield was wont to sit.


Continue down the steps. Go right, then right again. Pass left under the arch; bear left, and turn right into:-


White Hart Yard. Nothing, save the name of the yard, survives of what was, until its demolition in 1889, the largest of the coaching inns that lined Borough High Street.

It was to the White Hart Inn that Mr Pickwick followed Alfred Jingle and Rachel Wardle, following their elopement, and in so doing first met with Sam Weller in Pickwick Papers.


Exit the yard left along Borough High Street.


Long ago, the voracious appetite of the railways swallowed up the character of this busy thoroughfare, and it is to Dickens we must turn to recapture it. "In the Borough", he wrote in Pickwick Papers "there still remain some half dozen old inns… Great rambling, queer old places… with galleries, and passages, and staircases, wide enough and antiquated enough, to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories..."


However, all is not lost, for if you turn in through the sturdy black gates next on the left, you will find London's only surviving galleried coaching inn:-


The George, which was built in 1677. Although Dickens only makes one very brief mention of the pub in Little Dorrit, "if he [Tip Dorrit] goes into the George and writes a letter".

The place itself is a true time capsule. Turning into the yard from the busy rush is to be transported back to a bygone age.

You can picture the long ago travellers and forgotten inn-workers, gazing down from the one surviving gallery as the coaches clattered into view. You can almost hear the whinnying of the horses, the cursing of the stable-hands and the banter of the coachmen.

The inn's interior is as antiquated as its exterior, and on the wall to the right of its middle bar, Dickens's life insurance policy is displayed.


Exit The George and continue along Borough High Street.

Almost every yard off it is named after an old inn. Some retain a few of their cobblestones, and several possess the scarred granite blocks set at the width of a wagon axle, the purpose of which was to protect the gate posts from the damage the coaches caused as they turned into the yards.


Having passed the John Harvard Library, turn immediately left into Angel Place, lined on the right by a dismal brick wall, which is all that remains of:-


It was here that John Dickens was incarcerated for debt in 1824. Before being taken, he turned to his 12-year-old son and told him tearfully, "the sun was set on him for ever". "I really believed at the time," Dickens later told John Forster, that these words "had broken my heart."

Dickens recalled how, when he first visited his father here he "was waiting for me in the lodge...and [we] cried very much...And he told me, I remember...that if a man had twenty pounds a year, and spent nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy; but that a shilling spent the other way would make him wretched." Mr Micawber would later give the same advice to David Copperfield in the most autobiographical of all Dickens's novels.

For the rest of his life Dickens was haunted by the Marshalsea Prison. It dominates Little Dorrit, the heroine of which is a debtor's daughter, born and raised within its confines. And Dickens was speaking from personal experience when he wrote about 'the games of the prison children as they whooped and ran, and played at hide-and-seek, and made the iron bars of the inner gateway "Home"".

He wrote in the same novel that the Marshalsea "is gone now, and the world is none the worse without it".

But, as he neared the book's completion, spurred on by letters from readers of the serialization enquiring what had become of it, he returned to look upon what remained.

The dark secrets of his miserable childhood would not become universally known until after his death. Thus, his readers would not have known that he was referring to personal memories when, in the preface to the first edition of the book, he wrote that anyone who turned out of Angel Court [now Place] "will stand among the crowded ghosts of many miserable years."


Backtrack to go left along Borough High Street and, on the other side of Tabard Street, is the church of:-


Built between 1734 and 1736 it is also known as "Little Dorrit's Church", since it was here that the heroine of Dickens's novel was christened.

It is also in this church that, on returning to the Marshalsea Prison, she finds herself locked out and so spends the night in the vestry of the church, using the church register as a pillow.

Later, she marries Arthur Clennam here.

There is a depiction of Little Dorrit in the church's east window, behind the altar, on which her kneeling figure is shown wearing a poke bonnet.


Exit right from the church. Go right into Tabard Street and, towards the end on the left, go through the gates into the gardens, where opposite is the other side of the Marshalsea Prison wall, which has a truly sinister air when viewed on a cold, wet, winter's day.

Backtrack, turning left along Tabard Street. Continue over the crossing and ahead into Tabard Street's continuation. Take the first right into Sylvester Street. Cautiously cross Great Dover Street. Keep ahead into Swan Street, at the end of which, turn left onto:-


The houses that now line your way date from the 1820s and, as you turn first right, you pass on the left Trinity Church itself.


Follow the square as it veers left. Go first right into Brockham Street. Continue over Harper Road and into Newington Gardens, where there is a board giving a history of:-


The gaol stood on this site until 1878.

Dickens came to the gaol on 13th November 1849, to see the public execution of Frederick and Maria Manning – a husband and wife who had conspired to murder Mrs Manning's young lover.

Dickens had come specifically to watch the behaviour of the crowd, and was disgusted by the "wickedness and levity, the brutal mirth or callousness" that he witnessed.

In a subsequent letter to The Times he concluded, "I do not believe that any community can prosper where such a scene of horror and demoralization...is presented at the doors of good citizens..."


Leave the gardens. Go left along Harper Road, crossing diagonally right over Newington Causeway, using the crossings wherever possible, and keeping ahead towards Borough Road.

Turn first right into Stones End Street.

The Scovell Estate, to the left, occupies the site of the King's Bench Prison, where Mr Micawber - the character based on John Dickens - was imprisoned for debt in David Copperfield.


Turn left into Great Suffolk Street, first right into Toulmin Street, passing Pickwick Street on the right, and go next right into Lant Street.


The Charles Dickens Primary School, immediately on the right, stands on the site where the 12-year-old Charles lodged in the house of one Archibald Russell, an agent for the Insolvent Court, during his father's incarceration in the Marshalsea.

"A back attic was found for me," he later recalled, "A bed and bedding were made up on the floor...and when I took possession of my new abode, I thought I was in paradise."

He could take breakfast with his parents and brothers in the prison before setting out to walk to work at Warren's Blacking Factory, via one of the most squalid and unsavoury parts of London.

Everything he saw lodged in his childhood memory, and in later life, he would draw upon these experiences time and again in his novels.

By his own admission he later immortalized Mr and Mrs Russell as the Garlands in The Old Curiosity Shop.

Bob Sawyer, a medical student at Guy's Hospital, and ‘a carver and cutter of live people's bodies had lodgings in Lant Street in Pickwick Papers.

Although it is now a modern thoroughfare with none of its 19th-century character, it has a curious, almost forgotten feel about it.

In Pickwick Papers Dickens relates what this area was like:-

"There is a repose about Lant Street...which sheds a gentle melancholy upon the soul...its dullness is soothing...The majority of the inhabitants either direct their energies to the letting of furnished apartments or devote themselves to the healthful and invigorating pursuit of mangling...The population is migratory...His Majesty's revenues are seldom collected in this happy valley, the rents are dubious and the water communication is very frequently cut off."

With these utopian thoughts of a bygone age, go left along Borough High Street where a little way along is Borough Station and the end of this walk.