020 8530-8443Monday to Friday 10.30am to 4.30pm



The bust of Sir Josephj Bazalgette.


By Richard Jones

Start: Outside Westminster Underground Station Duration: 2 Hours
Best of Times: Evenings. Worst of Times: None.

This eventful walk begins with a stroll from Westminster to Embankment where the horror of the River Thames before Sir Joseph Bazalgette built his remarkable sewer system is evoked.

The walk then turns into the area where Dickens, as a young boy, had worked overlooking that stinking river, in a period that traumatized him for the rest of his days.

Via a sequence of delightful streets, the walk ventures into Theatreland, passing landmarks that Dickens would recognize today.

It follows Dickens through his final years as a successful magazine proprietor and finishes near a churchyard that he described vividly and gruesomely in Bleak House.



Leave Westminster Station via exit 1 marked Westminster Pier. Turn left and keep walking ahead along Victoria Embankment.


The road along which you are walking is little short of a testimony to Victorian determination, confidence and ingenuity.

It was the work of Sir Joseph Bazalgette (1819 - 91), a largely forgotten figure to whom London owes an eternal debt of gratitude.

Between the late-18th and the mid-19th century, the capital's population increased from around half a million to in excess of 2.5 million.

The increased housing that sprang up to accommodate the citizens depended largely on an antiquated system of waste disposal that had changed little in 400 years.

The effluent from the populace went into cesspools and privies, which invariably overflowed, sending reeking streams of raw sewage onto the streets, to pollute the wells and springs, en route to the River Thames.


When the first cholera epidemic struck in 1831, medical opinion believed that the disease was caused by the smells that the capital's residents lived with on a day-to-day basis.

In 1848, in an ill-conceived attempt to combat the stench from the sewage in the streets, Parliament passed an act instructing that all cesspits, privies and drains must be connected to a sewer that flowed into the Thames.

Thanks to the Great Exhibition of 1851, people were introduced to flushing toilets; and they began installing them in their homes, with the result that the river, never pleasant at the best of times, became a fetid swamp, producing a stench which could, on occasions, be smelt from 30 miles (48.3 km) away.

Newspapers such as The Times campaigned for Parliament to do something, but its members remained silent.


Then, in 1858, one of the hottest summers on record caused the Thames to dry up and a stinking flat of slime was left behind.

"The Great Stink", as it became known, proved a highly efficient lobbyist.

When Parliament, unable to halt the stench with curtains dipped in chloride of lime, was forced to rise early on several occasions, action was demanded.

Benjamin Disraeli brought in an act giving the Metropolitan Board of Works the funds to resolve the problem.


Continue along Victoria Embankment and, just before you arrive at the Hungerford Suspension Bridge, pause on the right by the memorial to:-


He was the Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Board of Works, and thanks to his ingenuity, you are able to stand here without being violently sick!

Bazalgette undertook what was, without doubt, the largest civil engineering project of the 19th Century.

Twenty-two thousand labourers brought chaos to the horse-powered streets of the Victorian metropolis, laying out Bazalgette's network of over 1200 miles (1,931 km) of brick sewers. These criss-crossed London connecting with a further 82 miles (132 km) of main intercepting sewers that carried the effluent into the Thames far to the east of the city.

Finally completed in 1875, the effect on the health of Londoners was immediate and dramatic.

The cholera epidemics were brought to an end, and for the first time in centuries, the air at the heart of London ceased to be tainted with the fragrant aroma of human waste.

The Victoria Embankment, on which you stand, was designed by Bazalgette to carry the main west–east sewer, and was built between 1864 and 1870. It reclaimed 37 acres (15 ha) from the river Thames and connects Westminster with Blackfriars.

Given his remarkable achievement and lasting contribution to the quality of life in London, it is a pity that Sir Joseph Bazalgette remains a neglected figure, and that only this dust-caked memorial remembers him.


Continue under the bridges, go over the pedestrian crossing, bear left and go past Embankment Station to turn next right into Northumberland Avenue.

Keep ahead over Embankment Place, veer right into Craven Street, and just after the stage door of the Playhouse Theatre, turn right into the unnamed alleyway, to pause by the barrier.


Charing Cross Station, which looms above you, stands on the site of Hungerford market, where Warren's Blacking Factory was situated.

It was in this rat-infested, ramshackle, wooden building, abutting the river Thames, that Dickens came to work at the age of 12, sticking labels onto pots of boot blacking.

His workmates mockingly referred to him as the ‘Young Gentleman’, and the humiliation of his experience traumatized him, the shame remaining with him throughout his adult life. "Even now, famous and caressed and happy," he later said, "I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life."

The experience also affected his fiction. One of his work companions, for example, was an older boy named Bob Fagin, who was actually quite kind to the young Dickens, and certainly didn't deserve being immortalized in Oliver Twist.

Later, whilst writing his autobiography, Dickens found this part of his life too painful to recall.

Instead, he created a fictionalized version of himself, reversed his own initials, and published his thinly disguised autobiography as David Copperfield.


Backtrack and go right along Craven Street, which is lined by dark-brick, 18th-century houses.


Number 40 was the home of Dr Charles West, founder of the Hospital for Sick Children.

Legend holds that it was a grotesque old door knocker on one of these houses that gave Dickens the idea for Scrooge's knocker turning into Marley’s face in A Christmas Carol.

Unfortunately, when an enthusiastic photographer approached the owner for permission to "photograph her knocker", she is said to have removed it and placed it in a bank vault for safe keeping. Its whereabouts are now unknown.


Continue to the top of Craven Street and go right along the Strand.

Keep going, and on arrival at the pedestrian-crossing, turn right down the steps and into the uninspiring George Court.

Go right onto John Adam Street, and left into Buckingham Street, where a delightful combination of buildings of all ages and architectural styles greets you.

Pause outside No 14 at the end on the right where a plaque remembers the residence here of the artists:-


William Etty (1787–1849) and Dickens's friend Clarkson Stanfield (1793–1867).

It was at a house opposite (now demolished) that Dickens lodged in about 1834 whilst working as a reporter at the House of Commons.


Go through the gates. Descend the steps and cross over to the:-


The figure of a piper that is outside a shop in Covent Garden Market.


A remarkable survvor, the York Watergate, dating from 1626, found itself landlocked by the construction of the Victoria Embankment beyond.

Indeed, gazing from here over to the Thames, which is now some way off in the distance, you begin to get the measure of Sir Joseph Bazalgette's achievement.

It is amazing to consider that, when Dickens lived in Buckingham Street, the river actually washed around the York Watergate!


Having paused to read its history displayed on a board, go left along the pathway, up the steps and turn left into York Buildings.

Three quarters of the way along turn right into the delightfully gloomy Lower Robert Street, and descend into one of only a handful of the surviving 18th-century arches, built to support the buildings of the Adelphi – a prestigious housing development by the Adams Brothers.


Dickens loved to explore this labyrinth of subterranean vaults where, according to one account, "the most abandoned characters...often passed the night, nestling upon foul straw; and many a street thief escaped from his pursuers in these dismal haunts before the introduction of gaslight and a vigilant police."

In David Copperfield, doubtless remembering his own boyhood, Dickens wrote, "I was fond of wandering about the Adelphi, because it was a mysterious place with those dark arches..."


Follow Lower Robert Street as it veers right.

Go left through the gates at the end, ascend the seemingly endless stairs and keep ahead along Adelphi Terrace, bearing left along Adam Street.

Continue on to the Strand. Cross to its opposite side and pause outside:-


Adelphi Theatre, twice rebuilt since the mid 19th-century, when popular, although piratical, dramatizations of Dickens's novels were staged here.

Much to the author's consternation these plays were often put on long before the novels in question had been completed and often anticipated his endings!


Facing the Adelphi, go left and turn into Exchange Court – the second alley on the right. Walk its splendidly atmospheric length and turn right onto Maiden Lane.

A little way along on the right, a battered Royal coat of arms stands over the stage door of the Adelphi Theatre.


It was outside this door on, that the Victorian actor William Terriss was murdered.


Continue along Maiden Lane, pausing on the left where the road widens to admire the magnificent frontage of Rules, which is reputedly the oldest restaurant in London.


Founded in 1798 by Thomas Rule, the restaurant's interior is still furnished in grand Victorian style, with 19th-century prints and paintings on the walls and dark wood tables and chairs.

Dickens used to dine here regularly and a special table was reserved for him in an alcove towards the back of the first floor. This is now a private dining room. Its walls are adorned with prints and a playbill for a performance that Dickens performed in, which he presented to the restaurant himself.

Thackeray was also a regular, and, later, so too were the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and his mistress Lillie Langtry, whose private dining room was once the most celebrated "Table For Two" in London.


Continue to the end of Maiden Lane. Go left into Southampton Street and keep ahead to proceed clockwise around:-


This was the site of the famous flower, fruit and vegetable market from 1656 to 1974.

It was a vivid description of the market in George Colman's Broad Grins that caused the young Dickens to venture here in 1822 to experience for himself "the flavour of the faded cabbage-leaves as if it were the very breath of comic fiction".

In adulthood he mentioned the market many times in his novels.


Keep going clockwise, passing on the left the portico of St Paul's church, dating from the 17th century, and where the opening of Shaw's Pygmalion (1913) was set.

Take the next left into King Street and pause on the right outside No 35, where The Garrick Club was founded.:-


The Garrick Club was founded in 1831 as "a society in which actors and men of education and refinement might meet on equal terms".

Dickens was elected to the club in 1837 and retained his membership until 1865.

Thackeray was also a member.

One evening in May 1858, he was passing a group of members who were idly gossiping on the steps of the building.

The subject of their conversation was Charles Dickens, who had formally and publicly separated from his wife.

Rumour had it that the split was due to Dickens having an affair with his wife's younger sister, Georgina Hogarth, who had braved her family's displeasure and become her brother-in-law's housekeeper.

To the Victorian mind, such a relationship was tantamount to incest, and it was this scandal that the group were discussing as Thackeray entered the club.

"No such thing," he cried, "it's with an actress."

When word reached Dickens of Thackeray's outburst, he sent him an angry denial. But Thackeray remained unconvinced, believing Dickens to be "half mad about his domestic affairs".


It was later that year that the animosity between them erupted into the so-called "Garrick Club Affair", which led to Dickens's resignation from the committee.

The club eventually outgrew the intimacy of this first home and, in 1864, moved to its current location on nearby Garrick Street.


Backtrack into Covent Garden Market; turn first left along James Street, right into Floral Street and right again onto Bow Street to pause outside:-


The current building dating from 1858 and which has recently undergone a costly state-of-the-art refurbishment programme.

In the 19th century, it was known as the Covent Garden Theatre and it was to its stage manager, George Bartley, that Dickens wrote requesting an audition whilst working at Doctors' Commons.

From 1837 to 1839 the manager here was Dickens's great friend, the actor William Macready.


Keep ahead into Wellington Street. Cross to the left side, and pause at the junction with Tavistock Street where a blue plaque states that this was the site of:-


This building housed, not only the offices of Charles Dickens's Magazine All the Year Round, but also his private apartments from 1859 to 1870.

The magazine was a weekly publication and included serial fiction, essays, poetry and topical journalism.

In its first 27 months the magazine serialized A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, as well as Wilkie Collins's The Woman In White (1860), and became so successful that crowds would often gather in the street to await the next issue.

It was also from here that his Uncommercial Traveller would set out on his exploratory perambulations around London, the results of which were published in the journal between 1860 and 1869.


Continue along Wellington Street and pause at the junction with Exeter Street to look across at the elegant cream portico of the:-


It was here that a stage adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities was performed with Dickens overseeing rehearsals and, possibly, even directing the play.

The novel's famed last words, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far better rest that I go to than I have ever known", were changed to the more succinct and melodramatic, "Farewell Lucy, Farewell Life!" Curtain.

Ellen Ternan also performed here several times in 1859.

In 1863, Dickens's friend, the actor Charles Fechter (1824–79), became the manager of the Lyceum and celebrated by giving Dickens the Swiss Chalet that became the author's summer study for the remainder of his life.

The offices of Household Words, a weekly journal that Dickens edited between 1850 and 1859, used to stand opposite the theatre on Wellington Street.


Turn left into Exeter Street, left into Catherine Street and continue to the top. On the right is the magnificent frontage of the:-


Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, rebuilt in 1812 and managed between 1841–43 by William Macready who, although making a huge financial loss, added to the theatre's prestige.


Go right along Russell Street, left into Drury Lane and a little way along on the left step through the gates to enter:-


This was formerly the burial ground for the church of St Martin's-in-the-Fields (the buildings on either side of the entrance were a mortuary and the keeper's lodge).

By the 19th century it had become horribly overcrowded.

Dickens used it in Bleak House as the original of Jo's Churchyard, where Captain Hawdon (Lady Dedlock's lover and Esther Summerson's father) was buried.

It is described as "a hemmed-in churchyard, pestiferous and obscene, whence malignant diseases are communicated to the bodies of our dear brothers and sisters who have not departed..."

It was on the steps of this churchyard that Esther found the dead body of Lady Dedlock.


Exit Drury Lane Gardens. Go left along Drury Lane, and turn right at the traffic lights into Great Queen Street.

Keep going straight ahead past the huge entrance of the Freemason's Hall, which dominates the right side of the street, and pause outside the New Connaught Rooms on the right.


These incorporate the surviving rooms of the Freemason's Tavern where a lavish farewell banquet was given prior to Dickens's departure on his last visit to America in 1867.


Continue to the traffic lights. Cross over Kingsway, bear left and keep going straight ahead to arrive at Holborn Underground Station where this tour ends.