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   Chapter 6 SOUTHWARK, OLD AND NEW

Highways and Byways in London By Emily Constance Baird Cook Characters: 29771

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


"The Thames marks the sharp division between what Lord Beaconsfield called 'the two nations.' On one side we have our nearest English approach to architectural magnificence; on the other there is a long perspective of squalid buildings-smoke-begrimed, half-ruinous, and yet not altogether unlovely."-Magazine of Art, January, 1884.

"Befel, that in that season, on a day

In Southwark at the Tabard as I lay,

Ready to wenden on my pilgrimage

To Canterbury with ful devout courage,

At night was come into that hostelry

Well nine-and-twenty in a company

Of sundry folk, by adventure y-fall

In fellowship, and pilgrims were they all,

That toward Canterbury woulden ride."

-Chaucer: Canterbury Tales.

Near to the fishy and noisy purlieus of the "Monument," London Bridge crosses the river into Southwark.

London Bridge is the terminus for big ships; from its parapet is seen, as far as the misty Tower Bridge, a vast city of masts, sails, and wharves. Big steamers often make this their starting-point for excursions, and sails of Venetian colour charm the eye. In cold winters the sea-gulls, flying hither in myriads from the icy North Seas, come to the Londoner's call, sure of food and welcome, filling grey sky and silvery river with an ever-changing constellation of white wings; "a blaze of comet splendour." Wild birds, like children, know their friends. The sea-gull's wide, downward swoop, so powerful and so graceful, may be watched here in January from early morn to dusk; the creatures, poised in serried ranks on the barges and stone piers, are just as much at home here as on their own northern pinnacles, and after long sojourn, they become so tame that they will almost feed from the stranger's hand. It is only, however, during the severe weather that the sea-gulls' visit lasts; with the first warm February days they are off again, speeding down the river to their native haunts.

Close to the foot of London Bridge, on the Southwark side, is the fine cruciform church of St. Saviour's, lately restored on the lines of the ancient edifice. This church, which had formerly been much mutilated by careless and tasteless "restorers," was in long past times the Norman Priory of St. Mary Overy, and its old nave, of which the fragments may yet be seen, was built in 1106 by Gifford, Bishop of Winchester. A century later, another Bishop built the choir and Lady Chapel, and altered the character of the nave from Norman to Early English. Then, at the Dissolution, St. Mary Overy was made into a parish church by Henry VIII., and since 1540, it has been known as "St. Saviour's." The early Saxon dedication to "St. Mary Overy" commemorates the romantic story of the rich old ferryman's lovely daughter, of pre-Conquest times, who, losing her lover by a fall from his horse, retired into a cloister for life, devoting her paternal wealth to the founding of a priory. The story is charming, but somewhat misty; it suggests, however, the advantages accruing to ferrymen when there were no bridges on the Thames! An ancient, nameless, ghoul-like figure, in St. Saviour's Church, is still pointed out as the old ferryman, father of the foundress; but this is probably traditional. Skeleton-like figures, not representing any one in particular, were not infrequently placed about in medi?val churches; in order, perhaps, to bring the congregation to a sufficiently sober frame of mind, as well as to recall to them their latter end.

St. Saviour's, as it is now, is one of the most striking churches in London; its interior appeals at once to the eye and to the imagination. The long aisles are restful and harmonious; the Early-English architecture is severely pure; the fine effect of the beautifully-restored nave and transepts is not, as too often in Westminster Abbey, spoiled by the introduction of ornate tombs and sprawling angels. The church, restored by Blomfield in 1890-96, is already a collegiate church, and is worthy to become, as it probably will, the cathedral for South London. Its level, as is the case with many ancient buildings, is now considerably lower than the surrounding ground; a fact testified by the steps necessary to descend into its precincts from the street, and by the very unpoetic railway, carried well above it and its adjoining vegetable market (the Borough Market). For this is a strangely busy and noisy spot to have sheltered for so long this relic of the Middle Age.

The tombs in the church are mainly in the transepts, and are nearly all of them interesting. The finely-restored "Lady Chapel," behind the altar, contains the tomb of Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Winchester, with a long Latin inscription of 1626; a recumbent painted effigy, on a black-and-white marble tomb. This Lady Chapel has tragic associations; it was used in the time of "Bloody Mary" as the Consistorial Court of Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester; and here those sturdy martyrs, Bishop Hooper and John Rogers, Vicar of St. Sepulchre's, were condemned to be burnt (the popular feeling for Rogers being such as necessitated his removal by night secretly to Newgate).

The most famous grave in St. Saviour's is that of John Gower, the fourteenth-century poet, and friend of Chaucer. Here, near the east end of the north wall of the nave, the effigy of the poet, painted, like that of Lancelot Andrewes, a figure of striking beauty, lies on a sarcophagus under a rich gabled canopy. Stow thus describes the monument:

"He lieth under a tomb of stone, with his image, also of stone, over him; the hair of his head, auburn, long to his shoulders but curling up, and a small forked beard; on his head a chaplet like a coronet of four roses; a habit of purple, damasked down to his feet; a collar of esses gold about his neck; under his head the likeness of three books which he compiled."

Gower was a rich man for a poet, and gave large sums in his time for the rebuilding of the church; hence was written the following epigram:

"This church was rebuilt by John Gower, the rhymer,

Who in Richard's gay court was a fortunate climber;

Should any one start, 'tis but right he should know it,

Our wight was a lawyer as well as a poet."

Gower's three chief works, on which his head rests, are his Vox Clamantis, Speculum Meditantis, and Confessio Amantis.

Many other curious tombs and epitaphs are in this church. One, especially, of the latter, a tablet to a little girl of ten, Susanna Barford,-a child the "Non such of the world for piety and vertue in soe tender yeares,"-tells how:

"Such grace the King of Kings bestow'd upon her

That now shee lives with him a maid of honour."

And in the north transept, there is a curious monument to Dr. Lionel Lockyer, the pill inventor-a large bewigged, reclining figure of Charles II.'s time-suffering, apparently, despite his infallible nostrums, from terrible internal spasms. Perhaps, however, these may bear some mystic reference to the long accompanying epitaph about "undying Pills," showing that already in the seventeenth century advertisement could be strong even in death! Close to Lockyer's tomb are heaped up a number of strange wooden painted gargoyles or "bosses," preserved and brought here from the fallen-in fifteenth-century roof of the nave, some of them bearing most weird devices. One, conceived apparently in the Dantesque spirit, represents a giant, or devil, "champing" a half-eaten sinner,-the lower half of whom, dressed in gaudy colours, projects from the large vermilion mouth,-in great enjoyment. Other "bosses" show the curious painted "rebuses" of the period, commemorating a prior's name. The seventeenth-century monument to the Austin family, also in this transept, is full of quaint imagery and symbolism. The figures of its sleeping angels with winnowing-forks, waiting on each side for the great final harvest, are full of beauty.

"Edmund Shakespear, player," and brother of the poet,-Fletcher,-and Massinger,-are buried here; three stones in the choir bear their names; the exact place of their graves is not known.

The church is now well-kept and carefully tended; it is open daily to the visitor, who may walk about it without let or hindrance. Like so many other London churches, it has in its time suffered less from the depredations of the plunderer than from those of the more dangerous "restorer." As usual, a long period of neglect and decay was followed by iconoclastic cleaning and setting in order. Generally, for a considerable time after the Dissolution, the convent churches and others were left to the tender mercies of the parishioners, who, naturally, could not always afford to keep them in proper condition; then abuses crept in, thefts took place; and the disused churches, as St. Paul's itself, were often degraded to stables, or used as storage for litter. Then, after long years, the authorities, perhaps, came to the rescue, and, turning out the encroaching and invading devils, let in other devils far more wicked, in the shape of so-called "restorers." Wonder, indeed, is it that so much is left to us! The "restorers" usually began by whitewashing all the columns of dark Purbeck marble, blackening the effigies into one uniform tint, and covering the discoloured carvings of the walls with stucco, for the better reception of which they even (as may be seen at St. Saviour's) whittled away bits of fine stone sculpture.

To wander down the "Borough" High Street-that noisy and essentially modern district,-in search of Chaucer's famous inns, is, alas! more dispiriting than looking for traces of Dido among the ruins of Carthage. Here, one can neither look for ghosts, nor feelings of the past; all is hopelessly covered up and hidden by ugly modern inns, more ugly modern shops, palaces of modern plate-glass public-houses, triumphs of early nineteenth-century ugliness in architecture. What chance, among such, have the poor wandering ghosts of a famous past? And, since London Bridge, that natural dividing-line of peoples, was passed, have not the very streets changed in some subtle and unconscious manner, to a more sordid character; the shops to a more blatant kind,-even the people to a different and lower type? It may be partly fancy; yet, is not this often the effect produced by the "Surrey side"? The big thoroughfare called the Borough High Street, or more simply, the "Borough"-(this part of Southwark has fairly earned the right to be called the "Borough," having returned two members to Parliament for 500 years),-this was the great highway, even in Roman times, between the city and the southern counties. East of the Borough, the long, narrow, busy, dirty Tooley Street leads to Bermondsey; this street is famous for its "three tailors" of the political legend, according to which they addressed the House of Commons as "We, the People of England." Here, from medi?val days, was the only bridge; here, therefore, were, naturally, stationed all the medi?val inns and hostelries. This way did the "Canterbury Pilgrims" pass out of London; here they would stop and refresh themselves at the "Tabard," the "White Hart," and their compeers.... What now remains of these? The "Tabard," rebuilt in Charles II.'s time, and for long the finest old house of its kind in London, was burnt down in 1873; it now only exists in its name, still flaunted bravely above a commonplace modern inn. The "Queen's Head," the "White Hart," the "King's Head," exist now only as hideous railway-yards or equally hideous modern edifices; the only remaining relic of them all is the "George" Inn, where a solitary fragment, a long block of ancient buildings, with picturesque, sloping, dormer roofs, and balustraded wooden galleries, is yet, by the mercy of the Great Northern Railway Company, spared to us, to tell of its former glories. The present hosts of the "George,"-two ladies,-are pleasant, hospitable people, and their small, dark, panelled rooms are clean and comfortable. They seem, however, to entertain a mild feeling of boredom for the constant accession of reverent pilgrims who flock annually to their shrine. "And it's only for the last few years," the younger lady remarks, somewhat sadly, "only since the last inn, the 'Queen's Head,' you know was pulled down, that so many people have come. A great many Americans ... oh, I suppose they come out of curiosity, like; one can't blame 'em. Do people stay here in the summer? Yes, a good few-some business men, but mostly artists and tourists; it's just curiosity. Then, it's, 'Would you mind if I take a photograph?' or 'Have I your leave to sit in the yard and sketch?' Do I let them do it?... oh, yes" (with a sigh), "it doesn't matter to me. I suppose they may be going to put it in some book or some article; but it's nothing to me.... I never read the article!"

Cricket in the Street. The lost Ball.

If this lady be not a cynic, she at any rate embodies a great deal of the philosophy of life!

What the other Inns were like, can be more or less seen from this small portion of one. They have mostly vanished with the march of progress of recent years, for fifty years ago Dickens could still write:

"In the Borough there still remain some half-dozen old inns which have preserved their external features unchanged. Great rambling queer old places, with galleries and passages and staircases wide enough and antiquated enough to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories."

At the old "White Hart," now destroyed, Dickens first introduced to the world the immortal Sam Weller, as he appeared cleaning the spinster aunt's boots after that sentimental lady's elopement with the deceiving Mr. Jingle. These old inns, in the heyday of their prime, were made still more famous by the open-air theatrical representations that took place in their balconied courtyards. Toil and trouble, the eternal struggle-for-life, may be the portion of "the Surrey Side" to-day, but in Shakespeare's time it was principally noted for its amusements and its junketings. Now, the chief buildings of Southwark and Walworth are gaols and asylums, and its best-known localities are the omnibus terminuses, dignified mysteriously by names of public-houses,-such as the "Elephant," &c. Even the dramatic tastes of the people "over the water" are now supposed to be primitive; and "transpontine" is the adjective applied to melodrama that is too crude for the superior taste of northern London. Yet here, in Shakespeare's day, were all the most fashionable theatres-theatres, too, frequented by all the literary and dramatic lights of the day. Here stood that small martello-tower-like theatre, the "Globe," the "round wooden 'O'" alluded to in Henry V., where Shakespeare and his companions played; here also were the "Rose," the "Hope," and the "Swan." And below St. Saviour's, and its neighbouring Bishops' Palace and park, were t

he localities known as "Bankside" and "Paris Garden," the former famous for its bull and bear-baiting ("a rude and nasty pleasure," says Pepys), the latter for its theatre, and also for its somewhat doubtful reputation. There were, of course, a few plague-spots, inseparable from places of public amusement; but the Southwark of Elizabeth's day was a centre of national jollity and merry-making. Open gardens fringed the river-banks, by which flowed a clear and yet unsullied Thames, and their salubrious walks were the favourite resort of citizens. Certainly, Shakespeare and his associates would hardly recognize Southwark now: Messrs. Barclay and Perkins's famous brewery now covers the site of the Globe Theatre; the ancient gardens have given place to wharves and warehouses; the fashionable promenade to railway lines and goods offices; the green turfy banks to streets and lanes of sticky Southwark mud. And Southwark mud is surely of a quite peculiar stickiness! The big brewery, covering some twelve acres, is not exactly an improvement on the landscape. It belonged, in 1758, to Mr. Thrale, husband of the witty lady whom Johnson loved as a daughter. And though some among us have, as Dr. Johnson prophesied at the sale of the brewery in its early days, "grown rich beyond the dreams of avarice," yet the source of riches is seldom in itself beautifying.

Winchester House, the ancient palace of the Bishops of Winchester, stood in Tudor days between St. Saviour's and the river; "a very fair house, with a large wharf and a landing-place." Here Bishop Gardiner lived in great state, and here, to please his patron the Duke of Norfolk, he arranged "little banquets at which it was contrived that Henry VIII. should meet the Duke's niece, Katherine Howard, then a 'lovely girl in her teens.'" Poor thing! in a short year or two her head was destined to fall, by the headsman's axe, within the precincts of the gloomy Tower, on the river's opposite bank! The extent of the old palace is uncertain; its remains are now nearly all destroyed, except an old window and arch, built up into the surrounding warehouses. The name, however, of the "Clink," the prison used by the Bishops for the punishment of heretics, still exists in the modern Clink Street. In the same way, "Mint Street," Borough, recalls an ancient and forgotten mint, established here by Henry VIII. for coinage; and Lant Street-but Lant Street recalls nothing so much as Dickens, and his creation Mr. Bob Sawyer. Dickens lived in Lant Street himself as a boy, while his insolvent family were rusticating in the neighbouring Marshalsea; hence he knew it well.

A County Court.

"A bed and bedding" (he writes) "were sent over for me" (from the Marshalsea), "and made up on the floor. The little window had a pleasant prospect of a timber-yard; and when I took possession of my new abode, I thought it was a Paradise."

"The Crown Revenues," Dickens further adds (in describing the abode of Mr. Bob Sawyer), "are seldom collected in this happy valley; the rents are dubious, and the water communication is very frequently cut off."

If Southwark contained many doubtful characters in Shakespeare's time, it contains, as Mr. Charles Booth's book shows us, some "black spots" of crime still! The old Marshalsea and the King's Bench Prisons must always have been a centre of drifting and shiftless population. All parts of the "Borough" do not enjoy a thoroughly good reputation; bad sanitation, overcrowding, all the worst sins of the much-abused "East End," may here too be seen. "Is any one," asks a recent writer, "ever young in the Borough? Is not carking care their birthright?" In crowded Southwark and Walworth, round the "Elephant,"-the mysterious "Elephant," to which all roads lead,-"aflare, seething, roaring with multitudinous life," are miserable human rabbit-warrens, where they even live ten in a room. "Pore, sir," cries Mrs. Pullen (one of the submerged), "pore! why, the Mint, sir, the Mint, sir, is known for it; you've 'erd on it your ways, ain't you?" Mrs. Pullen held up her hands and laughed, as if she was really proud of "the Mint and its poverty." But, though the Borough children-poor little wastrels-are still wild,-Education, it seems, is slowly taming them.

Those who are interested in the children of the poor,-and who is not?-should read Mr. Charles Morley's sympathetic "Studies in Board Schools," a considerable portion of which refers to Walworth and the Borough. The redeeming of the infant population of London is surely a noble work, and nowhere are the parental methods of the Board Schools so well set forth as in that delightful volume, real with the reality of life, and, like life itself, something between laughter and tears. Life has few mysteries for the Borough child, whose garments are strange and weird, whose voice "soon loses any infantine sweetness it may possess. Some of the ragged mites of girls of the Borough will even rap out an oath which would shock your ears who live over the water. But they mean nothing. It is like sailors' language, only sound and a little temper. Why, even the chirrup of the Borough sparrow has a minatory ring about it." Mr. Morley goes on to tell of a kindly institution dubbed "the Farm House" (strange name in such surroundings!), where, owing to Mr. G. R. Sims and the "Referee," six or seven hundred hungry school-children are, like the sparrows and sea-gulls, fed daily during the long winter:

"The Farm House" (he says), "is a strange mansion to find in the heart of the Marshalsea-just over the way is the site of the famous prison. The graveyard of St. George the Martyr is now a public garden, grim enough, to be sure, with its black tombstones and soot-laden balsam poplars. On one of the walls is placed a board on which is printed the legend: 'This stands on the site of the Marshalsea Prison described (or words to this effect) in Charles Dickens's well-known novel, Little Dorrit.' The Farm House was once the town dwelling of the Earls of Winchester. It has an ancient time-worn front, a court, mysterious chambers, old oak panels upon which you can just make out some of the old Winchester ladies and gentlemen; a curious old staircase; and I daresay a ghost or two if one went into the matter. But for a long time past it has been a common lodging-house. Beds in a haunted chamber may be had at fourpence a night. Many a strange history could those white-washed walls tell if they could speak, I dare say-of the good old days in Henry the Eighth's time, and even of more recent years. Many a man who began life with the hopefullest prospects has been glad to hide his head in the old Farm House, down Marshalsea way, Borough."

"Misery," continues this writer, "is strangely prolific; every hovel, every court, every alley teems with children," "little mothers" carrying heavy babies, like Miss Dorothy Tennant's tender picture, A Load of Care ... that heavy, heavy baby, weighing down that tiny, tiny nurse.... Nota Bene: There always is a baby. By the time a little wool appears on the head of number one, number two appears, and so on-well, nearly ad infinitum. There is no doubt whatever that babies are the bugbears of the Borough ratepayers."

The Board Schools in these districts teach, it appears, not only "the three R's," but also housewifery, house-cleaning, cooking, and other most necessary accomplishments:

"Housewifery" (says Mr. Morley) "is the birthright of the children of the poor.... Every mite of a girl down in the East or South ... is a housewife by the time she is six.... Often enough when times are hard and funds very low-when father is out o' work, and mother's bad in bed-does the poor little mother set forth with scrubbing-brush in hand, and clean the door-steps of the prosperous for twopence or threepence, according to the size and number of the steps. She probably lights the fire of a morning; it is her delight to go shopping to the remarkable establishment where most of the necessities of life are to be obtained by the farthing's-worth; and with the mysteries of marketing she is very well acquainted indeed. You should just see her in Bermondsey, the Walworth Road, the Dials, the New Cut, or Whitechapel on a Sunday morning, when these localities are alive with poor people buying their dinners. Road and footpath are blocked with stalls and barrows, and flesh, fish, fowl and vegetables are all jumbled together in confusion that is apparently inextricable. But little mother knows her way about, and whether it is red meat or white meat, beef, mutton or rabbit, trust her for getting a bargain, for keeping a sharp eye on weight and measure. A farden is a farden in districts where a penny is a substantial coin of the realm."

The "Surrey Side" is noted for its hospitals, as well as its prisons and its slums; and of these "Guy's Hospital," on the left of the Borough High Street,-an eighteenth-century foundation, due to the wealth of a Lombard Street bookseller named Thomas Guy,-is one of the most important. This Guy was in his way a miser, and his savings were vastly increased by dealings in South Sea stock,-showing that some good, at any rate, was wrought by the terrible "Bubble" that ruined so many thousands. Yet the hospital narrowly escaped losing the rich man's bequest. He was on the point of marrying his pretty maid, Sally, when, his bride offending him by officious interference, he broke off the marriage, and endowed the present hospital with his great wealth. A blackened brass statue of the founder stands in the courtyard of the edifice.

If Chaucer, with his ever memorable Canterbury Pilgrims, did much to immortalise the Southwark of medi?val times, Dickens, the child of a later era, has done at least as much for the Southwark of his day. In the Borough High Street, close to the site of the demolished Marshalsea Prison, stands St. George's Church, chiefly remarkable for the fact that Dickens has here placed the marriage of his heroine, "Little Dorrit," the Child of the Marshalsea. This was always a district of prisons; the natural sequence, one would think, of Southwark merry-making. Of the two Marshalsea prisons established here at different times, the earlier, nearer to London Bridge, was abolished in 1849; the later, so graphically described by Dickens, was not pulled down till 1887, after having been let for forty years as a lodging for tramps and vagabonds. Relics of it are now hard to find. Dickens, who knew it well as a boy, thus describes (in the preface to Little Dorrit) his search for it in later life:

"I found the outer front courtyard metamorphosed into a butter shop; and I then almost gave up every brick of the jail for lost. Wandering, however, down a certain adjacent 'Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey,' I came to Marshalsea Place, the houses in which I recognized, not only as the great block of the former prison, but as preserving the rooms that arose to my mind's eye when I became Little Dorrit's biographer.... Whoever goes into Marshalsea Place, turning out of Angel Court, leading to Bermondsey, will find his feet on the very paving-stones of the extinct Marshalsea jail; will see its narrow yard to the right and to the left, very little altered if at all, except that the walls were lowered when the place got free; will look upon the rooms in which the debtors lived; will stand among the crowding ghosts of many miserable years."

Dickens's boyish recollections of the ancient debtors prison have, as was perhaps natural, sometimes more than a tinge of bitterness; here he passed to and fro during wretched childish years, between the daily drudgery of covering blacking pots at "Murdstone and Grinby's," down by Hungerford Stairs. More wretched, indeed, far, than any modern Borough waif, was this neglected and sensitive child of genius. The intense torture of his degradation (as he thought it) was never wholly forgotten. In this connection he tells (in Forster's Life) a pathetic little story. No boy at the blacking office, it seems, knew where or how he lived; and once, being taken ill there, and helped towards home by a kindly fellow-worker, the child Dickens said good-bye to his friend by Southwark Bridge:

"I was too proud" (he says) "to let him know about the prison; and after making several efforts to get rid of him, to all of which Bob Fagin in his goodness was deaf, shook hands with him on the steps of a house near Southwark-bridge on the Surrey side, making believe that I lived there. As a finishing piece of reality in case of his looking back, I knocked at the door, I recollect, and asked, when the woman opened it, if that was Mr. Robert Fagin's house."

While the boy suffered thus acutely, his father lived on in a Micawberish way at the Marshalsea, being merely of the amiable, shiftless, idle genus that drags its family down. For the rest, they did well enough at the Marshalsea: "The family," the son wrote, "lived more comfortably in prison than they had done for a long time out of it. They were waited on still by the maid-of-all-work from Bayham Street, the orphan girl from Chatham workhouse, from whose sharp little worldly, yet also kindly, ways I took my first impressions of the "Marchioness" in The Old Curiosity Shop."

Yet Destiny works in strange and devious ways, and all the while, if he had only known it, the Fates were conspiring for Charles Dickens's good. It was the father's misfortunes that really taught the boy all he needed to learn. Here, amid the unsavoury purlieus of the prison, he unconsciously studied all the types and localities of which he was to make such wonderful use in after-life. The Marshalsea and its ways; Lant Street and Bob Sawyer; "Tip," "of the prison prisonous, and of the streets streety"; Sam Weller at the "White Hart;" Nancy at London Bridge Steps; Sikes and Folly Ditch; with a hundred others,-were, more or less, to be the outcome of that time.

The glamour of a romantic past, the spirit of Chaucer and of Shakespeare, may still attach to Southwark; the playhouses and gaieties of Elizabeth's time may yet leave some faint record there; but it is, after all, by another of Fate's strange ironies, the Child of the Marshalsea, the boy brought up in wretchedness and squalor, who has glorified by his genius the place, the whole district, where he so suffered in early youth. Other and greater men have told London's history in the past; but Dickens, whose grave is still faithfully tended in Westminster Abbey while those of the mightier dead are long forgotten, Dickens, who cared everything for the lower, warmer phases of humanity; Dickens, to whom every grimy London stone was dear, and every dirty cockney child a creature of infinite possibilities; Dickens, whose name will be ever dear to the faithful Londoner; is the modern chronicler of the great city.

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