London History Bulletin – February 10

Charles Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was commissioned on February 10th, 1836. This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

They’re such basic, elementary questions. But to ask – and answer – them, is to get a little burst of satisfaction. It’s like going blackberrying, picking one, and popping it into your mouth. And then another one. And so on. Those elementary questions are: who? what? where? when? And knowing some of those things – gathering those berries – well, it can greatly increase the pleasure you take from, say, a saunter along a London Street.

“Oh, so this is where that happened.” I suppose, truth be told, the satisfaction is partly made up of knowing things other people don’t know. But I don’t think we have to feel guilty about that. If we see something in rich technicolour that other people are seeing in dull monochrome – well, there’s no harm in that. After all, all it’s doing, really, is adding just a trifle to the gaiety of nations quotient. Ok, let’s cut the pages of this mini-book, this bulletin. There, cut the pages, that’s a phrase you don’t hear any more. Books used to be published with uncut pages. Readers would sit, knife in hand, cutting the folds of the pages as they made their way through the book. 

Our first cut is the date, the answer to the When? question. It’s February 10th, 1836. And where? Where did it happen? In an office on that most London of streets, the Strand. 186 The Strand. And who? Edward Chapman and William Hall. Young partners in a fairly new publishing firm. They’d started Chapman & Hall, as the firm was known, just six years previously.

But it’s not just Chapman & Hall who are in that office that day. There’s an even younger man. He’d only just turned 24 the week before. His name is Charles Dickens. And what? What are the three of them doing there? They’re signing a contract. Chapman & Hall are commissioning Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers. It’ll be a serial publication. Published in monthly parts. Twenty of them. Well, actually 19, because the last number – as they called them – was a double one. The cost? A shilling a number. So just under a pound – and it was a pound spread out over 19 months. It heralded a publishing revolution. Before Dickens comes along the main form of the English novel was the so-called “triple-decker.” The triple-decker because it was in three volumes. And it cost a guinea and a half. An outlay, at one go, of 31 and a half shillings. It was beyond the budget of ordinary people. But 19 shillings spread out over a year and a half – that was affordable. To use Keats’ line, a new planet had swum into the London ken. Not just the London ken. The English-speaking world’s ken. The writer, the form, the book, his audience, represented by his publishers – they came together at 186 the Strand on February 10th, 1836. The greatest novelist in the history of English Literature had arrived on the scene. Personal note. I’m very glad he did. My children even more so. Though the little one, with his extremely strong sense of self but imperfect grasp of biology, does say, “bullshit dad, I would have got here even if you hadn’t come to London.” And that’s by way of saying, Charles Dickens is the reason I came to London.

That address, that’s a sacred spot for me.

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin for February 10th. 

Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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