London History Bulletin – January 25

“Little Dorrit’s Playground (as it was named) was opened on January 25th, 1902. It was so named because it stood near the site of the infamous Marshalsea Prison, which played such an important role in Dickens’ life and, 30 years later, loomed large in his great novel Little Dorrit. This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


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Story time. History time.

Announcement first. The London Walks Newsletter went out this afternoon. It carried glad tidings of various and sundry new walks coming into the London Walks programme in the next few weeks. If you want to be kept abreast of what’s going on here, that monthly Newsletter is a pretty good way to do so. You can sign up for it at the bottom of the homepage. We’re closing in on 7,000 subscribers now, so pretty pleased about that.

Anyway, on to January 25th in London History.

A local tale today. One of those London daisies. In Wordsworthian terms, “she dwelt among the untrodden ways.

The untrodden ways were actually pretty trodden with hard-up Londoners. Our year is 1902. And the occasion is the opening of a little public recreation ground for children in Southwark. And of course what caught my eye was that the playground was named Little Dorrit’s playground because it was on the site of the bad old Marshalsea prison in Southwark. The Marshalsea prison where Dickens’ father was locked up. And which of course 30 years later became a focal point for his great novel, Little Dorrit. Our Darkest Victorian London walk explores down through there. Amazingly, 200 years after John Dickens and his family – his 12-year-old son excepted – 200 years after John Dickens and his family were imprisoned in the Marshalsea there is still, well, trace evidence. Trace evidence that we look at. For example, part of the boundary wall of the Marshalsea. And of course St. George the Martyr, the parish church. It’s important because Little Dorrit the character after whom the great novel is named, was baptised and married there. And indeed spent a night there when she came home late one night to the Marshalsea, and just as her father was locked in, she was locked out. Locked out at night, in the cold. Had to spend the night in the church.

Dickens wrote the novel in the 1850s. It was a desperately poor area then. Just as it had been 30 years earlier when Dickens’ father was locked up in the Marshalsea. And so it was sobering –disheartening – and disheartening – to come across a 1925 newspaper article that described the parish as the largest, poorest, and most congested in central London. So much for a century of Victorian and 20th-century “levelling up.”

And if that was the case in 1925, it was even more so in 1902 when the playground was opened. In the eloquent and telling words of the Telegraph reporter who covered the story, “It [the playground] is scarcely a hundred yards from the scene of Little Dorrit’s joys and sorrows – the Marshalsea Prison – and though the Marshalsea has gone the way of the Fleet, of unblessed memory, and Bermondsey and Southwark know it no more, it was very fitting that one of the most charming of Dickens’ children should stand godmother to a playground that may bring some pleasure to the lives of those poor children of the Borough who are not, in spite of fifty years of progress, so very much better off than Little Dorrit was in the Marshalsea.”

The article goes on to say “the new open space has been made by the destruction of a horrible rookery of tumble-down, dirty hovels, in which decency was unknown and disease a matter of course.”

And for a fond farewell, how about this, “The children on Saturday did not wait to be told the playground was open. They were running hither and thither long before the speeches began, and they only stopped to cheer at the hints of pleasures to come all the while the speeches were being made. The last thing the members of the Parks Committee saw as they departed was the children dancing to the music of the band.”

Were ever lovelier words written than that, “the children dancing to the music of the band.”

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin for January 25th. 

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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