Today (December 19) in London History – A Christmas Carol

Dickens’ famous Christmas novella A Christmas Carol was published on December 19, 1843. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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Story time. History time.


And counting. 

This is not intentional, it’s just the direction the wind is blowing. Coincidence I suppose. But it does seem to be the case that going down the home stretch here – Christmas Day will complete the year, will be the 365th Today in London History podcast – it does seem to be the case that these last few days – some of them at any rate – have personal significance for me. That’s unquestionably the case for tomorrow’s podcast. And, yes, ditto for today’s. Indeed, today’s – December 19th – is double-barrelled in that regard. It was on December 19th, 1606 – 415 years ago, that’s a ways back now – it was on December 19th, 1606 that something happened in London that was, well, the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings that had some larger consequences for me. They could hardly be larger. I wouldn’t exist had it not been for those three little ships weighing anchor on December 19th, 1606 at Blackwall, just downstream from London. The Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery set sail on that day for the new world, for Virginia. And that was the beginning of the English presence in the land of my birth. That voyage fed through, eventually, to that west country ancestor of mine – my surname is a west country, a somerset name – fed through to that ancestor making his way over there and well, over generations and centuries, one thing led to another.

So there’s that personal, December 19th Today in London History connection.

And the other one is what brought back here. A rather wonderful Charles Dickens connection. The powerful magnet that drew this iron filing (me) back to the land of my ancestry was Dickens generally rather than the specificity of what happened on the Dickens timeline on December 19th, 1843 but I don’t think we need to be too troubled about that. Because what we’ve got here was Dickens, it was this time of the year, it was a game-changer for all of us.

It was the publication on this day, December 19th, 1843 of A Christmas Carol, the most famous and enduring –  deservedly so – of his Christmas novellas. 

What a success it was. The first edition sold out by Christmas Eve. By the end of 1844 thirteen editions had been published. 

What a success it continues to be. It’s never been out of print. It’s been translated into many languages. It’s been adapted many times for film, stage, opera and other media. 

And as for it – and its fellows, that series of Christmas novellas that he wrote in the 1840s – as for it being a game changer, hard as it is to believe today, before Dickens came along and gifted the world with A Christmas Carol and its siblings, Christmas wasn’t such a very important day in the Christian calendar. That whole Christmas spirit ethos – home, hearth, family, peace on earth, goodwill to our fellow men and women, God rest ye merry gentlemen – that whole Christmas sensibility, now so familiar to us and so beloved, so integral a part of our culture and identity as a people, that was largely Dickens’ single-handed creation. In a very real sense we have Dickens and his little masterpiece to thank for the English Christmas. And thus the American Christmas. Indeed, the English-speaking world’s Christmas.

So I think it appropriate to end by hearing from the man himself.

First from a couple of his letters on or about publication date.

On December 17th Dickens sent a gift copy of the book to the distinguished poet Samuel Rogers. In his cover note Dickens wrote, “If you should ever have inclination and patience to read the accompanying little book, I hope you will like the slight fancy it embodies.”

For the record, Dickens presented at least ten other copies before publication. Among the recipients were the novelists William MakespeaceThackeray and Harrison Ainsworth, the poet Walter Savage Landor, the historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle, the banking heiress Angela Burdette Coutts, the painter Daniel Maclise and Dickens’ best friend and literary advisor John Forster. 

And then on publication day itself Dickens writes to the author Andrew Bell – who’d obviously rated the Christmas Carol very highly and said as much to Dickens, “I am very glad you think so highly of the Carol. It interested me exceedingly.”

The Scottish poet Charles Mackay also got a thank you note that day. It read, “My Dear Mackay, Believe me that your pleasure in the Carol, so earnestly and spontaneously expressed, gives me real gratification of heart. It has delighted me very much. I am sure you feel it; that your praise is manly and generous; and well worth having. Thank you heartily.”

I love these letters. They give us a real sense of the man – his warmth and vitality and big-heartedness.

That was Dickens’ day – well, part of Dickens’ day – on the day A Christmas Carol took its place in our firmament.

One more letter – again, I love his excitement and enthusiasm – enthusiasm, it’s a great word, I’ve often been told, “your vast enthusiasm, that’s a great quality in a guide” – I take that as a very high compliment, not least because the Greek root of the word enthusiasm means, “breathed into by God” – anyway, just over a week later, on December 27th, Dickens writes to the banking heiress Angela Burdett Coutts – she plays a cameo role on our Christmas Day Dickens London Walk – he writes to her to say, “Miss Coutts, You will be glad to hear, I know, that my Carol is a prodigious success.”

And on that note, a Today in London Recommendation. Not much question about this one, is there. Has to be one of our special walks for this time of the year, yes, Dickens’ Christmas Carol & Seasonal Traditions. You can catch it on December 21st or Christmas Eve itself, or Boxing Day or December 27th or December 30th. Just go to the little search engine on and type in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol and Seasonal Traditions. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. 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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