Contemporary nineteenth century writing has not been previously explored for its accounts of Camden Town, portrayed both directly by name and by association. There are varied styles – satire, realism, tragedy, humour – with writers drawing on their own direct experiences. Yet Camden Town also is used as reference for ‘otherness’ – a place for people whom the reader might not normally meet or a lodging for someone on hard times.[1]   Others saw Camden Town as a place of sanctuary – people would go there to find something, or to stay while adjusting their lives. It  had neither the poverty of East London, nor the grandeur of the West end.

George and Weedon Grossmith, who together wrote the satirical novel of suburban life, The Diary of a Nobody, knew Camden Town well. As children, they lived in Mornington Crescent and went to the North London Collegiate School (for boys) in Camden High Street. George married Emeline Noyce, daughter of a north London doctor, at St Stephens’ Church in Camden Town. The church setting plays a cameo role in the novel:

November 26 Sunday …A rather annoying incident occurred, of which I must make mention. Mrs Fernlosse, who is quite a grand lady, living in one of those large houses in the Camden Road, stopped to speak to me after church, when we were all coming out. I must say I felt flattered, for she is thought a good deal of. I suppose she knew me through seeing me so often take round the plate, especially as she always occupies the corner seat of the pew. She is a very influential lady, and may have something of the utmost importance to say, but unfortunately, as she commenced to speak a strong gust of wind came and blew my hat off into the middle of the road. I had to run after it, and had the greatest difficulty in recovering it. When I had succeeded in doing so, I found Mrs Fernlosse had walked on with some swell friends, and I felt I could not well approach her now, especially as my hat was smothered with mud. I cannot say how disappointed I felt.[2]

Some writers who were contemporary with the Grossmiths were critical of suburbia for its ‘small minded conservatism’ ‘sedulously aping the décor of those who come from a more leisured class’.[3] The Grossmiths took a more sympathetic approach: suburbia may be stuffy but it is also safe within a world of changing social values. In The Diary of a Nobody, Mr Pooter is a ‘new man’ of the time, with home interests of interior decoration and gardening. Drama comes through oppositions – his son Lupin’s ‘modern’ attitudes, his two neighbours Mr Cumming and Mr Gowing and the power of his employer, Mr Perkupp.[4] The Grossmiths’ Pooter was a forerunner of tolerance, for his small but understandable aspirations and recognisable social mistakes: The Diary of a Nobody, written for Punch to amuse, suggests that Camden Town might hold a distance from the heavier moralism of Victorian England.

George Gissing came to London from the north of England. Believing himself too poor to marry an educated woman, he chose Edith Underwood, daughter of a Camden Town shopkeeper, whom he had met in a café near his Marylebone Road flat. According to his friends, she was ‘common’.[5]  New Grub Street, the novel for which he is best known, includes a fictionalised account of Edith’s parents house in St Paul’s Crescent (in Camden Town, near present Agar Grove): ‘a quiet by-way, consisting of small, decent houses. That at which she paused had an exterior promising comfort within: the windows were clean and neatly curtained, and the polishable appurtenances of the door gleamed to perfection’. Nevertheless, Gissing’s descriptions were objected to by real clerks in letters to newspapers at the time: ‘Mr Gissing’s picture of our home life is as strikingly inaccurate as the rest of his descriptions’.[6]

Charles Dickens mentions first ‘Camberling Town’ and then Camden Town by name in his portrayal of the vast excavations in Dombey and Son.[7] Yet the cutting for the London Junction Railway extension to Euston was on Lord Southampton’s land at Chalk Farm, rather than in Camden Town. The Dickens family did live at 16 Bayham Street, adjacent to Camden High Street, in 1822. William Matchett, writing in The Dickensian in 1911, imagines, in the attic room, Dickens’ ‘first real beginnings in authorship, which he regarded as “extremely clever” but was too bashful to show anyone’.[8] The house was, perhaps, a model for the Cratchits’ home in A Christmas Carol. It was in Dicken’s mind: a clerk in Christmas Carol, to whom Mr Scrooge had reluctantly given a day’s wages (2/6d) runs home to Camden Town; and the prize turkey for Bob Cratchett, later in the story, is sent by cab to Camden Town.

For a short while in 1824 Dickens lodged in Little College Street, on the east side of Camden Town. This memory is unhappily portrayed in chapter five of David Copperfield:[9]

“Traddles … lived in a little street, near the Veterinary College at Camden Town, which was principally tenanted, as one of our clerks who lived in that direction informed me, by gentlemen students, who bought live donkeys, and made experiments on those quadrupeds in their private apartments … The inhabitants appeared to have a propensity to throw any little trifles they were not in want of, into the road: which not only made it rank and sloppy, but untidy too, on account of the cabbage leaves … An indescribable character of faded gentility that attached to the house I sought, and made it unlike all the other houses in the street…”

The house, as with Bayham Street, is now demolished.

In suburbia, Kate Flint, has suggested, ‘one is buying oneself, at least in the imagination, into the culture of the aristocracy’. From the 1890s, ‘a distinctive fiction of suburbia appears’.  The protagonists remain middle class – although a clerk rather than businessman or professional and ‘very seldom do we read of members of the working class: poverty tries to hide itself with Venetian blinds … a casual labourer would be surprising’. [10] Similarly, Ged Pope suggests ‘The suburb is predicated on offering a clear sense of order and homeliness’.[11] And Michael Heller argues that ‘authors such as Keble Howard, Shan Bullock and William Ridge praised suburbia, its denizens and its way of life’.  Ridge’s novel, A Clever Wife, for example, ends with Cicely confessing to Henry that ‘I had no idea that the suburbs could contain such joy’.[12]  Another describes ‘the rise of a ‘cockney assistant head clerk in a railway company to debonair superintendent of the line’ – of relevance to local employment in Camden Town – and ‘suburbia and domestic stability featured throughout the novel as strong factors in his rise’.[13]

But there is a contrary narrative. The narrator in Wilkie Collins’ novel Basil: a Tale of Modern Life, with ‘Regent’s Park close at hand’, strays into ‘unfinished streets, unfinished crescents, unfinished squares, unfinished shops and unfinished gardens … neither the main character, nor the reader, has much idea of what is actually happening in these opaque north London suburbs … full of secrets and shocking revelation: suppressed passion, secret marriages, criminal impersonations, disavowed affairs, complex and obscure family relations’.[14] Similarly, Arthur Machen’s narrator sets out to explore ‘…unknown unvisited squares in Islington, dreary byways in Holloway, places traversed by railway arches and viaducts in the regions of Camden Town.’[15]  Machen’s world is filled with suburban anxieties, a ‘city of nightmares’.[16]

A mixture of these views is held by a young middle-class man in Compton Mackenzie’s successful novel Sinister Street, published in 1914.[17]

‘Presently upon an iron railway bridge Michael read in giant letters the direction Kentish Town behind a huge leprous hand pointing to the left. The hansom clattered … past the dim people huddled upon the pavement, past a wheel-barrow and the obscene skeletons and outlines of humanity chalked upon the arches of sweating brick … and, just beyond, three houses from whose surface the stucco was peeling in great slabs and the damp was oozing in livid arabesques and scrawls of verdigris’.

Yet returning later to Camden Town, his mood improves:

‘When he began to examine the Camden Road as a prospective place of residence, it became suddenly dull and respectable … chatting nursemaids, a child throwing a scarlet ball high into the air…’

Three writers of international stature lived for a period in Camden Town (Figure 3.2), putting their experience more generally into their work. Theodor Fontane spent his earlier years as London correspondent to a Berlin paper, living at 6 St Augustine’s Road.  His writing included Ein Sommer in London (1854) and Aus England, Studien und Briefe (1860).

PlaquesPlaques in Camden Town for Fontane, Verlaine and Rimbaud

Arthur Rimbaud took lodgings with Paul Verlaine at 8 College Street, near to the Veterinary College.  The two poets had been living in London from April in 1873, slipping in and out of the British Museum library and advertising to teach French.[19]  Rimbaud wrote A Season in Hell during the summer, and partly prepared Illuminations, to be published the following year. The trace of London hovers in the works, mixed with his home town of Charleville on the Belgian border in France. The young German bourgeois journalist living near Camden Square and the young French poets in lodgings to the south indicate the mix of Camden Town. At other times they lived elsewhere in London also: Camden Town was often a place of transit.

[1] A short search of period fiction in the British Library showed many brief mentions of Camden Town.

[2] George and Weedon Grossmith, The diary of a nobody, Oxford 1995:67.

[3] Kate Flint, ‘Introduction’, In Ibid:vii-xxiii.

[4] Stephen Wade, A Victorian somebody: the life of George Grossmith, Gosport 2015:151.

[5] Jacob Korg, George Gissing: a critical biography, London 1975:151.

[6] London Literary Society <literarylondon.org/the-literary-london-journal/archive-of-the-literary-london-journal/issue-9-1/the-use-of-london-lodgings-in-middlebrow-fiction-1900-1930s>

[7] Dickens books report this and his family house in Bayham Street, but less Little College Street.

[8] Willoughby Matchett, ‘Dickens in Bayham Street’, The Dickensian 1911:181

[9] Julian Wolfreys, Dickens’s London: perception, subjectivity and phenomenal urban multiplicity, Edinburgh 2012:63-64.

[10] Kate Flint, ‘Fictional suburbia’, Literature and History 1982;8(1):70.

[11] Ged Pope, Reading London’s suburbs, London 2015.

[12] Michael Heller, ‘Suburbia, marketing and stakeholders: developing Ilford, Essex,1880–1914’, Urban History 2014;41(1):62-80.

[13] William Ridge, Sixty-nine Birnam Road, London 1908.

[14] Wilkie Collins, Basil: a Tale of Modern Life, Oxford 2000:25 and 51-52.

[15] Arthur Machen, The London adventure,  London 1924:11.

[16] Amanda Caleb, ‘A city of nightmares: suburban anxiety in Arthur Machen’s London gothic’, In Lawrence Phillips, Anne Witchard, London gothic: place, space and the gothic imagination London, London 2010:41-49.

[17] Compton Mackenzie, Sinister street, London 1916. Quoted by Tindall, ‘Fields beneath’:206-7 and Camden History Review 1983;7:9.

[18] Author’s photographs.

[19] Graham Robb, Rimbaud, London 2000.


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