Dickens, prisons, and bowler hats

This day in London history: on 17 December 1843, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was published and on 17 December 1849, the first bowler hat was sold.EAS_4053(Update: this blog is about Dickens; for more on the bowler hat, read this post.)

Charles Dickens has many associations with London, starting with Wood Street: the young Dickens stayed at Cross Keys inn there upon his arrival in London. Samuel Pepys and Ben Jonson frequented a tavern – the Mitre – in Wood Street.

Wood Street’s name dates back to the 12th century, supposedly from the fact that all the houses there were built of wood (in spite of Richard I’s farsighted edict that all houses should be built of stone to avoid the risk of fire). It could also be that, as with so many other streets in the Cheapside area, it was given the name wood because wood was sold there.

The street was particularly infamous because of the Wood Street compter, mainly a debtors’ prison, but which also served to take in overflow from Newgate, and had three sections – where you were depended on whether you were rich, poor, or comfortably well off.  Prisoners were transferred here in the 16th century from the Bread Street compter and then, in the 18th century, the occupants of Wood Street compter were, in turn, transferred to the Giltspur Street compter.

The debtors’ prisons played a big role in the life of the young Dickens and, consequently, in his writing. His own father had been sent to Marshalsea in Southwark because of a debt to a baker. This meant that Dickens had to leave school at the age of 12 to work in a factory.

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