Amen Corner, Dickens, and Bleeding Heart Yard

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

This day in London’s history: on 7 February 1812 Charles Dickens was born; he and his writing are an intrinsic part of London’s history and street names. Dickens got the name of Pickwick Papers from a sign in the window of The Bolt in Tun inn off Fleet Street; he had an office in Bell Yard; he stayed in Wood Street when he first arrived in London; and he wrote a whole chapter about Bleeding Heart Yard in Little Dorrit.

From Bleeding Heart Yard to Amen Corner (and there is a connection between both of them and Dickens): a tiny lane, a short way from St Paul’s cathedral, and one of a group of streets with religious names. One explanation is that, before the Reformation, there was a regular procession of the clergy around the cathedral; this involved reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Paternoster Row, the Hail Mary in Ave Maria Lane, the Credo in Creed Lane, and the Amen in Amen Corner.

EAS_3883Another, less colourful but possibly more accurate, theory is that Paternoster Row, the oldest of the streets and dating from the 14th century, is where rosary beads (paternosters) were made. The other names may have followed on naturally in the religious context, especially as clerks who copied religious texts lived there.

There was once also a tiny village near Bracknell in Berkshire called Amen Corner (now it is a suburb of Bracknell and the centre of a number of high-tech industries). The name derives from the prayers which were said during the ‘beating of the bounds’ ceremony; this was common in the days before maps when members of the community would walk the boundaries of the parish, usually led by the parish priest and church officials, in order to maintain knowledge of the parish limits.

(There was also a 1960s pop group called Amen Corner but they were Welsh and took their name from a club in Cardiff. Their biggest UK chart hit was ‘(If Paradise is) Half as Nice’ which stayed in the charts for 16 weeks in 1969, two of them at the No 1 spot.

RIchard Harris Barham
RIchard Harris Barham

But back to the Amen Corner of St Paul’s, which leads to Amen Court, where canons of St Paul’s resided, including the Reverend Richard Harris Barham. He was a minor canon and elder cardinal of St Paul’s, rector of St Augustine’s, Watling Street, and St Mary Magdalen, Knightrider Street. He was also the author of, among other works, The Ingoldsby Legends.

These legends, published originally under the pseudonym Thomas Ingoldsby, were written for his friend and schoolfellow, the publisher Richard Bentley, whose magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, was first published in 1837 and edited by Charles Dickens. One of the ‘legends’ – many of which were stories invented for the purposes of satirizing topics of the time – was called ‘The House-Warming!!’ and offers an explanation of the story behind Bleeding Heart Yard. Perhaps this is where Dickens got his inspiration for the chapter in Little Dorrit.

At the back of Amen Court is part of a Roman wall that once formed the boundary of Newgate prison’s graveyard. Amen Court was the path leading to the graveyard and for a time had the cheerful sobriquet of Deadman’s Walk. For years it was supposed to be haunted by various spectres, one of which was the Black Dog of Newgate, a creature resembling a large black dog that crawled along the top of the wall and disappeared into the courtyard.

Another ghost said to haunt the court was that of Amelia Dyer, a Victorian mass murderer known as the Reading Baby Farmer. Dyer collected money to look after unwanted babies and then drowned them in the River Thames. She was executed in June 1896 and took her final stroll along Deadman’s Walk.

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