Wandering around London at Christmas often brings about a more Dickensian perception. Perhaps it is simply the time of the year, the craving for warmth and comfort and the natural splendour with which winter endows the older buildings still standing within the city. But whatever it is, winter and London are all but defined by Charles Dickens. In particular his originally anthologised tale, A Christmas Carol (1843), comes to mind; its brief images of architecture and cold, moneyed business still being relevant today. On recently re-reading the short tale of ghostly Christmas happenings, the question arose as to what would Scrooge’s city, and in particular his and Marley’s counting house, look like today? Would it have survived the recent years of constant development?
Dickens’ narrative is so ingrained within our national psyche that it seems absurd to repeat it in detail. But, suffice to say, the bones of the narrative concern the miser businessman, Ebenezer Scrooge. It is Christmas Eve and he is working overtime; an example he expects to be met by those who work for him. On returning home alone after reluctantly allowing his clerk, Bob Cratchit, to take a day’s leave for the holiday, he is subsequently haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future who present him terrible visions of his own isolation. Realising the error of his ways, he makes amends for his treatment of others, realising the true meaning of Christmas being good company and cheer.
The counting house is the easiest to figure out of all of the story’s locations and is perhaps the most telling of the story’s buildings due to subtle hints and potential markers of the surrounding area mentioned by Dickens. Though there is no way to tell for sure if the location in question is definitely where Dickens had in mind, it’s as close as can be considered from the detail of the story. Once the clerk has managed to escape his boss, Dickens writes of his brief excursion home:
“The office was closed in a twinkling, and the clerk, with the long ends of his white comforter dangling below his waist (for he boasted no great-coat), went down the slide on Cornhill, at the end of a lane of boys, twenty times, in honour of its being Christmas Eve, and then ran home to Camden Town as hard as he could pelt, to play at blindman’s-buff.”
From this description, it is clear that the counting house would most probably have been somewhere in the region of Cornhill in the city, down one of its many alleyways and courtyards. It is now argued as being Newman’s Court, one of the most tiny and atmospheric of structures to still survive in the city today, at least outside of more typical, monumental buildings.
The city is so domineering a presence on the skyline that it’s sometimes easy to forget how many period buildings are rustling in between the glass monoliths, gherkins and skyscrapers. The real city of the old banks is made of stone rather than steel. Winter was on the horizon during my search for the location, being met off the tube at Bank by a biting breeze and little else. It was a Sunday and so the city was virtually deserted, even of cars. It was a suitably pleasurable meander; as Dickens wrote, “He had never dreamed of any walk, that anything, could give him so much happiness.” Since buildings have obviously been constructed since Dickens’ time, a view for proper from what could potentially have been Scrooge’s window is ultimately impossible. The alleyway is still there, however, its small courtyard equally full of character with creaking windows and Gothic rises.
The church opposite is mentioned earlier than this in the story and is what really marks down the court as being the location. The building’s bell famously watches Scrooge as he finishes his work on Christmas Eve before he meanders to his usual tavern for a meal alone. Dickens describes it as follows:
“Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proferring their services to go before horse and carriages, and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slily down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there.”
If the earlier detail is to be considered, then this church is most probably St. Michael, Cornhill. The original building was burned to the ground in the Great Fire of London, and the rebuilding of its main structure is sometimes attributed to Sir Christopher Wren, though this is still contested. Either way, segments of its main tower are built to the designs of Nicholas Hawksmoor with its straight, light-stone edges leading confidently upwards to the sky. Appropriately, the church itself even has its own strange story of sorts passed down from the 1500s, where some monstrous creature was seen during a storm by the church’s bell ringers, all of whom fell unconscious and later awoke to find claw marks on the bells, later said to be those of the Devil.
The view would have looked out onto the church so I wandered back through the alley and stood huddled next to the more recent buildings. The church itself had a skeleton of scaffold around its body but rose proudly up in between its more modern neighbours. Looking up, the sky was crisp and clear but the streets were enjoyably shadowed by the architecture. “Darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it” wrote Dickens. I angled my Polaroid from the ground, imagining the view from Scrooge’s window to be one of idle stares upwards as much as a general, street-level daydreaming by Bob Cratchit. The Polaroid developed, reflecting the cold haze that hung in the morning air. But perhaps most appropriately, three separate scratches of esoteric, neon blue appeared over the image of the church; perhaps the ghosts of past, present and future returning for a last but brief consideration of the city. Or the Devil, of course.