“THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP” Pall Mall Gazette 1 January 1884
“I'm gettin' heartily sick on't!" exclaimed the lady of the house, a genial, pleasant soul, with humor in her eye, to our representative when he called upon her to ask permission to explore No. 14 Portsmouth street. And not without reason indeed, for Dickens' "Old Curiosity Shop" and the street where it stands are constantly crowded with visitors and sightseers. "And one well-dressed person," said my hostess, with a sniff of contempt, "asked me if he might take a brick away with him as a relic! 'I will smooth it down, and it shall be an heirloom in my family forever.' A lunatic, I call him. And who knows but he beats his wife?" But this gentleman, brimming over with sentiment, walked off with a brick under his coat, nevertheless. Many artists have visited the spot lately, for it is to be torn down, and many sketches from every point of the compass have been taken. Yesterday, in the short space of half an hour, a photographer blocked up Sheffield street with his camera, three reporters were busy taking notes, and two other gentlemen were hard at work sketching the ruins, much to the amusement of the odd fish who constitute the "neighbourhood." Even during the few minutes I spent in the upper regions of No.14 one lady (of a certain age) came up the creaking steps, peering in, apologized for the intrusion, viewed the chaos, remarked that it was a pity, and descended. “I come from Boston,” I heard her murmur. It may be said, en parethese, that a roaring trade is being done in little pictures of the exterior, which may be had for “2d. plain” and “4d. coloured”. Miss Anderson is a constant visitor (so I was told, and insists upon drinking a dish of tea in the parlor when the parlor is once more cozy and rejuvenated. “A charming young lady and so affable.”
"The Old Curiosity Shop" stands in the southwest corner of Lincoln's-inn fields, and occupies an angle of Portsmouth street, one window looking northwest, the other two facing Sheffield street. The red tiles and the overhanging roof have a quaint, old-fashioned air about them, and afford a pleasant relief from the hideous yellow plaster on which is painted in great vulgar letters the name with which it has been endowed. "Immortalized by Dickens," and just below in unholy contrast, "H. Poole. waste-paper dealer," some rag collector, who will give such an advertisement as many a pushing politician would give his eye for. Heavy joists give the house support now, and the yawning gap overhead shows the ruined mass of bricks and mortar. Half the construction has tumbled in, the other half remains intact. At the present, the house, which is said to be 300 years old, contains four rooms, two on the ground floor, and two above them, each pair being divided by a communication from one floor to the other. The lower room not left opens on to the street, and may best be described as a small space enclosed by numerous angles. Heavy sloping beams jut out from the low ceiling, the window of ancient make, the fireplace stands in one corner, in another a thin slit of a door open on to the yard at the back where the waste paper business is conducted. A little window made in the wooden partition looks into the other room, which is now black chaos, the theory being that these two were once united, and here was stored that marvellous collection, the suits of mail, the fantastic carvings, the rusty weapons, the figures in china, wood, iron and ivory, the tapestry and strange furniture.
Mounting the crooking staircase a few steps take one to Little Nell’s reputed bedroom, a dismal, gruesome apartment about 9ft square, and as many in height. One little window lets in what passes for light in Portsmouth-street, which serves only to reveal the gloominess of the surroundings. This is used as a bedroom by the occupants of the house, but at present it has the appearance of a receptacle for lumber. Most the space is occupied by an ordinary iron bedstead on which were a few dusty pictures, a meat-cover, and a doormat. A few chairs are on the floor, a few engravings and a plaster plaque of Dickens adorn the walls. The floor is thick with the dust from the ruins, and here and there are a few old hangings, odd bits of carpet, and some empty bottles. The fireplace is stone, painted black, and on the mantel-shelf is a model of a ship under a glass cover. In one corner is a quaint old cupboard. A portion of this little chamber is cut off by the top of the staircase, which is supposed to gain some light from a window covered with a heavy coat of yellow paint. Below this are fixed some shelves, where a few bundles of musty papers and old books lie neglected and forgotten. One lingers for a moment at the door, endeavouring to conjure up a vision of the most beautiful of Dickens’s creations, but one conjures in vain. Little Nell refuses to appear. Looking through a little window, a foot square, one secs the ruin in the next room, where the full stock has been felt, where now a mass of rubbish is strewn on the floor.
The controversy rages meanwhile with unabated vigour. But when all is said we fear the “Old Curiosity Shop” at No. 14 Portsmouth-street, is a sham. We have ventured to ask Miss Hogarth for any information respecting the house, but the locality was unfortunately never pointed out to her, and she is unable to speak authoritatively. “My impression is," she writes, "that the identifying of this particular house is a mistake ; but I always imagined the place to be more remote. I do not suppose that any one lives now who could throw any light on the matter. Mr. Forster might have known, and George Cattermole and Hablot Brown, certainly." It is pointed out that in the original edition of “Master Humphrey's Clock," Cattermole, who drew the picture of the interior in "The Old Curiosity Shop," showed the house with a step and a spacious portico ''reaching nearly as high as No. 14.; does in its entirety." And further, "at the conclusion of the story, Dickens wrote that Kit sometimes took his children to the street where Nell had lived, but new improvements had altered it so much it was not like the same. The old house had been long ago pulled down, and a fine broad road was in its place." And again, Mr. Charles Tesseyman says that his brother occupied No. 14 between 1868 and 1877, and had the words "The Old Curiosity Shop" placed over the front "for purely business purposes, as likely to attract custom to his shop, he being a dealer in books, paintings, old china, and so on. Before that—that is, before my brother had the words put up—no suggestion had ever been made" that the place was the veritable house that Dickens immortalized.
All this excitement about what is really a very small matter is indeed a handsome tribute to the genius of Dickens. But the great novelist himself would have been the first to deprecate the storm of sentiment which is raging about this poor tumbledown tenement. The cynic may well smile softly to himself at these sham tears which are being shed in such profusion over the memory of Little Nell. For he need but go a score of yards away to find himself amidst the hideous shambles of Clare Market. There is revealed a network of black and sombre slums, upon which the sun never shines but to lighten up with a few dim rays the festering heaps of rubbish. North, south, east, west, in a circumscribed area run these grim and tortuous things called by courtesy streets. Here may be seen tottering, ramshackle houses, and protecting eaves, any one of which might with as great a degree of probability be selected as a competitor in the “Old Curiosity Shop.” Here are old shops with their cracked, dusty windows and repellent interiors, blocked up with what it is the custom to call bric-a-brac. And here may be seen men, women, and children who would gladly sit as models of low life to the next novelist in search of a character.
But “The Old Curiosity Shop" is doomed. At some not very remote period the traffic will be rolling; over its site and London will know it no more. Once on time a model of Shakspeare's house was built at the Crystal Palace for the edification of visitors. The Americans came and begged for it, imitation as it was. Here is a suggestion. Let those American admirers who come to worship at this Portsmouth-street Mecca start a subscription, and transport No. 14— bag and baggage, beams and bricks —bodily to New York, and set it up there in Madison-square. Or, better still; the great Barnum is always open to a bargain. His agent, Mr. Davis, is now in town. Let him buy it. Apparently the investment would be profitable, and the pilgrims would be none the less devout because the shrine lay at their own doors.
a late-19th century photograph ...
a contemporary photograph ...