by LAURA SEAR
Imagine Bond Street with all its luxury and prestige: elegant shoes, diamond rings, exclusive hats and experimental perfume shops.
Now picture a thick, grey layer of smog obscuring your view, causing you to bump into a gentleman with a top hat. Dozens of carriages queue up along the pavement as you try to turn down into Stafford Street.
No, you haven’t accidentally wandered onto the set of a period drama. You’ve entered the heyday of Charles Dickens. Nearly 160 years ago, Charles Dickens published a most unusual guide to London.
The Uncommercial Traveller is a collection of literary sketches of Victorian London. Dickens, in his role as flâneur, strolls around the capital, alternating between awe and disgust at a city that was changing then as quickly as it is now.
Dickens began the book by saying: “When I go upon my journeys, I am not usually rated at a low figure in the bill; when I come home from my journeys I never get a commission. I know nothing about prices, and should have no idea, if I were put to it, how to wheedle a man into ordering something he doesn’t want.”
It’s this brutal honesty, covered with a veil of sarcasm, that makes the guide so extraordinary.
He describes Bond Street as an Arcadian oasis. He stayed at Milhouse & Co Hatters, his hatter of choice. According to Dickens, the shop, located on New Bond Street, used to sell top hats, shooting caps and waterproof headgear. Today you can still buy a Milhouse hat for approximately £400.
There are very few remnants of Victorian merchandise left in London, but Laird & Co, between Shaftesbury Avenue and Brewer Street, is one shop you can picture Dickens browsing in. The Bond Street milkman is even harder to find, unless you make the extra effort to download a milk delivery app.
Dickens’ descriptions of his morning walk in the Bond Street area, taking his reader from Regent Street to the Burlington Arcade, seem almost comical now. He writes about the pastoral feel of the empty streets, the freshness of the air, and the innocence of the ladies’ shoe shops in an ultra-civilised Arcade.
Just imagine quietly reading a newspaper in Oxford Street today.
B ut don’t be fooled. London in the 1860s was just as chaotic as it is now. The first Tube stations were being constructed, roads were being paved, big landmarks such as Trafalgar Square and Victoria Station were being built, and a sewage system was also under construction.
Pollution was also a problem back then. Chimneys, rather than cars, were the culprits. “Too much Ozone in the air, I am informed and fully believe (though I have no idea what it is), it would affect me in a marvellously disagreeable way,” wrote Dickens in 1860, foretelling our modern-day worries.
As if he could feel the pastoral ambience slipping away, he concluded: “Charming picture but it will fade. The Iron Age will return, London will come back to town.” How right he was.