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Topping, or, The Real Life of Charles Dickens’s Cockney Servant

One of Charles Dickens’s liveliest characters—a character drawn with unerring precision and a sharp ear for idiosyncrasies of language—never made it into his novels.  Instead, he occupies an honourable place in the great writer’s personal correspondence.  Unlike Bill Sykes, or Stephen Blackpool, or Sam Weller—more of Sam Weller later—he was real.  He was a servant, and his name was William …

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Dirty, Dishonest and Badly Behaved: Sophia Jarvis, Victorian Maid

On Friday 19th December 1862 a small, emaciated, ragged young woman came to the gatehouse of the Mitcham Industrial School and asked to be admitted.  It was with some surprise that Mrs Charlotte Cuttress, the porter’s wife, heard that the girl was called Sophia Jarvis.  Sophia, a former pupil, had gone into service over a year ago with a very respectable …

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The Sadness of Clowns, or, The Strange Death of Giuseppe Grimaldi

Joseph Grimaldi, the famous Regency actor, has achieved immortality as the great pantomime clown, the original “Joey” of circus tradition.  But what of his father Giuseppe?  A native of Genoa, and a dentist by profession, Giuseppe came to London in about 1760, where he was engaged by David Garrick at Drury Lane as a dancer and pantomime buffoon.  He has …

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The Floating Ark, or, Edward Cross of Exeter Change

How odd to think that a restaurant and a coffee shop in the Strand, almost opposite the Savoy Grill, were once the ramshackle building known in the early nineteenth century as Exeter Change.  The Change—short for “Exchange” in the sense of buying and selling—had been built out as well as up.  The pavement ran right through its ground floor, forming …

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The Eccentric Old Lady of Stamford Street: Cordelia Angelica Read

Mid-nineteenth century London, just south of the river in Southwark.  As darkness falls, a crowd gathers hoping to see the ghostly apparition that haunts an unoccupied run-down building on the south side of Stamford Street, near the junction with Blackfriars Road.  Through the broken windows can be seen the shape of a woman, sometimes even of two, flitting through the …

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Laughter in Court, or, A History of the Victorian Female Barber

On 28th February 1894 a case was brought before Court no. 9 of the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice in the Strand.  The plaintiff, Charlotte “Lottie” Chettle, a young woman in her early twenties from Swansea, was bringing a claim against Arthur Wicks, a law student, for breach of a promise of marriage.  She was hoping …

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Madame Elise Kreutzer and the Crowded Room

On the night of Thursday 9th May 1895 seventeen young women were working on the couture gowns to be sold in the establishment of Madame Elise Kreutzer at 4 Holles Street off Oxford Street.  The girls, who were certainly poorly paid, had been working long hours in cramped conditions on a day when the temperature reached 70 degrees.  Many of the …

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The Whistling Oyster of Vinegar Yard

Behind the Theatre Royal in the Covent Garden area of London there was once a narrow court called Vinegar Yard.  All that remains of it now is a passage, entered through an arched gateway.  But there was a time when you could walk through Vinegar Yard from Drury Lane to what was then Bridges Street or Brydges Street.  And it …

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Killed by a Corset? The Tragic Tale of Kitty Tyrrell, a Victorian Actress

The lives of most Victorian jobbing actresses are largely forgotten, their performances barely recorded apart from a few brief mentions in the theatrical papers.  And this would no doubt have been the fate of Kitty Tyrrell, if she had not had the misfortune to be killed by her corset. On Tuesday 26th December 1894 Kitty and her husband Harry Ewins …

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A Life Preserved: Francis Columbine Daniel

One of the strangest stories in the long history of investiture must be the knighting of Francis Columbine Daniel early in the reign of George IV.  The occasion was marked with the usual pomp and ceremony, and was widely reported in the newspapers.  However, not everything was quite what it seemed, and not everyone was impressed. So who was the …