Discovering Dickens - A Community Reading Project

Discovering Dickens

Community Reading Project

Charles Dickens

Great Expectations

Historical Context


<i>Great Expectations</i>


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The city maps used to illustrate this issue are reproduced from Collins' Illustrated Atlas of London, published in 1854. Pip's London would have been that of the 1820s, and Dickens' London, at the time he was composing the novel, was that of 1860-1. Collins' maps thus represent a London that falls between the historical moment represented in the novel and the historical moment of the novel's composition.

Since the chapters in this issue (Chs. 54-56) take place in late 1829 (Meckier 160), the maps used here show a city that has undergone about 25 years of change since Pip's time. Nevertheless, they are very useful in tracking Pip's progress through the city; the reader should merely keep in mind that some of the landmarks would not have existed in the late 1820s. The most significant of these are the railway lines marked on the Key Map -- the railroad did not enter London until the late 1830s and early 1840s (Tallis's Illustrated London 186-7). The Key Map also shows a bridge that Pip would not have recognized -- the Hungerford Bridge between Waterloo and Westminster Bridges. And London Bridge was, in Pip's time, Old London Bridge -- a different structure, but built in essentially the same place. (New London Bridge would have begun construction a few yards from Old London Bridge when Pip was living in London, but would not have replaced the old bridge during his tenure [Meckier 162]. Given that both London Bridges would have been mapped in the same place, the difference between the bridges makes no difference to our reading of the map.) Any further discrepancies will be noted where appropriate.

History and features of Collins' Atlas (1854)

Collins' Atlas was created in response to the amplified tourist trade in London resulting from the Great Exhibition of 1851. Previous to the Atlas, maps tended to be very large and unwieldy, and though large city maps could be folded up and carried, Collins designed his maps with a specific view to portability (Dyos 10). The Atlas consists of one large map of the whole city of London (the Key Map), followed by 36 plates. The Key Map is drawn with numbered sections, and these sections are represented in detail by the plates (the numbers on the Key Map refer to the numbers of the plates). The chief drawback to the Atlas is that, although the Key Map keeps North at the top, the plates do not always observe this convention (Dyos 13). This disregard of the compass, however puzzling to someone attempting to navigate London in 1854, is in many respects an advantage for the modern reader: The detailed plates -- drawn to represent popular views of the city and/or popular routes through it -- give us a unique view of the sites of Pip's adventures in 19th century London. Any major discrepancies between the landmarks shown on the maps and those that Pip would have been acquainted with (given that the map was composed in 1854, about twenty-five years after Pip's time in London) will be indicated where appropriate.

A Note on the Illustrations

The engraved illustrations of London reproduced in this and other issue(s) were prepared as a result of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Tallis's Illustrated London (published in 1851-2, in two volumes) was created specifically to commemorate the Exhibition, and furnishes, not only a great many engravings of London scenes, but also a long history of, and commentary on, the sights of London and its environs. Since Tallis's Illustrated London was published almost 25 years after the events related in this issue (Chapter 54-56 take place in 1829 [Meckier 160]), some of the views commemorated in Tallis's would not have been available to Pip. Only those illustrations that show cityscapes and landmarks as they would have appeared to Pip in the 1820s have been included here.

A tour of chapters 54-56

The Key Map of Collins' Atlas, showing London as a whole, gives a useful overview of the city locations mentioned in this issue. The London locations described in Chapters 54-56 appear on the Key Map mostly in area 22 (shown in detail on the corresponding Plate), and eastward down the river Thames, to Magwitch's hiding place and beyond. In the later chapters, when Pip takes his walk with Wemmick, he visits the general areas of Walworth and Camberwell, south of London, at about the lower middle of the Key Map. All of the maps reproduced here have been highlighted for convenience of reference and increased legibility.

Plate 22 of Collins' Atlas (below) shows several of the landmarks noted by Pip early in the escape mission, before they retrieve Magwitch from his hiding place: "Old London Bridge was soon passed, and old Billingsgate market with its oyster-boats and Dutchmen, and the White Tower and Traitor's Gate, and we were in among the tiers of shipping" (Ch. 54). Billingsgate Market is visible on Plate 22 just east of Old London Bridge, and the Tower of London is just east of Billingsgate. Note that the Blackwall Railway (noted in the caption of Plate 22) would not yet have existed in 1829.

The "White Tower" is the oldest part of the Tower of London, built in 1078 -- a "large square irregular building, standing almost in the center of the inner ward. The summit of the walls is embattled, and at each angle is an elevated turret rising considerably above the roof" (Tallis's Illustrated London, vol. 2, 145-6). The White Tower is visible in the illustration of the Tower of London on Plate 22 of Collins' Atlas (above) -- it is the structure in the middle, with the four turrets. "Traitor's Gate," also mentioned by Pip, is an entrance on the river side of the Tower.

Pip and Herbert proceed down the river, pick up Magwitch, and make for the "long reaches below Gravesend, between Kent and Essex, where the river is broad and solitary" (Ch. 54) toward the Mouth of the Thames. They stop at a lonely inn at the riverside, and Pip sees, from their lodging, men pass "across the marshes in the direction of the Nore" (Ch. 54). The Nore is a sandbank "off the Isle of Grain, which terminates the peninsula on which the Cooling marshes lie, where the [opening of Great Expectations took] place" (Mitchell 506). Thus, Pip is back in Kent, close to the place where he first met Magwitch. The Nore is marked on a map of England and Wales 1660-1891 in Gardiner's School Atlas of English History. Detail from this map -- enlarged for clarity -- is given here.

Locations important to the early part of the novel are also marked on Gardiner's map: The Medway (where the Hulks docked), Rochester (home of Miss Havisham), and London appear. Dover, the decoy location to which Magwitch was ostensibly taken when Herbert hid him at Mill Pond Bank -- "At the old lodgings it was understood that he was summoned to Dover" (Ch. 45) -- is also marked on this map, at the lower right.

Back in London, after the failure of Magwitch's escape attempt, Wemmick asks Pip to take a walk with him one Monday morning. They walk, as it turns out, to Wemmick's wedding: "We went towards Camberwell Green, and when we were thereabouts, Wemmick said suddenly, 'Halloa! Here's a church!'" (Ch. 55). Camberwell Green is not illustrated or marked on Collins' Atlas; however, it lies east of the intersection of Camberwell Road and Camberwell New Road, at the bottom of the Key Map. It was well known at Pip's time, as well as at the time Collins' Atlas was created: the second biggest metropolitan fair (after Greenwich) was held there (Tallis's Illustrated London, vol. 2, 78). The church that is near -- "thereabouts" -- to Camberwell Green is probably St. George's Church of Camberwell, open since 1824 (Meckier 188). This church, which we have marked in on the Key Map with a cross (see Key Map above), is south of Albany Road, a bit to the east of the Green. Collins' Atlas offers this engraved illustration of St. George's.



Hymen: In Greek mythology, Hymen is the god of marriage (OED, "Hymen").

The two men who went up into the Temple to pray: Pip, having recounted Magwitch's death at the end of Chapter 56, invokes the parable of Luke 18:10-13, which reads as follows:

Two men went up into the temple to pray: the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased: and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.


Buttons: Custom's House officers wore a uniform with buttons (Mitchell 505-6). Thus the Jack of the causeway -- convinced that the men he saw belonged to the Custom's House -- insists that they "Chucked 'em [the buttons] overboard. Swallered 'em. Sowed 'em, to come up small salad" (Ch. 54). The Thames River Police, however, wore no distinct uniform -- "their dress would appear to be that of the rivermen and seamen of the day" (Cunnington 260).

Coal-whippers: Pip describes seeing "colliers by the score and score, with the coal-whippers plunging off stages on deck, as counterweights to measures of coal swinging up" (Ch. 54). A coal-whipper is a person employed moving coal -- "One who raises coal out of a ship's hold by means of a pulley" (OED, "coal-whipper") -- or an apparatus for moving coal, attached to the deck of a vessel. Pip's coal-whippers, given that they are "plunging off stages on deck," are people.

Galley, four-oared: The Oxford English Dictionary defines a "galley" as a large open row-boat, like the kind "formerly used on the Thames by custom-house officers," and uses a passage from Chapter 54 of Great Expectations -- "the Jack ... asked me if we had seen a four-oared galley going up with the tide?" --to illustrate this usage. Though the vessel in question does not turn out to hold Customs House officers (who would be looking for smugglers), the Jack of the causeway thinks it does: "'A Four [-oared galley] and two sitters don't go hanging and hovering, up with one tide and down with another, and both with and against another, without there being Custum 'Us at the bottom of it'" (Ch. 54).

Jack: Pip describes encountering "a grizzled male creature, the 'Jack' of the causeway" (Ch. 54) at the riverside inn. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "Jack" as "variously applied to a serving-man or male attendant, a labourer, a man who does odd jobs, etc.," and uses the example of the "grizzled male creature" from Great Expectations to illustrate the usage of the word.

Mill-weirs: When Pip goes overboard, he says that he seemed, for an instant, "to struggle with a thousand mill-weirs and a thousand flashes of light" (Ch. 54). A mill-weir is a "dam constructed across a stream to interrupt its flow and raise its level so as to render it available for turning a mill-wheel. Also the entire area covered by the water held in check by the dam" (OED, "mill-weir"). Pip's sensation, then, is of approaching the turbulence of a mill.

Red-book: Herbert is grateful that Clara "comes from no family ... and never looked into the red book" (Ch. 55) as his mother does. The red book was "A popular name for the 'Royal Kalendar, or Complete ... Annual Register' (published from 1767 to 1893)" (OED, "red book"). It contained, alphabetically, the names and addresses of the English gentry.

Recorder's Report: The Recorder of London was "originally a person [usually a judge or magistrate] with legal knowledge appointed by the mayor and aldermen to 'record' or keep in mind the proceedings of their courts and the customs of the city, his oral statement of these being taken as the highest evidence of fact" (OED, "Recorder"). The Recorder reported to the Secretary of State about the sentencing of criminals, and could recommend clemency for those sentenced to execution (Mitchell 499).

Sessions: Twelve sessions a year, during which prisoners were put on trial, were held in the Sessions House in London (Tallis's Illustrated London, vol. 1, 27). Magwitch comes up for trial in the April session, 1829, and Jaggers attempts to postpone until the following session -- Trinity term (May 22-June 12). Magwitch, mortally injured during his struggle on the river, would be unlikely to live so long (Meckier 168). Martin's Annals of Crime gives us (below) an illustration of the Sessions during trial.


Thowels: "Thowel" is an obsolete spelling of "thole," meaning "A vertical pin or peg in the side of a boat against which in rowing the oar presses as the fulcrum of its action, [especially] one of a pair between which the oar works; hence, a rowlock" (OED, "thowel").

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