Tellson’s Bank by Temple Bar was an old-fashioned place, even in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty.

Tellson’s Bank is usually identified as the real-life Child & Co.’s in Fleet Street, which leased rooms above Temple Bar as a storage space for its records (Sanders 35). Temple Bar was “a gate-way … adjoining the Temple, between Fleet Street and the Strand” (Baedeker 155) erected by the architect Sir Christopher Wren in 1670 (Wren was also the architect of the present St. Paul’s Cathedral). It was still in place when Dickens was writing A Tale of Two Cities, but was removed in 1878 “to permit of the widening of the street and to facilitate the enormous traffic” of the late 19th century (Baedeker 155). A “Temple Bar Memorial” was then erected at the west end of Fleet Street, and Temple Bar was moved to the vicinity of Theobald’s Park (Baedeker 155) in Hertfordshire, where it can be seen, “mouldering away” (Woodley 140), even now. An 18th-century account of it, from Harrison’s New and Universal History, Description and Survey of … London (1776), gives us both a short history of Temple Bar and a sense of what it would have looked like during the period represented in the novel:

TEMPLE BAR. On the spot where this gate stands, were antiently posts, rails, and a chain, as in other places where the city liberties terminated [Temple Bar marked the boundary between the cities of London and Westminster]. Afterwards a wooden house was erected across the street, with a narrow gate-way, and an entry through the south side of it: but, since the fire of London [1666] the present structure was erected, and is the only gate remaining [by the time of this account, 1776] at the extremity of the city liberties.

This is a very handsome and noble gate, with a postern on each side for the convenience of foot-passengers. It is built entirely of Portland stone, of rustic work below, and of the Corinthian order. The great arch is elliptical, and very flat, and the whole forms a very elegant appearance. Over the gateway, on the east side, in two niches, are stone statues of queen Elizabeth and king James I with the king’s arms over the keystone; and on the west side are the statues of king Charles I and king Charles II in Roman habits.

On this gate, of late years, have been placed the heads of several distinguished characters, who were convicted and executed for treasonable practices against their king and country. But not any of them are now remaining. (480)

This illustration of Temple Bar, from Thornton’s New, Complete, and Universal History, Description, and Survey of … London (1784), shows the gate as it looked at about 1780 – the year in which this portion of A Tale of Two Cities is set.

Temple Bar

Temple Bar is also visible on this portion of Thornton’s map of London (1784), at the far left, next to Fleet Street and above the Temple.

Click on map for larger view

…the dingiest of windows, which were always under a shower-bath from Fleet-street, and which were made the dingier by their own iron bars proper, and the heavy shadow of Temple Bar.

Fleet Street, north of the Thames, runs east from Temple Bar, joining (now without the Bar) Ludgate and the Strand. It takes its name from the Fleet Brook, which was, by the early 20th century, a main sewer flowing through Holborn Valley and under Farringdon Street (Farringdon was Fleet Market Bridge Street in the 18th century) to the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge. The Fleet Prison (for debtors) stood on the east side of the bridge until 1846 (Baedeker 148).

Tellson’s Bank, in “the shadow of Temple Bar,” would have stood on the side of the Bar that looked toward Fleet Street, under the statues of Queen Elizabeth and James I (the other side of the Bar, facing the Strand, supported statues of the more recent monarchs Charles I and II). The “shower-bath” from Fleet Street was apparently the result of poor paving and considerable commercial traffic through the area (Sanders 55).

Fleet Street, Temple Bar, etc. are visible on the portion of Thornton’s map of London (1784) shown above.

Your bank notes had a musty odour, as if they were fast decomposing into rags again.

Paper was made, as Dickens implies, of old rags. Having co-authored an article describing the process in 1850, Dickens was very familiar with papermaking.  “A Paper Mill,” by Dickens and the journalist Mark Lemon, takes a fanciful turn when the visitor to the paper mill in question takes the place of a rag (“I am to go, as the rags go, regularly and systematically through the Mill. I am to suppose myself a bale of rags. I am rags” [265]) and describes the operation of papermaking from the inside of the mill. A portion of the article runs as follows:

White, pure, spick and span new paper, with that fresh smell which takes us back to school and school-books; can it ever come from rags like these? Is it from such bales of dusty rags, native and foreign, of every colour and of every kind, as now environ us, shutting out the summer air and putting cotton into our summer ears, that virgin paper, to be written on, and printed on, proceeds? We shall see presently. Enough to consider, at present, what a grave of dress this rag-store is; what a lesson of vanity it preaches. The coarse blouse of the Flemish labourer, and the fine cambric of the Prussian lady, the court dress of the Austrian jailer, and the miserable garb of the Italian peasant; the woolen petticoat of the Bavarian girl, the linen head-dress of the Neapolitan woman, the priest’s vestments, the player’s robe, the Cardinal’s hat, and the ploughman’s nightcap; all dwindle down to this, and bring their littleness or greatness in fractional portions here. (265)

Though Dickens and Lemon dwell on the democratic aspects of papermaking (in which the rags of diverse individuals are combined and equalized in the form of pristine new paper), the reference to papermaking in A Tale of Two Cities is less affirmative (the bank notes Dickens refers to are “fast decomposing” into their constituent rags again). Dickens may have been influenced here by a passage in his chief historical source, The French Revolution:  Carlyle, in the context of a pejorative account of “bank-paper” (which the French government issued as its coffers became more and more depleted of gold), remarks that “Paper is made from the rags of things that did once exist; there are endless excellences in Paper” (26).

Your plate was stowed away among the neighboring cesspools, and evil communications corrupted the good polish in a day or two.

Plate refers to silver or gold, or ornaments or utensils in silver or gold (Oxford English Dictionary); and “evil communications” invokes Corinthians 15:33: “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.” The cesspools themselves (the source of the “evil communications”) were a reality of 18th-century London. Previous to the 1760s, drainage had – as in Paris – been conveyed down a gutter or “kennel” in the middle of the road. By the 1780s, however, a system of underground drains had been created, and domestic waste accumulated in cesspools under dwellings. It was removed from the cesspool by “night-soil men,” afterwards to become mulch for market-gardens or material for brick-making (Johnson 21).

…by the heads exposed on Temple Bar with an insensate brutality and ferocity worthy of Abyssinia or Ashantes.

According to Baedeker’s London and Its Environs (1908), “The heads of criminals used to be barbarously exhibited on iron spikes on the top of the gate” (155) of Temple Bar. The practice of displaying the heads of malefactors is of remarkably recent date, since Temple Bar itself was only erected in the late 17th century, in 1670. Tallis’s Illustrated London (1851) gives the following account of the spikes:

On iron poles above the bar were affixed the heads of many unhappy adherents of the Pretender, who were decapitated for the part which they took in the rebellions of 1715 and 1745. One of the spikes employed for these barbarous spectacles was not removed till the beginning of the present [19th] century. (vol. 1, 51)

Though the last heads to be displayed on Temple Bar were spiked in 1746, they apparently did not “blow down” until 1772 (Sanders 55). Thus, though there would have been no heads left on Temple Bar in 1780, the memory of them would be reasonably recent.

The comparison of this barbarism to that of two African peoples – the Abyssinians and the Ashantes (otherwise “Ashantis” or “Ashantees”) – was particularly topical in the 19th century. Abyssinia – modern-day Ethiopia (OED) – was a turbulent kingdom. Some stability was achieved in 1855 when Negus Theodore III declared himself emperor of the country, which was divided amongst various political factions; but the British consul of Abyssinia – Walter Chichele Plowden, who was in favor with the emperor – was killed in 1860 by a rebel chieftain while making his way back to England (Sanders 56). This event would have tended, from a public point of view, to justify Dickens’ sense of Abyssinian barbarity; and Ashanti barbarism would have been similarly notorious in England. In the 1820s, the British had attempted to mediate between the Ashantis – “one of the Akan peoples of West Africa” (OED) living in the northern part of what is now Ghana – and their Fanti neighbors to the south. The British (in possession of a series of forts along the coast) managed a treaty between the Fanti and the Ashanti aggressors in 1820, but it was later disowned by the British governor, Sir Charles McCarthy. McCarthy led a force into Ashanti territory in 1824, but was beaten at the battle of Bonsaso, and his skull became the drinking-cup of the Ashanti king (Sanders 56).

Accordingly, the forger … ; the utterer of a bad note … ; the unlawful opener of a letter …; the purloiner of forty shillings and sixpence … ; the holder of a horse at Tellson’s door, who made off with it … ; the coiner of a bad shilling … ; the sounder of three-fourths of the notes in the whole gamut of Crime, were put to Death.

All of the crimes listed here were punishable by death in the 18th century, and the application of the death penalty – there were over two hundred capital crimes on the books (Gatrell 7) – was not reduced until the early 19th century. 40 shillings and sixpence is just over 2 pounds (2 pounds and 6 pence), and is a trifle considering the penalty involved; similarly, a “bad shilling” would be the counterfeit equivalent of 1/20 of an English pound.

Dickens’ representation of the absurd rate of execution in London is especially appropriate to the period he represents.  In the 1780s (this part of the novel takes place in 1780) the number of convictions and executions in London reached a record high. Five times as many people were convicted in the second half of the 18th century as in the first, and England was more severe than its European neighbors: Between 1774 and 1777, 139 people were executed in London, compared to 32 in Paris; and in the 1780s, the average number of annual executions in London rose from 48 (in the 1770s) to 70, convicts “dang[ling] outside Newgate prison up to 20 at a time, a sight unknown elsewhere” (Gatrell 9). The death toll did not fall considerably until reforms beginning in the 1820s limited the number of capital crimes (Gatrell 618-9). Thus, Dickens’ representation of English brutality in the 18th century – and the implicit contrast he draws to the brutality of the French – is well substantiated by statistics from the period. Indeed, the French look clement in comparison.

They kept him in a dark place, like a cheese, until he had the full Tellson flavour and blue-mould upon him.

Cheeses, especially aged cheeses, are prepared in much the same way clerks are prepared at Tellson’s. The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) gives detailed instructions for the making of cheeses, and has the following to say about aging and storage:

The cheese is put into the cheese-room [after the whey is pressed out of it and it has been pressed into a shape], and protected from excessive heat, drought, or damp at first, heat causing new cheeses to sweat; drought dries them too quickly and induces them to crack; and damp prevents them hardening, and induces a bitter taste. Exposed to a cool, dry and calm air upon the shelves, the cheeses will dry by degrees and obtain a firm skin. The cheeses should be wiped with a dry cloth to remove any moisture, and turned daily. Some cheeses burst and throw out a serous-like fluid, in consequence of whey fermenting, which ought to have been pressed out. A cheese that changes its shape indicates some organic change going on within; but if it do not crack so as to admit the air, it will soon become ripe, and probably of fine flavour. (265)

“Blue mould” is “the mould of this color produced upon cheese, consisting of a fungus, Aspergillus glaucus” (OED); cheeses of which “blue mould” are characteristic are “blue cheeses” like the English Stilton cheese.

… casting his breeches and gaiters into the general weight of the establishment…

Gaiters, according to Fairholt’s Costume in England: A History of Dress (1860), are “[e]xtra coverings for a man’s leg, formed of cloth, buttoning from the knee to the ankle, and covering the instep” (453). Breeches are pants extending to just above or just below the knee. Originally loose, breeches became tight-fitting during the reign of William III (1685-1701) (Fairholt 400), and “were, from the close of George II’s reign (1760), worn over the stocking … and fastened first by buckles and afterwards by strings” (Planché 403). This would have been the general style in 1780. In the 19th century, long trousers became the usual attire for men, though breeches were still worn as court dress in the period in which Dickens was writing (Fairholt 400).

His surname was Cruncher, and on the youthful occasion of his renouncing by proxy the works of darkness, in the easterly parish church of Houndsditch, he had received the added appellation of Jerry.

In the baptismal ceremony, according to the Book of Common Prayer, the godparents of the child being baptized are asked to “renounce the devil and all his works” (Sanders 57) – hence young Cruncher does so “by proxy.” Houndsditch is in the eastern part of London, just within the old city wall, running from Aldsgate to Bishopsgate; an 18th-century History, Description, and Survey of … London (1776) notes that it “takes its name from having been an[c]iently a ditch, wherein were thrown dogs, carrion, and all kinds of filth” (488). The area, as might be expected, was a poor one. The parish church where young Cruncher was probably baptized – in the parish of St. Botolph without Highgate – dates from 1720-40 (Sanders 57).

Houndsditch is visible on this portion of Thornton’s map of London (1784), at the upper right.

Click on map for larger view

Mr. Cruncher’s private lodging in Hanging-sword-alley, Whitefriars…

Whitefriars, which branches off Fleet Street, running south toward the Thames, is named for a pre-Reformation house of the Carmelites (“Whitefriars”) located in the area (Sanders 57). As a region under the jurisdiction of the friars, Whitefriars was originally exempt from the jurisdiction of the city. This exemption was claimed by its residents long after the order no longer existed there, but was finally abolished in 1697. Hanging-sword Alley ran east off Whitefriars, and was originally known as “Blood-bowl Alley” – it was apparently renamed after a house (Sanders 57). In Hanging-sword Alley, the Crunchers are not far (perhaps an eighth of a mile) from Mr. Cruncher’s place of employment at Tellson’s (in Fleet Street near Temple Bar).

Though Hanging-sword Alley is not visible on Thornton’s 1784 map of London (above) – the map does not give the street names under Fleet Street in great detail – we can find its general location nonetheless: It lay south of Fleet Street and ran east off Whitefriars. (On the map, Whitefriars is labeled in the Thames, just to the left of Blackfriars Bridge).

Mr. Cruncher himself always spoke of the year of our Lord as Anna Dominoes: apparently under the impression that the Christian era dated from the invention of a popular game, by a lady who had bestowed her name upon it.

“Anna Dominoes” is Mr. Cruncher’s malapropism for Anno Domini (“A.D.”), which means “in the year of our Lord” and refers to the period beginning with the birth of Christ and continuing to the present moment (OED). Dominoes (the game) is of a much more recent date than the birth of Christ, having probably been invented (in its original form) in China in the 14th century A.D. However, the game seems to have made its appearance in England only in the late 18th century, imported by way of France; the name “dominoes” itself is not of Chinese origin, but rather alludes to the coloring of the domino pieces, which – black and white – resembled the “domino” (a kind of hood) worn by priests in the wintertime, or a masquerade garment of the same name (OED). If the name of the game derives from the name of the priests’ garment, Jerry’s “Anna Dominoes” retains some vestige of the religious associations of Anno Domini. The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) gives the following account of the procedure for English dominoes:

DOMINOES. – This game is played by two or four persons, with twenty-eight pieces of oblong ivory, plain at the back, but on the face divided by a black line in the middle, and indented with spots, from one to a double six, which pieces are a double-blank, ace-blank, double-ace, deuce-blank, deuce-ace, double-deuce, trois-blank, trois-ace, trois-deuce, double-trois, four-blank, four-ace, four-deuce, four-trois, double-four, five-blank, five-ace, five-deuce, five-trois, five-four, double-five, six-blank, six-ace, six-deuce, six-trois, six-four, six-five, and double-six. Sometimes a double set is played with, of which double twelve is the highest. At the commencement of the game, the dominoes are well mixed, with their faces downwards. Each person draws one, and if four play, those who choose the two highest are partners, against those who draw the two lowest; drawing the latter also serves to determine who is to lay down the first piece, which is reckoned a great advantage. Afterwards each player takes seven pieces at random. The eldest hand having laid down one, the next must pair him at either end of the piece he may choose, according to the number of pips or the blank in the compartment of the piece; but whenever any party cannot match the part, either of the domino last put down, or of that unpaired at the other end of the row, then he says “go,” and the next is at liberty to play. Thus they play alternately, either until one party has played all his pieces, and thereby won the game, or till the game be blocked; that is, when neither party can play by matching the pieces when unpaired at either end, then that party wins who possesses the smallest number of pips on the pieces remaining. In playing this game it is to the advantage of the player to dispossess himself as early as possible of the heavy pieces, such as a double-six, five, four, &c. Sometimes when two persons play, they take each only seven pieces, and agree to play or draw, that is when one cannot come in or pair the pieces on the board at the end unmatched, he then is to draw from the fourteen pieces in stock till he find one to suit. (382)

…a patchwork counterpane, like a Harlequin at home.

A counterpane is “the outer covering of a bed, generally more or less ornamental, being woven in a raised pattern, quilted, made of patch-work, etc.; a coverlet, a quilt” (OED). Harlequin – originally a character in Italian comedy – has become a generic name for a clown in parti-colored clothes.

...“what are you up to, Aggerawayter?”

Mr. Cruncher’s name for his wife, “Aggerawayter,” is probably his version of “Aggravator,” since he believes that her “flopping” – her praying – has been interfering with his business as an “honest tradesman.”

… choused this last week into as bad luck as ever a poor devil of a honest tradesman met with!

To be “choused” is to be duped, tricked, cheated, or swindled (OED).

“…I am as rickety as a hackney-coach, I’m as sleepy as laudanum…”

A hackney-coach was a horse-drawn version of the modern taxicab – “A four-wheeled coach, drawn by two horses, and seated for six persons, kept for hire” (OED). Hackney-coaches may – like their modern counterparts – have varied in condition. The Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) gives the following account:

HACKNEY CARRIAGE. – Under this term are included every carriage, except a stage carriage, ... with two or more wheels, which is used for the purpose of standing or plying for hire, at any place within the distance of ten miles from the General Post Office in the City of London. All hackney carriages must have four plates, namely, on the back, each side, and inside, to contain the name and address of the proprietor…. Any person desirous of obtaining a license to keep, use, or let to hire a hackney carriage, must apply in writing to the Commissioners of the Police of the Metropolis, who, if on inspection, deem the carriage fit, and in proper condition for public use, shall grant the necessary certificate. Upon the production of such certificate at the office of Inland Revenue, a license will be granted. After grant of license, police may inspect carriages and horses; and if unfit for use, license may be suspended…. (498-9)

Laudanum, a mixture of alcohol and opium now recognized as addictive and dangerous, was not only considered an excellent soporific, but – according to the Dictionary of Daily Wants (1859) – received its name from its popular praises:

LAUDANUM. – The word laudanum is derived from the Latin verb laudare, to praise, because of its excellent and most laudable qualities in the amelioration and cure of many diseases in which it had been employed; it is, perhaps, one of the oldest preparations in the pharmacy of any nation, and though made of many strengths, and by different formularies, all have possessed the same general characters. Though used as a narcotic, antispasmodic, tonic, stimulant, and anodyne, it is chiefly as a sedative that laudanum is so invaluable, there being probably no disease, class, or nature of pain or suffering in which this article has not, or may not, be employed with more or less of benefit. There is no drug or compound used in the practice of physic that, properly employed, is capable of affording so much comfort and relief to the patient, in almost every disease with which he is affected, as laudanum, for it may, by skillful combination, and a judicious adaptation of the dose, be made to exert any special or general action desired; and since the introduction of a less violent mode of practice, it has, or may, in conjunction with nitre and antimony, be depended upon for the cure of nearly every inflammation that can assail the system, and thus entirely set aside the use of the lancet in those diseases which were formerly thought only curable by depletion and bleeding. In repeated small doses, laudanum acts as a stimulant; in large doses, as a sedative; and in full doses, as a narcotic; at the same time, by a modification of the quantity given, it may be made to act as a tonic in cases of weak digestion, as a diaphoretic in colds and influenza, and as a diuretic in affections of the kidneys.... Laudanum is a preparation of opium made by macerating a certain quantity of opium, cut into small pieces, for fourteen days in a given amount of proof spirits, which is generally equal parts of spirits of wine, and water, shaking the bottle frequently, and on the fifteenth day filtering the liquor.

Medical men who prepare their own drugs, and know the advantage of always having a tincture they can depend on, and of a uniform strength, simmer their opium in the proper amount of water for about ten minutes, and to this, when cold, add the spirits of wine. Unfortunately, the colleges of London, Edinburgh, and Dublin differ in the strength of this, as of their other preparations, the consequence of which is, that the dose of laudanum varies in each country, the dose being in Scotland 21 drops, and in England 19. (614-5)

…throwing off other sarcastic sparks from the whirling grindstone of his indignation…

A grindstone – used here metaphorically – is a “disc of stone of considerable thickness, revolving on an axle, and used for grinding, sharpening, or polishing” (OED).

He greatly disturbed that poor woman at intervals, by darting out of his sleeping closet, where he made his toilet…

Young Jerry Cruncher’s “sleeping closet” is not a closet in the modern sense, but rather a small room “belonging to or communicating with a larger” one (OED), in which he has his bed and other personal belongings. As Ian Watt explains in The Rise of the Novel,

In the medieval period nearly all the life of the household went on in the common hall. Then gradually the private bedroom and separate dining quarters for masters and servants became current; by the eighteenth century [the period to which the Cruncher household belongs] the final refinements of domestic privacy had fully established themselves. There was much more emphasis than before on separate sleeping quarters for every member of the family, and even for the household servants…. (188)

Private bedrooms were thus, by the end of the 18th century, a common feature of even humble households like the Crunchers’; and “closets” – small private rooms adjoining larger ones – were an economical way of providing a certain amount of privacy for everyone in the family.

Jerry’s “toilet” refers to the process of washing and dressing himself (OED). (Like the word “closet,” “toilet” in modern usage has a second, more common meaning. In the sense used here, the word comes from the French diminutive of the word for cloth or towel, and is pronounced “twa-lette,” with the emphasis on the last syllable [OED].)

“… I won’t have my wittles blest off my table. Keep still!”

“Wittles” is a corruption of “victuals,” which means food, and is pronounced “vittels” or “vittles.” According to the OED, “the variant O[ld] F[rench] and mod[ern] F[rench] form victuaille has been assimilated to the L[atin] original, and a similar change in spelling has been made in English, while the pronunciation still represents the forms vittel, vittle,” and has been in use since the fourteenth century.

“You know the Old Bailey well, no doubt?” said one of the oldest clerks to Jerry the messenger.

The Old Bailey is the street in which Newgate Prison and the Sessions House stood (it still contains the Central Criminal Court [Woodley 125]). According to one 19th-century guidebook, Old Bailey “derives its name from the ballium or open space in front of the old City Wall, along which it ran from Lud Gate to New Gate” (Dickens’s Dictionary of London 199). Lud Gate and New Gate were originally actual gates to the city; their names are still preserved in the names of Ludgate and Newgate Streets.

Jerry, sent to the Old Bailey, goes to find Mr. Lorry in the Sessions House, where trials were held. Harrison’s New and Universal History and Survey … of London, published in about 1776, gives the following account of the history, improvement, and uses of the Sessions House:

[The Sessions House] was formerly a plain brick edifice, but it has lately [i.e. in the late 18th century] been rebuilt entirely of stone, and is brought so much forwarder than the old one as to be parallel with the street. On each of the sides, is a flight of steps that leads to the court-room, which has a gallery on each side for the accommodation of spectators. The prisoners are brought to this court from Newgate [Prison] by a passage that closely connects between the two buildings; and there is a convenient place under the Sessions-house in front, for detaining the prisoners till they are called upon their trials. There are also rooms for the grand and petty jury, with other necessary accommodations.

A court is held here eight times a year by the king’s commission of oyer and terminer, for the trial of prisoners for crimes committed within the city of London and county of Middlesex. The judges are, the lord-mayor, the aldermen past the chair, and the recorder who, on such occasions, are attended by both the sheriffs, and by one or more of the national judges. The offences committed in the city are tried by a jury of citizens, and those committed in the county by a jury formed of the house-keepers in the county.

The crimes tried in this court are high and petty treason, murder, felony, forgery, petty larceny, burglary, &c. (473)

This illustration of a “View of [the] New Sessions House, Old Bailey,” is taken from Thornton’s New, Complete, and Universal History of … London (1784). Darnay, accused of treason, is tried in the Sessions House.

Old Bailey is visible on this portion of Thornton’s map of London (1784), to the left of St. Paul’s, running up and down between Ludgate Hill (which begins to the right of Fleet Street) and Newgate Street (which, north of St. Paul’s, runs into Cheapside).

Click on map for larger view

“Treason!” “That’s quartering,” said Jerry. “Barbarous!” “It’s the law,” remarked the ancient clerk, turning his surprised spectacles upon him, “It is the law.”

Darnay’s trial, in A Tale of Two Cities, is based on the trial of Francis Henry de la Motte.  De la Motte, a French baron residing in England because of pecuniary difficulties, was charged with treason; his trial is reported in the 1781 Annual Register (of which we know Dickens possessed a copy) and State Trials (which he also consulted). The connection between Darnay’s trial and de la Motte’s was first identified by James Fitzjames Stephen in a hostile review of A Tale of Two Cities in the Saturday Review, December 17, 1859.

According to the Annual Register for 1781, de la Motte was apprehended on January 5, 1781 when, climbing the stairs to the Secretary of State’s office, he dropped a bunch of papers. Among them were

…particular lists of every ship of force in any of our [England’s] yards and docks, the complement of men they have on board at the time of their sailing, with remarks of their being well manned, when short of the regulated number, &c. He has even gone so far as to furnish the most accurate lists of the seamen in the different hospitals at Portsmouth and Plymouth. In consequence of the above papers being found, Henry Lutterloh, Esq. of Whickham, near Portsmouth, was afterwards apprehended and brought to town. (162)

Lutterloh and other accomplices were arrested after de la Motte’s apprehension, and Lutterloh ultimately informed against de la Motte at his trial. An account of his testimony is also given in the Annual Register of 1781:

This morning [the 14th of July, 1781] came on before Judge Willes, at the Old-Bailey, the trial of Mr. de la Motte for high-treason. Mr. Lutterloh, the chief evidence against the prisoner, swore, that he had been employed by Mr. de la Motte to procure from the French ministry the most authentic intelligence respecting our naval operations, at 50 guineas per month. A number of papers found in Mr. Lutterloh’s garden were produced, and proved to be his hand-writing, giving an exact detail of the state of our docks, the sailing of our fleets, the number of men on board each ship, and other useful information, which had been obtained through the means of a clerk in one of the public offices in the naval department. Among other circumstances contained in these papers, was an account of Governor Johnstone’s intended operations. The trial lasted 13 hours, when the jury, after a short deliberation, pronounced the prisoner Guilty, when sentence was immediately passed upon him, “To be hanged by the neck, but not till dead; then to be cut down, and his bowels taken out and burnt before his face, his head to be taken off, his body cut into four quarters, and to be at his majesty’s disposal.” The prisoner received the awful doom with great composure, but inveighed against Mr. Lutterloh in warm terms. (184-5)

De la Motte’s anger at Lutterloh is understandable. The latter had apparently played both sides, informing against de la Motte in hopes of a reward from the British government while blackmailing him (promising to withhold evidence) at the same time (Sanders 59).

Dickens’ version of the de la Motte trial is of course altered: Darnay’s trial predates de la Motte’s by a year (it is held in 1780 instead of 1781), and Darnay is ultimately acquitted. Like de la Motte’s trial, however, Darnay’s coincides with the American Revolution (in which France sided with the American colonies against the English), and, according to Sanders’ Companion to A Tale of Two Cities, “The indictment against de la Motte occupies seventeen columns of State Trials and has much in common with the ‘infinite jingle and jangle’ which accompanies the indictment against Darnay” (59).

They hanged at Tyburn, in those days, so the street outside Newgate had not obtained one infamous notoriety that has since attached to it.

Tyburn was the site of public executions until 1783 – three years after Darnay’s trial (which occurs in 1780) (Baedeker 98). From 1783 to 1868 (after which executions took place inside the prison), the condemned were executed at Newgate. Tyburn, according to one 19th-century guidebook, was originally named after “a small brook coming from Kilburn and flowing [southward] into the Thames” (Baedeker 284). In the 18th century, Tyburn was at the northwest extremity of London, opposite the entrance to Hyde Park (near the location of the present Marble Arch).

Newgate, which “obtained [the] infamous notoriety” of public executions in 1783, was the prison in Old Bailey from 1770 until 1902. Named for “New Gate” – originally a gate in the London city wall – the Newgate in A Tale of Two Cities is actually the second prison of that name (the first having been closed because of an epidemic of “gaol fever”). The new Newgate, however, was scarcely finished in 1780 (the year of Darnay’s trial) when the Gordon Riots broke out in London, and a number of prisoners escaped (Darnay’s trial occurs early in the year, but was probably one of the last trials heard in 1780, as the riots erupted in June [Sanders 59]). Restored, Newgate stood until 1902 (when the current Central Criminal Court was constructed [Woodley 128]). When its “infamous notoriety” of public execution commenced, prisoners were executed “in front of that wing of the prison called Debtors’ Door, before which the scaffold [was] erected”; executions took place at 8:00 a.m. on Mondays (Gaspey 26-8; Dickens’s Dictionary of London 199-200).

But, the gaol was a vile place, in which most kinds of debauchery and villainy were practiced, and where dire diseases were bred, that came into court with the prisoners, and sometimes rushed straight from the dock at my Lord Chief Justice himself, and pulled him off the bench. It had more than once happened, that the judge in the black cap pronounced his own doom as certainly as the prisoner’s, and even died before him.

Gaol fever was rampant in the English jails of the 18th century, and had necessitated the destruction of the first Newgate Prison and subsequent construction of the second (newly completed when Darnay stands trial in 1780). Tallis’s Illustrated London (1851) tells the story of gaol fever in Newgate:

In 1750 that frightful distemper, the gaol-fever, broke out in the prison [of Newgate], and Sir Samuel Pennant, the Lord Mayor, Alderman Lambert, two judges, one of the undersheriffs of Middlesex, several barristers, jurors, and other persons, were sacrificed to its virulence. This fearful pestilence led to some attempt on the part of the municipal authorities to amend the internal economy of Newgate, in which the prisoners were separated as far as practicable, and a better system of ventilation introduced. Nevertheless, the gaol still remained in a disreputable condition, and in 1770 the corporation of London applied to and obtained from parliament a grant of fifty thousand pounds, to enable them to construct an entirely new prison, of which the first stone was laid by Sir William Beckford, the Lord Mayor. Mr. George Dance was the architect under whose direction it was commenced and finished. It was hardly completed, when, in 1780, Lord George Gordon’s rioters burst open the doors, rescued nearly three hundred prisoners, and destroyed the whole interior by fire; the massive stone walls remained standing, uninjured by the flames…. Money was afterwards voted by the House of Commons to make the necessary restorations, and in 1782 the existing prison was completed, the cost of its erection having exceeded the original estimate of forty thousand pounds. (vol. 1, 26-7)

Dickens’ allusion to the “black cap” (which announces the judge’s death as well as the prisoner’s) refers to a black cap assumed by English judges when announcing the death sentence.

For the rest, the Old Bailey was famous as a kind of deadly inn-yard, from which pale travelers set out continually, in carts and coaches, on a violent passage into the other world: traversing some two miles and a half of public streets and road, and shaming few good citizens, if any. So powerful is use and so desirable to be good use in the beginning.

In the 18th century, Tyburn – where public executions were held until 1783 – was at the northwest extremity of London: Condemned prisoners were conveyed in a cart from Newgate Prison along Holborn, St. Giles High Street, and Oxford Street to Tyburn, which stood opposite the entrance to Hyde Park (Sanders 61). The passage can be traced on this portion of Thornton’s map of London (1784).

Click on map for larger view

This journey through the city toward execution in “carts and coaches” suggests a parallel between London and Paris, foreshadowing the journey of the French tumbrils from the Revolutionary Tribunal to the guillotine.

It was famous, too, for the pillory, a wise old institution, that inflicted a punishment of which no one could foresee the extent; also, for the whipping-post … ; also, for extensive transactions in blood-money, another fragment of ancestral wisdom, systematically leading to the most frightful mercenary crimes that could be committed under Heaven.

The OED describes the pillory as

[a] contrivance for the punishment of offenders, consisting usually of a wooden framework erected on a post or pillar, and formed, like the stocks, of two movable boards which, when brought together at their edges, leave holes through which the head and hands of an offender were thrust, in which state he was exposed to public ridicule, insult, and molestation. In other forms, the culprit was fastened to a stake by a ring round his neck and wrists.

In England, the pillory was used from the medieval period forward; it was abolished except in cases of perjury in 1815, and totally abolished in 1837 (OED). As Dickens notes, it was “a punishment of which no one could foresee the extent,” for though people in the pillory were exposed to public ridicule, and were often pelted with missiles like “cats, dung, and rotten vegetables” (Maxwell 450-1), the experience was not necessarily fatal. Some, however, died from the effects of confinement or exposure. For example, The Book of Days (a miscellany of 1868) records that in “1780 [the date of this part of A Tale of Two Cities] a coachman, named Read, died on the pillory at Southwark [south of the Thames, across from London proper] before his time of exposure had expired” (830). In its general account of the pillory, The Book of Days agrees with Dickens, describing it as “a mode of punishment so barbarous, and at the same time so indefinite in its severity, that we can only wonder it should not have been extinguished long before [1837]” (830). It includes illustrations of an individual and a group pillory, and the following history of the device:

The pillory was for many ages common to most European countries. Known in France as the pillori or carcan, and in Germany as the pranger, it seems to have existed in England before the Conquest in the shape of the stretch-neck, in which the head only of the criminal was confined. By a statute of Edward I it was enacted that every stretch-neck, or pillory, should be made of convenient strength, so that execution might be done upon offenders without peril to their bodies. It usually consisted of a wooden frame erected on a stool, with holes and folding boards for the admission of the head and hands, as shown in the sketch of Robert Ockam undergoing his punishment for perjury in the reign of Henry VIII. In the companion engraving, we have an example of a pillory constructed for punishing a number of offenders at the same time, but this form was a rare occurrence…. (vol. 1, 830-2)


Though Dickens was writing about the pillory over two decades after it was abolished, pillories could still be seen in England. In 1864, as The Book of Days reports, “A pillory [was] still standing at the back of the market-place in Coleshill, Warwickshire, and another [lay] with the town engine in an unused chancel of Rye Church, Sussex. The latter is said to have been last used in 1813” (vol. 1, 832).

The “whipping-post, another dear old institution,” came into use in the 16th century – though public whipping was considerably older. Whipping was originally a punishment for vagrancy, the vagrant stripped naked and whipped through town behind a cart; it was only under Queen Elizabeth (r. 1558-1603) that it became a stationary punishment, often combined with the stocks in a single post. The Book of Days (1864) illustrates a “Whipping-post and Stool” and describes this method of punishment:

Sometimes a single post was made to serve both purposes [i.e. the whipping-post and the stocks]; clasps being provided near the top for the wrists, when used as a whipping-post, and similar clasps below for the ankles when used as stocks, in which case the culprit sat on a bench behind the post, so that his legs fastened to the post were in a horizontal position. Stocks and whipping-posts of this description still exist in many places, and persons are still living who have been subjected to both kinds of punishment for which they were designed. Latterly, under the influence, we may suppose, of growing humanity, the whipping part of the apparatus was dispensed with, and the stocks left alone…. The stocks was a simple arrangement for exposing a culprit on a bench, confined by having his ankles laid fast in holes under a movable board. Each parish had one, usually close to the churchyard, but sometimes in more solitary places…. The whipping of female vagrants was expressly forbidden by a statute of 1791. (599-600, vol.1)

Finally, “blood-money” is, in the sense used here by Dickens (“systematically leading to the most frightful mercenary crimes that could be committed under Heaven”), a “reward for bringing about the death of another; money paid to a witness who gives evidence leading to the conviction of a person upon a capital charge” (OED).

For, people then paid to see the play at the Old Bailey, just as they paid to see the play in Bedlam…

Bethlehem Hospital of London, popularly called “Bedlam,” is identified by Baedeker’s London and Its Environs (1908) as “the oldest charitable institution for the insane in the world” (381). During the period in which A Tale of Two Cities is set, Bedlam was located in Moorfields (in north-eastern London); its earlier location, in Bishopsgate Street, had been pulled down in 1675. However, by the time Dickens was writing the novel, Bedlam – though still an insane asylum, and still a landmark in London – had moved again (in 1812), this time to St. George’s Fields, Lambeth (Baedeker 381). The Bedlam in A Tale of Two Cities is thus the second Bedlam – the one standing in Moorfields from 1675-1812.

Until 1770, Bedlam was open to the public, who could tour galleries of the insane for a penny. The hospital realized about £400 a year through this means (Sanders 62), but – as is noted in the passage below – the practice of making a spectacle of the mentally ill was cruel and medically detrimental, and was ultimately discontinued. However, it is this possibility of touring Bedlam that Dickens refers to as “[paying] to see the play in Bedlam.” By 1780 – the year in which this portion of the novel takes place – admission was granted to outsiders only by special permission of one of the governors of the asylum. Harrison’s New and Universal History, Description and Survey of … London (1776) gives an account and illustration of the building as it appeared at the time:

This hospital … was founded for lunatics, near the north-east corner of the Lower Moorfields, in Bishopsgate parish; but that becoming ruinous, as well as too small to answer the purposes of the charity, the lord-mayor, aldermen and common-council granted the governors the spot of ground whereon the present edifice stands, the foundation of which was laid in the month of April 1675: but the wings on each side were not erected till some years after the building was completed.

This magnificent structure is 540 feet in length, and 40 feet in breadth. The middle and ends, which project a little, are adorned with pilasters, entablatures, foliages, &c. and, rising above the rest of the building, have each a flat roof, with a handsome balustrade of stone, in the center of which is a handsome turret. That in the middle is adorned with a clock and three dials, on the top of which is a gilt ball and fane. The whole is built of brick and stone, and [e]nclosed by a handsome wall, formed of the same materials, 680 feet long. In the center of this wall, which goes in with a grand semicircular sweep, is a large pair of fine iron gates, supported by stone piers, on the top of which are two images, or statues, in a reclining posture; one representing Raving, and the other Melancholy, Madness. These figures are finely expressed, and were executed by Mr. Cibber…. This wall encloses a range of gardens neatly adorned with walks of broad stone, grass-plats and trees. In the east division, which is separated by the entrance into the hospital, those of the lunaticks, who are well enough to be suffered to go about, are allowed to walk there, and enjoy the benefit of the fresh air.

The inside of this building chiefly consists of two galleries, one over the other, which are 193 yards long, 13 feet high, and 16 feet broad, exclusive of the cells. These galleries are divided in the middle by two iron gates, in order to separate the men from the women; the latter being confined to the western part, and the former to the eastern part of the hospital. At the entrance between these two gates, on the right hand, is [a] handsome apartment for the steward, who is the manager, under the direction of the committee. On the left is a spacious room, in which the committee sit to receive and discharge patients. Below stairs is a good kitchen, and all necessary offices for keeping and dressing provisions, washing, &c. and at the south-east corner is a bath for the use of the patients.

There are about two hundred cells, or rooms for patients, which are furnished with beds, when they are found capable of using them; or with clean straw every day, when they are mischievous.

The hospitals of Bethlehem and Bridewell being made one corporation, they have the same president, surgeon and apothecary; yet each hospital has its steward and inferior officers, and a particular committee is chosen out of the governors of each. Out of that appointed for this hospital, there are six who meet every Saturday, to examine the steward’s accounts, to inspect the provisions, receive and discharge patients, and to direct all other affairs belonging to the charity.

This hospital was formerly open for the admission of the public, to the great prejudice of many of the unhappy patients; but by a wise regulation lately made, no person is admitted without a ticket signed by one of the governors. (459-60)

Bedlam, in Moorfields, is visible on this portion of Thornton’s map of London (1784), at the upper right.  It is indicated by the dark rectangular shape under Moorfields, labeled “Bedlam Hosp” (at the top of the map, directly to the right of the crease, above “London Wall”).

Click on map for larger view

“…he’ll be drawn on a hurdle to be half hanged, and then he’ll be taken down and sliced before his own face, and then his inside will be taken out and burnt while he looks on, and then his head will be chopped off, and he’ll be cut into quarters. That’s the sentence.”

Francis Henry de la Motte, upon whose trial Darnay’s is based, was sentenced to this punishment. According to the Annual Register of 1781, he was to be “hanged by the neck, but not till dead; then to be cut down, and his bowels taken out and burnt before his face, his head to be taken off, his body cut into four quarters, and to be at his majesty’s disposal” (184-5). In actual fact, he was hanged for fifty-seven minutes before being disemboweled, and was the last convict to be publicly disemboweled in England (Gatrell 317).

…and his hair, which was long and dark, was gathered in a ribbon at the back of his neck: more to be out of his way than for ornament.

In the late 18th century, men’s hair was worn long, often powdered, and usually tied back, often with a ribbon, into a pigtail. Wigs, simulating elaborately-dressed long hair, were also worn. Not everyone wore wigs, of course – the poorer classes did not, and though many amongst the fashionable did, wigs apparently went in and out of vogue (Fairholt 314). In the middle of the 18th century, it was discerned that

Wigs had become less ‘the rage’; and in 1763 the wig-makers thought [it] necessary to petition the king to encourage their trade by his example, and not wear his own hair: a petition that was most unfeelingly ridiculed by another from the timber merchants, praying for the universal adoption of wooden legs in preference to those of flesh and blood, under the plea of benefiting the trade of the country. (326)

Happily for the wig-makers, the early 1770s saw a resurgence of wigs (of rather absurd proportions) with an immensely tall powdered wig known as the macaroni.  Darnay, wearing his real hair, has hair of decent appearance and the customary length, but does not participate in the vogues of the very wealthy.

…an indictment denouncing him [Darnay] … for that he was a false traitor to our serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, prince, our Lord the King, by reason of his having, on divers occasions, and by divers means and ways, assisted Lewis, the French King, in his wars against our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth; that was to say, by coming and going between the dominions of our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, and those of the said French Lewis, and wickedly, falsely, traitorously and otherwise evil-adverbiously, revealing to the said French Lewis what forces our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, had in preparation to send to Canada and North America.

“Lewis, the French King” is Louis XVI (r. 1774-93); and “our serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, prince, our Lord the King” refers to George III (r. 1760-1820). Darnay is accused of traitorous activity with respect to the American War for Independence, the stirrings of which were already discernible in 1775. (Lucie Manette met Darnay on a boat in 1775, traveling between England and France, and had a conversation that she is expected to represent in court as treasonous on Darnay’s part). By 1780, the time of Darnay’s trial, Britain was losing the war with its American colonies (British forces would surrender the following year, and American independence would be recognized in 1783); moreover, in 1778, France had signed a treaty of alliance with the American colonies, throwing its weight in against its old rival, England (Roberts 345). The accusations leveled at Darnay are thus to this effect: Originally a citizen of France, and moving back and forth between France and England without a disclosed purpose during the initial phases of the American War for Independence (in which France would eventually become involved), Darnay is supposed to be a traitor to England. His native affiliation with England’s continental enemy, as well as his supposed sympathy for the cause of England’s colonies, are critical points against him in his trial.

The court was all bestrewn with herbs and sprinkled with vinegar, as a precaution against gaol air and gaol fever.

Gaol fever is a “virulent type of typhus-fever, formerly endemic in crowded jails, and frequent in ships and other confined places” (OED). In 1750, there had been such an epidemic of gaol fever in Newgate Prison that the city decided to start from scratch and build a new Newgate. This new prison would have just been completed in 1780 when Darnay stands trial.

Mr. Attorney-General had to inform the jury, that the prisoner before them, though young in years, was old in the treasonable practices which claimed the forfeit of his life.

The Attorney-General, being “the first law officer of the government, [is] the official empowered to act on behalf of the state in a trial for treason” (Sanders 63).

…his Majesty’s Chief Secretary of State...

The Secretary of State – an office abolished shortly after the period represented in this part of A Tale of Two Cities, in 1782 – could have been one of three gentlemen at this period. One ran the American Department, and two the Home Department (Sanders 64).


The Solicitor-General in England was next in rank to the Attorney-General (Sanders 65).

“He tried to explain to me how that quarrel had arisen, and he said that, so far as he could judge, it was a wrong and foolish one on England’s part. He added, in a jesting way, that perhaps George Washington might gain almost as great a name in history as George the Third.”

The “quarrel” that had arisen by 1775 – the period in which Lucie met Darnay on a boat traveling between France and England (when she was taking her father home to England after his release from the Bastille) – refers to the initial stirrings of what was, by the time of Darnay’s trial (1780), the full-blown Revolutionary War in America. 1773 was the year of the “Boston Tea Party” (a demonstration of colonial resistance to British taxation); in 1775, the first skirmish of the war occurred when British soldiers sent to requisition arms being collected by colonists at Lexington were fired upon; and in 1776 (the year following Lucie’s first encounter with Darnay), America issued its Declaration of Independence. By 1780 (the date of Darnay’s trial), the British were fairing badly – they would surrender in 1781 at Yorktown, and would officially recognize America’s independence in 1783 (three years after Darnay’s trial) (Roberts 345).

George Washington (1732-1799) commanded American forces in the Revolutionary War, and Darnay’s jest to Lucie – that “perhaps George Washington might gain almost as great a name in history as George the Third” – is considered treasonous by the British court in 1780 because it compares a colonial upstart with the reigning monarch of England. In 1780, when England was losing the war with its colonies, such a remark would have seemed flagrantly unpatriotic to English ears. By the time Dickens was writing A Tale of Two Cities (1859), however, he could refer to “that tremendous heresy about George Washington” with obvious irony. George Washington not only had become a man of rival stature to George III (the English king receded into a state of insanity during the last decade of his reign, whereas George Washington became the first president of the United States [in office 1789-97]), but had achieved some popularity with the English people. For instance, The Book of Days (published about five years after A Tale of Two Cities, in 1864) quotes the complimentary remarks of Earl Russell:

“George Washington, without the genius of Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte, has a far purer fame, as his ambition was of a higher and holier nature. Instead of seeking to raise his own name, or seize supreme power, he devoted his whole talents, military and civil, to the establishment of the independence and the perpetuity of the liberties of his own country. In modern history no man has done such great things without the soil of selfishness or the stain of a groveling ambition. Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon attained a higher elevation, but the love of dominion was the spur that drove them on…. To George Washington alone in modern times has it been given to accomplish a wonderful revolution, and yet to remain to all future times the theme of a people’s gratitude, and an example of virtuous and beneficent power.” (284)

Transcribing this eulogy, the Book of Days asserts that “The pre-eminence here accorded to Washington will meet with universal approval. He clearly and unchallengeably stands out as the purest great man in universal history. While America feels a just pride in having given him birth, it is something for England to know that his ancestors lived for generations upon her soil” (284-5). This passage is accompanied by an engraving of George Washington reproduced below.

…in the Dover mail on that Friday night in November five years ago, and got out of the mail in the night, as a blind, at a place where he did not remain, but from which he traveled back some dozen miles or more, to a garrison and dockyard, and there collected information; a witness was called to identify him as having been at the precise time required, in the coffee-room of an hotel in that garrison-and-dockyard town, waiting for another person.

The “garrison and dockyard” on the Dover Road to which Darnay is accused of having covertly returned is Chatham, in the coastal county of Kent. Dickens lived in Chatham for much of his youth, and, as an adult, had a house there at Gads Hill. If Darnay had indeed “got out of the mail in the night, as a blind, at a place where he did not remain, but from which he traveled back some dozen miles or more,” he would probably have left the mail either at Radfield (41.75 miles from the beginning of the Dover Road, and 11.75 miles from Chatham) or Green Street (42.5 miles from the beginning of the Road, and 12.5 miles from Chatham [Harper, “The Road to Dover”]). Both Radfield and Green Street would have been quite obscure locations, where he would probably not have been spotted: Even in the late 19th century, they consisted of “but dull and disheveled collections of tiny shops and cottages, with here and there a slumberous old inn or whitewashed farmhouse”; and the stretch of the Dover Road to which they belong was “very lonely” (Harper 163).

…save that vile and infamous character of evidence too often disfiguring such cases, and of which the State Trials of this country were full.

The State Trials was a publication devoted to legal proceedings which dealt with crimes against the state. The first collection of State Trials appeared in 1719, and Dickens possessed later editions (Maxwell 451).