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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)



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