The Old Curiosity Shop

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Retracing our steps….we shortly arrive at Portsmouth Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. At No. 14 will be found (for a short time only) a small old-fashioned house, on the front of which is painted an inscription, “The Old Curiosity Shop, Immortalised by Charles Dickens,” now occupied by Mr. H. Poole, dealer in wastepaper. This is said to be the house assigned by the novelist for the residence of Little Nell and her grandfather, with whose pathetic history we are all familiar—

“One of those receptacles for old and curious things, which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town, and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust.”

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It cannot, however, be regarded as absolutely certain that this particular house was the author’s intended “local habitation” for one of the best-known and loved of his creations. The tale itself concludes with a reference to Kit’s uncertainty as to the whereabouts of the place:—

“The old house had long ago been pulled down, and a fine broad road was in its place. At first he would draw with his stick a square upon the ground to show them where it used to stand. But he soon became uncertain of the spot, and could only say it was thereabouts, he thought, and that these alterations were confusing.”

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[A lady, personally acquainted with the great novelist, has informed the author that she was once taken by Mr. Dickens to No. 10 Green Street (approaching Leicester Square from the east)—at the corner of Green and Castle Streets, behind the National Gallery—the business of curiosity-dealing being then and there carried on. Mr. Dickens himself localised this house as the home of little Nell, pointing out an inner room—divided from the shop by a glass partition—as her bedroom. The premises are now rebuilt.]
‘Rambles in Dickens Land’, Robert Allbut, S.T. Freemantle. 1899.

Images top to bottom:
1. This old photograph reproduced on a postcard may have been made in the 1870s.
2. New tenants Gill & Durrant, successors to H. Poole photographed c.1912-1914. The shop was threatened with demolition at the time Allbut wrote that it would be there “for a short time only”. It was saved, but Mr. Poole had already moved to new premises.
3. Another tenant – who needs to fix that roof urgently! Could be early 1920s. I think the lady in the doorway is dressed in Victorian style for maximum Dickensian effect.

The old shop today is surrounded by the brick and glass of the London School of Economics and in need of more maintenance. Modern opinion agrees with Allbut that it had no connection to Dickens. In fact Steve Draper claims in this post that it was rebranded in 1868, when it was a bookshop, to increase trade.

That dicussion is a distraction from the building’s real historic value. Here is a 17th (some say 16th) century structure that has survived the Great Fire of London and the bombs of two world wars. Surely that deserves better than a Grade II listing.

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