Normally, buildings occupied by someone famous get a small blue plaque, but when you’re Charles Dickens, you get a huge stone mural instead.
This stone mural sits on a 1950s office block in Marylebone and is here because Charles Dickens lived in a house just slightly down Marylebone High Street at 1 Devonshire Terrace, a side road that’s lost under the office block, but seems to have been roughly where the car park entrance at the back to the office is today.
Charles Dickens moved around a lot in his life, and it was in December 1839 that he moved the family from their terraced house in Bloomsbury’s Doughty Street to here in Marylebone, where they lived until 1851.
It was here, in 1 Devonshire Terrace, that he completed Barnaby Rudge, wrote the novels Martin Chuzzlewit, The Old Curiosity Shop, Dombey & Son and David Copperfield, and topically for this time of year — it’s where he wrote A Christmas Carol.
The house looks grander than it was, as the building was originally Devonshire Lodge, but then chopped up into several houses, of which the Dickens family lived in the northern side, closest to the gardens at No. 1 Devonshire Terrace, although as the family often travelled, they didn’t live there all the time. At one point they sub-let the house for a whole year while travelling in Italy.
The whole site, including what had been back gardens fronting Marylebone Road was cleared in the 1950s for the construction of Ferguson House, the large office block and telephone exchange that’s on the site today.
The large stone panel that sits on the corner to mark Dickens time here, was carved in 1960 by Estcourt James Clack, and shows the principal characters from six of his novels which were written whilst the author was living nearby. The panel was one of Clack’s last works, as he retired in 1962.
Working clockwise from the top left, we have:
Jacob Marley appearing to Scrooge as a door knocker in A Christmas Carol. Barnaby Rudge and his raven Grip. Dickens had a pet raven also called Grip, which he had stuffed and mounted when the bird died.
Then we have Little Nell and her grandfather from The Old Curiosity Shop.
Below is the midwife and ‘layer-out’ Sairey Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit, and then Mr Micawber with David Copperfield.
In the middle is Paul Dombey and his daughter Florence from Dombey and Son.
And of course, the distinctive face of an aged Charles Dickens — he was much younger and beardless when he moved to live here, but as hardly anyone would recognise him without the beard, he is shown with the beard he grew a year or two before he moved out.
This is though, the second plaque to mark Dickens time in Devonshire Terrace, as the old house used to have an early Blue Plaque, which was added by the London County Council in 1903. So he did have a small plaque, but only for a few years.
Although they added the plaque, the LCC was less interested in saving the house later, approving unfulfilled plans to demolish it in 1936 and again in 1945. Part of the argument that it needn’t be preserved was that the Charles Dickens Fellowship had recently acquired and preserved Dickens previous home in Doughty Street — today the Charles Dickens Museum — and that the interior of the Marylebone house had been much altered by later occupants.
Eventually, the block was cleared and the office block was built here in the late 1950s instead, but at least the memory of Charles Dickens’s most productive years is commemorated.