Surrounded by modern buildings is a very old building that claims to be the original Old Curiosity Shop made famous by Charles Dickens, but it’s not what it says it is.
Although commonly known as the Old Curiosity Shop, it’s officially 13-14 Portsmouth Street and is a timber-framed building dating to the early 17th century. The land in the area was once owned by the Duchess of Portsmouth, hence, Portsmouth Street, possibly as a gift from King Charles II.
Originally built as two houses, and although there was a date of 1567 painted onto the building, it likely dates from the middle of the 17th century. Originally two houses, they later became a dairy, a bookbinder in the 19th century, a Dickens shop in the 20th and its most recent use was as a shoe shop.
It’s said to be the original of Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop and is listed Grade II* on account of its literary associations — which is an interesting point, as it’s not listed because it’s old, but only because of a claimed link to Charles Dickens.
His novel, The Old Curiosity Shop was serialised between 1840 and 41. It’s worth noting as it will be important later, that the story was so popular that New York readers stormed the wharf when the ship bearing the final instalment arrived in 1841.
The story was then published as a stand-alone novel later in 1841.
The shop in the novel is never explicitly named, but, as with many of Dickens’s novels, presumed to be an unnamed but real building in London.
That brings us to the shop on Portsmouth Street.
The idea that this was the Old Curiosity Shop took hold in the 1870s, when a dealer in second-hand books, Mr Tesseyman was the occupant of the building. It was he who painted the now famous sign on the front of the building in 1868.
If that were all that happened, it would likely have long been painted over again, however, about a decade later, an American on a visit spotted the shop and its sign, and he wrote about it.
Now, most records say that the article was published in Harper’s Magazine, but I can’t find any such report in the magazine’s archives (I could have missed it), but a news report in the London Echo newspaper in December 1883 cited Scribner’s Monthly, and yes, indeed, it is there – published in May 1881.
However, the article is actually quite clear that there’s no evidence that this building is the actual one cited by Dickens, but people rarely read past the headlines, then as now, and people overlooked inconvenient facts in favour of romantic fiction.
Remember the popularity of the novel with New Yorkers? Well, that article sent to an audience already huge fans of the book cemented the idea that this building was in fact the actual one that inspired Charles Dickens’s novel.
The whole thing gained even more publicity in December 1883 the idea that this was indeed the Old Curiosity Shop was picked up by the Daily Telegraph who also reported that the building was in danger of being demolished. Of course, that triggered alarm and several newspapers reported great crowds coming to look at the building before it was torn down. Although the newspapers also sniffily add that no true Londoner would fall for such nonsense, as all Londoners know the building was never specifically identified in the novel.
The truth is that we have no evidence that Dickens used this building as his inspiration. It’s possible that Tesseyman painted the sign onto the front because he was told by Dickens that it had inspired him, or that he was just being clever in tapping into a popular novel on sale at the time hoping that the name would boost his sales.
Poor Tesseyman though, as the association with Dickens didn’t help his shop and he died in poverty.
That didn’t stop later shop owners profiting from the literary association though, and it remained a popular place for tourists to visit, and have early photos taken standing outside it.
The shop passed through a number of owners, was damaged by fire in 1925 and bombs in 1941, and spent most of the 20th-century as a shop selling Dickens themed goods. The oddest use maybe was its most recent, as a retailer of handmade shoes, who still trades, although online only now.
In 2018, it was bought by the locally dominant landlord, the London School of Economics. As part of the construction of the neighbouring Marshall Building, a new addition to the LSE campus, it was agreed they would restore the Old Curiosity Shop as well.
The bulk of the work was structural, such as repairing damage and waterproofing as well as repairs to the timbers were needed. The restored building was revealed from behind its hoardings a few months ago, with a repainted front that is more appropriate to the era that the building was likely created, with cream plater above a green shop front.
A sign in the window says the work was carried out by Dolmen Conservation.
It will soon be let out again as a shop.
And doubtless, it will be a key spot for Dickens tourist fans to visit once again, because let’s be honest, the facts don’t matter then there’s a lovely story to tell.