The Inns of Court
The Inns of Court were familiar to Dickens from boyhood and there are numerous references to them in his novels.
On leaving school, Dickens was employed as a clerk by a solicitor who had an office in Gray's Inn and it is hardly surprising that he chose that location for the chambers of Mr Pickwick's junior counsel, Mr Phunky, in the case of Bardell v. Pickwick. The author started work on 'Pickwick Papers' whilst he was renting rooms in Furnival's Inn, on nearby High Holborn. At that time he was working as a reporter on the Morning Chronicle.
While Gray's Inn still exists - albeit altered by bomb damage during the second World War - Furnival's Inn was pulled down in the late nineteenth century. It's site is commemorated, though, by a plaque set into the wall of the large block of red buildings erected there by the Prudential Assurance Company. There is also a bust of Charles Dickens in the courtyard (Prudential Assurance Co, 142 Holborn Bars, EC1 ).
Just across the road from the Prudential building is the former Barnard's Inn, a collection of buildings now owned by the Mercers' Company. The company has redeveloped the site, but in Dickens' day, it had fallen into disrepair. He describes it scathingly in Chapter 21 of 'Great Expectations', when he has Mr Pip arrive there as a callow country lad fresh up to the city from Rochester. Poor Pip had innocently: "supposed the establishment to be an hotel kept by Mr Barnard, to which the Blue Boar in our town was a mere public house, whereas I now found Barnard to be a disembodied spirit or a fiction, and his inn the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together in a rank corner as a club for tom cats."
Also close by is Staple Inn, hidden to view behind a neat row of black and white half-timbered houses which date from the sixteenth century. The arched stone gateway under the houses still leads to the 'little nook composed of two irregular quadrangles' as described by Dickens in Chapter 11 of Edwin Drood:
"It is one of those nooks the turning into which out of the clashing street, imparts to the relieved pedestrian the sensation of having put cotton in his ears, and velvet soles on his boots. It is one of those nooks where a few smoky sparrows twitter in smoky trees, as though they called to one another, 'Let us play at country,' and where a few feet of garden-mould and a few yards of gravel enable them to do that refreshing violence to their tiny understandings. Moreover, it is one of those nooks which are legal nooks; and it contains a little Hall, with a little lantern in its roof: to what obstructive purposes devoted, and at whose expense, this history knoweth not."
The 'little hall' is still to be seen although it is not officially open to visitors.
Staple Inn features again in Bleak House, where it is given as a favourite walk for Mr Snagsby.
Of all the Inns of Court that Dickens mentions, probably the best preserved is Middle Temple. Set back from the embankment on a wide expanse of green, Middle Temple somehow manages to retain all the gravitas of a great legal institution within the precincts of what feels like a little village. With its winding alleys intricately laced between cool squares, stepping in to Middle Temple really is like stepping back in time. All of which makes it the perfect backdrop for a novel and, of course, Dickens uses the setting several times.
A very apposite description of the Temple as Dickens found it more than a century ago and very much as it is still to be found today, is given in Barnaby Rudge.
"There are, still, worse places than the Temple, on a sultry day, for basking in the sun, or resting idly in the shade. There is yet a drowsiness in its courts, and a dreamy dullness in its trees and gardens; those who pace its lanes and squares may yet hear the echoes of their footsteps on the sounding stones, and read upon its gates, in passing from the tumult of the Strand or Fleet Street, 'Who enters here leaves noise behind.' There is still the plash of falling water in fair Fountain Court, and there are yet nooks and corners where dun-haunted students may look down from their dusty garrets, on a vagrant ray of sunlight patching the shade of the tall houses, and seldom troubled to reflect a passing stranger's form. There is yet, in the Temple, something of a clerkly monkish atmosphere, which public offices of law have not disturbed, and even legal firms have failed to scare away. In summer time, its pumps suggest to thirsty idlers, springs cooler, and more sparkling, and deeper than other wells; and as they trace the spillings of full pitchers on the heated ground, they snuff the freshness, and, sighing, cast sad looks towards the Thames, and think of baths and boats, and saunter on, despondent."
It is in the Middle Temple where we are introduced to Mr Chester. He is seated in Paper Buildings, which can still be seen.
"It was in a room in Paper Buildings - a row of goodly tenements, shaded in front by ancient trees, and looking, at the back, upon the Temple Gardens - that his, our idler, lounged; now taking up again the paper he had laid down a hundred times; now trifling with the fragments of his meal; now pulling forth his golden toothpick, and glancing leisurely about the room, or out at window into the trim garden walks, where a few early loiterers were already pacing to and fro."
References to the Middle Temple are peppered about the works of Dickens, but perhaps the most memorable of them is made in Martin Chuzzlewit, when the author uses Fountain Court as the regular meeting point for Ruth Pinch and her brother, Tom.
The Inns of Court are open to the public during the working week.
Nearest tube for Gray's Inn, Furnival's Inn, Barnard's Inn and Staple Inn: Chancery Lane (Central line). For Middle Temple: Temple (District and Circle lines)
Copyright © Jan Collie 2002
Published on Britannia by permission of the author.
All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without written permission.