The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

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Dickens, Great Expectations and the Thames

  • Jeremy TamblingEmail author
Living reference work entry


Dickens London Newgate Prison Rivers Rochester Soho Thames Walworth 


The Thames River, flowing through London, as far upstream as Teddington, is a constant reference point and distinguishes this Dickens novel from those which had come earlier.

The Thames

The Thames River, flowing through London, as far upstream as Teddington, is a constant reference point and distinguishes this Dickens novel from those which had come earlier. Compeyson, first met with at Epsom races, lives below Teddington at Brentford, the Brent being a tributary of the Thames (Dickens 2003: 347, 348). Epsom, 13 miles out from the center of London, had been used for racing at least since the Restoration: its famous annual occasion, the Derby, had been painted by William Frith (1819–1909) between 1856 and 1858, as “Derby Day.” The picture embodies London life and seems to be the place where Compeyson first met Miss Havisham (181), as he certainly first met Magwitch there (347) – Magwitch has just been released from Kingston jail, another Thames location. There may be a continuity with this sporting world when it is said that Bentley Drummle, the aristocratic wife-beater who marries Estella, has been killed by an accident with a horse [482]. Matthew Pocket and his family live downstream (5 miles from the center, Pip is told [172]) at Hammersmith (186), and there Pip has a boat and practices rowing. Estella comes to London to stay at Richmond, on the south side of the river (265, see also 270 for the area’s anachronistic gentility): she specifically notes it is 10 miles out from the center of town (from the coaching station at the Cross Keys, Wood Street, Cheapside).

Pip’s rowing, part of the occupation of being a “gentleman” in this London, anticipates the part where he, Herbert, and Startop row Magwitch down the Thames to catch either the steamer which would start from the Pool of London, for Hamburg or for Rotterdam (434), somewhere below Gravesend (near which, in Kent, Dickens was already living, at Gad’s Hill since 1856). Chapter 15 of the Third Stage of the novel (or Chap. 54) describes how the men leave London at the Temple Stairs; Dickens specifically points out how this was then on the river, the Thames not yet being embanked. They pick up Magwitch who is now lodging in secret at Mill Pond Bank. This is specified by Wemmick to be on the river, “down the Pool there between Limehouse [north side of the Thames] and Greenwich [south side]” (371), in other words, present-day Rotherhithe. Pip, narrating, says how the area was scented “by the chips and shavings of the long-shore boatbuilders, and mast, oar, and block makers,” and to reach it on foot was via “the Old Green Copper Ropewalk” which would get to Chink’s Basin and Mill Pond Bank (373). They go through the arches of old London Bridge, not finally replaced until 1831, and go past Billingsgate with “oyster-boats and Dutchmen,” and the White Tower and Traitor’s Gate (both the Tower of London) are among the “Leith, Aberdeen, and Glasgow steamers” and collier boats unloading coal (435). They then pick up Magwitch at the Mill Pond Stairs (not identifiable) and go on past the tiers of shipping and past figureheads, “the John of Sunderland” and the “Betsy of Yarmouth” (438). In all this, the contrast between the west and east of London is strong; so is the sense of London’s size and the river as the place of life and of commerce together and of London as a “metropolis” (163), though “ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty” (163). Pip describes his practice-rowing for the journey, from the Temple, to the Pool of London, and to Erith, then a quiet port on the Thames, and, with the steamers, an early Victorian holiday resort (380).

Another feature of the waterside neighborhood around Rotherhithe is a theater where Mr Wopsle performs, having sunk in his ambition to revive the drama (382); here Pip is shadowed by Compeyson, sitting ghostlike behind him in the theater, Compeyson being thus associated with the west and east of London. At Gravesend, the boat passes not only “two emigrant ships” but also “a large transport with troops on the forecastle” (438), i.e., a ship bound for Australia, carrying prisoners, a practice which ran from 1787 to 1868, each ship taking well over half a year to make the journey. And a further marker of the Thames, as of many other river estuaries, was the mooring of prison ships, boats called “Hulks,” a practice beginning in the 1770s (and of course by no means finished, as a practice, worldwide). Turner’s “Fighting Temeraire” (picture 1838–1839), built in Chatham dockyards in 1798, was a “hulk,” before being towed to be broken up at Rotherhithe. There were hulks moored near Chatham, in the Medway, off Sheerness, where in Dickens’s time, men were brought ashore to work in the shipbuilding (226).

Wemmick mentions to Pip the names of the then six bridges over the Thames – the old (first Roman) London Bridge, then Southwark (1819), Blackfriars (1769), Waterloo (1817), Westminster (1750), and Vauxhall (1816). These, by their end date, help define the precise period of the novel; though it has been disputed, it may be assumed that Pip, who is 23 when Magwitch returns to tell him that he is his patron, must have been born around 1800, the action then lying in the period of Dickens’s own childhood, and going up to the time of the imprisonment of his father, and the child’s working in the blacking factory, and also on the Thames at 30 Hungerford Stairs, the Strand, in 1824: Joe makes a covert reference to this when he visits London (221). Dickens himself had come up to London from his childhood home at Chatham, with his family, to live in Camden Town, in 1822. At that stage he was aged 10; so there is an autobiographical sense of Pip, like the younger Dickens, experiencing Regency London for the first time (in the case of Pip) or the London of George IV, in the case of Dickens.

The Thames flows out into the North Sea just north of the marshes where Pip is brought up and about which Dickens writes in the first chapter, so that the underwater fight between Magwitch and Compeyson (445) exactly parallels the place where the two previously fought, in a ditch, (36) before being captured and taken off to the Hulks again, from whence they had, separately, escaped. “The Jack” at the public house below Gravesend where Pip and the others rest the night before Magwitch’s final capture scavenges the clothes of drowned people along the shore (440–441, 446) and indicates, alongside his fear of the customs office, which shows he is a smuggler, how the Thames is used as a resource: it anticipates Our Mutual Friend and the scavenging there.

The fighting between the men should, incidentally, be compared with that which leads to a woman’s body being found in a barn near Hounslow Heath (not far from Brentford). It seems that the women involved in the fight were Molly (now a housekeeper for Mr Jaggers) and a woman of whom she was jealous with regard to Magwitch and whom she strangled (393). The intensity of violence fits this London and is at the heart of how Dickens conceptualizes the city. Hounslow Heath, now mainly buried underneath Heathrow Airport, was a large area traversed by roads going west out of London to Bristol and Exeter and had a reputation for highwaymen. The picture by William Powell Frith (whom Dickens knew) of one of the most famous, Claude Duval, was first shown in 1860: the year of this novel. Duval was hanged at Tyburn in 1670, aged 27. But, in contrast with Frith, there is no romanticism of the gallant highwayman here, as if everything in Great Expectations was challenging Frith’s pictorial vision of highwaymen with a less romantic and colorful (literally) sense of crime and its consequences. Indeed, no other Dickens novel is quite so interested in the figure of the convict, and prisoners, especially those expecting the death penalty or those who have been killed, whose death masks remain in Mr Jaggers’s office. To work out the reasons for this interest must be the key to the book’s interpretation.


The narrow peninsula in the county of Kent where the child lives is bounded on the other, south side by the Medway River, which also flows into the sea, the two towns on the south side of the Medway, as it enters the sea being Rochester and Chatham, virtually indistinguishable now: Chatham was where Dickens’s father, John Dickens, worked from 1817 to 1822: he was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office. Chatham, by 1567, was partially replacing Deptford – an essential site for the schools in Our Mutual Friend – as a major national center for shipbuilding and repairs. Dickens showed a keen awareness of such shipbuilding (Collins 1980).

While Chatham may figure as the “Mudfog” of Dickens’s early journalism, as in Sketches by Boz and even as the birthplace of Oliver Twist in the original Bentley’s Miscellany version of the novel as it was serialized, Rochester, the cathedral town of Cloisterham in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and also appearing near the opening of The Pickwick Papers, is generally regarded as the market town in which Mr Pumblechook, the “well to do corn-chandler” (24); Trabb, who is both tailor (150) and undertaker; and Miss Havisham in Satis House live. Rochester is specified as being 4 miles from the forge where Joe works and where Pip is apprenticed (65). It has the town hall where Pip is bound as an apprentice to Joe (105) – a combination, in looks, of a church and a prison. It has the Blue Boar Inn; here, Dickens satirizes the town’s local journalism (230). It is portrayed as desperately provincial and self-satisfied in its ignorance, and it is inevitable that Pip should, and must, leave it for London. The journey by stagecoach, of about 30 miles, takes 5 h (163), and Pip, in his despair, walks it (365). Toward the end, Dickens specifies its cathedral, and the “nooks of ruin where the old monks had once had their refectories and gardens” (395), where “the strong walls were now pressed into the service of humble sheds and stables” (395); the cathedral music sounds like “funeral music”(395), and the rooks – always important for Dickens for suggesting the home – “as they hovered about the grey tower and swung in the bare high trees of the priory-garden, seemed to call to me that the place was changed, and that Estella was gone out of it for ever” (395). Here the city is the emblem of ruin, but it is also a question as to whether London is much better. The geography of the river, which connects London to the landscape of “mudbank, mist, swamp and work” (229), threatens to abolish the differences that are set up when Pip goes to London to become a gentleman.


Pip goes from Cheapside, in the city, to Little Britain where Jaggers has his office, between Smithfield, the place for herding and killing cattle, and the Old Bailey and Newgate, where hangings take place. Jaggers lives in Gerrard Street, in Soho (now in the heart of Chinatown), developed in the Restoration and chosen by Dickens as being antique, baroque, with “and carved garlands on the panelled walls” (211). Wemmick, his clerk, lives in Walworth, south London, which had already appeared in the story “The Black Veil” in Sketches by Boz.

Pip initially lodges at Barnard’s Inn (Chap. 21), one of the old inns of Chancery, opposite Furnival’s Inn in Holborn where Dickens lodged from 1834 to 1837 (then a set of old legal apartments which could be rented), before moving to the Temple where he similarly rents rooms in Garden Court (all these sites have been demolished). Another center for the novel is Covent Garden. In the first ending of the novel, which Dickens controversially replaced, Pip last meets Estella, accidentally, in Piccadilly. The geography which connects Jaggers’s office with Newgate and so with the criminal law court, Smithfield, and with the regular entrance into London by stagecoach is essential for the sense of London as the place to make and break criminals. Jaggers’s office is described in almost expressionist terms, as having only a skylight as a window, with “distorted adjoining houses looking as if they had twisted themselves to peep down at me through it” (164). The paranoia this London induces is apparent.

The walk to Walworth which Pip and Wemmick make – Wemmick every day of course – is approximately 3 miles from Little Britain past St Paul’s to Robert Mylne’s Blackfriars Bridge, across from there to St George’s Circus, whose obelisk Mylne created in 1771. St George’s Circus was to govern traffic coming from Blackfriars, London, and Westminster Bridges. From there they would go south to the present Elephant and Castle and then a coaching inn at Newington Butts, with the Newington Highway going north to London Bridge via Borough High Street (and passing Horsemonger Jail on the right). Newington Butts had had a theater in Shakespeare’s time, and the area of the present-day Elephant, Newington, and Walworth all ran together. St Mary’s Parish Church, Newington, was medieval and rebuilt on its present site, away from its old graveyard, in the late nineteenth century. St Peter’s in Walworth, architect Sir John Soane, was consecrated in 1825.

Walworth is the “other” to MR Jaggers’s house and office, and an escape, while Wemmick’s wedding takes place at Camberwell and on “the rising ground beyond the green” (454), i.e., going toward Denmark Hill and Herne Hill, areas associated with John Ruskin, who lived there. Walworth, the name applied to the area on either side of the Walworth Road, which runs between the Elephant and Castle and Camberwell Green, was then semirural, “a collection of back lanes, ditches and little gardens,” with “the aspect of a rather dull retirement” (206); it became a scrabble of working-class developments after the railway came through the area in the 1860s. Wemmick has managed to buy a freehold property in it (208) and has made it into a fantastic miniature Gothic castle, as if bringing out the truth of Joe Gargery’s sentiment that “an Englishman’s ‘ouse is his Castle, and castles must not be busted, ‘cept when done in war time” (466). This semilegal phrase from the late sixteenth century is indeed taken semiseriously by Wemmick and put into comparison with Newgate, with which he is associated (see Chap. 32) and which had been a defensive outpost in the medieval walls of London, and brings out how London is to be regarded as paranoia-inducing and equally as the place where spying and shadowing people is routine. Indeed, as Wemmick says, “you may get cheated, robbed, and murdered in London” (172). Though he affirms that “there are plenty of people anywhere, who will do that for you” (172), there is the sense that London is being singled out and that the convict associations which haunt Pip in Kent have their sources here, London being like a web (hence Bentley Drummle is called “the Spider” by Jaggers (212)) who calls him “one of the true sort” (217), as if recognizing that he is a criminal type, as he is, with no repression of his cruelty.

The split life that Wemmick leads, between the office and Walworth, is not to be thought of in personal terms; the character’s idiosyncrasies, like those of his employer, are the products of a socially induced paranoia which Great Expectations discusses throughout and which takes two forms – the encouragement of different types of social exclusivity based on possession of property and awareness of London as generating crime. Mr Jaggers himself “puts the case” in hypothetical, but real terms of himself as a lawyer who:

Lived in an atmosphere of evil, and [that] all he saw of children was their being generated in great numbers for certain destruction. Put the case that he often saw children solemnly tried at a criminal bar, where they were held up to be seen, put the case that he habitually knew of their being imprisoned, whipped, transported, neglected, cast out, qualified in all ways for the hangman, and growing up to be hanged. Put the case that pretty nigh all the children he saw in his daily business life he had reason to look upon as so much spawn, to develop into the fish that were to come to his net – to be prosecuted, defended, made orphans, bedevilled somehow. (413)

Jaggers, who seems to be setting a man-trap and watching it, so that “suddenly – click – you’re caught” (199) has to be, as here, when describing how he extracted the baby Estella from the urban squalor and destructive atmosphere, which is created and punished by the law, on both sides of it. Or rather, the law can be said to zigzag (hence the name “Jaggers”) in such a way that everyone is potentially wrong-footed by it, and it requires a complete surrender of a single position in order to proceed. Even agents of the law may not be safe from it (202), in the way that it is infinitely manipulable. Wemmick reacts to this by trying to maintain two lives, in order to keep out of the control of such a law whose movements induce fear, and the price of this is excluding certain topics from converse; even talk with prisoners about to be hanged at Newgate (Chap. 32) is bound to be insincere. It is this uncertainty which marks off London so distinctly in this novel.



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© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LondonUK