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  • Evidence that the Dickens Family May Not Have Lived in 10 Norfolk Street
  • Helena Kelly

A blue plaque affixed to the wall of what used to be 10 Norfolk Street, London (now 22 Cleveland Street) declares that "Young Charles Dickens twice lived in this house" and gives the dates of two periods when he is supposed to have done so: 1815–16 and 1828–31. The street name certainly appears in the birth announcement for the fourth of John and Elizabeth Dickens's children, Letitia, in April 1816: "On Tuesday, in Norfolk Street, Mrs. John Dickens, of a daughter."1 The man who lived at Number 10, a cheesemonger and grocer named John Dodd, was listed as one of John Dickens's creditors in 1824.2 That the Dickens family rented rooms from Dodd in 1816 is thus not a large or unreasonable leap; it remains nevertheless a leap.

The evidence that they did so in 1828–31, when Charles was in his late teens, initially appears much stronger. In the register of admissions for the British Museum, "10 Norfolk Street" is given as Charles Dickens's address in February and October 1830, and again in May 1831. He even seems to have had business cards with the address printed during his brief career as a shorthand writer.3 Yet the 1831 census, taken at the end of May, states that there were twelve people in the house, seven of them female and five male, the latter all over the age of twenty, and only one of them an educated man, employed in a professional job.4 Assuming the census return was accurate, it would appear that the house was not, by May 1831, home to the whole [End Page 186] Dickens family, since their four sons ranged in age from the baby, Augustus, then aged 3½, up to 19-year-old Charles.

Why would Charles Dickens use the address if he did not live there? For practical reasons, perhaps, ones shared by thousands of Londoners in the 1820s and early 1830s, and connected to the vagaries of the postal system before it was regulated in 1840.

Outside London, letters were charged per mile for every mile they travelled. The links between towns were fairly good, but large rural areas were poorly serviced, and deliveries there disproportionately expensive. A number of dodges resulted: illicit franking of letters by MPs and government officials, whose post was carried for free; the concealment of messages in newspapers, which were also transported free of charge, provided the tax had been paid; and sending long-distance letters either enclosed with multiple others, or hidden inside parcels or goods deliveries.5 Within London, matters were better organised. There were two metropolitan postal areas. In the inner, letters were delivered for twopence, in the outer, for threepence.

However, the London system was not without its problems. The major one was that the division between the twopenny and threepenny postal zones appeared entirely arbitrary, excluding a number of the surrounding villages which had been absorbed by the city over the past decades. The disadvantages to individuals and businesses were, cumulatively, quite considerable. Not only did every letter cost a third more, but deliveries (and collections) were far less frequent. Letters from the country, and from abroad, arrived more slowly, and at greater expense, than inside the twopenny zone.6

A simple solution was to have one's post delivered to an address inside the twopenny area, particularly if you had any kind of urgent or time-sensitive business to transact. One report suggests that this is exactly what "The late Bishop of Durham" had done, ordering, "all letters of this sort to be directed for him at a grocer's shop, within the limits of the post strictly twopenny."7 The motivation for those portions of the London population who struggled to make ends meet or worked long hours was considerably stronger. Through the 1820s and 1830s some central London shops, particularly grocers and newsagents, offered the early nineteenth-century equivalent of Amazon lockers, P. O. boxes without the need to travel to one of the capital's few physical post offices. Such arrangements held additional attractions for...


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pp. 186-188
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