Fiction in the 1860s explores varied styles – satire, realism, tragedy, humour – with writers sometimes drawing on their own direct experiences. With neither the grandeur of the West end nor the poverty of East London, often Camden Town is used as code for ‘otherness’ – a place where the reader might not normally go, a lodging for someone on hard times or a place of sanctuary while renewing their life.
George and Weedon Grossmith, who together wrote the satirical novel of suburban life, The Diary of a Nobody, knew Camden Town well. As children, they lived in Mornington Crescent and went to the North London Collegiate School (for boys) in Camden High Street. George married Emeline Noyce, daughter of a north London doctor, at St Stephens’ (now All Saints) Church in Camden Street. They knew the Holls – Henry Holl was a novelist as well as painter, and are recalled visiting their house in Camden Square. And its possible Weedon drew the Pooter’s house from Rochester Road:
Charles Dickens mentions first ‘Camberling Town’ and then Camden Town by name in his portrayal of the vast excavations in Dombey and Son. Yet the cutting for the London Junction Railway extension to Euston was on Lord Southampton’s land at Chalk Farm (and beside his former school, Wellington House Academy in Hampstead Road, rather than in Camden Town. The Dickens family did live at 16 Bayham Street, adjacent to Camden High Street, in 1822, which was, perhaps, a model for the Cratchits’ home in A Christmas Carol. Dickens himself also took lodgings for some months in College Street
Several authors, across to the next century wrote, of Camden Town including William Thackeray, George Gissing, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Machen and Compton Mackenzie. Three writers from the Continent lived for a period in Camden Town, putting their experience into their work. Plaques in Camden Town for Fontane, Verlaine and Rimbaud
Theodor Fontane, as London correspondent to a Berlin paper, lived at 6 St Augustine’s Road. Arthur Rimbaud took lodgings with Paul Verlaine at 8 College Street, near to the Veterinary College in April 1873. Rimbaud wrote A Season in Hell during the summer, and partly prepared Illuminations, to be published the following year,and the trace of London hovers in the works, mixed with his home town of Charleville on the Belgian border in France.
Camden Town was home to musicians and also music performance
Music was a form of leisure in both public and private settings. At the corner of Camden Street with King Street was Camden Hall. In the year of the Great Exhibition, 1851, there was advertised a concert by ‘G Field and M Morgan of Royal Italian Opera’, with ‘25 person Chorus’. The fare would include a ‘selection of oratorios from The Messiah’, as well as glees, madrigals, duets – held in the Large School Room, King Street. Tickets were on sale at Barratt’s Music Warehouse, High Street, Mr Hart’s Classical and Commercial Academy, King Street and Mr Morgan, 25 Kings Road.
There were opportunities for private singing advertised in the music press. Mrs Kenney advertised a school at 6 Camden Street for young ladies. Frances, her daughter, ‘who was several years the pupil of Clementi, superintends the musical accomplishment’ (The Times 9 July 1812:1.)
And there was street music. Theodore Fontane, who lived in St Augustine’s Road, wrote of his ‘Summer in London’: ‘Having got up, and unprepared for any surprise attack, I sit having breakfast and reading The Times. Then a twanging and strumming approaches … It is the povero italiano … he is a devoted soul, as devoted and unchanging as his tunes…’ (Theodore Fontane, translated by John Lynch, A Prussian in Victorian London [‘The music-makers’, 22 July 1852], London 2014:78.)