13-14 Portsmouth Street, London WC2 — a possible inspiration for Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop (1841). Compare this building to another of about the same age in Canterbury.

This sixteenth-century, half-timbered building reputedly served as the model for the original home of Little Nell and her grandfather in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41). The building initially housed a dairy on the estate that King Charles the Second presented to one of his many mistresses, the Duchess of Portsmouth, in the late seventeenth century (her title gives the street upon which the old dairy is located its name). According to a number of guidebooks, websites, and commentaries on the England of Dickens, the sixteenth-century, half-framed, two-storey shop on Portsmouth Street, just minutes walk away from Lincoln Inn's Fields, where Dickens's friend and legal advisor John Forster lived, may have been the visual inspiration for the opening scenes in Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop in Master Humphrey's Clock (1841). Although this identification is certainly possible, and although the building, dating from around 1567, is probably the oldest shop in central London, and one of the few to survive the Great Fire of 1666, critics have raised a number of objections.

Arguments against 13-14 Portsmouth Street as Inspiration for the Novel’s Setting

To begin with, Master Humphrey announces in the opening chapter that the shop is in the vicinity of Covent Garden Market, not Lincoln's Inn Fields. In the second place, in the closing chapter Kit Nubbles specifically mentions to his children that the old shop has been torn down to make way for urban renewal: "The old house had long ago been pulled down, and a fine broad road was in its place" (223). Such highly reliable witnesses as Georgina Hogarth, Dickens's sister-in-law (1827-1917) and the actor Sir John Hare (1844-1921) have identified the location of the shop as Green Street (renamed Irving Street), near London's National Portrait Gallery.

Other Places associated with the 1840-41 novel

After Nell and her grandfather have fled London, they encounter the Punch-and-Judy puppeteers Codlin and Short in the churchyard in Aylesbury. Subsequently, they accompany the itinerant showmen to the June horse races at  Banbury in Oxfordshire. Their next identifiable stop, the rustic village where they first meet the kindly schoolmaster, is probably Warmington in Warwickshire. Not far from there, they meet the lady of the caravan, Mrs. Jarley, somewhere near Gaydon, Warwickshire. The town at which Mrs. Jarley establishes her waxworks for a long-term exhibition appears to be Warwick, dominated by its castle. The blighted industrialised city where Nell spends the night by a factory's blast-furnace, although again unnamed in the novel, seems to be Birmingham, located at the end of a lengthy canal, just as Warwick was connected to Birmingham in the early 19th c. In the Black Country beyond Birmingham, travelling by foot, Nell faints in a city street, likely at Wolverhampton. There, the kindly schoolmaster comes to her rescue, and takes her to his new posting, the Shropshire village of Tong, where Nell dies.

Photograph taken in 1972 by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

A Note on the Date of the Action of the Novel


Bates, Allan. “Stage Coach Routes in 1836." Directory of Stage Coach Services, 1836. Web. 2 November 2020.

Dexter, Walter. "The Old Curiosity Shop." The England of Dickens. London: Cecil Palmer 1925. 172 -88.

Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop in Master Humphrey's Clock. Illustrated by Phiz, George Cattermole, Samuel Williams, and Daniel Maclise. 3 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1840.

Easson, Angus, ed. "Introduction." Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1977.

Jones, Richard. "The Old Curiosity Shop: A Detailed History. Immortalised by Charles Dickens?." London Walking Tours. Web. 11 November 2020.

Lynch, Tony. "Portsmouth Street, London." Dickens's England: An A to Z Tour of the Read and Imagined Locations. London: Batsford, 2012. 147-48/

Tan, Jack. "Charles Dickens’s Idealized Portraits: Rewriting the child in Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop." The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature 18, No 1 (September 2015).

Created 11 April 2015

Last modified 11 November 2020