The next two posts on our annual countdown…

4. LondonLife – Still waters at Hampstead Heath…

3. Lost London – Jacob’s Island…

 

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Famous for its mentions by Charles Dickens, Jacob’s Island – located in Bermondsey – was not actually a true island.

It was a small parcel of land formed into an “island” thanks to its location in a loop of the Neckinger River and, on the south side of the loop, a man-made ditch which was used as a mill run for Bermondsey Abbey.

The “island” – which on a modern map was located just to the south of the street known as Bermondsey Wall West, east of Mill Street, west of George Row and north of Wolseley Street, was home to a notorious slum or “rookery” between the 18th and early 19th centuries,

It was most famously mentioned in Charles Dickens’ book, Oliver Twist and was where the notorious Bill Sikes died in the mud of ‘Folly Ditch’ – a reference to the ditch surrounding the island – as he attempted to elude the authorities.

Dickens describes Jacob’s Island in the book as a place “where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low roofed houses, there exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London”. In the preface to the 1867 edition of the book, he even wrote of its ongoing existence which was apparently doubted by one City alderman, saying “Jacob’s Island continues to exist (like an ill-bred place as it is) in the year one thousand eight hundred and sixty-seven, though improved and much changed”.

The slum itself existed until the late-1800s – much of it was razed in a fire of 1861 – in subsequent decades, the ditches surrounding it were filled in and the area redeveloped into warehouses.

The River Neckinger, incidentally, is one of London’s ‘lost rivers’. Its name means ‘devil’s neckerchief’ or ‘devil’s necklace’ – a reference to the hangman’s noose – and it is believed to refer in here to the gibbet from which pirates were hung close to the mouth of where the river entered the Thames at nearby St Saviour’s Dock and where their bodies left to deter others from taking a similar path.

PICTURE: Top – Jacob’s Island and Folly Ditch, an engraving from a book published in 1873 (Internet Archive Book Images/licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0); Right – ‘Folly Ditch’, pictured here in about 1840.

 

• Dickens fever is well and truly upon us in the lead-up to the bicentenary of his birth in February and tomorrow the Museum of London opens its own unmissable exhibition, Dickens and London. Displays centre on the relationship between Dickens and the city and visitors will be able to follow in the great novelist’s footsteps as they visit some of the places which sparked his imagination as well as confront some of the great social issues of the 19th century – including childhood mortality, prostitution and poverty – and be taking on a tour of some of the age’s greatest innovations – everything from railways and steamboats to the Penny Post. Among the objects on display will be Dickens’ writing desk and chair, his bank ledger, excavated items from Jacob’s Island, a notorious slum which was located near Bermondsey, and manuscript pages describing an East End opium den which was featured in Dicken’s unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (this, along with William Powell Frith’s celebrated portrait of the author, are being lent by the Victoria and Albert Museum). The exhibition also features a specially commissioned film looking at London after dark in Dickens’ time and today. Costumes from the upcoming BBC One drama series, Great Expectations, will also be on display and there is also a specially commissioned window display by acclaimed creative director and set designer Simon Costin showing a wintery London in the mid-19th century. The museum is also offering a new iPhone and iPad graphic novel app, Dickens: Dark London, which will take users on a “journey through the darker side” of Dickens’ London. Opens on 9th December (tomorrow) and runs until 10th June, 2012. Admission charges apply. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk. For more on Dickens, see www.dickens2012.org. PICTURE: Dickens Dream by Robert William Buss (Courtesy Museum of London).

New hoardings have gone up at Leicester Square celebrating the area’s history as work continues on an £18 million plan by Westminster City Council to revitalise the Leicester Square streetscape. The more than 160 square metres of hoardings feature 11 images spanning a period of 250 years (and selected from thousands of archive images of the square). Meanwhile in Trafalgar Square, the famous Norwegian Christmas Tree was lit in a ceremony last Thursday. The tree is an annual gift from the people of Oslo as thanks for British support during Norway’s years of occupation in World War II. It will be lit from noon until midnight every day until 6th January.

And, briefly…..London’s Kew Gardens has been voted the top visitor attraction in Britain at the British Airways magazine travel award while the London Eye and Tate Modern came runner’s up…..Figures released to mark the 10th anniversary of free admission to England’s national museums show that visitor numbers to the museums have more than doubled over the past decade…..and, the first woman Tube driver, Hannah Dadds, reportedly died at the age of 70.

On Now: The Flamboyant Mr. Chinnery: An English artist in India and China. This exhibition at Asia House in New Cavendish Street in the West End, focuses on the work of 19th century artist George Chinnery and features landscapes and portraits he painted while in China and India. Runs until 21st January. Admission is free. For more, see www.asiahouse.org.

• On Now: Miracles & Charms. The Wellcome Collection is hosting this exhibition which features two shows – Infinitas Gracias: Mexican miracle paintings, the first major exhibition of Mexican votive paintings outside of Mexico, and Charmed life: The solace of objects, an exhibition of unseen London amulets from Henry Wellcome’s collection. Runs until 26th February, 2012. For more, see www.wellcomecollection.org.