No one makes the tour of our southern metropolis, or describes the manners of the last age, so well as Mr. Lamb.
So wrote lifelong friend of Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, as he sketched the intimate portrait of Lamb in The Spirit of the Age (1825).
Charles Lamb was part of the community of radicals, poets, writers and free thinkers who constitute the Romantic movement in Britain in the early 1800s. His home, which he shared with his sister Mary, was for a time a sort of salon where the likes of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, the Shelleys, Keats, Clay Hunt and a panoply of other literary, political and intellectuals gathered.
While politics eventually drove wedges between many in this circle, (they who had been united in youth, vigor and shared visions at the dawn of the French Revolution), Lamb’s gentle nature meant that he rode out the disappointments and repercussions, remaining on good terms with most. He continued to contribute whimsical, finely crafted essays to the thriving journal industry of the day, and to English Literature.
Hazlitt’s insights also reveal Lamb’s peculiar sensibility for the bye-ways of life and interests:
He does not march boldly along with the crowd, but steals off the pavement to pick his way in the contrary direction.
These inclinations towards the path less travelled are divulged in Lamb’s detailed descriptions of London, with steps which can still be traced today.
The Charles Lamb, a pub near the canal at Angel filled with historical and modern maps. Image: framesofreference blog
Lamb was born at the Inner Temple, one of the four Inns of Court. This was, and still is, the domain of lawyers, barristers and judges (as well as a breeding ground for many of London’s most famous writers). In a nostalgic essay titled ‘The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple’, Lamb recalls his childhood there:
I was born, and passed the first seven years of my life, in the Temple. Its church, its halls, its gardens, its fountain, its river, I had almost said — for in those young years, what was this king of rivers to me but a stream that watered our pleasant places?
His writing luxuriates in the local details, and in other essays we find impeccably precise geographical references, almost inviting a reader to physically explore the area mapped out in their imagination. In his essay on the South Sea Company, in which Lamb himself had invested and lost out when the bubble infamously burst, we find this passage:
READER, in thy passage from the Bank – where thou hast been receiving thy half-yearly dividends (supposing thou art a lean annuitant like myself) to the Flower Pot, to secure a place for Dalston, or Shacklewell, or some other thy suburban retreat northerly, — didst thou never observe a melancholy looking handsome, brick and stone edifice, to the left — where Threadneedle Street abuts upon Bishopsgate? I dare say thou hast often admired its magnificent portals ever gaping wide, and disclosing to view a grave court, with cloisters and pillars, with few or no traces of goers-in or comers-out.
‘A melancholy looking handsome, brick and stone edifice’ – South Sea House on Threadneedle Street, EC2. Image: commons.wikimedia.org
You can still find the last relic of the financial venture on Threadneedle Street, between Bank station and Bishopsgate. You can stay nearby in the unhotel, at Fournier Street, Aldersgate Street, or gothic Lothbury. Take a stroll through the City on a sunny afternoon, and take with you Lamb’s essay, enfolding his imagination as he envisages old and new London:
– the site of old theatres, churches, streets gone to decay — where Rosamond’s pond stood — the Mulberry-gardens — and the Conduit in Cheap — with many a pleasant anecdote, derived from paternal tradition, of those grotesque figures which Hogarth has immortalized in his picture of Noon, — the worthy descendants of those heroic confessors, who, flying to this country, from the wrath of Louis the Fourteenth and his dragoons, kept alive the flame of pure religion in the sheltering obscurities of Hog-lane, and the vicinity of the Seven Dials!