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The Hummums: Bath, Brothel and Holy Shrine of Literary London

Cory MacLauchlin

In 1887, George Augustus Sala published a fifty-page pamphlet titled “The Old Hummums Made New Again: A Retrospect and Description of the Most Historical Hostelery in Covent Garden.” In this short work Sala commemorates a newly built hotel, as he merges it with the past institutions that once stood on the same plot of land and bore the same name. Nostalgically, Sala imbues the new space with the lore of the old space. And as he reflects on the history behind the Hummums he uplifts it as “the most sacred place on earth.” All should remove their hats at “the great shrine of the Old Hummums” (46). He glorifies and deifies the long-standing British institution, while indulging in marketing hyperbole. But despite Sala’s expressed devotion to the Hummums, despite his attempts to stabilize its sanctity in print, little remains known about the space or the experiences that took place within it. Sala’s pamphlet, and the subsequent decline of the Hummums, raises important questions regarding this institution’s place in London life. Why does it evoke such passion in Sala and his contemporaries? What did this space represent and offer to the Victorian Londoner? And if it was such an important place, why have we forgotten it?

While the dedicated researcher can find fragments of information regarding the building’s history, there has never been an attempt to assess the cultural value of the Hummums through cultural means, essentially tracking its life in print. Thus its consistent appearances within literature from the late seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century remain disconnected. I have surveyed its life in print, both historical and literary, in my thesis at University of Virginia, but here I will focus on its literary life.

The Hummums of Covent Garden once stood, in various structural avatars, at the southeast corner of the Little Piazza, in between Great Russell Street and Tavistock Row. In its long history it provided many services from Turkish baths to a Restaurant hotel, and as its services changed so did its appearance. But despite various owners, mergers, and destruction both by fire and human demolition, the Hummums, as a corporate entity, survived from the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth century. Like a phoenix, it repeatedly emerged from its ashes, staking its claim on this little niche in the London metropolis. In fact the very term “hummums” became so closely associated with the southeast corner of the market that several nineteenth century mapmakers, like Edmund Wilkinson, replaced the term “Little Piazza” with “Hummums” on their London maps, indicating that this institution formed a definitive section of Covent Garden. It not only occupied a physical space in London, it occupied a substantial space in the idea of London.

In some ways it still resides in London; it has pressed into the leaves of London’s history. The literature of both the eighteenth and nineteenth century maintains its walls, its chambers, and its lore. The Hummums features in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, links to Hogarth’s “A Midnight Modern Conversation,” and figures in eighteenth-century historical accounts, novels, poems, ballads, and plays. Through letters and journals prominent nineteenth-century artists like George Crabbe, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) disclose their visits to the Hummums. Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray use the Hummums in their creative works. And of course, George Augustus Sala celebrates, but ominously concludes, its textual history.

Through its turbid literary life, authors, artists and occupants have seen The Hummums as a structural text to be read, entered into, and rewritten, especially for Dickens, Thackeray, Sala, and Dodgson. But in this rewriting of the space the occupant is in turn rewritten. Originally as a bath space it symbolically represented a physical change or renewal.[1] But from the eighteenth century into the Victorian era these re-writings of the Hummums identify it as a space in which to remember, rejuvenate and renew the self. As Pip in Great Expectations, Osborne in Vanity Fair and the journals of Charles Ludwig Dodgson testify, the Hummums was a space charged with the possibility of self-transformation. If so desired the occupant of the Hummums could leave drastically different from whence he checked in.

Moments of transformation in the Hummums range from identity perception to death. Appropriately, and most attractive to the Victorians, the Hummums begins its literary life with the shift from embodiment to the disembodied spirit. Parson Ford’s ghost story in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson and Hogarth’s “A Midnight Modern Conversation,” two major texts of the 18th century that thrived in Victorian London, establish the literary lore behind the Hummums. In Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell notices Parson Ford’s presence in Hogarth’s print hanging on the wall and then prompts Johnson to tell the story of his cousin’s ghost. Johnson recounts the then seemingly famous tale of Ford, who died in his bedchamber at the Hummums and thereafter haunted the establishment. Boswell remarks that Ford “makes a conspicuous figure” in Hogarth’s “A Midnight Modern Conversation,” which was printed one year after Ford’s death. These texts seem unrelated to contemporary readers, but they were virtually inseparable to the Victorian London literati. For example, Sala jointly employs Ford’s tale and Hogarth’s print to establish the literary history behind the Hummums. These two texts held such intimacy that Sala reasons “A Midnight Modern Conversation” actually takes place in one of the hotel’s chambers (15).

There is no concrete evidence to prove that the Hummums serves as the setting to Hogarth’s print. But the popularity of Ford’s ghost story and his patronage of the Hummums make it a probable locale. Furthermore, the bacchanalian revelry offers the ghost tale an attractive and engaging visualization. Ford figures as the fat Parson who still indulges in smoke and drink, seemingly unaffected, while his companions stumble in drunken folly. In the midst of this chaos Ford stares off into space, emotionally void. With his faint smirk and wide-open eyes, he appears hypnotized. While physically present, his gaze, his thoughts, his mind project towards oblivion, perhaps foreshadowing or foreseeing his death. If juxtaposing Ford’s ghost story and Hogarth’s print, we may see a moment of spiritual transformation — a representation of Ford that appears disengaged from his fellow man.

While both texts exist as different artifacts, they share a spatial bond. In their depiction of the Hummums, they create a circle of reflection, commenting on but also integrating with each other. “Is this the night that Ford dies?” we may ask of Horgarth’s print. “Is this what the chamber looked like?” we may ask of Johnson’s story. They serve, and certainly served in the nineteenth century, as tools to read one another. In essence Hogarth’s print haunts Johnson’s tale, and Johnson’s tale haunts Hogarth’s print.

Through this relationship the Hummums achieves a Bachelardian poetic of space; the Hummums becomes a space comprised of cultural memory and psychic energy. While we might still ask what the Hummums looked like (a question I insist upon asking) it seems far less important for eighteenth and nineteenth century Londoners, who had a direct connection to both the physical and poetic Hummums. The literati of Victorian London were more interested in the memory and energy of the Hummums space. Following Johnson and Hogarth, the Hummums becomes a space for both recollecting the past and facing the potential of what we will become. The details of its interior concede to a charged spatial poetic, where past, present and future collapse into an intensity of being — a still, hypnotic stare into the unknown.

Many years later, Pip in Great Expectations falls into a similar hypnosis of oblivion in his Hummums bedchamber, leading to the most compelling and elusive Hummums episode in literature. As Dickens nods towards Johnson and Hogarth in this supernatural scene, he increases the intensity of the haunted Hummums when he melds Pip’s psyche into the very walls of his bedchamber. Pip undergoes a transformative realization from which he emerges with a perception truer to his actual identity as a middle-class citizen. The Hummums sparks an unsettling consciousness of alienation that forces Pip to free himself from a fictive benefactor or author and begin to forge his own identity, finally writing his own story.

Pip comes to the Hummums after returning from his childhood home, after learning Estella is not meant for him and Miss Havisham is not his benefactor. In addition to this crushing realization, Wemmick sends a cryptic note commanding him: DON’T GO HOME. Confused, dizzied and exhausted from the trip, Pip hastens to the Hummums where he undergoes the psychological crisis of disillusionment. At the Hummums his feelings of utter solitude swell into hallucinatory manifestations. For a moment it seems Pip turns to the dark possibility of suicide when he recalls a story of a “gentlemen unknown” coming “to the Hummums at night” and taking his own life.[2] Pip assimilates the tale of the “unknown” man into a possible narrative for himself. He could choose to pursue the quick ending of self-destruction. In being thrust into an authorial role, after a lifetime of passively reading his own life, striking The End on his narrative stakes a claim on his own text. In this pondering of suicide Pip parallels Merdle in Little Dorrit. Just as Merdle, in going to the bathhouse, unburdens himself from Society’s Expectations, so too does Pip, in the Hummums, cast off the psychological weight in resisting his own Expectations. The difference comes in the end, where Merdle, like the unknown gentleman, “welters in blood,” while Pip chooses life, finding the “companionship of a distant light” (363). He quits the unknown gentleman’s yarn, claiming a living authority over his own narrative.

As Pip turns away from suicide, he utters a mantra of conjugation. Several scholars suggest that his conjugation of “DON’T GO HOME” results in his alienation and thereby permits his transformation. Steven Connor, in his Charles Dickens, argues that Pip undergoes a “decentering of self” that allows him to objectively evaluate his self (139). Pip’s exercise has a privately psychological, but ultimately social, function. Afterwards he can rejoin society as a truer self. But scholars have generally overlooked this scene’s uniquely spatial dimension. To extract Pip’s conjugation exercise from the space in which it occurs (as has been the critical trend) is to deny the scene its structural cohesiveness within both itself and the novel. The words DON’T GO HOME haunt this space and incorporate with it, much like Parson Ford’s ghost. The words multiply and inscribe themselves onto the walls, “the eyes on the walls acquired a new expression, and in every one of those staring rounds I saw written, DON’T GO HOME” (362). Dickens uses both the typographical sturdiness of capital letters and, within the conjugation, repetition with variation to develop a linguistic spatial poetic—in part an exercise for self-reflection, but also a linguistic haunting that pervades and dominates both the textual space of the page and the interior of the Hummums.

The incorporation of a phrase into the space, particularly the focus on the pronoun variation in the conjugation exercise (I, you, he), allows Pip himself to integrate with the space. Pip goes on to observe “DON’T GO HOME,” “plaited itself into whatever I thought of, as a bodily pain would have done” (362). After the words become the walls, the words and, thereby the walls, become Pip, psychologically and materially combined. To read the Hummums as a space with haunting eyes and walls of words is a path to read Pip. The eyes on the walls are projections of Pip’s internal eyes. The walls become extensions of Pip’s body and his “physical body” becomes the figurative object of psychological dissection. Just as the Hummums embodies Pip, so too does Pip embody the Hummums.

In this scene, Dickens breaks down what Bachelard terms “the dialectics of inside and outside.” In his chamber Pip is simultaneously “inside” and “outside” of himself. He faces the terrifying collapse of the spatial referents on which he, and all people, construct identity, what Bachelard terms “being” and “there.” Essentially, I know I am here because I am not there. When these referents cave in, when being-ness no longer defines itself against there-ness, the self dissolves into space. Bachelard describes this breakdown in his Poetics of Space: “The center of ‘being-there’ wavers and trembles. Intimate space loses its clarity, while exterior space loses its void, void being the raw material of possibility of being” (218). This process does not indicate degeneration, rather a normal cycle of self assessment. As Bachelard states in the same chapter, “when we are hardly outside of being, we always have to go back into it. Thus, in being, everything is circuitous, roundabout, recurrent” (213-214).

The walls of the Hummums serve as the reflexive channels through which Pip’s being is transformed. Prior to the Hummums Pip has a linear model of social and self progression, but in the Hummums he finds a circulating dialogue between inside and outside. His fears and anxieties project outward, but are captured and projected back onto, and into him, “like a bodily pain” (362). Pip casts Wemmick’s resounding command onto the walls for his own consumption. And in reading DON’T GO HOME over and over again, in dissolving himself into the Hummums chamber, he realizes he has no home. His Hummums experience is a cold bath of reality, but Wemmick’s modest castle, stronghold of moderate expectations, serves as his warming room.

We could apply Foucault’s observations of heterotopic spaces to Pip’s “decentering of Self,” but heterotopia, with its focus on social and behavioral relativism, falls short of explaining Pip’s Hummums as a charged space. Bachelard, through his Poetics of Space, offers a way to release the Hummums from Foucault’s social “emplacement” and suggests that the Hummums could both embody and be embodied by language. Foucalt’s and Bachelard’s approach retain the potential of self-transformation, but neither method explains the energy with which Dickens charges this space, an energy that seems to come from a collapse between the exteriority of the space and the interiority of the character. And through this energy of the Hummums bedchamber, Pip is forever changed.

While Dickens places his dynamic hero of Great Expectations into the Hummums for a self-revelation, William Makepeace Thackeray places the static antagonist Osborne of Vanity Fair into a Hummums bathchamber the night before his wedding. Thackeray may call upon an early 19th century Hummums, when the term was still strongly associated with prostitution. Osborne’s Hummums visit echoes Rup, in John O’Keefe’s play “The Positive Man,” (1798) who exclaims “Hummums! Apropos, Tom, I’ll go along with you, I sha’n’t be married to-morrow” (385-386). According to Rup, the Hummums stands diametric to the institution of marriage and is thereby not “apropos” before one’s wedding. Osborne’s pre-wedding malady and where he seeks a cure stir suspicion in the reader knowledgeable of the history of both the space and the term hummums. His visit to the Hummums cues the reader to question Osborne’s intent behind his marriage. This linguistic cue has faded from the English language, relegated to footnotes. But knowledgeable Victorian readers of London would be savvy to the connection.

Granted the reader does not require the Hummums as a cue to Osborne’s infidelity. Examples of his faithlessness to Amelia abound throughout the text. And every reader need not be so suspicious. Perhaps he simply takes a bath. Thackeray denies us the details of Osborne’s experience in the Hummums. But his restlessness might originate from uneasiness with the faithful vows of matrimony. And as he seeks a cure for his ailment, Thackeray draws upon the potential for the Hummums to change its occupants. Thackeray plays with the notion that a bath can reform or transform, but pointedly deprives Osborne of a symbolic rebirth through cleansing. Supposedly, Osborne goes to the Hummums to bathe, to cleanse himself, to wash away his bodily (and thereby implicitly spiritual) impurities. Just as the unbaptized Jo in Little Dorrit is cleansed in the bathhouse to prepare him for the afterlife, Osborne seeks rejuvenating waters to restore him to his better self so he might proceed into the next life-phase. But because of its duplicitous coding the Hummums represents a space where he could physically bathe, but simultaneously tarnish his soul through debauchery. He emerges from the bathhouse not feeling rejuvenated, not feeling victorious through self-becoming, but rather as he did on the eve of battle. “I feel just as I did on the morning I went out with Rocket at Quebec” (207). Whether he sought to purge his fleshly desires or soothe his bodily pains, Osborne remains unchanged. Thackeray’s deprival of Osborne’s transformation comments on Osborne’s lack of reformative potential. But the Hummums is not a failed space, Osborne is a failed occupant. Thackeray draws upon the knowledgeable reader’s expectations and widespread understanding in London, of the Hummums as a locus of transformation, in order to accent Osborne’s failure (and perhaps sustained failure) as a faithful partner to Amelia.

In Great Expectations and Vanity Fair, Dickens and Thackeray use the Hummums as a narrative device. But Charles Ludwidge Dodgson actually employed the Hummums to initiate his own self- transformation from an Oxford don to a London artist. For Dodgson, the Hummums was, in reality, a space for self-transformation. Between 1855-1865 Dodgson visited the Hummums sixteen times. He slept there, ate there, and held business meetings there. On July 12 1865 he casually mentions in his journal “Left for London…Old Hummums as usual.” While his journal entries provide evidence of his frequent visits, they do not provide much detail of the space itself, or his impressions of it. His terse remarks leave his connection to the Hummums in question.

Recognizing the need for a better understanding of Dodgson’s affinities to the Old Hummums, Ellis Hillman, in her series of articles “Lewis Carroll in London,” calls for research on Dodgson’s London visits. In her first article she focuses on the Hummums. But, as is typical of writers addressing the Hummums, Hillman reverts to the etymology of the word and to a paraphrase of both Pip’s experience and Parson Ford’s ghost story. Hillman recognizes in her article that the Hummums “baffles the inexperienced researcher” (27). But in offering little illumination on either the space or Dodgson’s use of it, Hillman, in the end, appears baffled.

Perhaps answering Hillman’s request for further discussion on the topic of Dodgson and London, Jones and Gladstone, in The Red King’s Dream, title their last chapter “Old Hummums.” As the authors follow the footsteps of Dodgson throughout England they end their journey in front of the building that they identify as Carroll’s Hummums. They are mistaken; they actually look at Bedford Chambers (once the Hummums Hotel rebuilt in 1886), but their mistake matters little. Ultimately, the imagined space of the Hummums carries weight in their narrative of Lewis Carroll’s life and works. While historically incorrect, Jones and Gladstone join the tradition of evoking the space readily accessible through a cultural memory. In their story they choose to make Carroll’s final emplacement, not in Oxford, or next to Alice, but rather in his “favorite hotel” (275). As they affirm Carroll’s fondness for the space, they intentionally or unintentionally provoke questions: Why did Carroll love it so much? What function did this space perform in his life and his works? But, like Hillman, they offer no answers.

Donald Thomas, in his Lewis Carroll: A Portrait with Background, gives the soundest interpretation of Dodgson’s fondness of the Hummums when he observes that the establishment was “a venue for artistic life in mid-Victorian London.” His “choice of Hummums suggested that by his mid-twenties Dodgson saw himself as a scholar in Oxford and an artist in town” (114). Due to its proximity to the theatres or its exotic décor, the Hummums helped Dodgson perform his change of uniform from Academic to Artist. London was his playground, a place filled with fantasy and possibility. Of course Dodgson would require a space antithetical to the library, or the church, or the study to spark this transformation. As Donald Thomas states, Dodgson “fell upon London like a boy let out of school” (114). And in doing so, he checked in to the Hummums.

Like Alice stepping through the looking-glass, Carroll came to the Hummums and stepped through a portal into the wonderland of London. His journal entries referring to the hotel read as if he enters the Hummums as a passageway into a realm of fantasy, particularly the fantasy of theatre. He comes to London, sets down his baggage in his Hummums chamber, and usually rushes off to the theatre, often seeing two shows in one night:

April 21, 1857: “… Old Hummums before 3. In the evening we went to the Opera…and the ballet” (III, 49).

Jan. 21, 1858: “Put up at the Old Hummums … and afterwards to the Princess’ where I saw Midsummer-Night’s Dream and the Pantomime of the White Cat (III, 153).

Mar. 27, 1863: “I put up at the Old Hummums … In the evening we went to the Lyceum and saw The Duke’s Motto (IV, 182).

July 18, 1863: “Put up at the Old Hummums, and went to the Strand Theatre” (IV, 221).

Dec. 20, 1864: “I dined at the Old Hummums, then went to Haymarket and saw A School for Scandal … No song no supper … and Our Mary Anne (V, 32).

The Hummums was one facet of his London experience, but as a heterotopic space it echoed, and perhaps aided, his method in establishing borders between two modes of being within his personal life.

Dodgson never narrates his own transformation that occurred in the Hummums, but there was certainly something that repeatedly drew him to this space. Perhaps it held an inexplicable magic that opened up the border between scholar and artist, mathematician and author, Oxford and London. At the Hummums Dodgson presumably saw something similar to what Dickens recounts when he describes the Hummums in “When We Stopped Growing”: a luxurious, palatial and, we might add, otherworldly space (Selected, 32). Its chambers and passageways de-solidified the looking-glass and permitted Dodgson’s entrance into his own wonderland. Just as Pip leaves the Hummums with a truer identity, so too does Dodgson push away his Oxford-self and embrace his artistic self.

One might hope that Dodgson would open his Hummums chamberdoor a bit more; he retains a sense of bedroom modesty even in his journals. But apparently the Hummums offered Dodgson an experience that pleased him. It aided in his transition between his two selves. And thus it seems the Hummums provided him something highly personal.

The individual experiences at the Hummums were certainly not as consistently intense as the experience of Dodgson or Pip. But something attracted major artists and writers of the Victorian era to its doors. And while the accounts of the Hummums in both fiction and history are as diverse and wide ranging as their clientele, the major texts discussed above, along with the many minor texts that feature the Hummums, maintain a consistent thread of transformation. Dodgson, Dickens, Thackeray, Johnson and Hogarth attest to the Hummums as a charged space of potential transformation. But their encounters represent a mere fraction of the narratives involving the Hummums. Of the thousands of patrons it served in its two-hundred-year history there remain innumerable untold stories. Its literary existence offers a mere glimpse at its life within London culture. Those tales unrecorded, the gathering of friends, the waiters serving ale, or the common Londoner reclining in a warm-bath, also aided in establishing its cultural identity.

Scholars of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century have, in the Hummums, a rich site of cultural interest that remains obscure to our contemporary understanding. Knit into the fabric of London, running through two hundred years of literary history, the thread of the Hummums deserves further investigation. Lasting questions of its interior and the patron experience remain. And when more knowledge illumines its forgotten chambers, we might see something palatial and luxurious. And perhaps then we can better see why, for someone like George Augustus Sala, it was the most sacred place on earth.


[1] “Hummums” is an English variation of the Arabic word hammam, meaning bath. A proper hammam is a sweating bath, and the Hummums held a long tradition of offering a bath service, along with other reputable and disreputable services.

[2] In the vague narrative of a “gentlemen unknown” and his death in a Hummums bedchamber, Dickens most likely references Parson Ford’s demise. Ford’s death is the most famous, if not the only literary death at the Hummums. And it was well-known in the Victorian era. Considering Dickens’s familiarity with both Hogarth and Johnson it seems plausible he here alludes to Ford’s story. However, Dickens differentiates the gentlemen from Ford with the element of suicide.

Works Cited

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–Selected Journalism 1850-1870. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Foucault, Michel. “Different Spaces.” Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. Vol. II pp. 175-185. New York: The New Press, 1997.

Hillman, Ellis. “Lewis Carroll in London: The Hummums.” The Carrollian: The Lewis Carroll Journal (Jabberwocky). 1.5 Autumn 1970 (27-28).

Jones, Jo Elwyn and J. Francis Gladstone. The Red King’s Dream or Lewis Carroll in Wonderland. London: Jonathan Cape, 1995.

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Sala, George Augustus. The Old Hummums Made New Again: A Retrospect and Description of the Most Historical Hostelry in Covent Garden. London: Sutton Sharpe & Co., 1888.

Settle, Elkanah. The New Athenian Comedy. English Prose Drama, Full Text Database. Chadwyck-Healey. 3 October 2005. .

Thomas, Donald. Lewis Carroll: A Portrait with Background. Murray: London, 1996.

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To Cite This Article:

Cory MacLauchlin, ‘The Hummums: Bath, Brothel and Holy Shrine of Literary London’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 1 (March 2008). Online at Accessed on [date of access]