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Dickens, the Inns of Court, and the Inns of Chancery

David Parker

Popular prejudice notwithstanding, the adult Dickens never hated the law or lawyers.[1] Despite conflicting feelings, he seriously contemplated making it his profession, and joining their ranks. In adolescence, to be sure, he stopped working as a solicitor’s clerk as soon as he could but, formally speaking, for a lengthy part of his writing career, he was a law student. All the while he was writing Bleak House, he was a member of the Middle Temple. The first record of his resolution to be called to the bar dates from 1834 (Dickens, Letters 1: 43); he was admitted to the Middle Temple as a student in 1839; he ate dinners in hall; he was still intending to be called in 1846; and he petitioned to withdraw only in 1855 (Dickens, Letters 1: 620-21 and n). The law, it follows, cannot have been entirely repugnant to him.

Nor lawyers, if he was proposing to become one. We can indeed say — without the least flicker of irony — that some of his best friends were lawyers, from Serjeant Talfourd to whom Pickwick Papers is dedicated, to Frederic Ouvry who drew up his will. Dickens knew lawyers were not always benign. Deficiencies in the law and abuse of the law aroused his indignation. But they aroused the indignation of many a lawyer too, and it was with those whom Dickens stood. Talfourd was a barrister, a judge and a writer. He was more than that, though: he was a parliamentarian who sought legal reform (ODNB). Unsurprisingly, Dickens applauded his campaign for a new copyright law to make the profession of writer more secure (dedication of Pickwick Papers). Self-interest, however, was not Dickens’s only motivation. He became a friend of Henry Brougham (later Lord Brougham), Lord Chancellor from 1830 to 1834, a promoter of royal commissions on the law when out of office. By 1845 Brougham could boast that, of the 62 defects in the law he had enumerated in an 1828 speech, 56 had been remedied (ODNB). These friendships alone suggest Dickens’s attitude to legal matters was complex. It is scarcely surprising, then, that no reductive account can explain the repeated featuring of London’s Inns of Court and Inns of Chancery in his fiction. A coherent account, however, is something hopefully to be attempted.

Dickens had an intimate knowledge of the Inns — which I shall explain further — and he used it in the first place, as novelists often do, simply to provide settings appropriate for his narratives, which were unfamiliar to readers and intriguing. More than once, he exploited the surprise visitors can receive, when stepping into the precincts of a legal Inn from the street. Esther Summerson in Bleak House exclaims at it, when first she enters Old Square, Lincoln’s Inn, through the gatehouse on Chancery Lane. The deep gateway and terraces of chambers on the street side of the square effectively baffle the bustle of the lane:

we passed into sudden quietude under an old gateway, and drove on through a silent square until we came to an odd nook in a corner, where there was an entrance up a steep, broad flight of stairs, like an entrance to a church. And there really was a churchyard, outside under some cloisters, for I saw the gravestones from the staircase window. (ch. 3)

Esther is alluding to Lincoln’s Inn Chapel. The ‘churchyard’ is the arcaded undercroft, paved with gravestones, beneath the raised chapel.

The narrative of The Mystery of Edwin Drood says something similar about Staple Inn:

It is one of those nooks the turning into to which out of the clashing street imparts to the relieved pedestrian the sensation of having put cotton in his ears and velvet on the soles of his boots. It is one of those nooks where a few smoky sparrows twitter in the smoky trees, as though they called to one another, ‘Let us play at country,’ and where a few feet of garden mould and a few yards of gravel enable them to do that refreshing violence to their tiny understandings. Moreover, it is one of those nooks which are legal nooks; and it contains a little hall, with a little lantern in its roof: to what obstructive purpose devoted, and at whose expense, this history knoweth not. (ch. 11)

The history knoweth not, but Dickens probably did. Careful students of the novels may want to be told the date of Lincoln’s Inn gatehouse (1517-21), the architects of its chapel (Inigo Jones, Wren and Wyatt), and the role of Staple Inn Hall (to accommodate meetings and dinners of the society). We cannot be certain, of course, that Dickens knew every one of these details, but it is clear he knew a great deal about the topography and history of the Inns. This alone is worth documenting and explaining. Exact knowledge about these institutions is scarcely common among students of literature today. The Inns of Court have changed since Dickens’s era. The Inns of Chancery no longer exist as such, and most of their buildings have been either radically remodelled, or have vanished.

Information about their history is a necessary preliminary to an understanding of the resonance of the Inns when they are featured in Dickens’s fiction. Clustered around Holborn, Fleet Street, the Strand and Chancery Lane, the Inns are where lawyers and law students have lived, worked and studied since the Middle Ages. Magna Carta (1215) established beyond question a Court of Common Pleas fixed in London, distinct from the court that moved around with the person of the sovereign, and from other courts under the sovereign’s direct authority. A centre of legal activity was thus created, around which a legal profession could grow. In 1217 the clergy were prohibited from practising in secular courts, in 1254 from teaching Common Law. The stage was set for the growth of a secular profession, dissociated from the Church, and from the clerically-dominated universities then taking shape. Turning from the canon-law experts they had once followed, students of the law now began to seek the help of lay teachers, who set up hostels for the purpose, governed by benchers, equivalent to fellows in university colleges (Pearce ch. 1).

Round about the 1320s, teachers of the law began to move from their hostels onto a site which has indelibly marked their profession: the Temple, south of Fleet Street, English headquarters from about 1162 of the Knights Templar. After the violent suppression of this order throughout Europe in 1312-13, the Knights Hospitaller of St John took over the site, and farmed it out ‘unto divers Professors of the Common Law of the Realm.’ When the English Hospitallers were dissolved by Henry VIII, the Temple lawyers became tenants of the Crown, until the fee simple was purchased from Charles II. Two distinct societies took shape on the site: the lawyers of the Inner Temple, so called because that part of the site is wholly within the boundaries of the City of London, and the lawyers of the Middle Temple, so called because through its middle runs the boundary between the City and the parish of Holborn to its west.

The knightly orders had been rich, proud and exclusive. Although religious, by the fourteenth century they were scarcely monastic. They nurtured not only valiant and pious soldiers, but also men of affairs involved in international politics and diplomacy — perhaps the undoing of the Templars. The headquarters they shaped reflected their status. Like several of the royal palaces and London homes of the mighty, it was by the Thames, open and airy towards the south, accessible to river transport on that side, to the main thoroughfare between the City and Westminster on the opposite side. On the site, they had erected good-quality buildings, well spaced out, on the mediaeval collegiate model. Site and fabric suited the lawyers entirely. Community needs were all met within an enclosed space surrounded by walls (later augmented by railings). Hall, chapel and library were for all members. Private accommodation was arranged in squares and courts of terraced houses, each one organized internally around the vertical axis of a staircase. This must all have been particularly gratifying for lawyers mindful of rivalry with Oxford and Cambridge (Pearce chs 8 and 9).

The collegiate model was adopted by the two other Inns of Court which have survived. Probably named after a connection in its early days between an Earl of Lincoln and the Society, much of the site of Lincoln’s Inn, to the west of Chancery Lane, was from 1227 occupied by the London Palace of the Bishops of Chichester. By 1422, the Society of Lincoln’s Inn was renting the complex from the Bishop. It acquired the fee simple in 1580, and over the years added additional parcels of land to the original site (Pearce ch. 7).

The hall and chapel of Gray’s Inn — north of Holborn, west of Gray’s Inn Road — incorporate parts of the old manor house of Portpool, home in the early fourteenth century of Chief Justice of Chester, Reginald Le Gray. Not long after his day, the manor is described as a hospitium rather than messuagium, and evidence suggests the premises were occupied by the Society of Gray’s Inn by 1355. It acquired the freehold around the middle of the sixteenth century (Pearce ch. 10).

The Inns of Chancery must be distinguished from the Inns of Court — which, architecturally, they tended to resemble. Some of the most ancient, it has been suggested, may have originated as the hostels out of which lawyers issued to colonise the Temple, but none emerges into the historical record before the fourteenth century. Most of them were subordinate, at some time during their history, to one or other of the Inns of Court. From an early stage, they functioned as law schools. For many years they were residences of the Clerks of Chancery, who prepared writs for the king’s courts, assisted by apprentices who, as such, received a preliminary legal training. But from the seventeenth century, when the Inns of Court started to exclude from membership all but barristers and trainee barristers, the Inns of Chancery began to turn into societies for attorneys and solicitors. Abandoning their educational role bit by bit, they became residences, offices and dining clubs. By the end of the nineteenth century all had ceased to exist as societies.

Dickens features most of the Inns of Chancery in his fiction — at a time when their connection with the law was loosening or already severed. Furnival’s Inn, one of a number clustered around Holborn, had an association with Lincoln’s Inn from 1348. Dissolved in 1818, it was redeveloped as apartments but it retained the name and, in the public mind at any rate, an association with the law until the site was redeveloped again, in 1879, as the headquarters of the Prudential Assurance Company. Staple Inn opposite, on the south side, was founded in the fifteenth century, and continued to function as a society until 1884. Barnard’s Inn, further east on the south side, leased from about 1453 by a Lyonel Barnard, became an Inn of Chancery when its first Principal took office in 1545. Its last did so in 1728. Further eastward still was Thavies Inn, on the southern flank of today’s Holborn Circus. John Thavie, who died in 1348, had a property on the site, in which students of the law lived. It had become an Inn of Chancery by 1422, and was dissolved in 1769. Its buildings were burned down in 1804, and replaced by terraces of houses, which were in turn destroyed during the Second World War, to be replaced by an office complex.

Clifford’s Inn — north of Fleet Street, east of Chancery Lane — became an Inn of Chancery in 1344, and earned fame as a law school. Coke and Selden were among its students, and it continued to teach until the middle of the nineteenth century. Its buildings were demolished early in the last century. On the east side of Chancery Lane, further to the north, Symond’s Inn, demolished in 1873, can be traced back to the early seventeenth century. New Inn, just off the Strand and subordinate to the Inner Temple since the fifteenth century, was swept away by the development of Kingsway and Aldwych in the early twentieth century (Herbert and Dugdale pt. 2, chs 4, 6 and 8; Rider 2).

The Inns of Chancery lost their strictly legal identity, thanks partly to the way leases were granted by the societies. In all of the Inns, new and replacement buildings have repeatedly been erected. The cost has frequently been borne by those proposing to occupy them, in return for long leases on favourable terms. Unless it was stipulated leases be assigned to lawyers only, lessees could sub-let to whomever they chose. From the seventeenth century, bachelor chambers in the Inns became desirable dwellings for the fashionable, so there were plenty of wealthy non-legal takers, who eventually swamped the Inns of Chancery. The Inns of Court, however, survived this dilution (Ruda 5-6). Ever aware of fashion, Dickens liked to accommodate characters unconnected with the law in the Inns. Pip in Great Expectations lives in Barnard’s Inn and the Temple. Mr Chester in Barnaby Rudge lives in the Temple. John Westlock in Martin Chuzzlewit lives in Furnival’s Inn. A whole group of young people who have nothing to do with the law live in Staple Inn, in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Personal familiarity, and the ease of composition it brings, cannot alone explain Dickens’s repetitive featuring of the law, lawyers and the legal Inns in his fiction. It was a proportionate response to his era. The early nineteenth century saw the beginning of an exponential growth in legal business, which marked changes in society beyond the scope of this essay to discuss. The 1808 Post Office Annual Directory for London lists a total of 65 barristers, solicitors and attorneys, the 1841 Directory lists 181. And growth continued. The law was a booming profession. What went on in the Inns was becoming more pertinent to national life. But personal familiarity did sharpen Dickens’s perception of this. Nor was it just his protracted association with the Middle Temple that was responsible. Early experiences had familiarised him with the Inns of Court and Chancery, and he had evidently made himself aware of their history.

Between leaving school at fifteen, and setting up in Doctors’ Commons at seventeen as a freelance reporter (a taker-down of proceedings, that is to say, not a journalist), he worked as a lawyer’s clerk, so evidence suggests, in up to four different sets of legal chambers: in Symond’s Inn; in Holborn Court — now South Square — Gray’s Inn; in New Square, Lincoln’s Inn; and in Raymond Buildings, Gray’s Inn (Dickens, Letters 1: 35-36 and n; Johnson 51-52). Inevitably, as a very junior clerk, he was sent on errands to other chambers. Whatever might be said about this early employment, it did not put Dickens off the Inns. In November 1834, as a young journalist aged 22, he wrote to the Steward of New Inn, asking whether he was eligible to rent chambers there, to live in: ‘I am not a member of the legal profession; my whole time is at present devoted to literary pursuits, and I intend entering the bar, as soon as circumstances will enable me to do so’ (Dickens, Letters 1: 43). Eventually, he took chambers the following month in Furnival’s Inn, remaining there throughout the first year of his marriage until 1837 (Dickens, Letters 1: 47-48 and n, 131 and n).

The thorough knowledge that he thus gained must have contributed to the precision with which Dickens imagined settings in the Inns. To clear his head after excessive conviviality, the barrister Sidney Carton, in A Tale of Two Cities, takes the air not just in the Temple grounds but, more exactly, ‘by pacing the pavements of King’s Bench-walk and Paper-buildings,’ on its eastern flank (bk. 2, ch. 5). Sir John Chester, in Barnaby Rudge, has chambers in the same Paper Buildings, ‘a row of goodly tenements, shaded by ancient trees, and looking at the back upon Temple Gardens’ (ch. 15). In Great Expectations, Pip lives the other side of the Gardens, in Garden Court, at ‘the top of the last house . . . down by the river’ (ch. 38). It is a mark of the topographical exactness of Dickens’s imagination, that he took friends to see the chambers where, in his mind’s eye, Pip had lived (Slater 599).

Nor was it for local colour alone that Dickens featured the Inns. His appreciation of them was historical, as well as topographical. By evoking their history he was able, from time to time, to inject intensity into his fiction. And there is something else. The Inns tantalised Dickens, thanks to memorable episodes in his life. Our understanding of certain powerful moments in the novels, featuring the Inns, can be underpinned by an account of this, and we can learn something of what it was that drew him back to them, again and again.

Chapter 20 of Pickwick Papers, in which Mr Pickwick calls upon the attorneys Dodson and Fogg, shows how familiar Dickens was with the minutiae of conduct in the offices of London lawyers — although, as luck would have it, he accommodates the pair in Freeman’s Court, Cornhill, not in an Inn of Court or Chancery. Dickens knew what a præcipe book was, and a declaration, and a warrant of attorney. He was familiar with the Stamp Office, and the Temple offices of the King’s Bench and Common Pleas.

But it is clear that it was not contemporary practice alone that interested him. Knowledge of the history of the Inns manifested itself early in Dickens’s career. He knew that as recently as Tudor and Stuart times they had been seats of intensive education, with students in residence (Thornbury 3: 51-58). In chapter 21 of Pickwick, Jack Bamber tells his audience of listening clerks about that earlier era, ‘when young men shut themselves up in those lonely rooms, and read and read, hour after hour, and night after night, till their reason wandered beneath their midnight studies.’ With a few exceptions, such instruction as the Inns provided became little more than a formality during the later seventeenth century. Students found lodgings elsewhere, and it was not until the Council of Legal Education was established in 1852 that teaching was revived in the Inns of Court (Walker 620-21).

Jack Bamber goes on to reveal what, for some, supplanted learning. ‘What do you know,’ he asks his listeners, ‘of the gradual sinking beneath consumption, or the quick wasting of fever — the grand results of ‘life’ and dissipation — which men have undergone in those same rooms?’ Fashionable pleasures had since early times interested some students in the Inns, more than legal studies. Even during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they were used as finishing schools for sons of the gentry and aristocracy, by no means all destined for legal careers (Walker 620-21). Before the Commonwealth era, their ‘revels’ — feasts, dances, plays, masques and music — were famous, and provoked benchers into futile attempts at regulating the way students dressed, for instance, how long they grew their beards, and what kind of swords they carried (Thornbury 3: 51-58). Matters had scarcely improved more than a century later. American parents, during the decades preceding the Declaration of Independence, complained that sons sent to study at the Inns of Court in London were wont to cast law books aside and succumb to dissipation (Flavell passim).

Nor was Dickens ignorant of even earlier history. Martin Chuzzlewit reveals his knowledge of the sort of legends that had accrued around the circular church in the Temple, consecrated in 1185, and dotted with tombs of Templar knights. He bestows it upon Tom Pinch, as he walks to work through the Temple:

Every echo of his footsteps sounded to him like a sound from the old walls and pavements, wanting language to relate the histories of the dim, dismal rooms; to tell him what lost documents were decaying in forgotten corners of shut-up cellars, … to whisper of dark bins of rare old wine, bricked up in vaults among the old foundations of the Halls; or mutter in a lower tone yet darker legends of the cross-legged knights whose marble effigies were in the church. (ch. 40)

Dickens’s novels are full of lawyers, of course, many of them based in the legal Inns, but he makes most of them strongly marked individuals, and covering them would unbalance this paper. It is his lawyers’ clerks who repay study here, a class which unsurprisingly interested him as such, and which, numerically, dominated the inns. The growth of the legal profession was inevitably reflected by growth in the number of clerks. Openings were eagerly sought in a profession which could deliver upward social mobility. Some clerks, even from humble backgrounds — like Mr Guppy in Bleak House — could hope to qualify as lawyers themselves. Others — like Mr Wemmick in Great Expectations — grew prosperous without further qualifications. Contemporaries recognised the species, and the sartorial style by which they strove, not always successfully, to establish their status. Newspapers liked to suppose them dapper, and readily used such phrases as ‘a spruce young lawyer’s clerk,’ or spoke of a lawyer’s clerk ‘genteelly dressed’ (The Times, 24 April 1827, 4 February 1828). Dickens rejoiced in delineating the variety of clerks, their manners, their esprit de corps.

In chapter 20 of Pickwick, he describes ‘gentlemen in muddy high-lows, soiled white hats, and rusty apparel’ — lawyers’ clerks making their way home at the end of the working day. Later in the same chapter, Mr Pickwick finds Mr Lowten, Mr Perker’s clerk, at the Magpie and Stump, in ‘capital company’: ‘There’s Samkin and Green’s managing-clerk, and Smithers and Price’s chancery, and Pimkin and Thomas’s out o’ door — sings a capital song, he does — and Jack Bamber, and ever so many more.’ In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens enjoys the conceit of a single ‘dismal boy’ comprising ‘the managing clerk, junior clerk, common-law clerk, conveyancing clerk, chancery clerk, every refinement and department of clerk, of Mr Mortimer Lightwood’ (bk. 1, ch. 8).

A typical member of the company of clerks at the Magpie and Stump is ‘a young man with a whisker, a squint, and an open shirt collar (dirty).’ Dickens makes much of the imperfect appearance of his lawyers’ clerks, but rarely registers distaste. Joyous recognition, and even affection are what the reader detects. This emphasis he places on shabby gentility, never quite overcome, reflects an equivalent emphasis, just as problematic, on gloom, dirt and decrepitude in the Inns themselves — an emphasis which has persuaded those inattentive to complexity that his representation of them expresses an underlying hostility to the law.

There is no denying that the default setting is gloom, although it is a gloom with which Dickens entertains his readers. Tom Pinch in Martin Chuzzlewit is employed to catalogue a collection of books in a set of chambers in the Temple, to which he is conducted ‘through sundry lanes and courts, into one more quiet and gloomy than the rest.’ ‘Solitude and want of use,’ he finds, seemed to have made the set ‘unfit for any purpose of comfort, and to have given it a grisly, haunted air’ (ch. 39). Mr Perker’s Gray’s Inn chambers in Pickwick are reached up ‘two pairs of steep and dirty stairs,’ which cause Sam Weller to suppose the cleaners of the Inn are called ‘laundresses,’ ‘’Cos they has a mortal awersion to washin’ anythin’ (ch. 20) The Uncommercial Traveller sees the Inn as

the most depressing institution in brick and mortar known to the children of men. Can anything be more dreary than its arid square Sahara Desert of the law, with the ugly old tiled-top tenements, the dirty windows, the bills To Let, To Let, the doorposts inscribed like gravestones …? (Uncommercial Traveller ch. 14)

Mr Vholes in Bleak House has chambers in Symond’s Inn:

a little, pale, wall-eyed, woebegone inn like a large dust-bin of two compartments and a sifter. It looks as if Symond were a sparing man in his way and constructed his inn of old building materials which took kindly to the dry rot and to dirt and all things decaying and dismal, and perpetuated Symond’s memory with congenial shabbiness. (ch. 39)

Pip, in Great Expectations, finds Barnard’s Inn ‘the dingiest collection of shabby buildings ever squeezed together in a rank corner as a club for tom-cats’ (ch. 20). Mr Boffin, in Our Mutual Friend, is unimpressed by Clifford’s Inn: ‘Sparrows were there, cats were there, dry rot and wet rot were there, but it was not otherwise a suggestive spot’ (bk. 1, ch. 8).

Gloom characteristically becomes the stuff of suspense or comedy in such descriptions. Nor, forgetting the rhetoric, should we too easily dismiss the supposition that they are reportage. Many a nineteenth-century account vindicates Dickens’s emphasis.

He had another way of using the gloom, moreover, and could change its role in the construction of comic narrative. From time to time he makes it a foil to something much more appealing. In Martin Chuzzlewit, John Westlock lives in Furnival’s Inn, where Dickens himself had lived. ‘There is little enough to see at Furnival’s Inn,’ the narrative advises. ‘It is a shady, quiet place, echoing to the footsteps of the stragglers who have business there; and rather monotonous and gloomy on summer evenings.’ But gloom does not penetrate within: ‘there are snug chambers in those Inns where the bachelors live, and, for the desolate fellows they pretend to be, it is quite surprising how well they get on’ (ch. 45).

Indeed, Dickens seems to have been capable of projecting a greater gloom and decrepitude than was probably in reality to be found, to suit his narrative purpose and to enhance comedy. He locates the chambers of Tommy Traddles, in David Copperfield, in number two Holborn Court, Gray’s Inn. Climbing up the ‘crazy old staircase,’ David almost has an accident: ‘I put my foot in a hole where the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn had left a plank deficient’ (ch. 59). The setting is in fact next door to number one Holborn Court, where the teenage Dickens had worked as a clerk. Both houses were built in 1759. When Dickens was working there they were just 68 years old. The episode of Copperfield is set at a scarcely later date. Dickens had a reason for his emphasis, however, as we shall see.

And he was capable, moreover, of representing the Inns, or chambers in the Inns, in a quite different fashion. He can find delight in the same Gray’s Inn he so often disparaged. At one point in Pickwick Papers, the narrator tells us, ‘The healthy light of a fine October morning made even the dingy old houses brighten up a little, some of the dusty windows looking almost cheerful as the sun’s rays gleamed upon them’ (ch. 53). Mr Tartar’s Staple Inn rooms, in Edwin Drood, are nothing less than ‘Magic Beanstalk Country’ — ’the neatest, cleanest and best-ordered chambers ever seen under the sun, moon and stars. No man-of-war was ever kept more spick and span from careless touch’ (ch. 22). In the same novel, Mr Grewgious procures a lodging in Wood’s Hotel, Furnival’s Inn, for Rosa Bud, who is being stalked by John Jasper. Now it is the protective nature of the Inn that is emphasised. ‘There is a stout gate of iron bars,’ Mr Grewgious tells Rosa, ‘and Furnival’s is fire-proof, and specially watched and lighted, and I live over the way’ (ch. 20).

The enclosure against the rest of the world provided by the Inns, of which I have spoken, was indeed something to which Dickens returned more than once. The gates of the Temple seized his imagination. Safety within and danger without is evoked when, in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens has Bradley Headstone lurk at Inner Temple Gate. ‘In a doorway with his eyes on Temple Gate,’ he watches for Eugene Wrayburn, on whom he has murderous designs (bk. 3, ch. 11). At Middle Temple Gate, in Barnaby Rudge, the violent and unstable Hugh ‘plied the knocker,’ hoping to see Sir John Chester, only to be told, ‘We don’t sell beer here’ (ch. 40). In Great Expectations, by contrast, readers are shocked at the violation of enclosure. His chambers in the Temple do not protect Pip against the return from transportation of Magwitch, whom at first he abhors, and who represents everything from which, socially, he is trying to escape. Eventually he learns to love Magwitch, but the Temple continues to fail him. At Whitefriars Gate, such equilibrium as is left to him is destroyed, at a crucial point, by the laconic warning Wemmick leaves with the porter: ‘Don’t go home’ (ch. 43).

The enclosed, self-sufficient character of the Inns of Court and Chancery — protecting or failing to protect — was something to which Dickens’s imagination responded as keenly as it did to their gloom and decrepitude, and it is not hard to understand why. His fiction repeatedly dwells upon establishments mingling characteristics of workplace and home. Think of the Old Curiosity Shop, Solomon Gills’s shop (Dombey and Son), or Joe Gargery’s forge (Great Expectations). He took a lively interest in clubs and societies: the Pickwick Club, the United Bulldogs (Barnaby Rudge), and the Finches of the Grove (David Copperfield). And he was interested in educational establishments: Dotheboys Hall (Nicholas Nickleby) Salem House and Dr Strong’s school (David Copperfield), Miss Twinkleton’s Academy (The Mystery of Edwin Drood). Such establishments and institutions were important to his generation. The Industrial Revolution stimulated nostalgia for cottage industry under the roof of a small master. Social and demographic change prompted people to seek companionship in the ‘external combinations and arrangements’ against which Carlyle fulminated (Carlyle 3: 103). Social conscience, the need for a better educated workforce, and fear of the mob, prompted interest in education.

But Dickens’s interest was stronger than most of his generation’s. For the twelve-year-old Dickens, uncongenial employment and the loss of anything he might choose to call home had coincided, when his father had been imprisoned for debt. The family home had been broken up, most of the family had gone to live with John Dickens in the Marshalsea Gaol, lodgings had been found for Charles, and he had been set to work at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse in the company of uneducated men and boys. The job had spelled an end, he had felt, ‘to my early hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man.’ Loss of educational opportunity had been particularly distressing: no one had thought ‘to place me at any common school’ (Forster bk. 1, ch. 2). Little wonder, then, that he dreamed of workplaces that were homes too, companionable societies dedicated to learned pursuits, schooling fit for the learned and distinguished men of the future.

The Inns of Court and Chancery combined all these features, within exclusive walled precincts — sanctuaries, it might be thought, from the anxieties of Dickens and of his generation — and as such they profoundly attracted him. But they harboured those accountable for his childhood sufferings. To say no more, the law and lawyers were implicated in an attempt to regulate the composition of John Dickens’s debts, the ‘deed’ which resulted in the father’s confinement to the Marshalsea, the son’s employment at Warren’s (Forster bk. 1, ch. 1). Dickens’s interest in becoming a lawyer can be seen as a case of beating them by joining them, and he certainly had reservations about some of the business conducted within the precincts of the Inns. But, as his writer’s imagination matured, as he sharpened the tools he would use, he learned to exploit the conflicting attitudes he found within himself. The Inns could function in his narratives as fragile sanctuaries — absurd sanctuaries — enhancing appreciation of what is precious within them by their very fragility, their very absurdity.

Never is this more evident than when he locates desirable young women within them. He had his own wistful memories of such. When he was living in Furnival’s Inn, he had courted his bride, married her, brought her home, and developed a relationship with her sister Mary, too, who had spent many days and nights with them, particularly after the birth of little Charley, with whose care a sympathetic young aunt could help. In 1837, deeply affected after Mary Hogarth’s death at the age of seventeen, Dickens wrote in his diary, ‘I shall never be so happy again as in those Chambers three Stories high — never if I roll in wealth and fame. I would hire them, to keep empty, if I could afford it’ (Dickens, Letters 1: 630).

It is scarcely surprising, then, that in his fiction Dickens dwells more than once on the delightful incongruity of young women amid the drab lawyers’ tenements. In Martin Chuzzlewit, John Westlock woos Ruth Pinch in the Temple’s Fountain Court:

… why they came towards the Fountain at all is a mystery; for they had no business there. It was not in their way. It was quite out of their way. They had no more to do with the Fountain, bless you, than they had with — with Love, or any out-of-the-way thing of that sort. (ch. 53)

But the incongruity is most triumphantly exploited in David Copperfield, where memories of Mary Hogarth surely surface. It is to be found in David’s description of the chambers in Gray’s Inn (to which I have already alluded) occupied by Tommy Traddles, his young wife Sophy, and her sisters. ‘If I had beheld a thousand roses blowing in a top set of chambers in that withered Gray’s Inn,’ David narrates, ‘they could not have brightened it half so much.’

The idea of those Devonshire girls, among the dry law-stationers and the attorneys’ offices; and of the tea and toast, and children’s songs, in that grim atmosphere of pounce and parchment, red-tape, dusty wafers, ink-jars, brief and draft paper, law reports, writs, declarations, and bills of costs, seemed almost as pleasantly fanciful as if I had dreamed that the Sultan’s famous family had been admitted on the roll of attorneys, and had brought the talking bird, the singing tree, and the golden water into Gray’s Inn Hall. (ch. 59)

Any allusion to the Arabian Night is a sure sign that Dickens’s imagination is profoundly stimulated.

It is a mistake, then, to look in Dickens’s representation of the Inns of Court and Chancery for no more than substantiation of his critique of the law. There is that, but there is more too. Dickens’s imagination rarely dealt in straightforward tokens. Perhaps the best key to what the Inns meant to him is to be found amid Jack Bamber’s tales of chambers in the Inns. Jack specialises in gloomy stories of Gothic intensity. One, typically, is about a ‘tenant of a top set.’ ‘Bad character,’ Jack expatiates, ‘– shut himself up in his bedroom closet, and took a dose of arsenic.’ But none of this stops him saying something which, given the tenor of his tales, modern readers often find surprising. In his view the old chambers in the ancient Inns embody ‘the romance of life, sir, the romance of life!’ (ch. 21).

‘Romance’ and ‘romantic’ are always tricky words, but the meaning Dickens is making room for here comes more clearly into focus when we recall how, in the preface to Bleak House, he speaks of having ‘purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things.’ In both instances, I submit, he is indicating a process of defamiliarisation, which entails encapsulating humdrum things and humdrum settings in a rhetoric suggestive of profundities, oddities and contradictions. This is no mere decoration, no way of simply making the humdrum more endurable. It is a way of being alert to the contradictions and complexities of Dickens’s era. His representation the Inns of Court and the Inns of Chancery is a way of adjusting his readers’ sensibilities.


[1] This essay is based on a paper presented at Literary London 2009, a conference hosted by the Department of English, Queen Mary, University of London, 9-10 July 2009. Parts of it have been developed from ‘Dickens and Legal London,’ my contribution to a handbook for school teachers, Reading David Copperfield (Santa Cruz, CA: Dickens Project, University of California, 1990). I am grateful to the Dickens Project for permission to recycle this material.

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To Cite This Article:

David Parker, ‘Dickens, the Inns of Court, and the Inns of Chancery’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 1 (March 2010). Online at Accessed on [date of access].