Scrooge’s Lonely Rooms
David Charnick explores how Charles Dickens exploited the peculiarities of office space provision in Victorian London to emphasise Ebenezer Scrooge’s sense of loneliness and isolation. David will be running his Dickens of a City walk as part of Literary Footprints 2017, dates and booking details on his walks page.
It was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he looked, he saw this bell begin to swing. It swung so softly in the outset that it scarcely made a sound; but soon it rang out loudly, and so did every bell in the house. This might have lasted half a minute, or a minute, but it seemed an hour. The bells ceased as they had begun, together. They were succeeded by a clanking noise, deep down below; as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the casks in the wine-merchant’s cellar.
This is the beginning of a horrific Christmas Eve for Ebenezer Scrooge, but so familiar are we with A Christmas Carol that it has lost a lot of its effect. Perhaps this is because we no longer appreciate how lonely Scrooge’s rooms are in that dark and completely empty house. When the bell starts to ring, Scrooge knows that there is no-one in the house: his are the only rooms not turned into offices. Who is ringing the bell?
Possibly one reason we can’t appreciate Scrooge’s loneliness fully is that we’re used to office blocks. We’ve all grown up with them, and we think of business taking place in specifically-designed, usually open plan, offices. But before 1864, this wasn’t the case. Though some companies erected blocks for their own uses – such as the phenomenal East India Company – smaller businesses took rooms in domestic houses as counting houses. This was to change though with the establishment in 1864 of two companies.
These were the City Offices Company Ltd and the City of London Real Property Company Ltd, which initiated the speculative development of office buildings. For the first time, office buildings were erected to be rented out to tenants. The headquarters of the City Offices Company survives still, at 35 Gracechurch Street, on the corner with Lombard Street. Over its main entrance on Lombard Street is a bold representation of the head of Mercury, messenger of the gods and the Roman god of commerce and profitable trade. This statement of commercial confidence was however misplaced.
The City Offices Company was floated by the Mercantile Credit Association Ltd in conjunction with the French bank Credit Mobilier. It concentrated on acquiring ‘prime sites’, principally around the Bank of England, promising investors that profits would accrue because of the scarcity of sites so close to the financial centre. But a sluggish commercial scene and an increasing supply of office space elsewhere affected the company’s profits. In 1867 shares were giving a return of 4%, instead of the estimated 15-20%. In 1899, after thirty-five years’ trading, the value of the company’s profits was decreasing rather than increasing.
It was the choice of area which undermined the City Offices Company. After all, the City’s stock of office buildings increased hugely in the late C19. Moreover, the installation of hydraulic lifts made taller buildings desirable: previously the upper floors attracted poor rents. In 1873, the City Offices Company installed a hydraulic lift in the four-story Palmerston Buildings at 51-55 Broad Street (completed in 1867). From 1882 the London Hydraulic Power Company made hydraulic lifts more available to a wide variety of customers, installing 221 passenger lifts in the City by 1895, as well as 114 goods lifts and cranes.
The abundance of office blocks caused rents to stay low; profits came from anticipating development beyond the traditional area. Office buildings are more self-contained and less dependent on location, and this allowed for expansion.
So the City of London Real Property Company looked eastwards for its sites. The Company was floated by brothers James and John Innes, rum importers, whose Jamaican plantations had been affected by the abolition of the slave trade. The brothers acquired property in Mark Lane and Mincing Lane, an area dealing with the provisions trade; they increased their portfolio, and their profits.
When A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, all this growth was over two decades away. Admittedly some businesses had created their own office blocks. For instance, in 1726 the East India Company began rebuilding the Elizabethan Craven House as East India House. In 1732 work began on the Bank of England’s first premises, purportedly the first purpose-built bank in Britain.
Other ventures followed, including the Stock Exchange at Capel Court and the Post Office in St Martin’s le Grand. But these were not speculations. The only speculative office block built before 1864 was erected circa 1823 by Annesley Voysey, at the Lombard Street end of Clements Lane.
When Scrooge let himself into his lonely house (which Dickens describes as being down a lonely court and so out of place that it looked as if it had got lost there while playing hide-and-seek with other houses), most business was still being carried out in coffee houses, counting houses and merchants’ homes. Aside from Scrooge’s pair of rooms, all the other rooms in the house are counting houses, none of which are occupied on that dark evening on Christmas Eve.
So, when all the bells ring out in the house with no-one to activate them, and then cease suddenly to be replaced by the sinister sound of a clanking chain dragged from the cellar up the stairs to Scrooge’s very door, it is his isolation which adds to the horror of the moment. And when the deceased business partner – who has been on Scrooge’s mind throughout the day – actually walks through his door, even the weak fire in the grate reacts: ‘the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried ‘I know him! Marley’s Ghost!’ and fell again’.
Only when we are able to set aside our familiarity with this tale, and are able to approach it as it was written, will we feel the chill that entered Scrooge’s soul on seeing Marley’s Ghost in that dark and lonely room.
Palmerston Buildings: http://archiseek.com/2013/1867-city-offices-old-broad-street-and-bishopsgate-street/; all others Wikimedia Commons