intro b4kxstp
dunghill or game
an absolute rake
suburban wits
charles dickens
the banality of the sublime
maps b4kxstp
rural middlesex

Charles Dickens, the St Pancras forger & the semantic web

“Turning over the leaves of Mr Thornbury’s Haunted London, with the intention of affording some notion of its contents to the readers of these pages, I am so thoroughly haunted with the London of my own past, that I feel it impossible to commence the task until my own ghost has been laid. Perhaps Mr Thornbury and other readers may like to know what a spectre who has haunted London for five-and-forty years, remembers about parts of it in his childhood”. Forty years in London, in All year round vol x11, pp253-259, Charles Dickens, 8 April 1865

The tale has often been told of the twelve-years old Charles Dickens’s unhappy months spent working in a warehouse near Charring Cross London, paid six shillings a week for ten hours a day pasting labels onto bottles of boot blacking, ‘first with a piece of oil paper, and then with a piece of blue paper’.

Lodged with a family acquaintance while his parents and siblings dwelt in a room in debtors’ prison, the Warren’s Blacking Factory affair is seen as one of the key formative episodes in the future novelist's creative life. But it was not until after he died that the reading public or even his own family knew anything about those traumatic times, his having only revealed the details to his official biographer John Foster when close to death.

Children are some of Dickens’s most memorable characters, with most if not all of the traces of his own early days embedded in his novels identified by his more than 80 biographers and further academic and journalistic studies.

But one revealing account of his London childhood around the time of this loss of innocence (and including the years when resident in Camden Town, Euston and Somers Town, the last now home to the St Pancras British Library), appears to have been largely overlooked: a somewhat high-flown if also whimsical essay he wrote for his weekly literary journal All year round, five years before the stroke that finally felled him aged 58-years.

The account of those apparently normal, happy days (but with no mention of the blacking factory) commences with Dickens sat at his desk in his editorial office just off the Strand: one might imagine it as an intimate, twilight scene, the great author switching on the gas-light as he continues writing.

Before him lies an unread review copy of Haunted London (1865), an anecdotal account of the streets and squares of London. Taking the form of a perambulation around the West End, the volume's forward promises “I shall not pass by many houses where any eminent men dwell or dwelt, without some biographical anecdote, some epigram, some illustration; yet I will not stop long at any door, because so many others await me”.

It opens with an imagined incident when the painters Henry Fuseli and Benjamin Hayden, out walking through the streets of London, attain “the summit of a hill from which they could catch a glimpse of St Pauls”. This is the view from Pentonville Hill, described and illustrated on the intro b4kxstp page of this website. But unlike the sweeping panorama viewed and recorded by earlier artists, the “two little lion-like men” espy “the grey dome looming out by fits through drifts of murky smoke”.

The author of Haunted London, George Walter Thornbury, was one of Dickens’ ‘young men’, a journalist and author who free-lanced for his periodical publications as well as producing poetry and ‘three-decker’, mostly historical novels. Thornbury had first published articles in antiquarian journals at a very early age and would go on to travel widely, publishing a constant stream of popular journalism in all the leading journals of the day.

Having studied painting at an academy off Oxford Street, during the 1850s and 60s this hack of all trades was also employed as art critic for The Athenaeum and the Art Journal, papers from the latter expanded and republished as British Artists from Hogarth to Turner in which he argued the case for a reassessment of unfashionable native artists. This led to his publishing the first (but not very successful) full biography of JMW Turner, researched and written under the “watchful observation” of John Ruskin, an experience he described as “very much like working bareheaded under a tropical sun”.

The delivery of the newly published volume (a sort of prototype psycho-geography, which according to its preface “Deals not so much with the London of the ghost stories... as with the London consecrated by manifold traditions”) had found Dickens off his guard, inciting a rush of childhood memories which forestalled his actually reviewing the work.

Instead, setting pen to paper, he relishes his own earliest (although selective) memories, his famously ‘photographic’ memory celebrating fragmentary rose-tinted images but, while commenting upon the many changes to London he has witnessed during his 40 years stay, at times confusing their chronology and some of the more exact circumstances.

They include precious and evocative scenes of life in then still respectable Somers Town (its reputation was soon to decline) and juvenile expeditions into the West End, but commence with recollections of his snow-swept arrival in the metropolis as a 10-year old and his first impressions of the great metropolis seen on the short trip from the City of London coaching inn to his new home in Bayham Street Camden Town:

“The second-hand family carriage, driven by a coarse, dogged metropolitan savage staggering under the weight of a towering flight of capes rising from knee to shoulder, is also extinct… so is St Chad’s Well, in Gray’s Inn-road, even then resorted to medicinally; so is the mountain of cinders which rose higher than Primrose Hill, at Battle Bridge (where Queen Boadicea was so unhandsomely beaten by Seutonius), and which schoolboy tradition sold to the Emperor of Russia for a prodigious sum of money, when the neighbourhood was condemned to be covered with houses, and christened King’s Cross. The Small-Pox and Fever Hospitals, with the expanse of park-like lawn, screened in by rows of noble elms, are now extinguished by the Great Northern Railway terminus”. Forty Years in London, Charles Dickens

Dickens evidently held Thornbury in some affection and the following year he commissioned a regular series for All the year round from him, his Old stories relating tales “of the past and present century” about “murders, wrecks, riots, trials, famines and insurrections”.  Thornbury produced about 50 of the articles, but within nine months Dickens was advising him, “We must not have too many murders. They damage your book”.

Then he suddenly terminated the series, telling a mutual friend of “the difficulty he had in keeping his contributor’s hand from turning in the raw-head-and-bloody-bones direction – murder, even as it was still forming the staple of his collection”. However, the two men remained on good terms, the younger writer continuing to receive commissions while becoming also a regular contributor to Elizabeth Braddon’s Belgravia magazine.

At about the time of Dicken’s death, Thornbury had begun organising material for the only work for which he is remembered today, the six-volume Old & New London, a greatly expanded version of Haunted London of which most of the capital’s libraries have copies of the full set on their shelves, with at least three digital versions available on line.

Thornbury, however, was only able to complete the first three volumes before succumbing to a ‘brain fever’ when lodged in a South London asylum. The project was completed by Edward Walford. The ‘mutual friend’ referred to above (the journalist Charles Kent) claimed in his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography account of Thornbury's life that he had died “ in harness… clearly the result of over brain work”.

A decade ago, in the article The Woodehouse Journal Mystery: Criminal forgery or Victorian parlour game? (published in the Camden History Review No 26) I named Thornbury as the ‘St Pancras forger’, identifying him as chief among a number of local enthusiasts who concocted antiquarian artefacts.

Owned by Camden Library, the Woodhouse Journal of the article's title is an attractive vellum-bound volume of autograph texts and delicate illustrations that superficially appears to have been written by the late-C17 occupier of the St Pancras Prebendal manor house, the lands of which are now the site of King’s Cross Central.

But among other discrepancies, it so happens that William Woodhouse JP cannot possibly have existed, the manor farm at that time in the possession of the Nicoll family; see b4kxstp1.0: kin, kith & strangers in the fields of London: chapter1 (click on preview) and passim:

“The 56-page vellum-bound folio volume purports to have been compiled by William Woodehouse, a resident of St Pancras and a Justice of the Peace during the reign of Queen Anne. There is, however, no independent evidence that he ever existed. Besides the JP’s own contributions - accounts of St Pancras church and parish and his work on the Middlesex bench - the Journal comprises a miscellany of his family documents from the 17th century, with illustrations in different hands on a variety of papers having five different watermarks. These show them to be mid-19th century creations”. The Woodehouse Journal Mystery, Patrick Nother

I had identified three series of antiquarian prints of dubious provenance, and more recently have come across a number of further ‘historical’ manuscripts concerning the parish of St Pancras and purporting to be from that same troubled century of civil war, regicide and revolution, which I believe also to have been Thornbury’s work. I have used some of these narratives in b4kxstp1.0, but always identify them as later fabrications.

As my Camden History Review title indicates, I remain uncertain of Thornbury’s motives for creating the forgeries, although he had married and set up a family (some thought unwisely), and was known to have money worries. But the larger tale goes to the heart of changing attitudes to history. Haunted London’s forward, for example, contains an unselfconsciously grandiloquent paean to empire while the antiquarian forger’s activities show a careless disregard for the local detail. 

Dickens’s incidental contribution to that story, meanwhile, affords an unprecedented glimpse of the C19’s greatest popular writer’s idealised view of his early childhood.

I was not alone in suspecting Thornbury of being a forger. In the early C20, a retired Indian army officer turned man of letters cultivated an interest in the history of St Pancras parish, having attended the Brewers Company’s Aldenham School in Hertfordshire. At about the same time that Thornbury was writing for Dickens's publications the future warrior/ scholar had received a bursary to attend Cambridge University, funded by rents from land that is now occupied by St Pancras International rail terminal but was then held in trust for the school.

As a result of his interest in the history of St Pancras parish, at the turn of the century the newly retired soldier’s antiquarian interests led him to ask questions about some of these same works, and although he did not publish the results of his inquiries (made in publications such as Notes & Queries) he had without doubt come to the conclusion that Thornbury was, at the very least unreliable.

Col William Francis Prideaux’s tale goes to the heart of the British Empire. As a young man he had an extraordinary adventure in the Abyssinian (Ethiopian) mountains, held hostage by the Emperor Theodore II and a whole army  sent to rescue him and a handful of fellow captives. His military career then took him from army head-quarters at Cairo to the Arabian Empty Quarter and a residency at Aden (his Arabic translations including poetry, legal and Sufi texts), and from thence to the Indian Ocean Island of Zanzibar where as acting consul general he arranged for the repatriation of the great missionary explorer David Livingstone’s mortal remains.

And in recent, post-independence decades, relating to his office in the 1880s as “Agent to the Governor General with the king of Oudh” serving the British Raj, Col Prideaux has even been implicated in the political assassination of Wajid Ali Shah, an important and popular Indian princeling.

Meanwhile, even as Prideaux was helping administer the empire upon which the sun never set, a New England university professor was using the topographical chapter structure of Thornbury and Walford’s Old & New London as a template to organise his college library’s collection of books, journals, maps, pamphlets and many illustrations relating to London’s history and topography (including, of course, works by and about Dickens, as well as topics such as music hall, the Crystal Palace, Jack the Ripper etc):

Prof Edwin C Bolles’s method of marking up the index to the volumes and the catalogue of Tufts University Boston Massachusetts's specialist Bolles London Collection (mostly using a blue pencil!) created a framework of ‘hyperlinks’ that then proved instrumental when a century later the collection was digitised;

“The digital archive represents a comprehensive and integrated collection of sources and resources on the history and topography of London. Texts, images, and maps in the Bolles collection are all interconnected. Together they form a body of material, heterogeneous in form, but homogeneous in theme, that transcends the limits of print publication and exploits the flexibility of the electronic medium. The digitized maps are linked to each other, to relevant source texts, and to illustrations of the locations as they appeared at the time or at present. Similarly, the texts are linked to the maps and the images, and so on. This makes it possible to use the collection in ways that would not be possible outside the electronic environment, and is what makes the digital archive a new model of access to primary and secondary source material”. Gregory Colati, Bolles Collection Overview (2000).

The then highly innovative Bolles database in turn served as a test bed for the creation of a much more ambitious multidimensional virtual research and teaching resource, the Perseus Project. This uses historical, philological and archaeological perspectives to link digitized ancient Greek, Latin and medieval Arabic texts from collections held all over the world to a database of translations, dictionaries, grammars, illustrations, data sets, maps (including Google maps etc) and photographic images of archaeological sites and museum objects.

Part of the Digital Humanities initiative, which in its turn is part of the semantic web’s objective to connect the world wide web through a universally standard system of linkages using ‘concepts’, the Perseus Project  is one of the proliferation of academic and governmental projects involving worldwide partnerships set up to digitize ever- growing amounts of data & info and to network institutional repositories (IRs) in ever more innovative and accessible ways (viz, the links page on this website includes important further examples: eg, the Old Bailey On-line, British History On-line and the Catalogue of the British Library).

The latter institution is also now at the forefront of efforts to archive the World Wide Web, which in just a quarter of a century has grown to accommodate more than 600 million websites, with some 4,000 domain names registered every hour...

The term 'semantic web' was coined by the web inventor, Tim Berners-Lee. As director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C, created 20-years ago to oversee the development of Semantic Web standards) Berners-Lee has defined it as “a web of data that can be processed directly and indirectly by machines”. 

With advances in Deep Learning and neural net technologies (among others) over the last few years the world envisaged by Berners-Lee as one in which “the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines” has become ever closer in the algorithms deployed by search engines such as Google, YouTube and the operations of social media platforms such as Facebook; with now also exponential advances being made in the full incorporation of every-day physical objects into the www through the Web of Things.

When Dickens sat in his office reminiscing on his childhood, the book that had prompted his memories was a piece of hack work that a century and a half later survives in its physical form in just a few private collections and specialist libraries: besides the British Library, Camden Local Studies Centre has a copy of Haunted London on its shelves, and it too is available online as an ebook. As is Old & New London.

A digital version of the Dickens All year round essay it inspired, is also available thanks to a crowd sourced digitalization of all the journals edited by Dickens, completed in 2012 to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth.

The almost forgotten Haunted London now also survives in the deep structure of the ever evolving web, having many further links to past and future histories, and through the genius of Dickens with eternity.


“The project of putting billions of words of keyword searchable stuff out there is now nearing completion.

We are within sight of that moment when all printed text produced between 1455 and 1923 (when the Disney Corp. has determined that the needs of modern corporate capitalism trumped the Enlightenment ideal), will be available online for you to search and read. 

The vast majority of that text is currently configured to pretend to be made up of ‘books’ and other print artefacts. But, of course, it is not.  At some level it is just text – the difference between one book and the next a single line of metadata.

The hard leather covers that used to divide one group of words from another are gone; and every time you choose to  read a screen... while kidding yourself that you are still reading a ‘book’, you are in fact participating in a charade. 

We are swimming in deracinated, Google-ised, Wikipedia-ised text”.

A rough text, Historyonics blog, Prof Tim Hitchcock,
23 October 2011 

Charles Dickens

A Charles Dickens Journal

George Walter Thornbury


Col WF Prideaux

soldier, scholar &

imperial servant

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