Curator's Choice: Louisa Price on The Little Wooden Midshipman at the Charles Dickens Museum

By Ben Miller | 29 December 2014

Curator's Choice: Louisa Price, Curator at the Charles Dickens Museum, on a famous shop sign loved by Dickens and the public

A photo of a woman standing next to a small statue of a 19th century midshipman
Charles Dickens Museum Curator Louisa Price with The Little Wooden Midshipman sign (circa 1800, on loan to the museum from Laurie, Norie, Imray & Wilson)© Charles Dickens Museum
“He is known as The Little Wooden Midshipman and from the late 18th to the mid-20th centuries, he stood guard outside a nautical shop in the bustling shipping quarter around Leadenhall Street, East London.

Charles Dickens was well acquainted with the sign. In The Uncommercial Traveller (1860) he describes seeing him on his walks in the city:

'My day’s no-business beckoning me to the east-end of London, I had turned my face to that point of the Metropolitan compass on leaving Covent Garden, and had got past my Little Wooden Midshipman, after affectionately patting him on one leg of his knee-shorts, for old acquaintance sake.’

Dickens was so fond of the Midshipman that he gave him a starring role in Dombey and Son (1848) as the sign of Sol Gil, nautical equipment maker.

In the novel he is described as ‘the woodenest of that which thrust itself out above the pavement’. He features throughout the story and appears in two of Hablot Knight Browne's accompanying illustrations.

A picture of a drawing showing a bustling scene in mid-19th century London
The Wooden Midshipman on the Lookout by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne), Dombey and Son (1846)© Charles Dickens Museum
The first owner of the Midshipman was William Heather who, in 1793, opened a business at 157 Leadenhall Street selling charts, sailing directions and navigation textbooks.

He also ran a nautical academy from the premises. To advertise, he placed outside the shop this little wooden figure taking a nautical reading.

From 1812 the shop was named ‘Norie’s’ after its new owner, William Norie, who was an apprentice of Heather's. The Midshipman (or ‘little man’, as he was known by the staff) stood over the door, but was later moved to street level.

Staff felt it an honour to be entrusted with the daily ritual of ‘taking out’ the little man in the morning and ‘bringing in’ when the shop closed in the evening.

© Charles Dickens Museum
At the end of the 19th century, Norie’s merged with other chart-making businesses, becoming Laurie, Norie, Imray & Wilson. The Little Midshipman took up residence on a pedestal outside the new shop.

In 1917, as air raids threatened, he retreated inside. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he was moved to the countryside, narrowly escaping destruction as the shop he called home was bombed.

The company survives today and still operates as publishers of nautical charts and books with the Little Midshipman as their logo.

In 1946, Laurie, Norie, Imray & Wilson loaned the Midshipman to the Charles Dickens Museum, where he has been a welcome and popular figure ever since.

The Charles Dickens Museum is situated at 48 Doughty Street – the only Dickens residence in London that is opened to the public.

Dickens referred to the Bloomsbury property as 'my house in town' and lived here with his wife, Catherine, and children from 1837 to 1839. The Midshipman is well at home at the museum, exemplifying for visitors some key qualities of Dickens the writer.

The Midshipman, with its connection to the city's shipping quarter, is an example of the significance of the walks Dickens took throughout his life. Dickens' familiarity with the streets of London placed the city's topography at the centre of much of his journalistic and creative writing.

The Midshipman is also a fine example of Dickens 'magpie-ing' in his environment: finding people, places and things that caught his eye, storing them up in his memory and then re-imagining them within his writing.

There was a period after the museum's refurbishment when the Midshipman was taken off display, prompting regular enquiries from visitors wanting to see him. The popular figure is now back on show in the Museum, keeping an eye on visitors and room stewards from a new plinth in our Timeline Room."


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