LAMB, Charles (1775-1834) a.k.a. Elia
Plaque erected in 1907 by London County Council at 64 Duncan Terrace, Islington, London, N1 8AG, London Borough of Islington
Journalism and Publishing
CHARLES LAMB ’Elia’ 1775-1834 Essayist Lived Here
The essayist Charles Lamb is commemorated with a plaque at 64 Duncan Terrace, Islington, where he lived with his sister, the writer Mary Lamb, from 1823 until 1827. The inscription includes the pen name ‘Elia’ that Charles used for his contributions to the London Magazine during the period of his residence.
LIFE AND WORK IN LONDON
Lamb became a leading figure in literary London, counting Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt, John Keats and Leigh Hunt among his circle. His father was assistant to Samuel Salt, who was a governor of Christ’s Hospital school and a member of the Inner Temple, where Charles was born. Salt became the children’s patron and shared his library with them – and would later be commemorated in Lamb’s essay, ‘The old benchers of the Inner Temple’.
Lamb was educated at Christ’s Hospital school in Newgate Street, where he met Coleridge. But, partly on account of his stammer, he left school aged 15. In 1792 he joined the East India Company at Leadenhall, as a clerk in the accountant’s department, and remained there for the rest of his working life. This allowed him time to write and, later, to look after his older sister, Mary.
Charles spent six weeks at an asylum in Hoxton in 1795–96 due to mental health problems from which he appeared to recover. His sister, however, lived with serious mental illness throughout her life – a condition that has since been characterised as displaying similarities to bipolar disorder. In 1796, under considerable strain from caring for her elderly parents and working to support them, Mary attacked her mother with a knife. Elizabeth Lamb died from her wounds the next day.
A jury pronounced a verdict of lunacy and Mary was placed in a private asylum. Against the wider family’s wishes, Charles agreed to act as Mary’s guardian and carer on her return.
Charles and Mary stayed in the Holborn area for the next two decades when in London, moving frequently, until in 1823 they moved to 64 Duncan Terrace, then a part of Colebrooke Row in semi-rural Islington. A prolific and entertaining correspondent, in one letter Charles described their home as ‘a white house with six good rooms’ and having
a spacious garden with vines (I assure you), pears, strawberries, parsnips, leeks, carrots, cabbages … I feel like a great Lord, never having had a house before.
However, two weeks later he wrote in another that he had
reaped nothing but some tiny salad and withered carrots. But a garden’s a garden anywhere, and twice a garden in London.
In 1823 his Essays of Elia were published as a collection.
Charles retired from the East India Office in 1825 and two years later moved to Chase Side, Enfield – but promised his friend Thomas Hood that he had not quite abandoned London and would return to ‘breathe the fresher air of the metropolis’.
In 1833 Charles and Mary moved to a private asylum at what is now Lamb’s Cottage, Church Street, Edmonton, where brother and sister are commemorated together in a plaque. Although, in Charles’s own words, he now lived ‘in a half-way purgatory’, witnessing the rapid deterioration of his sister, this year saw the publication of one of his greatest works, The Last Essays of Elia.
Charles Lamb died in 1834 after a fall and was buried in the churchyard of All Saint’s, Edmonton, close to his last residence in Church Street.