‘Leaving the rest in the boat, I stepped ashore, and found the light to be in a window of a public-house. It was a dirty place enough, and I dare say not unknown to smuggling adventures; but there was a good fire in the kitchen, and there were eggs and bacon to eat, and various liquors to drink. Also, there were two double-bedded rooms – “such as they were”, the landlord said. No other company was in the house than the landlord, his wife, and a grizzled male creature, the “Jack” of the little causeway, who was as slimy and smeary as if he had been at low-water mark too.’ Great Expectations.

Dickens’s Great Expectations, like David Copperfield, is believed to be set in the 1820s in the last years of the Bloody Code. The brutality of this legal system had reached a peak around 1800, at around the time when Magwitch would have become involved with Compeyson and committed his first serious crime. Although a new Act of 1823 reduced executions from 2000 to 50, as a returned convict Magwitch would still have rendered himself liable to public execution. Having declared himself to Pip, the plan is for him to escape down the river from London to Kent and from there to take ship for Holland. But he is hunted down by his old enemy Compeyson just as he is being rowed down the Thames by Pip and his friends.

Magwitch’s last hours of freedom before his arrest by Customs officials are spent in an inn called The Ship. Author Laurence Gadd went down the river by boat in 1929 and identified the inn as the Lobster Smack in Essex’s Covey Island. But a more likely original is The Ship and Lobster in Gravesend, only a few miles away from Cooling churchyard where the story begins.

Once again Pip finds himself aiding an escaped convict in a lonely place. Even today the inn is in an isolated position, down a narrow byway with few near neighbours – at least one bewildered sat nav has been known to give directions straight past it and into the river. Pip hints darkly at smuggling (seemingly basing his judgement as much on its being ‘a dirty place enough’ as on its convenient location). But if he signals a certain middle class fastidiousness in this comment, he has nonetheless chosen to align himself with the outcast criminal of his first meeting, ‘A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud’.1 In a final act of poetic justice it is the gentlemanly Compeyson rather than Magwitch who is drowned after the antagonists re-enact their struggle on the marshes, again with Pip as a helpless spectator.
See also Mobile Landscapes.


Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1993.


  1. Great Expectations 4.