According to another club member who witnessed the incident, Dickens’ account was quite untrue. The bystander claimed that Dickens passed Thackeray without a flicker of recognition. It was Thackeray who made the first approach:
‘Dickens turned to him, and I saw Thackeray speak and presently hold out his hand to Dickens. They shook hands, a few words were exchanged, and immediately Thackeray returned to me saying “I’m glad I have done this”.’
The Athenaeum Club lies at the top of the Duke of York’s steps, on the left. Around 11.30 on the night of 6 May 1882, a Member of Parliament named Colonel Tottenham left the club after dinner and was met by an astonishing sight on the steps. The Prime Minister was talking to a prostitute under the gaslight.
Colonel Tottenham was delighted. As an Opposition MP, he saw an opportunity to make trouble for the Prime Minister, a sanctimonious old goat who always took a high moral tone in public while evidently behaving quite differently in private.
Another eyewitness, a man name Parkinson, was so horrified that he wrote to the Prime Minister next day:
‘Had I seen the Heavens open & an angel descend & said such a thing (as I saw), I should have asked the Earth to open and swallow that angel as a liar.’
HISTORIC LONDON: X MARKS THE SPOT. Question 55. Name the sanctimonious Prime Minister who was accosted by a prostitute here.
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