Dickens 2012: On the Trail of Charles Dickens

By Ruth Hazard | 07 February 2012
A black and white engraving of an 18th century man sitting in a chair inside a study
An engraving of Charles Dickens in his study at Gad's Hill, from around 1875, shows the towering author in the house where he died
© Samuel Hollyer, Heritage Auction Gallery
In case you hadn't noticed, Britain's most famous British novelist celebrates his 200th birthday in 2012. Dickens 2012 is an international celebration of his life and legacy and here we visit some of the locations that shaped them and the collections that preserve them.

Portsmouth

The Birthplace of Charles John Huffam Dickens, on February 7 1812, is a modest house in Mile End Terrace.

It is now preserved as the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum, furnished in the style of 1809, the year his parents set up their marital home together in the property.

a photo of a Victorian terrace houses
© Courtesy Dickens House Museum
Dickens left Portsmouth aged three but returned later to research background information for Nicholas Nickleby, and to give public readings of his work.

On his final visit, in 1866, he tried to find his birthplace but was unsuccessful. Modern visitors have had more luck, however, thanks to some crafty sign-posting.

A fully furnished parlour, dining room and bedroom feature genuine Regency furniture and household items. Exhibits include personal possessions such as his snuffbox and even the very couch on which he died.

Portsmouth City Museum features an original Nicholas Nickleby manuscript, on display until November 4 2012.

A photo of people walking towards three large historic buildings under a bright blue sky
The No 1 Smithery in Chatham
© James Brittain
The pages from Nicholas Nickleby with all Dickens' scribblings, blots and crossings out, show how he actually worked, mistakes included.  This is the largest part of the original manuscript that has survived.

The Dickens Community Archive Project aims to engage people with city archives to explore the issues that Dickens addressed in his novels. This project will culminate in an exhibition at the City Museum later this year.

Chatham

Dickens spent most of his early childhood in the Kent town of Chatham. He was educated at the William Giles School in Chatham while the family lived in Ordnance Court.

His father, John, worked at the Chatham Dockyard pay office, which survives at the . The former workplace of Dickens senior was a rich source of inspiration for the author and scholars reliably tell us that it appears in scenes in both A Tale of Two Cities and The Uncommercial Traveller.

A photo of a sign on a brick wall marking where a prison used to be
Few know about the incarceration of Dickens
© Russell Kenny
A short distance from the Dockyard at Chatham, Dickens World offers a cinematic experience that covers 71,500 square feet and includes a 4D cinema, recreated street scenes including a haunted house and animatronic displays - not to mention the Great Expectations Boat Ride...

Southwark

The working life of Dickens' father was not an easy one and when he was arrested for debt charges in 1824, the family (apart from Charles and his sister Fanny) was consigned to Marshalsea Prison in Southwark, London. Dickens was put to work at Warren's Blacking Factory at Hungerford Market.

After his father's release the Dickens family lived in Camden Town and Charles attended day school in Hampstead Road, Southwark.

The Cuming Museum houses the amazing collection of the Cuming family and tells the story of Southwark.

Their Dickens' Southwark web page makes some interesting local Dickensian connections and the museum is hosting Charles Dickens: A Southwark Childhood from May 22 to October 27 2012.

An image of a turquoise hand-drawn frontispiece for a book
Bleak House was published between 1852 and 1853
The exhibition will use objects, artworks and illustrations from the museum's collection to map Dickens' experiences of the area and explore how they informed his writing.

It will explore key locations such as the prison, St George the Martyr Church and Mint Street Workhouse.

Broadstairs

David Copperfield's aunt, Betsey Trotwood, was based on Broadstairs local Mary Pearson, who Dickens met while on one of several holidays to the Kentish town.

He remembered her as a kindly and charming old lady who fed him tea and cakes and was firmly convinced of her right to stop the passage of donkeys in the front of her cottage.

Pearson's cottage is now the Charles Dickens House Museum, which is full of memorabilia, Dickens furniture and illustrations by the original Dickens illustrator HK Browne together with general Victoriana and some of Dickens's letters. Find out more about this wonderful treasure trove on The Dickens fellowship website.

a pen and ink drawing of an old three storey cottage
An ealy illustration of the cottage of Betsy Pearson Strong, now the Charles Dickens House Museum.
Broadstairs has also held a Dickens Festival annually since 1937. The town's annual summer event, the Broadstairs Dickens Festival, runs from June 16-22 2012.

Rochester

With its surviving cobbled streets and period buildings, Rochester has rightly become a mecca for Dickensians in search of the flavour of his novels. Dickens' visits to Rochester saw descriptions of the Castle and Cathedral appear in The Pickwick Papers and Miss Havisham's home in Great Expectations was based on Rochester's Restoration House.

The city celebrates the writer with an annual Dickens Festival and Dickensian Christmas. For 2012, the Rochester Bicentenary Celebration runs until February 11 with a Summer Festival (June 8-10) and a Christmas Festival (December 1-2).

A photo of people in Dickensian dress laughing
The annual Dickens Festival in Rochester
© Colin Smith
London

Dickens' connections to Kent and the south east may be strong, but it is his vivid evocations of the steaming metropolis of Victorian London that resonate through the novels.
 
After arriving in London as a child, Dickens lived and worked in they city for most of his career. Before the success of The Pickwick Papers he worked as a law clerk in Holborn, then as a parliamentary and newspaper reporter.

He and his wife raised 10 children together in the capital, although he was banished from their Regent's Park house after beginning an affair with actress Ellen Ternan.

The scenes and characters in his novels have a strong grounding in his experiences in the city.

Today most visitors in search of Dickens' London head to the Charles Dickens Museum in Holborn, which is the only one of Dickens' London homes to survive.

A photo of a terrace of houses in London
The Charles Dickens Museum in London.
He lived there for only two years, but in that time wrote The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. It contains a major collection of manuscripts, original furniture and memorabilia.

Although a long-awaited renovation project begins there in April 2012, the museum is holding a 12-week Dickens' Reading Group for the bicenntenial from Feb 17 until April 30 2012. The sessions will be led by Dr Jane Gibney, who teaches at Royal Holloway and the University of London.

Somewhat sursprisngly, the Victoria and Albert Museum is the place to find many of the original manuscripts of Dickens' novels, plus printers' proofs, first editions, and illustrations.

Most notably, the Forster Collection, bequeathed by the author’s friend and biographer, John Forster (1812-1876) is a rich haul of manuscripts that complements an equally impressive collection of illustrations, prints, drawings and paintings.

The V&A's Charles Dickens web page is an excellent way in to this rich resource and, for the 200th Birthday celebrations, the museum will display the original manuscripts for 11 of his major novels.

It will focus on his most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, and examine the development of the book from the original manuscript through to its publication.

a website screenshot
The V&A website offers an easy way to explore an impressive collection of Dickens resources
As one might expect, there is a Dickensian presence at the British Library - albeit a rather more modest one. You can explore their handwritten draft of Nicolas Nickleby in more detail on the British Library website.

For the bicentenary, The British Library is also exploring Dickens' love of the supernatural. A Hankering after Ghosts (until March 4) draws on letters and manuscripts to delve into the world of Victorian spiritulaism and the supernatural and the great author's interest in it all. Take a closer look via the Library's facebook page.

A more thorough exploration is currently running at the ,where Dickens and London runs until June 10.

The exhibition includes paintings, photographs, costumes and objects that delve into the world of Dickens, as well as rarely seen manuscripts including Bleak House and David Copperfield.

Another highlight is a specially commissioned film by one of the UK's leading documentary filmmakers, William Raban, which explores the similarities between London after dark today and the night-time city described by Dickens more than 150 years ago.

A photo of a large red brick house in front of a lawn
Gad's Hill Place as it looks today.
Higham

After his divorce Dickens hit the lecture trail, with acclaimed public appearances throughout Britain and the United States. In 1856, his fame and wealth were sufficient to provide him with the income to buy Gad's Hill Place in Higham.

As a child, Dickens had walked past the house and dreamed of living in it. He died on the couch in the dining room of the house on June 9 1870 after suffering a stroke.

The house is now part of Gad's Hill School, but there are long-term plans to develop the site into a visitor centre and museum.

For the bicentenary year, Gad's Hill will be open to the public in the summer for various events and will be displaying some exhibits borrowed from the Charles Dickens Museum.

More Dickens events and exhibitions...

At The University of Buckingham, the launch of the Dickens Journal Online Project is accompanied by a four-day conference starting on March 28 2012.

The archive offers access to the complete online editions of Dickens' popular weekly magazines, Household Words and All the Year Round.

At Mansfield Museum a Dickens Festival takes place from February 13-17, with events and workshops for children throughout the week, culminating in a birthday celebration on the final day.

Activities are set to include storytelling; large-scale illustration; silhouette making and, possibly, gruel making.

The Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle hosts Charles Dickens' Model House until the end of 2012, featuring a display of Dickens related objects, including a furnished model of the author's house in London’s Doughty Street.

The exhibition also includes account books relating to Dotheboys Hall, the nearby Yorkshire school featured in Nicholas Nickleby.

The museum is holding a Dickens Day on February 15 to mark the bicentennial. The day will include a talk by the great, great, granddaughter of the illustrator of Charles Dickens' novels, a Victorian High Tea in the café and a presentation by the great, great grandson of Charles Dickens.

At Stockport Central Library their Discover the World of Dickens exhibition runs until February 29 and includes a large selection of Dickens's novels and non fiction works including biographies, life in Victorian London, companion books and guides.
 

For more on the Dickens bincentenary see
www.dickens2012.org.uk

Explore Dickens' connectons to the south east in more detail with
Culture24's Dickens in the South East trail
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