Alice in Wonderland: On the trail of Lewis Carroll

By Elizabeth White | 26 February 2010 | Updated: 20 November 2015

2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and we have found some fabulous places for you to visit relating directly to his classic Alice In Wonderland and the life and and times of the author himself.

For the less energetic, there are also some great websites for you to peruse from the comfort of your armchair

a photo of a Lewis Carroll in Victorian frock coat, high collars and bow tie perching in the ledge of an open sash window.
Lewis Carroll by Unknown photographer, albumen carte-de-visite, circa 1856-1860© National Portrait Gallery, London

Lewis Carroll was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in the village of Daresbury in Cheshire on January 27 1832.

His parents, Charles Dodgson, an Anglican clergyman and his wife Frances went on to have 11 children and Charles was baptised at All Saints' Church, Daresbury where you can still see the original baptismal font where the Carroll brow was sprinkled with Holy water.

a stained galss window showing the mad hatter

The Daresbury Window. PIctures used under Creative Commons.

Part of All Saints' Church, The Daniell Chapel in Daresbury, is a must for Carroll fans. The Lewis Carroll Memorial Window - paid for by worldwide subscription - shows both Carroll and Alice at a nativity scene.

Five adjacent panels are illustrated with characters and scenes from Alice in Wonderland, including the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter.

As well as an imaginative storyteller and poet Carroll grew to be a gifted mathematician and spent much of his adult life teaching mathematics at Christ Church College in Oxford, where he had rooms and kept many of his personal belongings and papers.

Here he met the Dean of the College Henry Liddell and his family and built up great friendships with the Liddell children.

Biographers disagree to the nature of Carroll's interest in the three Liddell girls and, partly helped by missing diary entries and some of his photographs, the author's interest in children remains unresolved. But it was of course Alice, the younger daughter, who was the inspiration for the "Alice" stories.

sepia photograph of three young girls on a sofa

The Liddell sisters by Lewis Carroll. © National Portrait Gallery

On July 4 1862, a bright summer's day, Carroll and a university colleague, Canon Robinson Duckworth, took the girls – Alice, Lorina and Edith Liddell - on a boat trip and picnic along the River Isis.

The story goes that Carroll "improvised" Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as he and Duckworth rowed along the river. Intrigued by the story, Alice is said to have asked him to write it down, which he eventually did - presenting her with a copy as a Christmas present in 1864. By the this time the manuscript had already been passed to publishers and in 1865 the complete Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was published by Macmillan.

Sepia photograph of Alice Liddell reclining on a chaise longue

Alice Liddell by Lewis Carroll. © National Portrait Gallery

It was on the Oxford river trips that Carroll developed his interest in photography and he soon began taking portraits of the Liddell girls. Many of the portraits he took, can be seen at the National Media Museum in Bradford. You will need to telephone in advance to arrange to view a large collection of his photography.

The National Portrait Gallery is also an important holding for photographs either taken by or featuring Carroll. He began taking photographs in 1856 and was soon producing far less stilted and artificial portraits than those taken by many professional portraitists of the time.

a frontispiece from a copy of Alice in Wonderland

Title page of the 1865 edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in WonderlandCharles Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll), published by MacMillan and Co

When the original story was published in 1865, even Queen Victoria joined the clamour to proclaim the new novel, which set itself apart from other children's literature at the time by being pure entertainment, rather than containing any elements of instruction.

The majority of Victorian literature written for children before the arrival of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland took the form of fairy tales that carried moral messages. Alice seems completely different in its celebration of reckless adventure.

Carroll eventually published a sequel in 1871, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, and the nonsense poem, The Hunting of the Snark, in 1876.

But where did his inspiration come from?

Carroll often based his fictional characters on real people he knew, and this could be true of Alice in Wonderland's White Rabbit who, in his constant haste (and tardiness), is said to resemble Dean Liddell, Alice's father.

Liddell was notorious for being late for services at Christ Church College, where he resided with his family.

a photograph of an ornate wood pannelled dining hall with long tressle tables

Christ Church Oxford Hall. Pictured used under the Wikimedia creative commons license.

The inspiration for the rabbit hole that Alice falls down, is also said to be at the College and can be found in the dining hall where the Dean would have dined at High Table. The hole is a very narrow spiral staircase descending to the senior common room.

Others say the Dean's Gardens at the college, in which the Liddell children played, were also the inspiration for 'Wonderland'.   

Changing location but staying with the rabbit theme, a visit to Ripon Cathedral in Yorkshire reveals the tiny yet hugely significant inspiration for the stories. The choir stalls feature a range of fantastical carvings of animals including one of a griffon chasing a rabbit and another hiding in a hole.

As his father was Canon in Ripon between 1852 and 1868, it is thought that these images inspired Carroll as a young man.

a photograph of a fob watch

Lewis Carroll's pocket watch. © Museum of Oxford

A fob watch of the type worn by the White Rabbit as he scurried about worrying about his tardiness belonged to Carroll and can be seen in Oxford Museum. The inspiration for the "Drink Me" bottle, which caused Alice to expand and then shrink was Carroll’s Victorian medicine bottle, which is also on display.

a photograph of several items in a display case including fob watches and cases

Personal artefacts on display at Museum of Oxford.

Alice Liddell's personal effects including her pocket watch, calling card cases and silver scissors can also be seen at the Museum. There is a souvenir biscuit tin given to Alice and her family by Carroll, and hand-drawn place cards used at a dinner party held by Alice.

For visiting families a gallery pack of activities is available at any time - including gallery searches, colouring pages, and word and number puzzles that Lewis Carroll set for his friends.

a decorated biscuit tin, 1892

Alice Liddell's biscuit tin. © Museum of Oxford

While in Oxford, pay a visit to an old boutique which was the inspiration for The Old Sheep Shop in Through the Looking-Glass. It has been open since the 1830s and selling a huge range of Alice-related merchandise since the 1960s and, apparently, Alice Liddell bought her sweets here.

Ever wondered about the origins of the strangely philosophical Cheshire Cat? There are varied contenders vying to be the inspiration behind the smirking feline. Some reports suggest Carroll found inspiration in a carving in St Peter's Church, Croft-on-Tees, Yorkshire, where his father had been rector.

The young Lewis Carroll came there as an 11-year old boy with a vivid imagination. (His parents are buried in the churchyard near the North wall in a railed-in altar tomb).

Another view is that the cat is based on a gargoyle found on a pillar in St Nicolas Church, Cranleigh the church Carroll used to frequent when he stayed in Guildford. This website, dedicated to the Cheshire Cat, helps to explain its history in more depth.

photo of a stone carved head of a cat

The cat carving in St Nicolas Church, Cranleigh. Photo by Silk Tork published under creative commons

After his father's death, Carroll purchased The Chestnuts, at Guildford, Surrey where his six unmarried sisters and Dodgson family descendants lived until the 1930s.

Carroll himself was never permanently resident at the house, having his own rooms in Christchurch College Oxford where he continued his career as a don and lecturer in mathematics. But he was a regular visitor to the sixteen room residence and tales abound of his extravagant parties and holiday stays.

Elsewhere in the town you can find a statue of Alice making her way through the looking glass in Castle Gardens and nearby on the riverbank at Millmead a statue depicts Alice reading with her sister – as a rabbit darts down a nearby hole. If that isn't excitement enough, why not visit Guildford Museum, where you can see toys and other artefacts owned by Carroll and his sisters.

a photo of a sculpture of Alice entering through a glass with a ruined castle in the distance
Guildford Castle Through the Looking Glass© Copyright Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence 2.0
On a Christmas visit to The Chestnuts in 1897 Carroll caught influenza, and, in spite of devoted nursing, died on January 14 1898, a fortnight before his sixty-sixth birthday.

He was buried in the cemetery on The Mount, just inside the gates, where his grave and the memorial cross erected by his brothers and sisters can be seen. His aunt, Lucy Lutwidge, and several of his sisters are buried in the same cemetery.

If you're planning a longer visit to Surrey, the Surrey History Centre in Woking contains books, manuscripts and personal papers from his family.

Plaque in Sussex Square, Brighton, where Carroll used to live

(Above) Plaque on a house in Sussex Square, Brighton, where Lewis Carroll often visited. © Culture 24

From Surrey it's not such a long journey to Sussex where Lewis Carroll was a regular visitor. One of his sisters lived at 11 Sussex Square, Brighton, between 1874 – 87 and Carroll is said to have paid regular visits. There is a plaque on the front of the house, which can be found after a pleasing meander around this beautiful Regency square.

Finally, take a trip across the water to the Isle of Wight for a visit to Dimbola Lodge where Carroll visited his friend and fellow photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron who also photographed Alice Liddell when she was 20-years-old.

The Lodge is now a grade II listed building and definitely worth a visit. There are often exhibitions, including some of his photographs on display.

Finally, Tim Burton’s 2010 psychedelic 3D take on the children’s classic, used just one real location to create his wonderland. Today the National Trust House Antony, and its grounds remain as one of the best places to conjure the magical adventures of the young Alice.

a photograph of a country house glimpsed through a woodland garden

Antony. The Georgian National Trust Property used by Tim Burton for his Alice film. Photo Christian Barnett © NTPL

Alice Online

The website Alice in Oxford is nicely organised into sections: Visit Me, Teach Me, Buy Me, Inspire Me and Tell Me. Each section is detailed and clear and covers a lot of ground. The site also gives useful information on films and books to search out.

a photo of a handwritten book with decoration
Page one of Alice Liddell's Alice manuscript© The British Library Board

On a more academic note, you can view Carroll's manuscripts online at The British Library. As well as original handwritten pages from the stories, the national library also holds different translations, parodies and editions created in the 20th century by artists and writers as diverse as Salvador Dali, Mervyn Peake and Vladimir Nabokov.

The Lewis Carroll Society is packed with information about the minutiae of Carroll's life and works.

a film still showing children dressed as playing cards

The very first version of Alice on film appeared in 1903. Courtesy BFI

Alice on Film

Of course Tim Burton’s psychedelic opus isn’t the first Alice to make it onto celluloid. The very first version appeared in 1903 – only 37 years after Lewis Carroll wrote his tale.

The film was produced by the pioneering Hepworth Studios and was based on Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations - at 12 minutes it was the longest film produced in England at the time.

The only surviving print is severely damaged – and only eight minutes of footage have survived. The BFI Archive has preserved the film and restored its original colour tints. This short film is available to view on the BFI website and in the BFI Mediatheques, free of charge.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Latest comment: >Make a comment
The photo of the girl alone on the couch is not Alice Liddell, but her younger sister, Edith. Alice is the one on the far right in the photo of all three sisters. Her hair is straight and cut short.

For Heaven's sake, one would expect more from this site. Do your homework!
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