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Charles Dickens

The gates of Portsmouth Dockyard

Charles Dickens lived at a time of great change. In the nineteenth century a rural society was passing away, and an industrial world was emerging. In many ways Dickens is known for raging against the harshness of this new society. He is also known for writing about the nature of change itself. In The Old Curiosity Shop, which caused a huge sensation in the winter 1840 - 1841, he made it plain that, painful as it may be, you have to let go of the past. The innocent figure of Little Nell has to pass away. Many people didn't like this, and the Irish MP Daniel O'Connell threw a copy of the story out of a train window when he realised that nasty Mr Dickens had killed off such a nice character. But if Nell had lived what would have happened? She would either have grown up, with all the compromises that entails, or in a metaphorical sense she would have been like the dwarves she meets on her journey, who are never able to grow.


Charles Dickens himself spent his whole life working to change his life. He was born on 7th February 1812 in Mile End, Portsmouth. The Naval Pay Office where his father, John Dickens, worked still exists at Portsmouth Dockyard, just inside the gates. John Dickens had to go where the Navy put him, and after a number of moves the family relocated to London in 1815, living at 10 Norfolk Street, now 22 Cleveland Street. Staying here until 1817, the next move was to Sheerness, to a house next door to a theatre. Then in the same year it was on to Chatham, Kent. John Dickens worked at Chatham Dockyard, and his family lived in Ordnance Court, on the brow of the hill that leads to Fort Pitt. Sitting next door to Chatham was Rochester, a town which made a great impression on young Charles, and would often appear, in various guises, in future novels. As far as the future was concerned Charles used to walk up to the fine house at Gads Hill and dream of owning it, which eventually he did. 1821 saw another move to St Mary's Place Chatham, where the future author would sit in a room at the top of the house and read voraciously. Here he read The Arabian Nights, perhaps the most important of his literary influences. The following year another move took the family to Camden in London, around the time of the death of Charles's infant sister Harriet.



Clink Prison Museum

Following a desultory education Charles started work, on 9th February 1824, at age 12, for a company making boot blacking. The factory was in a run-down, rat infested building next to the Thames. A few days later John Dickens was arrested for debt and sent to Marchelsea Prison, just off Borough High Street in Southwark. Charles would spend long hours at the Marchelsea visiting his father, the prison making a deep impression during the fourteen weeks his father was incarcerated there. The Marchelsea was to appear in David Copperfield, and is the most important setting in Little Dorrit. Now demolished, the main prison entrance stood at the end of a narrow court, known today as Angel Court. An idea of the prison conditions which Charles must have witnessed can be gained at the Clink Prison Museum. This museum is in Clink Street, just a few minutes walk away from Borough High Street, and stands on the site of Clink Prison, which was destroyed in the Gordon Riots of 1780. These riots are the subject of Barnaby Rudge.


After an uncertain period of time Charles left the blacking factory, his father wanting more education for his obviously clever son. Later in life Dickens the writer imagined what would have happened to a boy left behind in a place like the blacking factory, creating Little Dick who dies in the workhouse in Oliver Twist. Fortunately Charles himself escaped, and went to Wellington House Academy for two years, which led on to work as a clerk in a lawyer's office, and then in 1829 to work as a short hand transcriber of court cases. By 1831 he was writing for the Mirror of Parliament, taking short hand notes of parliamentary debates. Then finally in 1833 Charles Dickens started seriously to write. While working as a journalist on the Morning Chronicle, and writing sketches for the Evening Chronicle, his first published work appeared in Monthly Magazine as A Dinner at Poplar Walk. In 1835 young publisher John Macrere asked Dickens to reprise his sketches and stories in a single volume, and this became Sketches by Boz. Then the big breakthrough came with a new series in monthly installments called Pickwick Papers. This was a huge success. A biographer of Dickens visited a locksmith in Liverpool, and found him reading Pickwick Papers to an audience of twenty, borrowed between them from a circulating library.

Charles Dickens was launched on his career as a world famous author. In many ways the novels that followed are best understood in context of his times. Society was becoming industrial, the scale of towns and cities was growing hugely. Individuals often became lost in this new society, and Dickens is well known for his opposition to this kind of inhumanity. His novel Nicholas Nickleby forced the closure of oppressive Yorkshire schools where orphans and unwanted children often ended up. He also developed a very direct style, which linked him in a personal way with his audience in the new impersonal cities. This began with The Old Curiosity Shop of 1840, in which he intended making: "the bond between himself and his readers one of personal attachment" (quoted in Dickens by Peter Ackroyd P310). Towards the end of his life he became famous for his habit of reading direct to his audience. His books were something of an antidote to his times. But though the past was sometimes idealised, Dickens did not simply live in the past. As we know, one way or another Little Nell had to pass away. Following a visit to America in 1842 Dickens became a convert to modern industrial society, and wrote about it in positive terms. In many ways he was a complex character, humane, and yet in modern terms a "racist", a man who had suffered at the hands of the prison system as a boy, only to demand that prisons should be tougher in his later years. He seemed to enjoy executions which he attended at the Old Bailey on a number of occasions. In Dickens' work there are many contradictions. Little Nell's death could be looked upon as an actual death, or as the metaphorical passing of her young self before she begins the next stage of her life. The cycles in Dickens come around on themselves, and in one of his last books, A Tale Of Two Cities, he says "I travel in circles, nearer and nearer to the beginning".



The clock in Rochester High Street

Dickens was a great traveller, who lived and worked in many places. And yet in his travel you get a sense of a man travelling in circles, finding the same thing wherever he went. Following a restless childhood, Charles continued into adult life a habit of travel and moving his home. He lived in London, Paris, Switzerland, Italy, and visited America. There are many locations linked to Dickens, and to events in his books. In his own lifetime there was already a brisk trade in Dickens tourism. In spite of his intense feeling and memory for places, Dickens himself was usually unmoved by his visiting. He saw places for what they were, as places like any other. In visiting Dickens places I recall the restlessness of the man. The locations a Dickens admirer might visit will not necessarily contain any more magic than anywhere else. But they will be settings where Dickens found temporary rest for his imagination. If you don't feel a sense of magic, then you have a direct line to the great man himself, who felt a sense of place so keenly, even in always wanting to leave. In An Uncommercial Traveller Dickens returns to Rochester, Kent after many years away and is gravely disappointed by what he finds. The High Street has "shrunk fearfully" and the High Street clock which was once "the finest clock in the world" has become "inexpressive and moon-faced". Sometimes I think Dickens was only interested in specific locations because of the way they set him free to dream of somewhere else. He would conjure up a place in his memory, and enjoy it all the more keenly because he wasn't actually there to feel trapped. In his memory he would wander through a place like one of the spirits in his stories, somebody who is there and yet not there.

In January 1861 Charles Dickens went for a walk along the new Thames embankment at Millbank. This walk brought home to him how much had changed during his lifetime. "When I was a rower on that river it was all broken ground and ditch, with here and there a public house or two, an old mill and a tall chimney." (Letters of Charles Dickens Vol IX 1859 - 1861).

At the time of Dickens' Millbank walk modern London was emerging. The great sewers north and south of the Thames were in place, and huge areas of the city were building sites. Garrick Street, New Oxford Street, Clarkenwell Road, Farringdon Street and Southwark Street were all built. New train stations had appeared at Canon Street, Victoria and St Pancreas. An underground railway from Paddington to Farringdon was under construction and would open in 1863. This project meant the end of much of old Clarkenwell, as described in Oliver Twist. Much as he had raged against the inhumane aspects of early industrial society, in a sense perhaps he even missed the easing of those conditions, the dark London with which he had grown up, which was now disappearing. Mixed emotions must have followed Dickens down Millbank. Endings were ambivalent. In The Old Curiosity Shop Little Nell died, but this death allows her innocence to survive. This was a typical Dickens sentiment. One kind of passing entails another kind of survival. "I travel in circles nearer and nearer to the beginning."

Charles Dickens died at Gad's Hill Place, the house which as a boy he had dreamt of owning, on 9th June 1870. Against his wishes he was buried in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey.



Dickens Places in Rochester and Chatham, Kent.

The area of Chatham and Rochester is well known for its Dickens connection. John worked at the Chatham Dockyard, where the pay office in which he worked still survives. The family lived at Ordnance Court on the brow of the hill that leads to Fort Pitt.

Other Dickens landmarks in Rochester and Chatham include:



The Bull Inn

The Bull Inn in Rochester High Street is the setting for the opening scenes of The Pickwick Papers. Dickens himself stayed here.

The Bull is an old coaching inn, as revealed by the wide entrance through which coaches used to pass.










The Guildhall

The Guildhall stands opposite the Bull. Once the town hall, it appears in Great Expectations. Pip was bound as an apprentice here. The building is now a museum. There are a number of rooms dedicated to Dickens. A small recreation of his study includes items that once belonged to him. A short film follows an actor playing Dickens around Rochester, pointing out the sites that are linked to his novels.










The College Gate

If you walk along Rochester High Street to the Crossroads at Northgate, you will see on the right the College Gate. This fifteenth century building appears in The Mystery Of Edwin Drood as the home of Jasper.














The Cathedral

Walking through College Gate you will approach Rochester Cathedral. This is the second oldest cathedral site in Britain, behind that of Canterbury. Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury consecrated the cathedral at Rochester in 604. The present building dates to 1080, and was built by Bishop Gundulf who was also responsible for the construction of neighbouring Rochester Castle. Both the cathedral and castle appear inThe Mystery of Edwin Drood, and The Pickwick Papers.










Behind the cathedral is a little row of cottages known as Minor Canon Row. This, in the words of Dickens is, "a quiet place in the shadow of the cathdral, which... the echoing footsteps of rare passers... seemed to render more quiet than absolute silence".












Restoration House

Walk to the end of Minor Canon Row, follow the street around a curve and then turn left into Vines Park. Pip walked through Vines Park on his way to see Miss Haversham in Satis House. Walk down the hill through Vines Park and facing the park you will see the house on which Dickens based Miss Haversham's house in Great Expectations. Miss Haversham's sad wedding feast covered in cobwebs was laid out here. The house is known as Restoration House because Charles II stayed here in 1600 on the night before he was restored to the throne.









Eastgate House

Eastgate House in Rochester High Street , once the home of the Dickens Centre, is now a venue for weddings. The building appeared as Westgate Seminary for Young Ladies in The Pickwick Papers, and as Miss Twinkerton's school for young ladies in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.












Directly opposite Eastgate House is a black and white timbered building. This was Mr Pumblechook's premises in Great Expectations. Pip had an attic room in this building.













Twice a year Rochester hosts the Dickens Festival. There is a parade, and during the Christmas parade there is guaranteed snowfall. Click on the link for more details.











Surrounding the river Medway in the area of Rochester you will find the marshlands that appear in Great Expectations, although in the book they are presented as marshes around the Thames. Walking the Saxon Shore Way between Hoo and Upnor is a good way of seeing the marshes. If you follow this route you will also pass the remains of an old battery, Cockham Wood Fort, which should stir memories of the battery where Joe and Pip meet before Pip leaves to seek his fortune in London.

The North Downs Way at Cuxton and Halling also offers good general views of this part of Kent.










A short drive out of Rochester, along the A228 will take you towards the village of Cooling. Dickens walked out this way on his long hikes, which he took to relieve the strain of hours of writing at his desk. The churchyard at Cooling is the place where Great Expectations famously opens. The little lozenge shaped graves which Pip stood beside can still be seen.

Cooling church lies right beside the long distance walk, the Saxon Shore Way. If you wish to follow the Way from the Medway towns out to Cooling, I suggest you drive to Hoo, and then follow the sign posted path to Cooling. This would be a walk of about seven to eight miles. Alternatively you could follow the path all the way from Rochester. This is a long walk of about seventeen miles. Pick up the path behind Rochester Cathedral and head over the bridge towards Strood.






Dickens Places In London



In 1822 the family moved to Camden in London, when John Dickens began work at Somerset House. Charles started work aged twelve putting the tops on jars of boot blacking. He worked in a rat infested building beside the Thames. A few days later John Dickens, who had always had problems spending within his means, was arrested for debt, and sent to Marchelsea Prison, which was just off Borough High Street in Southwark. He spent fourteen weeks there, although at the time there was no knowing how long the sentence would continue. If debts could not be paid then debtors would stay in prison, sometimes for the rest of their lives. The Marchelsea has now gone. All that is left is a small remnant in the churchyard of St George's Church in Borough High Street. Charles spent many hours in the prison visting his father. This was a desperate time for the family, and Charles could not have dreamt that streets in this area would one day bear the names of his characters. There's Little Dorrit Court, Pickwick Street, Quilip Court; and in Hart Street where his now demolished lodging once stood, there is the Charles Dickens primary school. The Marchelsea left a deep impression on young Charles, and it appears in David Copperfield, and in Little Dorrit.





Seven Dials, as it looks today

The areas of the Strand, Covent Garden and Waterloo Bridge appear again and again in Dickens' novels: This was the route of his walk to work at the blacking factory. London at this time was a harsh place. The sewers had yet to be built, and in certain areas of London, known as the rookeries, thousands of people were packed together in terrible conditions. Some of the worst areas were in the narrow streets in the area of Seven Dials, where seven streets meet at St Giles, now in the fashionable West End.









The Old Bailey, on the site of the Newgate Prison

Fagin's Den in Oliver Twist was located at Saffron Hill, near Holborn. When Fagin was arrested he was imprisoned in Newgate, a notorious prison, where even in Dickens' lifetime the bodies of executed criminals would be displayed on the walls. Newgate Prison also appears in Barnaby Rudge, Great Expectations, and Sketches by Boz. It has been demolished, and is now the site of the Old Bailey, which can be found in Old Bailey between Holborn Circus and St Paul's Cathedral.












The Monument beside the Thames near the Tower of London is a two hundred foot column designed by Christopher Wren, marking the place where The Great Fire of London started in 1666. It appears in Barnaby Rudge, David Copperfield and Martin Chuzzlewit.









In London see also:

The Guildhall, the location for local government in the City of London. The ancient Corporation of London is based here, recognised by a letter from William the Conqueror which still exists in the library. The trial of Pickwick and Bardell took place here.

Also see Gray's Inn where Dickens worked as a clerk, and which appears in a number of the novels.

The Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich, which appears in Our Mutual Friend.




Other Dickens Places


For many years Dickens took his summer holiday in Broadstairs in Kent. He first visited in 1837, not long after the traumatic death of his wife's sister Mary. This was also a time when he was involved in a difficult dispute with his publisher Richard Bentley over money. It is not known why he chose Broadstairs, but perhaps it was a place not too far from London, that nevertheless had the feeling of being cut off from the outside world. It was a quiet place, good for rest and also for work. Dickens liked it so much that he came back here every summer or autumn for almost fourteen years.









Initially he rented a small two storey house in the High Street. In 1850 Dickens took the summer lease on Fort House, which stood a little away from the main town, and had a good position overlooking the sea. David Copperfield was finished here. The house is now known as Bleak House.














©2006 InfoBritain (updated 01/10)