Why travellers should hit the 'Dickens trail' in England

On the 175th anniversary of the publication of A Christmas Carol, we take us on a literary tour of Portsmouth, in the south of England

48 Doughty Street in London, site of the Charles Dickens Museum. Courtesy Charles Dickens Museum
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“Every idiot who goes about with Merry Christmas on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!

“A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!”

Christmas is a time of moaning as well as giving. And quoting Dickens. And therefore the time to go to Portsmouth on the south coast of England – particularly since this Christmas marks the 175th anniversary of the publication of Dickens's famed novel, A Christmas Carol.  

Charles Dickens, the great Victorian novelist and social campaigner, spent his first Christmas at the seaside in Hampshire. Portsmouth, 70 miles from London, is the only island city in the United Kingdom and you should head there to pay homage to one man and one book that increased the popularity of Christmas and transformed it into a festive holiday.  

Scrooge and the ghost of Marly. Courtesy Charles Dickens
Scrooge and the ghost of Marly. Courtesy Charles Dickens

With the British Navy still at war with Napoleonic France, Elizabeth Dickens gave birth to Charles John Huffam Dickens on February 7, 1812, at 1 Mile End Terrace, now 393 Commercial Road, in Landport, near Portsmouth. His father, John Dickens, was a pay clerk in the Navy Pay Office there, before being recalled to Somerset House in London.

This year is also the 180th anniversary of the serialisation of Oliver Twist in All Year Round magazine, while 2019 is the 170th anniversary of David Copperfield.

Portsmouth’s Charles Dickens’ Birthplace Museum comprises Regency-style furniture of the sort the Dickens family may have had. The only authentic fitting is an in-built cupboard, but the snuff box, ink well, letter knife and couch on which he died are genuine. It’s a no-quills affair – but the Georgian terraced house opposite Morrison’s supermarket should be the starting point for any Dickens trail.

Charles Dickens's 'A Christmas Carol' was published 175 years ago. Courtesy Charles Dickens Museum
Charles Dickens's 'A Christmas Carol' was published 175 years ago. Courtesy Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens's great Christmas novella about the "clutching, covetous old sinner" Ebenezer Scrooge was written during a career crisis, but was an instant bestseller. Dickens was already famous – The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge had all been published – but he had returned from a trip to America having been shocked by New York's Five Points slums. He was struck by the plight of the masses – "many thousands are in want of common necessities; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts". And after a speech in Manchester to raise money for the Athenaeum, an organisation that brought education and culture to the have-nots, the 31-year-old Dickens, who had shared the stage with the novelist and later prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, conceived the idea for A Christmas Carol.

Chapman and Hall published 6,000 copies on December 19, 1843. They sold out within days. William Makepeace Thackeray described it as “a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness”. After the book’s release, Dickens and the festive charitable spirit became inseparable. But it cost him.

Documentary / Interior and architectural photography
The dining room at the Charles Dickens Museum. Courtesy Siobhan Doran Photography

In January 1844, printers and publishers Richard Egan Lee and John Haddock began selling appreciably cheaper editions, without Dickens’ permission. The author sued but Lee and Haddock declared themselves bankrupt and Dickens was left out of pocket. He used this bitter experience later in his depiction of the Court of Chancery in Bleak House.

From Portsmouth, Dickens fans should head to Medway in Kent, where the Dickens family moved when Charles was aged two. He loved Kent. Pip from Great Expectations grew up in the marshes, and Holcombe Manor is thought to be Dingly Dell in The Pickwick Papers.

Rochester's In The Footsteps Of, guided or unguided, costumed or uncostumed, walking tours take in Eastgate House's Swiss Chalet summerhouse, given to Dickens by French actor Charles Fechter. Through blackened teeth, Nancy from Oliver Twist gives tours of the Medway town, taking you to the Elizabethan Restoration House on Crow Lane, the inspiration for Mrs Haversham's house in Great Expectations. The names Drood and Dorrit appear on gravestones in Rochester Cathedral's cemetery. The Vines, the gardens on the site of a medieval vineyard in Rochester, was the last place Dickens was seen in public before his death in 1870. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

London’s Dickens tours – often with gentlemen with their own or false mutton chops and Pickwickian paunches, centre around old coaching inns and pubs, gentlemen’s clubs and the sites of slum areas. They also take in illustrator George Cruikshank’s home in Islington; Mary-Le Strand, the church where Dickens’ parents got married; possible locations of Scrooge’s counting house; and Warren’s Blacking Warehouse near Charing Cross Station, where Dickens worked when his father was imprisoned as a debtor in Marshalsea prison.

The Georgian terraced house at 48 Doughty street in Holborn, where Dickens and wife Catherine, nee Hogarth, lived with the eldest three of their 10 children, is now the Charles Dickens Museum. Mary and Kate Macready Dickens were born there, and Catherine's sister, Mary, lived with them and died in Dickens's arms in 1837, the first year of Queen Victoria's reign, inspiring little Nell's death in The Old Curiosity Shop.

The study in the Charles Dickens Museum. Courtesy Siobhan Doran Photography
The study in the Charles Dickens Museum. Courtesy Siobhan Doran Photography

Mercifully, the museum is a "Piccadilly weepers" (long bushy side whiskers without a beard), frock coat and Victorian mop cap-free zone. Full of first editions, handwritten drafts, menus and invitations cards, as well as Catherine's engagement ring, it is a research centre and has an academic atmosphere. There are no people suffering or pretending to suffer from Pickwickian syndrome. The staff don't wear muslin nightcaps and show you around using tallow candles in early Victoria nightwear. But everything is neat and tidy, fitting to Dickens's OCD. There is, alas, no sight of his stuffed Raven, Grip.

Unsurprisingly, the museum gift shop is called the “Old Curiosity Shop” and is the perfect place to pick up a Bah! Humbug! mug.


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