Friday 7 December 2012

Photo Essay: The Homes of Charles Dickens

Dickens' changing signature - a display in the Charles Dickens Museum
 at 48 Doughty Street in London

Charles Dickens was born on 7 February 1812; he died on 9 June 1870. During his life he lived in a lot of different homes – nearly all of which are no longer standing. But there are three key houses in England that the Dickens enthusiast should visit – as my friend Tony Grant and I did back in the summer of 2009. This photo essay (my photos throughout) provides a tour of each of those three houses.

Portsmouth – 393, Old Commercial Road

Old Commercial Road in Portsmouth - Dickens's Birthplace Museum near the end (on the left)

On this Dickens pilgrimage, why not start at the beginning? Go to Portsmouth, where his life began. It is miraculous, really, that the house still stands. Not only has it survived many extensive changes and redevelopments in the area; it even emerged unscathed from heavy World War Two bombing of the city – Portsmouth had been an important military port. But there it still is. It’s a fairly quick drive down there from London – about a hundred kilometres south-west of the capital on the south-coast of Hampshire. Or you could take the train down from Victoria Station.

Entrance of Dickens's Birthplace Museum in Portsmouth

When the small, terraced, brick house was built it was situated outside the city, in the suburb of Landport – a new suburb built in the 1790s. The area was known then as Mile End, or New Town. The original address had it located at No. 13, Mile End Terrace. Charles’s parents, John and Elizabeth Dickens, moved into the house during the summer of 1809. It was the first house the newly-married couple rented. Dickens’s father had moved down from London to work in the Portsmouth dockyard; he worked on the payroll accounts at the Navy Pay Office, earning an annual salary of £110. Charles’s eldest sister Frances (Fanny) was born there in 1810; and Charles, the second child, was born about two years later, on 7 February 1812. His father was twenty-seven; his mother was twenty-two. It was a Friday; and Friday became a day of omen for Charles Dickens – sometimes good, sometimes bad! His mother used to say that she went to a ball on the night before his birth, but this is now considered to be one of several apocryphal stories surrounding the great one’s early childhood. Three weeks after Charles’s birth, his parents took the infant to the church of St. Mary’s Kingston, where he was christened on 4 March as Charles John Huffam Dickens – Charles after a maternal grandfather, John for his father, and Huffam for a London friend of his father. Huffam was also chosen as godfather to the child.

View into back garden from the back room on the first-floor

The house at Mile End was a modest dwelling. It was set in a semi-rural neighbourhood. His parents could now consider themselves members of the middle class. The house eventually got swallowed up by the city. When you visit it today, you’ll find it in the Southsea district of Portsmouth. And the address has changed; it’s now located at No. 393, Old Commercial Road and hosts the Charles Dickens’s Birthplace Museum.

Period plates (Regency) on a period sideboard

It’s strange that, despite his intense nostalgia for his childhood years - he would write about it later in several of his novels - Dickens never had any sentimental interest in his birthplace. One time he wrote this about it: “I can’t say I usually care much about it.” In fact, he did try to make a visit here once with a friend. But he couldn’t find its exact location. No Google Maps back then!

Drawing Room in the ground-floor front

The house has a small garden in the front and the back. The building includes two storeys, a basement, and an attic. In the Dickens’s time, it had a kitchen and washroom in the basement, a dining room and parlour on the ground floor, two bedrooms on the first floor, and two small garret rooms at the top of the house. There was no running water for the entire terrace; each unit had an outhouse in the back garden.
Tony displays the old Museum sign stored in the garret

The bedroom in which Charles was born – the front room on the first floor – has two windows which look out over the small front garden. At the time, the house looked out over Cherry Garden Field – with Portsmouth Harbour visible off in the distance.

Bedroom on first floor front - Charles Dickens was born here (not the original bed, but it's a period piece)

The house was furnished in the sparse, pre-Victorian, Regency style: the wooden floors occasionally covered with area-rugs, and the rather plain rooms were illuminated by oil lamps or candles. There are no original Dickens possessions here from their time in the house, but the museum has set up three fully-furnished rooms – parlour, dining room, and front bedroom – with genuine Regency furniture and household items that they have collected over the years. They do have the adult Dickens’s snuff box, inkwell and paper-knife. More importantly, in the back room on the first floor, they have the couch from Gad’s Hill Place upon which Charles Dickens died. On the wall above the couch is a large, framed copy of his death certificate.

The couch that Dickens died on at Gad's Hill Place, near Rochester, Kent on 9 June, 1870

Charles Dickens collapsed in the dining room of Gad’s Hill Place on 8 June 1870. Only his sister-in-law, Georgina, was with him at the time. He fell unconscious to the floor at about 6 p.m. The local doctor was summoned. He had Dickens moved from the floor onto a couch, which had been carried down to the dining room from upstairs. He died on the couch at about 6.15 p.m. on 9 June 1870, twenty-four hours after he had collapsed.

Copy of Charles Dickens's Death Certificate

When Charles was five-months old, the Dickens family had to move to a smaller house on a poorer road called Hawk Street. They were already in financial difficulty. Eighteen months later their prospects improved somewhat, and they moved to a better residence at 39 Wish Street in Portsea. That winter John Dickens was summoned to work at Somerset House in London. They left Portsmouth, Dickens later recalled, in the midst of a snowfall – and never returned.

Looking towards the front door
The Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum is located in Portsmouth at 393 Old Commercial Road. It is open daily there (except Mondays) between mid-April and September from 10.00 – 5.30. Admission is £4 for adults, £3.50 for senior citizens, and £3 for children and students.



London – 48, Doughty Street
Charles Dickens had been renting a house at Furnival’s Inn in Holborn, central London from 1834-1837, when he decided it was time to find a larger place for his growing family. He and his wife Catherine had been married now just over a year. Dickens was so busy at the time that he hired house agents to find a house, while he and Mary Hogarth, his sister-in-law, also did some looking around, inspecting available premises.

Doughty Street (to the right) in Central London

The house at 48 Doughty Street was found fairly soon. He made an offer for the place on 18 March, 1837, agreeing to a three-year lease at a rent of £80 per annum. He got his publisher, Richard Bentley, to give him an advance of £100 to cover the various moving expenses. He and his family moved in two weeks later – 31 March 1837.

Outside the front of 48 Doughty Street where Dickens lived (1837-1839)
The house on Doughty Street was located in a row of terraced houses built in the late-1700s. It was a typical brick house of the late Georgian period, an attractive home located in a quiet, private road, with a gateway manned by a porter on each end, in order to keep out undesirables. The area, at the time, was on the fringes of respectable London. Just east of Doughty Street ran the rather squalid Gray’s Inn Road, along which cattle were driven towards the Smithfield Market. But then to the north and west lay the posh squares and terraces of the estates of the Foundling Hospital and the Duke of Bedford. This house was bigger and grander than anything he had ever lived in with his parents. To help run the household, he employed a cook, a housemaid, a nurse, and a manservant.
48 Doughty Street was a three-storey house with twelve rooms. It also included a basement, an attic, and a small garden at the back of the house. There was a dining room and a back parlour on the ground floor. Dickens’s study was on the first floor – at the back of the house, overlooking the garden. Next to the study was the family’s drawing room, at the front of the building. On the second floor were two bedrooms.

Drawing Room at Doughty Street - Dickens always preferred
the Regency/William IV style to the early Victorian look
Dickens made changes to the house. He had the woodwork trim painted pink. A veined marble fireplace-hearth was installed in the drawing room. Bright-coloured carpets and rugs were added to many of the rooms. And he had a complete set of “standard novels” added to the shelves in the study. Dickens loved brightness in the family rooms; so he installed mirrors throughout the house. They reflected the light and improved the rather gloomy mood created by oil lamps and candles. Dickens continued to favour furniture and fittings of the Regency and William IV style. He preferred them to the rather drab style of the early and mid-Victorian period. Domestic order was very important to him. Before he could start work in his study each day, for example, he would tidy the room – making sure all the furniture and fittings were was set in their proper place.

The bed Mary Hogarth (his wife's younger sister) died in early May 1837
During his tenure at Doughty Street, Charles Dickens finished writing The Pickwick Papers; he also wrote in their entirety Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. The move to Doughty Street was a mark of Dickens’s eminence now in the literary world. And he did much lavish entertaining in the house – many friends noted with astonishment the amount of effort and money he put into these dinner-parties and celebrations.

Hallway near the front door

The time spent at Doughty Street was a happy and prosperous period for the family, except for the dramatic death there of Mary Hogarth, the sister of Dickens’s wife Catherine. It happened only five weeks after they had moved in. The three of them had been out one evening to the St. James Theatre, to see a performance of the play Is She His Wife?, written by Charles. When they got home and were preparing for bed, Mary collapsed. She never recovered, dying in Dickens’s arms the next afternoon. She was only 17 years old. Dickens was devastated and his grief lasted for many months.
Eventually, Doughty Street also became too small for the growing family – by the end of 1839, they had three children. Dickens found a new place within a week of beginning his search – it was a large house at 1, Devonshire Terrace, just south of Regent’s Park. They moved there in December, 1839.

My friend, Tony Grant, signs the Visitor's Book in the basement library, which houses the museum's extensive collection of original Dickens publications (books and magazines)
The Dickens Fellowship – founded in 1902 – decided to acquire 48 Doughty Street, in order to establish a museum to the great writer. Through the efforts primarily of the Fellowship’s founder, B. W. Matz, they launched a fundraising campaign in 1923 to raise the £10,000 needed to buy and endow the building. The Lord Mayor joined the campaign and called upon Londoners to help “preserve one of the most valuable literary relics of our time.” The Charles Dickens Museum was opened in the house on 9 June 1925.

The opening of the Museum at Doughty Street on 9 June, 1925
The Charles Dickens Museum contains the world’s most important collection of paintings, manuscripts, rare editions, original furniture and other items relating to his life and work. Perhaps the best-known article on display is the painting “Dickens’ Dream” by R. W. Buss. After almost a year-long renovation and refurbishment of the building at 48 Doughty Street, the Museum will reopen on 10 December 2012. Admission to the museum: £8 for adults; £4 for children 6-16 years; and Free for children under 6 yrs.

The museum owns the original painting (unfinished) "Dickens' Dream" by R.W. Buss

Higham, Kent (near Rochester) – Gad’s Hill Place

After about a year working in London (1816), when Dickens was a four-year old lad, his father was posted out to the north coast of Kent in early 1817 – first to Sheerness (in January), then to Chatham (in April), and finally to Rochester, where they lived on Ordnance Terrace for four years. When he was living there, a very young Charles Dickens often walked up the hill from Rochester on the Rochester-Gravesend Road that led towards London. It was a favourite hike of his. At the top of the hill, in the village of Higham, was a large house known as Gad’s Hill Place. Whenever he was passing the place with walking companions, he would invariably reminisce with them about the time when his father had first pointed out the house to him. “I used to look at it as a wonderful mansion (which God knows it is not) when I was a very odd little child,” he wrote; “I can recollect my father, seeing me so fond of it, had often said to me, ‘If you were to be persevering and were to work hard, you might someday come to live in it’.” And he did; he bought the house 36 years later.

Gad's Hill Place, near Rochester in Kent, where Dickens lived for his last 15 years (1855-1870)
At the beginning of February 1855 – as I wrote in my recent review of Little Dorrit – Dickens heard that Gad’s Hill Place was up for sale. He was interested, but before he could follow up on that interest, he was distracted for a while by a brief interlude with a former teenage love of his, Maria Beadnell. Much later in the year – in November – Dickens decided to buy the house. He paid £1,790 for it. He thought of it at first as an investment; he planned to rent it out, and to continue living in London in Tavistock House. He also toyed with the idea of using Gad’s Hill Place as a summer residence – living there with the family for a few months in the middle of each year, renting it out for the rest.

Antique post box next to Gad's Hill Place

Dickens called Gad’s Hill Place “old-fashioned, plain and comfortable.” It wasn’t at all grand, and not even that large. Tavistock House was more impressive. It was important to him more for what it meant – a symbol of the social position and financial success he yearned for during his problematic childhood. It was a three-storey, red-brick house built in the Queen Anne period. There was a bell-turret on top of the roof. From that roof, it was possible to see north as far as the River Thames; to the south and east, you could see Rochester and the valley of the Medway; and to the north-east you could look out over the flat and bleak coastal marshes. Outside the house there was a large, wooden porch complete with seats and pillars.
The rooms inside Gad Hill’s Place were relatively small. On the ground floor there was a drawing room, a dining room, a study, and a billiards room. The study was changed a couple of times – eventually it was located to the right side of the entrance hall, where he could gaze out of the windows into the garden. The first floor featured Dickens’s bedroom – its windows looked out towards the village of Strood.

The horse-drawn pump that brought up Dickens' water from the bottom of a 217-feet deep well. Moved later to Rochester - it's in the garden behind Eastgate House (near the Swiss chalet).
It took Dickens quite a while to get used to the quiet of this rural house. In fact, in the early days, it quite unnerved him. And then several major problems with the house emerged – particularly with the water supply and the drainage. The water supply was insufficient to satisfy the needs of the family – after a long process of trial-and-error, it was decided that a large pump would have to be built on the premises. A large team of workers was hired, and they began boring holes in the garden, digging up various flowerbeds in order to lay new pipes, and building new cesspools beneath the garden lawns. They had to dig down 217 feet in order to reach a sufficient supply of spring water, which had to be pumped up daily by a mechanism driven, literally, by horse-power! Dickens spent a lavish £200 on all this work.

The Swiss chalet  given as a Christmas gift to Dickens by Charles Fechter in 1864
For the Christmas of 1864, Dickens’s friend Charles Fechter – an actor first in France, and then in London – bought him a genuine Swiss Chalet. It had been disassembled and shipped to Gad’s Hill Place in 94 pieces, packed into 58 large boxes. Dickens attempted to begin work assembling the structure, with help from Fechter, family members, and several visiting friends. Finally, Fechter had his carpenter come down to Kent from London, to take charge of the project. It was much bigger than anyone had anticipated – a real chalet with two floors. Dickens decided to erect it on a piece of land he owned across from Gad’s Hill Place – on the other side of the Rochester High Road, that ran past his property.

The tunnel dug under the road;
it led to Dickens's Swiss chalet.
Eventually, Dickens had a small tunnel excavated under the road, so that he could get from his house to the chalet without being disturbed by curious onlookers. The chalet became his writing study during the spring and summer months from 1865 until his death in 1870. He liked how bright it was – and he increased that brightness by installing a bank of mirrors along one wall of the chalet’s upper room. After his death, the chalet was given to Lord Darnley and kept in Cobham Park.

Dickens’s Swiss chalet is now crammed into the gardens of Eastgate House, just off the old High Street in Rochester. The Rochester and Chatham branch of the Dickens Fellowship (founded in 1903) has mounted a campaign to raise £100,000 to preserve the chalet. There are large numbers of the wooden boards that are rotting away, and the chalet can no longer be safely entered. It has been determined that the chalet will need to be carefully dismantled and every single board will have to be carefully examined and, if necessary, replaced. Then the entire structure will require treatment to protect it against future rot. The current brick footings will have to be replaced, in order to provide the chalet a more solid foundation.

Tony beside the school sign for the Gad's Hill School (located partly in Gad's Hill Place)
After Dickens’s death in 1870, his oldest child, Charley, bought Gad’s Hill Place for £8,600, but he was forced to give it up in 1879 because of ill-health. In 1924 the house became the home of Gad’s Hill School. The headmaster of the school announced a few years ago that they planned to construct a new building for the school and to turn Gad’s Hill Place into a Dickens museum.

Dickens seated at his desk in the study at Gad's Hill Place - engraving by Samuel Hollyer (ca. 1875)

Resources used: Charles Dickens: A Life (2011) by Claire Tomalin; Dickens (1990) by Peter Ackroyd


  1. Very good report about Gads Hill, Doughty Street and Commercial Road.
    The pictures are great.

    It all brings back wonderful memories.


  2. Great to see pictures of Gads Hill Place. There was a period in the late 80s when my Mum taught there and I was the only boy in the school, lucky me! As Southerner says, brings back wonderful memories, thank you. David

  3. "The house eventually got swallowed up by the city. When you visit it today, you’ll find it in the Southsea district of Portsmouth."

    No, you won't! Southsea is the coastal section in the south east corner of Portsmouth. The Dickens house is very much still in Landport, which is north of the city centre (and a good three miles north of Southsea). Anyone trying to find the house in Southsea will spend a long time looking for it... I think you got mixed up with Wish St here (which is in Southsea; Portsea is the name of the island on which most of Portsmouth is built).