Dickens in Birmingham

An image from A Christmas CarolCharles John Huffam Dickens was born in 1812 on 7 February and thus 2012 marks 200 years since the birth of this distinguished novelist, widely considered to be the greatest of the Victorian era.

An image of Mr. Fezziwig from A Christmas CarolCharles Dickens visited Birminghamin December 1853 in order to deliver several public readings of his work at the Town Hall.  ‘A Christmas Carol’ was the first, and deemed the best, of his Christmas Books and his first reading of this novella took place on 19 December 1853 to great public acclaim (John Leech provided etchings and engravings for ‘A Christmas Carol’).

This was the first of several visits to Birmingham and in subsequent years such performances raised significant funds for the construction of a new building for the Birmingham and Midland Institute.  Dickens had taken a keen interest in the work of the Institute and became its President in 1869.

An In Memorium Card for Charles Dickens.Public readings in this country and abroad proved very successful; ultimately they generated more income for Dickens than the sales of his writings.  At the very end of his life Dickens undertook a final series of readings in early 1870, making a last appearance at a Royal Academy banquet, and died on 9 June 1870 at his home at Gad’s Hill Place, following a final stroke.

Alison Smith

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One response to “Dickens in Birmingham

  1. Dickens in Birmingham

    One hundred and seventy five years ago a young Parliamentary wrier, said to be one of the fastest and most accurate shorthand writers in England, was paid £200 to provide the story line to a series of sporting plates. Two hundred pounds sounds little enough, but it would be nearer £22,000 by today’s prices and even then the publishers got good value for their money. The book evolved into The Pickwick Papers and the young man was Charles Dickens.

    Charles Dickens was born two hundred years ago, on 7 February 1812, at Portsmouth, the son of a pay clerk in the Navy Offices.. From a poor, often unsettled home, he grew up to become a great and successful novelist: he made £20,000 from a tour of America giving readings from his books. When he died in 1870 thousands came to mourn at the open grave in Westminster Abbey and for months afterwards, fresh flowers continued to be heaped around his tomb

    In his novels he portrayed a lot of the people and places he saw around him, and although he wrote mainly of London, which he knew best, he never neglected other parts of the country either in his works or in his travels.

    His early days, as a reporter on the staff of the Morning Chronicle, took him all over the country, reporting political meetings, or the speeches of Ministers to their constituents. Dickens, who was ever restless, greatly enjoyed this dashing about the countryside in a post-chaise at the reckless speed of fifteen miles an hour and the pictures of life that he gathered stood him in good stead for later use in his novels. He made two trips to the Midlands. He came to Birmingham in November 1834 to report on a meeting of the Liberal Party at the recently opened Town Hall. In a letter he gives a glimpse of his life as a travelling reporter. “I have arrived from Birmingham at 7 this morning and remained in the office until 10 correcting proofs …. I am rather fagged as you may suppose, have perpetrated four columns in as many hours before I left the town of dirt, ironworks, radicals and hardware.” In his report in the Chronicle on 29 November, he commented that “a perfect order was preserved throughout and the appearance of the vast body of persons was most imposing.”

    A working trip to Yorkshire with his illustrator, Hablot Knight Browne; the celebrated ‘Phiz’, took him through the Nottingham. He noted that the George at Grantham was “one of the best inns in England.” This was in February 1838 and they travelled as far as Greta Bridge where they visited Bowes Academy. The journey and the school feature in Nicholas Nickleby, the novel which Dickens began to write immediately upon his return to London.

    An early holiday that Dickens took was a tour of the Midlands and North Wales, once again in the company of Browne. They visited Stratford “where we sat down in the room where Shakespeare was born”; Kenilworth, which he thought a charming place; Warwick which “had no very great attractions” and Leamington. Again, this journey is immortalized in his work, for in Dombey and Son, Mr Dombey takes the same tour.

    Continuing on towards Shrewsbury, they travelled through Birmingham, where they stopped for refreshment at a cost of twelve shillings and then on to Wolverhampton. “Miles of cinder paths and blazing furnaces and roaring steam engines and such a mass of dirt, gloom and misery as I never before witnessed”, he wrote in a letter to his wife relating their journey. He may not have enjoyed the sights but it made an impression, for he recreates it vividly in the flight of Little Nell and her grandfather in The Old Curiosity Shop. Through Wolverhampton, they moved on to Shrewsbury where the travellers stayed at the Lion, a coaching inn on the Holyhead Road. He described their accommodation. “We have the strangest little rooms …. the windows bulge out over the street as if they were little stern windows of a ship. And the great door opens out of the sitting room on to a little open gallery, with plants in it, where on leans over a queer old rail.”

    The story of Little Nell was part of a miscellany called Master Mumphrey’s Clock which Dickens began in April 1840. On the day that the first part was issued Dickens was in Birmingham. His friend, John Forster arrived with the news of tremendous sales and in the excitement they dashed off to visit Shakespeare’s house at Stratford and to Johnson’s house at Lichfield. They then “found our resources so strained on returning, that we had to pawn our gold watches in Birmingham.”

    Many of Dickens’ visits to the Midlands were to speak at meetings and public dinners. He also gave charity readings from his works often to raise funds for educational establishments and many of his published Speeches were given at Mechanics institutes and the like. A lesser known side of his activity was his role as actor/manager of a group of players for the Guild of Literature. By performing plays in provincial cities they raised money for such purposes as funding the post of curator at the Shakespeare Birthplace. The players appeared in Birmingham in 1848 and again in 1852.

    Birmingham figured in all four of the reading tours that Dickens made. He came in 1859 on the first circuit and in 1861 on the second. He came again in 1866 and 1867 and on the final tour in 1869.

    It was in Birmingham that Dickens gave the very first of his public readings from his novels. In the autumn of 1852, Dickens was made aware of the proposal of a group of working men in Birmingham to present him with a token of their admiration and esteem. The presentation was to be of a ring and some other specimen of local craftsmanship. At about the same time, the Society of Artists in Birmingham planned to hold a banquet to which several leading figures in the arts would be invited: among them Charles Dickens. In a coming together of these plans it was decided that the banquet provided a fitting opportunity to make the presentation to Dickens. It was, therefore, to meet a widely representative gathering of Birmingham men that Dickens came in January 1853.

    The gifts, substantially purchased from the shilling subscriptions of working men, consisted of a copy of the Iliad Salver, in silver guilt, by Messrs Elkington; a diamond ring and an illuminated address. On receiving them, Dickens spoke of how he received the gifts “so far above all price to me and so very valuable in themselves as beautiful specimens of the workmanship of this great town.” He removed the ring that he was wearing and pushed the new ring onto the finger of his right hand “where its grasp will keep me in mind of the good friends I have here and in vivid remembrance of this happy hour.”

    During the meal there was discussion on the founding of a new scientific and literary institute and as he left Dickens offered to help to raise money by giving one or two readings during the Christmas season at the end of the year. He wrote to Arthur Ryland: “I would like to read Christmas Carol next Christmas … to the Town Hall folk either on one or two nights. I should particularly desire, in ay case, to have large number of the working people in the audience. I should like to do it in some way for the benefit of the new Institution and yet I should like the working people to be admitted free. If you approve and can in the mean time devise some means of doing this, to the advancement of the great object, I am entirely in your hands.”

    The readings took place in the Town Hall on 27, 28 and 30 December 1853; A Christmas Carol being read on the first and last night and the Cricket on the Hearth in between. The first night audience had to contend with a snow storm. On the night of the final reading there was an audience of 2,000 many of them working men, who “rose up and cheered most enthusiastically” when Dickens appeared on the platform.

    The readings were a great success realising a profit of £228.00 – just over £17,000 at today’s values.

    Fifteen years later, in 1869, Charles Dickens was offered the Presidency of the Birmingham and Midland Institute and was pleased “to accept the distinction thus conferred upon me with great satisfaction and I am very proud of it.” At his inauguration in September he referred to his “old love towards Birmingham and Birmingham men” and drew attention to the ring on his finger, “an old Birmingham gift, and if by rubbing it I can raise that spirit that was obedient to Aladdin’s ring, I heartily assure you that my first instruction to the genie on the spot should be to place himself at Birmingham’s disposal in the best of causes.”

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