Dickens, H G Wells and Graham Swift in Chatham
Everyone knows of Dickens’ associations with Rochester, and it is true to say that Rochester is to be found in the Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and there are many mentions and allusions in his other novels; but Dickens did not grow up in Rochester. He grew up in Chatham.
This month’s blog is a walk from Rochester to Chatham and back again. If Rochester projects an image of olde worlde romance, Chatham shows history in a starker way.
Our route is to follow Rochester High Street to its (only seeming) eastern end and then turn up Star Hill, named after the huge Star Inn that once stood on the corner-opposite in the photo. Cross the road when it is safe to do so and go up the east side of Star Hill with the Royal Theatre on the opposite side of the road (follow the van in the photo).
The Royal Theatre (above). Much altered since Dickens’ childhood, it was in decline when he revisited Rochester and Chatham in 1860. As a child he had seen comically economical productions of Shakespeare: “the witches in Macbeth bore an awful resemblance to the Thanes…” (The Uncommercial Traveller). When Dickens revisited, the box office was occupied by a wine merchant and the whole place was “To Let”.
“No, there was no comfort in the Theatre. It was mysteriously gone, like my own youth.”
Further up Star Hill on the opposite side you can see a chapel next to a weatherboarded cottage. I mention this for two reasons. First, the Dickens’ second home in Chatham had similarities – it was next door to a chapel and was weatherboarded. Second, until sadly she died recently, the lady who lived in the cottage remembered David Lean and the cast of his 1946 film of Great Expectations. She said they left the dog that is in the film with her father (a publican), for a pet!
Keep up Star Hill and turn left onto New Road, a Georgian development. The park across the road is now called Jackson’s Fields, but it used to be Fort Pitt, where Mr Winkle, the victim of mistaken identity, heroically goes to face Dr Slammer (probably inspired by the Army Surgeon Dr Lamert, father of Dickens’ imaginative friend and sort-of relation, James Lamert), in a duel in Chapter II of the Pickwick Papers. There is a similar farce in Smollett’s Humphry Clinker (one of the books that John Dickens had at home), but Dickens draws it out to superb comic effect:
“You know Fort Pitt?” “Yes, I saw it yesterday.” “If you will take the trouble to turn into the field which borders the trench, take the foot-path to the left when you arrive at the angle of the fortification, and keep straight on ’till you see me, I will precede you to a secluded place, where the affair can be conducted without fear of interruption.”
“Fear of interruption!” thought Mr Winkle.
The whole scene – several pages – is extremely funny. One hundred and eighty-four years have not dulled it. It gives the lie to people who say that the Pickwick Papers only gets going when Samuel Weller arrives. It was Dickens’ brilliant comedy, in evidence immediately, that made him a star, in his early twenties, to his still pre-Victorian audience.
Cross the road at the pedestrian crossing when it is safe to do so. Fort Pitt had already fallen into disuse by the 1820s, the decade in which the Pickwick Papers, written 1836-7, is set. Later in the nineteenth century it became a military hospital, and most of the wounded still needing treatment from that period’s wars were treated there. The unmade road on the right here is one way up Fort Pitt Hill, or carry on until the road of that name appears on the right.
The building with the curious spire on the left is the old St Bartholomew’s Hospital, founded by monks in 1078 and closed in 2016. It was originally intended for lepers (a 14th C. prior was himself a leper) and the destitute and was sited in “Chatham Intra” – this area between Chatham and Rochester – because it was, then, isolated. An early 19th C. scandal involving money for the hospital going instead to the Dean of Rochester Cathedral (his defence was that it had been a practice since “time out of mind”) has close parallels with the plot of Trollope’s 1855 novel, The Warden, and it is known that Trollope followed the case.
To repeat: go up Fort Pitt Hill. Follow the road left round to the Grammar School, with the art college (UCA) behind you. You are now in a continuation of Ordnance Terrace, Dickens’ childhood street. Below is the kind of view the Dickens had from the top floor of their house, except that even as late as the early 20th C. there were few buildings on the opposite bank, only marshes. Pip lived on that peninsula somewhere: “Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea.” When John Dickens went by yacht on Royal Navy business to Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey, Charles would go with him. The Royal Dockyard, now a museum, is on the near bank on the right.
Keep the Grammar School on your right and go down Albany Terrace (not back down Fort Pitt Hill!), noting the extraordinary stucco side to the first building.
Et voila! It used to be No.2, now No.11, Ordnance Terrace. This is where John and Elizabeth Dickens (nee Barrow – her brother and father did the same job as John Dickens in the Royal Navy Pay Office, the latter relation embezzling a huge sum of money and fleeing to the Isle of Man; there are echoes of this family scandal all over Dickens’ novels, most explicitly in an embedded tale – see Ch.21 of The Pickwick Papers – of a family languishing in a debtors’ prison while a rich relative abroad refuses to help them, a tale that seems intensely related to reality given subsequent events, although not necessarily the reality) frittered away their money on parties and posh furniture (John made Charles do his comic impressions standing on the dining room table) between 1817 and 1820. This is where Charles Dickens went out every day to the Dame School in Rome Lane or to play on the meadow in front of the house with George and Lucy Stroughill, watched over by Mary Weller. The best book on Dickens, by the way, is still Christopher Hibbert’s deeply moving, “The Making of Charles Dickens”. Or try Dickens himself: see especially the fragment of autobiography in Forster’s “Life of Dickens”, and the, thinly impersonalised, “Sketches by Boz”.
Now go over the railway and under the viaduct you can see in the distance. The station on the right is the original 1858 building through which Dickens arrived in 1860 to see that his meadow had been desecrated: “It was gone, the two beautiful hawthorn-trees, the hedge, the turf, and all those buttercups and daisies, had given place to the stoniest of jolting roads [the railway itself]: while, beyond the Station, an ugly dark monster of a tunnel [one of the new railway tunnels] kept its jaws open, as if it had swallowed them and were ravenous for more destruction.” (The Uncommercial Traveller)
Above: what was Dickens’ childhood meadow. Just past the station, look out for Gibraltar Cottage on the right – the other side of the bus stop; at one time there were many more buildings like it in Chatham.
Now go under the viaduct on Railway Street, crossing the road carefully. Continue under the viaduct with the huge RC church on your left. Cross Best Street carefully and continue on Railway Street with the splendid “Edwardian eclectic” former Post Office on your left (1902, PO Office of Works design, architect W. Oldrieve). Before the railways (there were trams in the street here), this was Rome Lane, where Dickens went to his “Dame School”: “We have dim impressions, scarcely amounting to a belief, that it was over a dyer’s shop.” (“Our School”; note the characteristic use of the “royal we” by Dickens – simultaneously grand and inclusive). He says he cannot remember the “mistress of the Establishment”, but can remember a Miss Frost, always in black. He said that the first funeral he ever saw was, with another boy, from under her pinafore on a winter’s day: “Miss Frost told us in a whisper about somebody being ‘screwed down'”.
Turn right here onto Chatham High Street. Look out for Clover Street…
… where there was a Zion Baptist Chapel in the 17th C., when Baptists were still persecuted. It is said that the first pastor, Edward Morecock, being a river pilot, was too useful to be imprisoned! John Forster, Dickens’ friend and biographer, says that William Giles’ school, which Dickens attended 1819-21, was in Clover lane. It was possibly associated with the chapel in some way (the church in Clover Street now is United Reformed, formerly Congregational). But continue on Chatham High Street until Rhode Street on the right. This is where Christopher Hibbert locates Giles’ school.
Dickens’ teacher was William Giles, the son of a Baptist minister with the same name. Giles was admitted by Dickens to have been an encouraging teacher. He lived to see his former pupil become a success, sending Dickens a snuff box after Pickwick appeared. In “Our School”, Dickens skips over this period of his schooling, even though he stayed in Chatham with the Giles family to continue his education for a term after the rest of his family had moved to London. Perhaps William Giles, being a competent teacher, did not suit Dickens’ satirical and condemnatory purpose in “Our School”.
Turn back on Chatham High Street a little and turn into Batchelor Street. Note “The Jolly Caulkers” pub on your left. Caulking was the laborious job of stuffing old rope-fibres (“oakum”) into the hulls of ships to make them water-tight. Making oakum was even more laborious than caulking, and was done by prisoners and work-house inmates (see Oliver Twist). Old rope was purchased from the docks and broken up on spikes, then sold back (“money for old rope”). Several of Dickens’ fictional pubs have “Jolly” in their names (see The Three Jolly Bargemen in Great Expectations and The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters in Our Mutual Friend; there are more); perhaps there has been a pub here called The Jolly Caulkers since time out of mind, and the irony of the name would not have been lost on Dickens.
Continue on Batchelor Street and go onto The Brook – now a dual carriageway! Cross the road carefully at the pedestrian crossing. The Dickens’ second home in Chatham was on this side of the road about where you can see a bridge leading to the multi-storey car-park. The house was part of a small group called St Mary’s Place. There was another Baptist Chapel next door, said to be the one where William Giles’ father, also William, gave interminable sermons and put Dickens off organised religion for life (see Stiggins – “the Shepherd” – in The Pickwick Papers and Chadband in Bleak House).
In H G Wells’ superb novel “Tono-Bungay” (Tono-Bungay is a patent-medicine), George the narrator is sent in disgrace to work for a baker in Chatham. The baker is a devout chapel-goer and George is obligated to attend with him, and hates it. Wells (from Bromley) is unmistakably “channelling” Dickens in Tono-Bungay. There are references to both Dickens’ own life and to David Copperfield, Dickens’ fictionalised autobiography, especially when George walks home from Chatham in desperation. I do not know if Wells knew Chatham, but there are curiously contradictory indications in Tono-Bungay: George accurately describes the “Medway Gap” with its odd combination of countryside and cement works, suggesting Wells (like Dickens) knew the area well, but then calls the Medway the Stour. I like to think that Wells knew exactly what he was doing with this mingling of fact, autobiography (including his own), fiction and fantasy. The effect is brilliant.
You can go up to look at the hallowed spot (the site of the Dickens’ second home), but there is nothing remaining. By the 1950s, The Brook, a hotch-potch of elderly buildings, was in a poor state, and it was demolished, regrettably. It is said that many of the houses lacked doors (having been used as firewood). Perhaps this phenomenon went further back, as Dickens, in Our Mutual Friend, makes the Wilfers discuss whether, when it really came to it, they could do without a front door (Ch. IV). We know the Dickens’ second house in Chatham was boxy and weatherboarded, and there are still houses of the type in Chatham and Rochester (remember Gibraltar Cottage). When one considers that the Dickens moved to the Brook for financial reasons, the Wilfers’ speculations about the door take on the air of autobiography.
Find King Street on The Brook and go up the hill.
The aforementioned bridge is in the distance. King Street is on the right. Go to the top of King Street and up the steps. The run-down Victorian building with 1858 in red brick on the south-western side is now a solicitors’ office, but look up on the south-eastern wall: “Ragged School”. The Ragged School movement tried to provide education to the poorest and was, with reservations as to the often poor quality of its instruction and its, according to him, over-emphasis on religious teaching, supported by Dickens.
“I went to the Ragged School, and an awful sight it is,” (Dickens, speaking of a London version, in a letter to Angela Burdett Coutts, the philanthropist).
Now make your way up the wooded hill by the footpath. Soon you will see the War Memorial. The obelisk is by Robert Lorimer and the surround by Edward Maufe and the whole commemorates 18613 members of the Royal Navy who died during WW1 and 2 and have no known grave. There are similar monuments to more losses in Plymouth and Portsmouth (Dickens was born in Portsmouth). The bronze angels by Henry Poole in particular convey anguish, and there are magnificent sculptures representing servicemen by Charles Wheeler and William McMillan. The memorial is a location in Graham Swift’s great elegy for cockney England, Last Orders, and in the film of the book.
The Memorial stands on the hill known as The Great Lines. These were defensive lines dating from the 18th C.. The open area was intended as a killing ground, but the practice sieges held there became spectator events. There are slapstick scenes set on the Great Lines in The Pickwick Papers, when Pickwick and his chums get into a pickle during one of these military demonstrations (Ch. IV).
Look for this path away from the War Memorial:
You are now entering Fort Amherst, said to be the most complete “Napoleonic” fort in Britain. Forts of this period are grim and unconvincing at the same time. The radical William Cobbett (“radicals” were the bogey-men of Dickens’ childhood) denounced them as a waste of public money, and they were soon made obsolete by improvements in artillery. By the mid-1820s, Fort Pitt would have been overgrown like much of Fort Amherst is now, a good place for a duel!
Go past with this view on your left and follow signs to the way out. Don’t go straight on down to the Garrison Church (St Barbara’s), unless you want to.
Make your way out of Fort Amherst onto Dock Road and cross the road carefully to St Mary’s Church. Go into the churchyard.
This is an 18th C. grave with both a gravestone and a coffinstone. I have included this photo because there are coffinstones at the so-called “Pip’s Graves” out at Cooling on the peninsula. Mary Weller, Dickens’ nurse in Chatham, also worked as a midwife. Charles would sometimes go with her to visit new mothers. On one occasion there were five still-born infants laid out on a piece of furniture. In Great Expectations, Pip says: “To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine – who gave up trying to get a living exceedingly early in that universal struggle – I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trouser-pockets, and had never taken them out of this state of existence.” (Ch. 1). Charles and his older sister Frances used to walk in St Mary’s churchyard at night. Frances died of tuberculosis, possibly contracted via the Marshalsea debtors’ prison where most of the family was incarcerated in the spring of 1824, when she was only 38.
Two of Charles’ siblings, Harriet Ellen and Frederick William were Christened at St Mary’s (1819 and 1820). Harriet died as a child after the move to London – precisely when is uncertain. She may have been as old as 8. Gladys Storey (in “Dickens and Daughter”) gives smallpox as the cause. The death of Harriet may have affected Charles, who would have remembered the event, more than is recognised, and may be a more profound explanation for his reverent attitude to young women than the oft-mentioned (though certainly traumatic) death of Mary Hogarth. Harriet’s death seems unrecorded, explicitly, by Dickens. Some griefs lie too deep perhaps, but is she the origin of “Little Nell”, and Esther Summerson, and his obsessive interest in Ellen Ternan, the girl from Rochester? Only one of John and Elizabeth’s eight children lived to be over 60 (Letitia).
Go down the hill (unless you are planning to visit the Dockyard), bear right until you are beneath the churchyard, and take a look at the magnificent Command House pub, or go in! The pub is the only remaining part of what was the Royal Ordnance Yard.
OK – time to go back to Rochester. Come out of the pub and go left along the river round to the bus station. Bear right, and, crossing all roads carefully, turn right onto Chatham/Rochester High Street. Follow the High Street back to Rochester, noting the forlorn state of what was the most prosperous part of either Rochester or Chatham at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. On the way there is plenty to see, including the chapel (now a gym!) of St Bartholomew’s, with its (rare in England) Norman apse. For Dickens as a boy, the High Street was all one.
Hope you enjoyed it.
For the most recent blog, visit the Home page in the Menu