Charles Dickens – A London Life (Part 1)

Charles Dickens is intimately associated with London but he was not born there.

The novelist, author of some of the most celebrated works in the English language, was actually the native of another English town – Portsmouth.

Dickens was born in the coastal town on the 7th of February 1812. Perhaps surprisingly, the house is still standing today – 393 Old Commercial Road, although in 1812 it would have been known as No. 13 Mile End Terrace.

Charles’ mother, Elizabeth, and father, John, had married three years earlier. They had met through Elizabeth’s brother Thomas Culliford Barrow, who had worked with Charles’ father in the local Navy Office.

John and Elizabeth were married at St Mary-Le-Strand Church in London. Shortly after the wedding the couple  moved to Landport in Portsmouth.

Charles dad John was an interesting character. The son of a servant in the house of Lord Crewe, John had nonetheless risen to a respectable job at the Navy Office and a comfortable lifestyle. That he had grand desires is indicated by his use of the term esquire in written documents, as well as by his lavish spending.

If John Dickens earned 12 shillings he would indubitably  spend 13.It was a quality that Charles would come to regret as he found himself increasingly saddled with the legacy of his father’s financial indiscipline.

John was forever falling into debt. In 1824 these debts would lead to the imprisonment, but in the year preceding this, it meant that the Dickens family were forever living beyond their means.

As a young boy Charles was given lessons in reading and Latin by his mother. Charles later told his biographer John Foster that this awakened in him a lifelong love of knowledge and literature.

In 1815 John Dickens was summonsed to work at the Navy Office in London, at that time situated at Somerset House on the Strand. This wax be young Charles’ first taste of the city.

The family found accommodation in Norfolk Street (modern day Fitzrovia), close to where his brother Willliam ran a coffeeshop.

However the Dickens’ brush with the big city was to be brief as John was transferred again in 1816, this time to Kent.

After a few weeks in Sheerness the family moved to Chatham, where Charles would spend several happy years.

The town stands close to Watling Street, the old Roman road which was itself based on a much older path frequently used by the Celtics. The town was recorded in the Domesday Book as Ceteham, the name thought to derive from the old Roman element catu, which signified a valley or basin. The remains of a Roman era cemetery have been found in the vicinity of the town.

In Dickens’ day, Chatham would have been concerned mainly with seagoing, with a massive Dockyard providing the Royal Navy with a constant stream of new ships.

The Dickens family settled at No. 2 Ordinance Terrace, a modest yet respectable house at the very top of a steep hill. Charles, who was five at the time of the family’s move to Chatham, would prosper in the town. It is here that he first fell in love (with ‘peach coloured’ Lucy), here where he met his mentor, schoolmaster Giles, and here where his love of literature began to blossom into a voracious appetite for reading. Young Charles was soon reading everything he could get his hands on – beginning with the books which his father had brought into the house. This early reading included Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Smollett’s Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle and Humphry Clinker.

This seemingly idyllic life was to come to an abrupt end in 1822, however, when John Dickens was recalled to London by the Navy Pay Office. Although young Charles was allowed to stay behind finish his final term at school, his days in Chatham were numbered.

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