In the Footsteps of Charles Dickens

by Robert Sissons

20th October 2020

June 9, 2020 marked the 150th anniversary of the death of England’s most beloved novelist. Although he was born in Portsmouth and spent much of his life in London, Kent is undoubtedly the county most associated with him. The Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood are full of Kent locations, many of which can still be traced today.

The windswept marshes where young Pip has his first scary encounter with the convict Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations can be identified as the Hoo Peninsula in North Kent. Despite its proximity to both London and the Medway Towns, Hoo still has a strange remoteness and has changed little since Dickens’ day: an attempt to build a large seaside resort at Allhallows-on-Sea foundered in the 1930s. A row of tiny graves in the deconsecrated Cooling churchyard are said to be those of Pip’s brothers and sisters, who died in infancy. Nearby, the village of Hoo St Werburgh hit the headlines early in Victoria’s reign when a report on the cruel treatment of the inmates of its workhouse appeared in The Times, at almost exactly the time that Dickens would have been researching Oliver Twist.

The Kent County town, Maidstone, appears as ‘Muggleton’ in The Pickwick Papers, and Fort Pitt in Chatham is the scene of a duel in the same book. After being jilted by his sweetheart Rachel Wardle, the lovelorn Mr Tracy Tupman flees to the Leather Bottle Inn in Cobham, where he drowns his sorrows with Mr Pickwick.

It is to Kent that the young David Copperfield flees after being abused by his stepfather and forced to work at Murdstone & Grinby’s bottling plant in London. David goes kite-flying in Dover with his aunt’s strange friend Mr Dick, attends a school in Canterbury presided over by the kindly Dr Strong and meets Uriah Heep and Agnes Wickfield, the girl he is destined to marry many years later. The lovely old house where Agnes and her father live stands on St Dunstan’s Street and has been a hotel for many years.

If Canterbury Cathedral plays only a small part in David Copperfield, Kent’s other cathedral, Rochester, is in many ways the leading character of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Left unfinished at Dickens’ death and overlooked for many years, Edwin Drood was adapted by the BBC as a highly successful TV series in 2012. Rochester is thinly disguised as ‘Cloisterham’ in the novel, and many of the book’s locations are readily identifiable on a stroll through the city. Rochester’s Restoration House had previously inspired Miss Havisham’s creepy residence in Great Expectations.

In addition to places featured in his books, Kent has several houses where the great writer lived. His childhood home still stands at 2, Ordnance Terrace, Chatham. Gads Hill Place in Highham, his home from 1856 to 1870, is now a school but is occasionally open to the public, and the little Swiss chalet where he did some of his work is now in Rochester High Street. No. 3, Albion Villas in Folkestone, now called ‘Copperfield’, bears a blue plaque stating that Dickens stayed there in 1855. The most prominent Dickens residence in Kent, Bleak House in Broadstairs, actually has no connection with the novel of the same name: when the author stayed here it was called Fort House.

Robert is a SE England and London Blue Badge Guide based in Kent