Dickens’ links with East Anglia - The Suffolk and Norfolk locations he knew best
PUBLISHED: 17:58 07 June 2020 | UPDATED: 21:22 07 June 2020
It will be the 150th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ death on June 9. Here is a look at locations in East Anglia linked with the writer,
Great novelist Charles Dickens had strong links with East Anglia, and clearly knew the area well. He visited both Suffolk and Norfolk on numerous occasions and used its towns and landscapes in his great novels - as well as making some of his characters speak in East Anglian dialect.
He also gave a number of public readings around the region on his famous tours.
And East Anglia has often been used for location filming for Dickens adaptations, most recently for Armando Iannucci’s critically acclaimed film The Personal History of David Copperfield, filmed in areas including Bury St Edmunds, Weybourne and King’s Lynn.
Here are some of the locations in East Anglia which have links with Dickens.
Blundeston - or “Blunderstone”
The village is famed as the birthplace of David Copperfield, and its sign shows the young David looking at the church.
In the novel, Dickens spells the name “Blunderstone”. He mentions in letters that he chose the name after seeing the village name on a signpost during a visit to Great Yarmouth.
The village website says: “Dickens wrote the novel in 1849-50. Whilst places mentioned in the book exist in real life, it is unsure whether Dickens ever actually came to the village...Today in Blundeston, it is possible to see places mentioned in the novel, including the Rookery (where Copperfield spends his early childhood), St. Mary’s Church, and the Plough Inn, as well as numerous references to the book and to Dickens in house and road names.”
There is a plaque on the Plough Inn saying: “Barkis (the Carrier) from the novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, started from here”.
Great Yarmouth - “finest place in the universe”
While we might not be certain whether Dickens visited Blundeston, we definitely know he stayed in Great Yarmouth in 1849. He spent two days at the Royal Hotel in Waterloo Road, which is marked with a plaque. It is one of the main settings for the novel, featuring some of its most famous chapters, where David visits the Peggotty family and stays in their “house”, an upturned boat on the beach.
Peggotty tells the young Davy “it was well known... that Yarmouth was, upon the whole, the finest place in the universe.”
Six roads in the town, near South Beach, are named after Dickens and five of his characters.
Great White Horse Hotel, Ipswich
Dickens featured the hotel in his first novel, Pickwick Papers, where he describes it unflatteringly as “rendered the more conspicuous by a stone statue of some rampacious animal with flowing mane and tail, distantly resembling an insane cart-horse, which is elevated above the principal door.”
Mr Pickwick gets lost in the hotel’s corridors, causing much embarrassment and outrage when he ends up in the wrong bedroom and sees “a middle-aged lady, in yellow curl-papers,” brushing her hair.
The hotel has a blue plaque to Dickens on its front.
The Angel, Bury St Edmunds
Like The Great White Horse, The Angel features in Pickwick Papers, where Mr Pickwick and Sam stay at the hotel while trying to catch up with the troublemaking charlatan Alfred Jingle.
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A blue plaque recalling Dickens’s visits to The Angel was installed in 2012, to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth.
He visited in 1835 as a journalist on the Morning Chronicle, and again in 1859 and 1861, when he stayed there while giving readings at the Athenaeum. On both these later occasions, he stayed in Room 215, which is now the Charles Dickens Suite, complete with four-poster bed.
Sudbury - Did it inspire Eatanswill?
While staying in Bury St Edmunds in 1835, Dickens reported on a notoriously corrupt election in the rotten borough of Sudbury. It has since been claimed that the town was the model for Eatanswill in Pickwick Papers, but it is also claimed that the equally corrupt election at Ipswich may have been the inspiration. GK Chesterton commented in an essay that there was a “standing quarrel” between the two towns over the issue. “Each town proclaimed with passion it was Eatanswill. If each had proclaimed with passion it was not Eatanswill I might be able to understand it.”
Norwich Castle - Did Dickens see an execution here?
Dickens is said to have attended the public execution of James Rush at Norwich Castle on April 21, 1849, which was witnessed by up to 20,000 people. The tenant farmer was convicted of murder for shooting his landlord Isaac Jermy, of Stanfield Hall, near Wymondham, to whom he owed a huge sum of money. However, Michael Diamond says in his book Victorian Sensation that Dickens did not attend the execution, but did visit the crime scene.
Barham Workhouse, near Ipswich
This is one of the workhouses which have a claim to be the original of the one in Oliver Twist. It is said that, as a young journalist, Dickens was shown around Barham Workhouse on a visit to Suffolk, and saw a record book containing the grim details of a 10-year-old boy’s apprenticeship. However, several other workhouses, including buildings in London, Kent and Northamptonshire, also have claims to be the original, and, as with many of his fictional places and characters, Dickens may well have blended elements from different places.
There are also many other places around the region linked with Dickens, with not all his comments being complimentary. As a young journalist, he visited Braintree, Colchester and Chelmsford - condemning Chelmsford as “the dullest and most stupid place on earth” because he could not find a newspaper there on a Sunday.
Following in author’s footsteps on guided walks
Dickens enthusiast Mike Garland has been running walks around Ipswich, tracing the great author’s links with the town, for several years.
The tours, part of a programme of guided walks starting from the Tourist Information Office, are usually held around the date of Dickens’s birthday, February 7.
They take in both well-known and less well-known buildings and locations linked with the writer and the Victorian era.
“We started the walks for the 200th anniversary of his birth, in 2012,” Mr Garland said. “We usually end up with a tea, where we can do a few short readings from his books.”
He said he thought Dickens had liked East Anglia, often writing about the area in his works.
“He didn’t just mention Ipswich in Pickwick Papers. He wrote about the town in 1859 in his magazine, All the Year Round, and he also mentions Ipswich in his short story Dr Marigold’s Prescriptions.”
While he was headteacher of Springfield Junior School in Ipswich, Mr Garland and his staff took pupils on trips to Kent. They enjoyed visiting Broadstairs, a town where Dickens spent a lot of time, and seeing the house where he stayed, which is known as Bleak House.
So why is there still so much fascination with Dickens, 150 years after his death?
Mr Garland said: “He was a great storyteller. On the walks, people talk about the books by Dickens they have read, and a lot of them talk about David Copperfield and Great Expectations. I think sometimes people are remembering the TV adaptations as well as the books, but it doesn’t really matter.”
He added: “Bleak House is one of my favourites, and A Christmas Carol, and Hard Times. A lot of people say his books are so long, so I suggest they try A Christmas Carol or Hard Times, which are both short.”
At the end of the first Dickens walk around Ipswich, Mr Garland got a surprise when one of the walkers revealed she was a member of the Dickens family, and said: “Thank you for doing this for my relative.”
Sadly, all guided walks in the town have currently had to be stopped because of coronavirus lockdown. However, it is hoped that in the autumn it may be possible to arrange some talks outside, where it should be easier to ensure social distancing than it is on a walk.
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