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Sheppey connections of author Charles Dickens

It was 208 years ago today (Friday) that author Charles Dickens was born.

Most know that he spent his final years around Rochester but few are aware of his connections with the Isle of Sheppey.

Mayor of Swale Cllr Ken Ingleton at the launch of the Charles Dickens Exhibition at the Criterion Theatre in Blue Town on Thursday. Picture: Chris Davey
Mayor of Swale Cllr Ken Ingleton at the launch of the Charles Dickens Exhibition at the Criterion Theatre in Blue Town on Thursday. Picture: Chris Davey

Now an exhibition has been launched which charts his time on the Island and highlights incidents which led to the creation of famous characters such as pickpocket king Fagin from Oliver Twist and the sinister convict Magwitch in Great Expectations.

It is upstairs at the Blue Town Heritage Centre near where the author lived as a young boy and reveals the fascinating facts behind the fiction.

It was opened by Swale mayor Cllr Ken Ingleton on Thursdayand coincides with celebrations planned to mark mark the 150th anniversary of Dickens' death in June.

Cllr Ingleton, a keen historian himself who lives in Minster, turned up in Victorian frock coat and top hat for the launch of the exhibition and revealed one of his own ancestors is mentioned in the Old Curiosity Shop.

He said: "There are many passages about the village in the book and even a mention of my great, great grandfather Charles Fox, who was the village shoemaker and preacher."

Some of the books on show at the Charles Dickens exhibition upstairs at the Blue Town Heritage Centre at the Criterion Theatre
Some of the books on show at the Charles Dickens exhibition upstairs at the Blue Town Heritage Centre at the Criterion Theatre

In chapter 41, Dickens describes the forerunner of the Bethel church which was originally in Mr Fox's home, Chapel House.

He writes: "The Little Bethel was not badly named in one respect being, in truth, a particularly little Bethel.

"A Bethel of the smallest dimension with a small number of small pews and a small pulpit in which a small gentleman (by trade a shoemaker and by calling a Divine) was delivering, in a by no means small voice, a by no means small sermon, judging by the condition of his audience which, if their gross amount were but small, comprised a still smaller number of hearers, as the majority were slumbering."

Cllr Ingleton admitted: "I get frustrated that Medway council promotes its connection with Dickens with a huge annual festival in Rochester but absolutely nothing is done to promote his Sheppey influences.

"The Island should be proud of his time here.

Charles Dickens' last reading at St James Hall, London, on March 15, 1870, before his death three months later
Charles Dickens' last reading at St James Hall, London, on March 15, 1870, before his death three months later

"I hope Swale council will acknowledge this in its new heritage strategy consultation. At the moment it seems more concerned about buildings rather than people."

The consultation ended on Friday.

What the Dickens?

Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth and was the second of eight children. He died on June 9, 1870.

When he was two, his father John, a pay clerk in the Royal Navy, was posted to London and later to Sheerness before moving to Chatham.

Behind the doors of the Criterion Theatre, Blue Town, is an exhibition about Charles Dickens and his links with Sheppey
Behind the doors of the Criterion Theatre, Blue Town, is an exhibition about Charles Dickens and his links with Sheppey

The family is reported to have rented a house in Blue Town next to what was called the Sheerness Theatre run by Samuel Jerrold.

Young Charles forged a firm friendship with the theatre owner’s son Douglas William Jerrold, who later became one of the first editors of Punch magazine.

It is believed Dickens based convict Magwitch in Great Expectations (1861) on the real-life case of London crook Judah Solomon who was sent to a prison hulk at Sheerness but escaped onto the marshes.

When he was recaptured, magistrates at the County Court House, which still stands in Blue Town, banished him and his brother Joseph to Tasmania where the pair worked hard and became wealthy.

Fagin from Oliver Twist is believed to be based on the Jew Isaac Soloman who was sentenced for selling goods stolen by a team of young pickpockets.

Mayor of Swale Cllr Ken Ingleton at the launch of the Charles Dickens exhibition at the Criterion Theatre in Blue Town on Thursday with trustee Mike Brown and director Jenny Hurkett in the research room. Picture: Chris Davey
Mayor of Swale Cllr Ken Ingleton at the launch of the Charles Dickens exhibition at the Criterion Theatre in Blue Town on Thursday with trustee Mike Brown and director Jenny Hurkett in the research room. Picture: Chris Davey

There was a large Jewish community around Blue Town at the time Dickens stayed on Sheppey.

According to the Rev William Bramston, writing in 1896, Dickens returned to the Island several times to see his friend, the explorer Captain Johns, at Prospect Place, Minster, and was often seen carrying the young daughter of Abbey churchwarden Mr Burford through the churchyard "pick-a-back" (an old term for piggy-back).

* The exhibition, at the Criterion Theatre, runs for three months and is open from 10am to 3pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Admission to the centre is £1.

Read more: Sheppey stories here.

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