Published: 06:00, 09 June 2020
| Updated: 11:09, 09 June 2020
He brought us colourful characters, long-lived lessons in morality and social class - and above all, human stories.
Author Charles Dickens died 150 years ago today, and we take a look at his links to Kent and how the county inspired many of his stories.
Charles Dickens wrote at least 23 novels, with quotes that live on today, and many of which have references to Kent in them, including sights and people from Sheerness, Medway and Thanet.
Born on February 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, the second of eight children, Charles and his family moved to Sheerness when he was a child.
The family is reported to have rented a house in Blue Town next to what was called the Sheerness Theatre, where the 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.
The opening scene of Great Expectations, where Pip meets the convict, the "marsh country" is the marshes around Higham. And in The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens also describes the forerunner of the Bethel church, at Minster, on Sheppey.
Later the family moved to Chatham due to his father John's postings in the Royal Navy, where he was a pay clerk. He worked in the Royal Navy Pay Office at Chatham dockyard, which can still be seen in the historic town today behind the Commissioner's House.
The Dickens' family home in Ordnance Terrace can still be seen near Chatham station, which, during Dickens’ childhood, was an area of fields overlooking St Mary’s Church.
Growing up in the Medway Towns meant many scenic descriptions in his novels were inspired by the area. In The Pickwick Papers, Dickens described a view from Rochester Bridge: “On either side, the banks of the Medway, covered with cornfields and pastures... rendered more beautiful by the changing shadows which passed swiftly across it, as thin and half-formed clouds skimmed away in the light of the morning sun."
In the gardens of Eastgate House - which became the model for Westgate House in Pickwick Papers - the author's Swiss Chalet can still be seen. A present from his French actor friend Charles Fechter, it arrived at Higham Railway Station on Christmas Eve 1864, packed in 58 boxes. It used to be in Dickens' garden in Higham, in a part known as The Wilderness and was where he worked on many of his novels.
The city mansion Restoration House in Crow Lane is said to be Satis House of Great Expectations, the home of Miss Havisham, while the Guildhall - 'as if Time carried on his business there, and hung out his sign' - also appears in Great Expectations. The Gatehouse to the Cathedral and the Cathedral itself both appear in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens' final novel while The Bull Inn in Rochester is described as "the good house" in Pickwick Papers. He also based "Muggleton" on Maidstone - The Muggleton Inn in Maidstone High Street takes its name from the book.
There's a carved stone inscription in Rochester High Street to the home of Joe Specks, though Joe was not a real person - he was a character in Dickens' book The Uncommercial Traveller.
In his 40s, after spending much of his adult life in London, Dickens could not resist returning to the place he knew and loved, and bought Georgian country house Gads Hill Place in Higham. He had first spotted the house as a child and was determined to buy it.
On the other side of the county, Broadstairs, where he frequently holidayed, is home to the Dickens House Museum, once home to Miss Mary Pearson Strong who inspired the character of Betsey Trotwood and the Grade II-listed mansion Bleak House, the most prominent building in the town. Formerly known as Fort House, the building was his favourite holiday home where he planned and wrote parts of David Copperfield, Bleak House and Our English Watering Place.
You can take your own Dickens trail around many of his local haunts.
Begin by exploring the area around Gravesend, as Chalk was where he spent his honeymoon; there is a dedicated 6.6-mile Dickens route around Higham village, skirting the marshland from the opening of Great Expectations. From there, you can head to Gad's Hill Place around where Dickens was often spotted taking countryside walks. He bought the property, now a school, in 1856. It was here that he wrote A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood before his death in 1870. At nearby Cobham he found inspiration for the Pickwick Papers in The Leather Bottle, described by many as Dickens’ favourite ale house.
Head to Rochester and you'll see many of the buildings on its high street carry plaques detailing how they were incorporated into his novels, and at nearby Chatham you can walk past the dockyard where Dickens’ father worked from 1817.
Take a drive over to Broadstairs, and you can see the traditional Dickens House Museum, and imposing Bleak House, overlooking Viking Bay. The town, like Rochester, has been home to an annual Dickens Festival for many years. Visit Thanet has an interactive map with places of interest to visit and details of the plaques around the town at visitthanet.co.uk
A keen walker, Dickens once said: “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.”
Following in his footsteps, Geoff Ettridge, aka Geoff Rambler, led a series of walks to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth in 2012, raising funds towards the restoration of the Swiss Chalet.
He had been hoping to do the same this year to mark the 150th anniversary of his death and although this is cancelled as a result of the current crisis, his book about the Rochester Dickens would have known and local people, places and events that inspired him, Rochester - a Monument to Dickens? is available at geofframbler.blog/book
Dickens died on June 9, 150 years ago, and this year would have been filled with festivals, exhibition and other events. In Broadstairs, the organising committee of the festival is considering, in conjunction with Sarah Thorne Theatre, staging a play when restrictions are lifted. Details will be posted at broadstairsdickensfestival.co.uk
Gravesham council has postponed its celebratory events, with hopes they can be done later in the year, while much of Medway's have also had to be put on hold, though some will continue online. Virtual events organised by Medway Council being held from today until Sunday include videos of Dr Jeremy Clarke talking about the private life of Dickens at home in Higham; the best quotes from his book with an explanation by Dr Clarke, chosen by the team at the Guildhall Museum; and children's activities including a drawing activity and treasure hunt supported by objects from the Guildhall Museum collection.
All events will be posted on the Enjoy Medway social media pages. To find out more go to medway.gov.uk/dickens150
If reaching for Dickens' books isn't on your to-do list, there are some films you can sit down and watch of his enduring tales.
The all-singing, all-dancing tale of death, poverty and crime has some memorable songs and performances, including Ron Moody as Fagin, Oliver Reed as the glowering Bill Sykes, and of course, Bullseye the dog.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
A Muppet movie first and foremost, it has catchy songs and sterling work from Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat, plus possibly one of Michael Caine's finest performances, as Scrooge - arguably the most joyous version of any Dickens novel.
Great Expectations (1946)
Wrestling the enormity of Great Expectations into a manageable film is feat enough, but from Magwitch's cemetery introduction to Martita Hunt's ghostly Miss Havisham, to the end, Lean's film is considered definitive. New versions of Great Expectations are still judged against this.
The Personal History Of David Copperfield (2019)
Writer-director Armando Iannucci realises great expectations with his madcap take on Charles Dickens’s literary hero. The film breathlessly abridges the mid-19th century serial and novel to focus on the quixotic characters. It will be available on Amazon Prime from next week.