The day that Dickens tried to find his childhood home

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When Charles Dickens visited Portsmouth in May, 1866 to present readings from his works, he and his tour manager, George Dolby, spent a hilarious time in a certain street in the town trying to identify the great novelist’s birthplace.

The novelist had never identified the house, 387 Mile End Terrace, Landport, even when he returned to Portsmouth to research part of Nicholas Nickleby, when he made an inquiry at the Market House Tavern, just yards from the birthplace we now know so well.

As Dickens and Dolby strolled down the street in town in 1866, they decided the best clue would be to find which building looked like Charles’s father, John Dickens, or himself, or at least looked like the sort of place in which they might have lived

It was a fruitless search, of course. The street they were in was Ordnance Terrace, which was the name of the street near Rochester when his father worked at Chatham. This is surprising because Charles was blessed with a photographic memory. He vividly recalled being taken to Grand Parade to watch the soldiers drilling, sitting on his father’s shoulders.

He remembered the cemetery to the west of his birthplace and the cherry orchard stretching east to St Mary’s Church, where he was baptised. There were also memories of playing with his sister in the garden of the house in Hawke Street, Portsea, his second home. He knew that when the family left Portsmouth when he was still a tot it was snowing.

Dickens was a complex character, a perfectionist to the point of obsession. He would only sleep facing north and carried a compass with him so he could rearrange the furniture. He took a cold shower every morning.

When writing, everything on his desk had to be in a certain place, including a china monkey. His great-great grandson Gerald Dickens told me that although he disliked cats, a cat adopted him and would sit on his desk. When he sensed the writer was tired he would snuff out the candle.

With the bicentenary of the great man’s birth looming next month, be prepared for much more fascinating detail about probably our greatest-ever novelist.