In 1871, the year after Charles Dickens’ death, a committee was set up to consider how best Portsmouth should commemorate its most famous son.
Headed by the mayor, John Baker, the committee launched an appeal to raise funds and, although the type of memorial was not decided, ambitions were expressed that it should be ‘national in character’; it seems clear that the committee members had hopes of something grander than a mere plaque. Advertisements were placed in national newspapers.
A few days later a Daily Telegraph editorial argued that great men ‘need no monuments to perpetuate their fame and that memorials are for the minor names in history’.
Portsmouth, it was argued, ‘has no call and no claim to set moving national machinery for a local monument’.
The writer suggested that ‘a legible and enduring slab’ be affixed to his birthplace (which was then in private hands) and that, if that was not thought sufficient a tribute, the house itself be bought and preserved. Alternatively, he argued, ‘let the money be devoted to some of the many purposes dear to Dickens’s warm and human heart – the teaching of little ones, the help of the poor, a hospital, an asylum, or a scholarship.’
The Hampshire Telegraph responded immediately, dismissing the critic as ‘hysterical’ and ‘stupid’; agreeing that ‘it is quite true that Dickens does not need a monument to keep his countrymen in remembrance of him’, he continued, at the same time the people of Portsmouth may be pardoned for feeling proud of their townsman, and for being laudably anxious that the world should know, not that he was a great novelist, but that he first drew breath amongst them.’
The campaign, however, soon collapsed, not least because of ‘the distinctly expressed wish of the deceased novelist’s family that the terms of his will, deprecating in the strongest possible terms the erection of any monument to his memory, being content with any memorial which his published works might furnish, should be strictly respected’.
Twelve years later it was reported that there was ‘a deal of wonder expressed’ that the people of the town had not honoured Charles Dickens with a statue or bust or even, at the least, a plaque on his birthplace. A correspondent in the Portsmouth Grammar School magazine The Portmuthian lamented the fact that the town was populated by assorted monuments marking eminent people and historic events, but that the only Dickens memorial was ‘a sculptured head and bust over the window of a private house in Campbell Road’ and ‘a photograph in the Public Reading Room at Landport’.
The writer urged boys at the Grammar School to subscribe to a memorial fund. At that time, the most popular author, as reflected in school library issues, was H. Rider Haggard, followed by Quiller-Couch, Jules Verne, G.A. Henty and R.M. Ballantyne. Charles Dickens was rarely borrowed. Whether this had any bearing on the amount of pocket money collected is not known, but no memorial appeared.
In 1891, Alderman Whitcombe, a governor of Portsmouth Grammar School who was renowned for his benevolence having paid poor boys’ fees for many years, commissioned and donated an oil painting of Charles Dickens to be hung in the Town Hall.
This act was described as ‘the first public memorial of the great writer’, but the hope was expressed at the presentation that, one day, a statue would be erected outside the Town Hall. A journalist wrote, with some prescience: ‘Perhaps, in a hundred years’ time.’
In 1908, another campaign to raise funds to erect a statue met with short shrift from the honorary secretary of the local Dickens Fellowship. Writing in The Times, Mr Louis de Wolff described how he organised a fund ‘for establishing and endowing a Tiny Tim cot in the Royal Portsmouth Hospital’ in Dickens’ memory.
He found ‘a ready response to my appeal, just because the money was for so practical an object and not for a statue’. Many contributed, he argued, because ‘they placed Dickens as an apostle of humanitarianism above even the man of letters’.
The pioneering journalist and editor W.T. Stead supported this appeal for practical philanthropy. He wrote in the Review of Reviews: ‘What would delight Dickens more than to see such ‘Tiny Tim’ cots established in every hospital in the land?’
Throughout the 20th century Dickens was commemorated in many charitable and cultural events.
In 1903, the birthplace in Commercial Road was bought and fitted out as a museum and a library for the blind. On the centenary of his birth, the local fellowship organised entertainment for 1,000 poor local children and a tea for the blind, and raised £600 to provide a nurse for those who could not afford medical treatment. In 1929, a Dickens Week was organised by local teachers which included a parade of local people dressed as his characters, pageants, concerts and a ball. Dickens fever at the time was such that, to its shame, Portsmouth City Council banned a novel based on his life – This Side Idolatry by C.E.B. Roberts – from public libraries because it was perceived to have questioned Dickens’ morals.
On the 150th anniversary of his birth in 1962, Captain P Dickens, a great-grandson of the author, attended a service at St Mary’s Church and dedicated a plaque marking Charles Dickens’ baptism in a former church on the site.
In the centenary year of his death, the birthplace museum was refurbished, and refurnished in the style of the Regency period.
In 1976, a collection of books by and about Dickens and his works which had been built up and housed at the birthplace museum was installed in its own room at the newly-opened Central Library in Guildhall Square.
Throughout this time, the wish, as expressed in Charles Dickens’ will, ‘on no account make me the subject of any monument, memorial or testimonial whatever’, was ignored in every respect other than the erection of a statue.
In 1992, the Bank of England issued a new £10 note featuring his portrait on the reverse, and its withdrawal 11 years later was unrelated to his wishes. Then, in 1997, it was reported that the city council, with fellowship and Dickens family support, had approved a bronze effigy earmarked for a site outside Boots in Commercial Road.
The Times ran the mischievous headline, ‘Dickens of a dispute over statue is settled at last’.
Christopher Charles Dickens, a great-great-grandson, who could claim to be head of the Dickens family at the time, wrote to The Times to oppose the Portsmouth plan. Other correspondents mocked the notion that Dickens ‘wanted his expressed wishes to be disregarded’, and noted that he disliked humbug and hypocrisy. Reference was made to Dickens’ illustrator Phiz having consistently depicted Pecksniff in Martin Chuzzlewit surrounded by busts and portraits of himself.
Rather than the suggested statue, another writer observed, why not a compromise? A statue of Dickens as a toddler, as he left Portsmouth to learn to write. ‘It might give Portsmouth a better perspective on its literary legacy.’
The plans announced in 2012 by the Dickens Fellowship for a statue reportedly provoked outrage, but happily brought Dickens’ Portsmouth origins to the attention of the international media.
The statue, by the acclaimed sculptor Martin Jennings, has the wholehearted support of Dickens’ current descendants. Ian Dickens, a great-great-grandson, explained: ‘People have taken a section of the passage of his will out of context,’ he said. ‘There is a section talking about his funeral – how he wants the aftermath of his death to be treated.’
The author’s comment about not wanting a monument follows his direction ‘that I be buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner, that no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial, that at the utmost not more than three plain mourning-coaches be employed, and that those who attend my funeral wear no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hat-band, or other such revolting absurdity.
‘I direct that my name be inscribed in plain English letters on my tomb without the addition of Mr or Esquire.’
The proper interpretation, Ian explained, is that if you read it in its entirety he is talking about his grave.
‘He was not so presumptuous... that he was saying there should never be a statue of him. It wouldn’t ever have crossed his mind. It would be as if, after he said that there should be no black worn at his funeral, you were to say Charles Dickens says we should never wear black. He didn’t want an ostentatious, over-the-top Victorian monument, but I think the fact that his work is so relevant and loved 200 years later – well, he would be absolutely tickled pink, and very touched that people want to commemorate him in this way.’
Sources: Portsmouth Corporation Records; The Guardian 19 Aug 2011; The Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Gazette 7 Oct 1871, 14 Oct 1871,11 July 1891, 24 Dec 1892; The Isle of Wight Observer 11 July 1891
The Portmuthian 1883; The Times 6 July 1908, 18 Feb 1997, 25 Feb 1997, 26 Feb 1997; With thanks to Ian Dickens.