Charles Dickens’s great-great-grandson reveals the strong bond between the family and the sea . . . and Portsmouth as he talks to Chris Owen
How apt. When I arrive, Ian Dickens is sitting at a table writing. There’s no ink or scratchy nib. He’s busy on his laptop...updating his expenses.
It’s a miracle he ever gets them or anything else done from that desk. It’s not the daffodil-filled vases which offer the distraction, but the vista.
The entire wall of his sitting room is a picture window offering a sensational view across the narrows of Portsmouth Harbour. Reach out and you feel you could touch what was HMS Dolphin at Gosport.
While we chat, a flotilla of ships and boats ease their way into and out of harbour. There’s the occasional warship.
‘Wonderful isn’t it?’ he says. ‘We’re so lucky, it’s the view which sums up Portsmouth for me and maintains up my family’s very strong links with the sea.’
Which is not what I was expecting from the great- great-grandson of Charles Dickens.
But the lure of Portsmouth and his family’s links to the Royal Navy have drawn him to set up a home in the city. ‘This place is in my DNA,’ he adds.
The 56-year-old was born in Streatham, south London, but his immediate roots are in Bedfordshire. He still has a home there.
Work brought him to Portsmouth in 2008 when he became the marketing director of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.
‘He was looking for somewhere to rent when he discovered the unassuming entrance to a ‘grim block’ of 1960s apartments in Broad Street, Old Portsmouth.
‘It doesn’t look much from the outside but when you walk into this room and see the view, you think wow, this is fantastic.
‘I’ve come home. It’s where I’m meant to be – the view of the dockyard, the ships, all the heritage.
‘And now when my wife Anne and I drive down the A3 and come over the hill and see the city spread out before us we both feel that this is where we belong.’
There are 207 living blood relatives of Charles Dickens. So where does Ian fit in and what explains those senior service ties? Ian takes a deep breath and explains.
Two hundred years ago John Dickens was working for the Royal Navy pay office in Portsmouth. His wife Elizabeth gave birth to Charles, their second son.
Charles had seven sons and three daughters. ‘His seventh child was Sydney who was sent to Eastman’s Naval Academy in Southsea and joined his first ship in Haslar Creek. Charles came down from London to be with him that day.’
Sydney’s brother Henry was Ian’s great-grandfather and one of his sons, Gerald, was his grandfather. ‘He had an illustrious naval career. The navy was his life. He fought at Gallipoli in the First World War commanding a destroyer and was knighted by George VI just out there at Spithead in the fleet review of 1937.
‘During his career he had houses at Gosport, Fareham and Soberton.’
Gerald had three boys – Peter, Claude and David. ‘David was my father and those three boys, who all went on to become naval officers, grew up with Portsmouth Dockyard as their playground.
‘Peter commanded a flotilla of motor torpedo boats in the Second World War and was decorated for his heroism.
‘So, there have been six generations of Dickens men, all with huge connections to Portsmouth.’
The connections to his illustrious great-great-grandfather are tangible. Ian adds: ‘I remember my father reading A Christmas Carol to us at Christmas.
‘He remembered sitting at his grandfather’s knee listening to him read it.
‘His grandfather was Charles Dickens’s son and my grandfather always said that he didn’t read it, he did it from memory with all the voices, nuances and actions which he’d learned from Charles as he sat and watched his father doing it ad infinitum.
‘That does send a shiver down the spine. It’s so tangible you can almost touch it.’
But surely growing up with the name Dickens comes with a downside?
‘You just grow up with it. When you’re four it doesn’t mean anything, but then when you’re older and studying it at school people ask, jokingly, if you’re related.
‘You tell them you are and they don’t believe it. But when they finally get it their reaction is humbling.
‘At the bicentenary celebrations in Portsmouth the other week people shook my hand with a real reverence.
‘They asked for my autograph and brought out copies of Charles Dickens’s work which were perhaps 100 years old and asked me to sign them.
‘I told them I’m just an ordinary bloke who hasn’t done anything, but it obviously means an awful lot to them so I’m happy to do it. But it is a bid odd.’
Ian and his wife Anne, who works for the city council in school finance, are currently revelling in the latest addition to the Dickens clan – grandchild Joe, the son of their daughter Holly and husband Tom. He was born in December and spent the bicentenary in Portsmouth.
Ian adds: ‘Everybody expects me to be a walking encyclopaedia of every facet of Dickens’s work. I’m not.
‘I go to a pub quiz and a Dickens question comes up and I think, oh no this is going to be embarrassing.’
He says he was lucky not to have the novels forced on him at school and was in his 30s before he really became gripped when he took Dombey and Son on holiday.
‘It’s 1,500 pages and it takes a while to get into the cadence, but when you get there it absolutely romps.’
But his favourite? ‘The Pickwick Papers.
‘It’s one of the funniest books ever, just hysterical.’
He adds: ‘I don’t care how people come to his work.
‘It might have been the Muppets who introduced a generation to the morals of A Christmas Carol, but they did a jolly good job.
‘And if that planted the seed that made people go away and read it for themselves, terrific.
‘The excellent Great Expectations adaptation on TV at Christmas apparently led to a tenfold increase in sales of Dickens’s books at Waterstones, so it doesn’t matter how people come to him, as long as they do in their own time.
‘He was the first global superstar and the reason he is still held in such high esteem is that his stories resonate globally today.
‘They are stories of the common man up against the politicians and the bent bankers, the scheming and the ne’er-do-wells.
‘And they come out on top, which gladdens all our hearts.’