Charles Dickens: How Portsmouth remembers the great writer 147 years on

The statue of Charles Dickens in Guildhall Square, Portsmouth
The statue of Charles Dickens in Guildhall Square, Portsmouth
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Picture: Jonathan Brady

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At some point in their lives, almost everyone has read Great Expectations, Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol.

From classrooms to libraries and the family bookshelf, the legacy of Charles Dickens is certainly impressive.

Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey,  where Dickens is buried

Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey, where Dickens is buried

His stories are revered across the world for being literary masterpieces.

However, the connection here in Portsmouth is much more special; born at 393 Old Commercial Rd, Landport in 1812, the house was rented by his father, John Dickens.

The building itself has now become a museum in his name.

This year marks the 147th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ death, but in the local Dickens Fellowship, his name lives on.

It was a fantastic experience and everybody enjoyed themselves.

Geoffrey Christopher, Dickens Fellowship

The Dickens Fellowship looks to commemorate and celebrate his work, whilst also advocating it for those who have not yet come across his work.

At the helm of the group is Geoffrey Christopher, who has organised trips around all Dickens-related landmarks in Portsmouth for both the Broadstairs and Emsworth U3A groups.

On Friday, June 9, he took a group of people, including regulars from the Dickens Fellowship and other guests, up to Westminster Abbey, for an emotional memorial service.

Currently, Dickens is the only novelist to be buried in the Poets’ Corner of the Abbey.

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

The group had a 49-seater coach for the day, leaving The Hard at 9am for what Geoffrey describes as a fantastic day out.

He explained: ‘We pretty much filled the coach, which was absolutely fantastic to see.

‘The service was just the culmination of the coach trip to London.

‘We were also fortunate enough to visit the Charles Dickens Museum during the day [in Doughty Street, London, a former home where the author wrote Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby] – for which there was no extra charge for entry.

‘The trip was, effectively, the journey from the UK’s only statue of Dickens to his grave.

‘We gathered around his grave in Poets’ Corner and an address was given to commemorate him.’

Before arriving at Westminster Abbey, the group first went on a whistle-stop sightseeing tour, coming across locations that have been made famous by the life and work of the literary mastermind.

One such spot was Lant Street – where a 12-year-old Charles Dickens lodged in a house owned by Mrs Roylance, while his father was in prison for debt issues.

The street also features in Pickwick Papers as the house where Bob Sawyer, a junior surgeon, lived.

Geoffrey added: ‘In the morning we visited Southwark first, where one may see the remains of Marshalsea Prison and the Church of St George The Martyr, also associated with Little Dorrit.

‘The story of Marshalsea Prison is a fascinating one, in my opinion – the reason I say that is that Charles Dickens’ father, John, was in prison there; it was the passing of Charles’s mother that got him out, as she left Charles hundreds of pounds, which he used to pay off the debt.

‘After visiting all of these sites, we then went on to the Dickens Museum , before going up to Westminster Abbey for evensong at 5pm.

‘We got into all of these places free of charge, due to us being a part of the national Dickens Fellowship; I think that is something that went down rather well with both our regulars and those who came with us just for the day.’

Geoffrey says that despite Dickens now being long gone, his legacy is something that will continue to be a mainstay of English literature forever.

He said: ‘The trip up to Westminster is always good – we go every year, you see.

‘This is something that the national Dickens Fellowship does each year; as the birthplace Fellowship, were fortunate enough to be in a position to come along for the day.

‘For us at the Dickens Fellowship, it is something that is always worth going along to, because of the sentimental value the day has.

‘It was a fantastic experience and everybody who came with us said that they thoroughly enjoyed themselves.’

Other Dickens-related landmarks are scattered across the city of Portsmouth, highlighting just how big an impact he had on the region.

Until 2014, there had not been a statue to Charles Dickens anywhere in the UK; the Charles Dickens statue being unveiled in the Guildhall Square on February 7 2014 was described by Geoffrey himself as a ‘memorable occasion’.

On the corner of Hawke Street, where Charles and his family moved soon after he was born, stood the George Inn – which is still there today.

However, the two landmarks that, arguably, had the biggest impact on Dickens’ life, were the Portsmouth Theatre and Southsea Pier Hotel.

Charles Dickens visited Portsmouth Pier in 1838, when he was researching for Nicholas Nickleby.

Southsea Pier Hotel, now a hall of residence for students at the University of Portsmouth, is where Dickens decided to stay for the two nights while he was performing his readings at St George’s Church.

His first love, Maria Beadnell, was also a local resident; although he proposed marriage to her, he was sadly rejected by her family.

The eventual love of Dickens’ life, Ellen Lawless Ternan, even moved down to Southsea after Dickens passed away.

Portsmouth’s intimate connection with Dickens is something that no other city can boast.