Charles Dickens’s Liverpool

2012 was the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth. To mark the occasion we published in Issue 2 of the magazine this exploration of the writer’s long association with Liverpool.

Mutual Friends

Charles Dickens loved Liverpool, and Liverpool adored him. Alan Gardiner explores Dickens’s many connections with the city.

In April 1866 one of Charles Dickens’s celebrated reading tours took him to Liverpool’s St George’s Hall, then on to the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. After the Manchester performance he chose not to spend the night in the city but instead returned to the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. In a memoir written after Dickens’ death, his friend and manager George Dolby (who accompanied him on the tour) commented:

‘…it is not to be wondered at that Mr Dickens should prefer to return to this his favourite hotel, and, except London, his favourite city.’

The First Adelphi Hotel (Liverpool Record Office)

The First Adelphi Hotel (Liverpool Record Office)

Dickens came to Liverpool many times, the frequency of his visits reflecting not only his undoubted attachment to the place he once described as ‘that rich and beautiful port’, but also Liverpool’s importance in the 19th century as a centre of trade, commerce and travel. As well as his public readings in the city, he delivered speeches there and appeared in theatrical performances. Ships to America also departed from Liverpool of course, and Dickens came on several occasions to see people off or to make the journey himself. And he found other reasons to visit, as when he became involved in the launch of a new daily newspaper and went to Liverpool to rally support (or, as he put it, ‘blow vague Trumpets’) for the project. His maternal grandmother, who was originally from Bristol, actually came to live in the city, though Dickens had a distant relationship with her and it’s not known if he ever met her there.Dickens’s first recorded visit was in 1838, when (aged twenty six) he came to Liverpool after holidaying in Llangollen. In 1842 he made his first trip to America, travelling to Boston from Liverpool on the S.S. Britannia, a wooden Cunard paddle-steamer – then the fastest means of crossing the Atlantic (the first transatlantic crossing by steamship had occurred just four years earlier). A party of friends and relatives came to bid Dickens and his wife Catherine farewell, and they spent two days in the city before the boat set sail. It was a stormy crossing that took over two weeks, and the boat actually went aground off Nova Scotia before reaching Boston. Dickens later wrote, ‘For two or three hours we gave it up as a lost thing; and…waited quietly for the worst.’ He was much feted in the United States during his six-month visit and returned for a second triumphal tour in 1867, sailing from Liverpool on another Cunard steamship, the Cuba.

Dickens gave many public readings from his works in Liverpool, but before the first of these in 1858 he had performed in the city several times with a group of ‘amateur theatricals’, a company of actors and entertainers brought together by Dickens himself. With characteristic energy and enthusiasm he threw himself into the venture, noting of one of the tours that his roles required fourteen costume changes a night. The repertoire included scenes from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives Of Windsor, Ben Jonson’s Every Man In His Humour and several farces. The performances in 1847, 1848 and 1852 took place at the original Philharmonic Hall and the Theatre Royal, which at the time stood in Williamson Square. Dickens was of course the star of the show, and the Liverpool Mercury claimed of one performance, ‘never was greater enthusiasm evinced by any audience’.

Dickens’s first readings in Liverpool were also at the Philharmonic Hall, though his favourite venue soon became St George’s Hall. George Dolby, who organised Dickens’s later reading tours, says in his memoir Charles Dickens As I Knew Him that Dickens always spoke of it as ‘the most perfect hall in the world’. Dickens would perform in the small concert room and Dolby’s book includes a vivid account of an appearance there in 1866. It formed part of a lengthy tour, with Dickens due to give more readings in Liverpool (five) than anywhere else except London. Before the first performance ‘enthusiasm had reached the highest pitch’ and the hall was besieged by a huge crowd, so that ‘it looked at one time as if those who had tickets could not get in, and those who had not tickets could not get out’. The police managed to restore order and reported afterwards that over 3,000 people had been turned away.

St George's Hall, 1862 (Liverpool Record Office)

St George’s Hall, 1862 (Liverpool Record Office)

The programme for his readings varied, but often included extracts from David Copperfield, The Pickwick Papers, Dombey And Son and A Christmas Carol. In a letter Dickens described Liverpool as ‘the Copperfield stronghold’, and Dolby helps us imagine Dickens’s impassioned performance and the audience’s fervent response:

‘Chief among his favourites was David Copperfield, so that it is not a matter of surprise that, when he presented it to the public as a Reading, he should throw into it all the colour, light and shade of which his artistic nature was capable, until the word-painting made such a picture as has never been surpassed. That wonderful combination of pathos and whimsicality was received with visible expressions of rapt interest on the part of the audience, until the termination of the Reading with the wreck and drowning of Steerforth, when he was greeted with a burst of applause almost as wild and boisterous as the gale of wind which the reader had, but a moment before, described.’

His final readings in Liverpool were in 1867, this time at the Theatre Royal. The evening after the last reading he returned to St George’s Hall for a grand banquet given in his honour. Among those in attendance were fellow novelist Anthony Trollope and numerous local dignitaries, including the architect J.A. Picton. In fact so large was the guest list (six hundred in total) that there was a danger of the many speeches not being heard. To solve the problem sails from a ship docked in the Mersey were brought ashore and draped around the room to improve the acoustics.

The following day Dickens returned to London, walking from the Adelphi to the railway station at Lime Street. Again Dolby enables us to imagine the scene:

‘…the good feeling of the people of Liverpool showed itself heartily in the street; for during his progress to the station, he was repeatedly stopped by persons of the working classes wanting to shake hands with him, and all of them eager to thank him for the pleasure his books had afforded them.’

When he stayed in Liverpool, Dickens took time to explore the city and the surrounding area. Dolby records a visit to the circus, and Dickens himself in his letters speaks of going over to Birkenhead ‘for a little change of air’ and ‘walking on the sands at New Brighton all the morning’. Liverpool itself is likely to have appealed to him for some of the reasons that London did, as a vibrant city full of human interest and activity, where terrible poverty and deprivation co-existed with stunning architectural grandeur and immense commercial wealth.

Dickens drew on his experiences in the city in a series of essays written for the magazine All The Year Round. For these pieces he adopted the persona of the ‘Uncommercial Traveller’, a thinly disguised fictional version of himself. One essay describes a visit to the Liverpool workhouse, which occupied the site at the top of Brownlow Hill where the Catholic Cathedral now stands. Another is based on an episode in 1860 when the ever-curious Dickens enlisted as a special constable in the Liverpool Police Force, and spent a night as a member of a patrol touring the area around the docks. The essay is called ‘Poor Mercantile Jack’ and describes the human predators (male and female) he encountered, all looking for opportunities to rob and swindle the unsuspecting sailor: an ‘unsleeping host of devourers who never go to bed, and are always in their set traps waiting for him’. Dickens records how ‘for miles and hours we explored a strange world’, as his patrol combed ‘the obscurest streets and lanes of the port’. Dickens evokes an environment which could be threatening and dangerous, but which was not without its laughter and exuberance: in one watering-hole there is a Spanish youth playing a guitar, in another ‘a young girl of a delicate prettiness of face, figure and dress’, playing ‘a kind of piano-accordion’. The lively, cosmopolitan character of 19th century Liverpool is especially apparent in one crowded ale-house, where sailors of every nationality are congregated:

‘There was British Jack, a little maudlin and sleepy, lolling over his empty glass…there was Loafing Jack of the Stars and Stripes…there was Spanish Jack, with curls of black hair, rings in his ears, and a knife not far from his hand…there were Maltese Jack, and Jack of Sweden, and Jack the Finn.’

It is thought that Dickens’s headquarters for the night was the Campbell Street Bridewell. The building still stands and several years ago was converted into a pub restaurant, with the old cells now refurbished as booths and alcoves. In 2004 a plaque was unveiled in the courtyard, commemorating Dickens’s tour of duty.

As this plaque demonstrates, Dickens’s affection for Liverpool has not been forgotten. In particular, his close association with St George’s Hall has been kept alive by the annual Penny Readings, which take place in the small concert room, where Dickens mesmerised audiences 150 years ago. While much of the Liverpool he knew may have gone, much remains, remarkably unaltered – not least, the essential character and spirit of the city and its people.

We are very grateful to James O’Keefe at the St George’s Hall Heritage Centre and Roger Hull at the Liverpool Record Office for their help in the preparation of this article.