Charles Dickens: Yorkshire Inspiration

by Steven Athorn

As a long time fan of the works of Charles Dickens, it was surprising to learn he had a real connection to Yorkshire. Indeed, some of Dickens most memorable characters and settings found their inspiration in God’s own county. These pages follow Dickens on his mission to Yorkshire schools whilst researching Nicholas Nickleby in 1838, and in Malton in 1843, from where he drew much inspiration.[1]

The starting point was a field trip to the Malton Counting House Museum, in North Yorkshire. The aim, to learn more about Dickens, and Charles Smithson. With this in mind, a meeting with a member of Malton’s Dickens society was arranged, just before Christmas 2017. The entrance to the museum was via Chancery Lane, which could easily be overlooked by the casual passer-by. However, upon entry one was immediately struck by the narrow and claustrophobic atmosphere, the Yorkstone slabs slick underfoot, the gradient steep and ramshackle, and then, unmistakably, Scrooge’s ‘money changing hole’ was revealed.[2] The first questions that had become obvious were, how did Dickens and Smithson become acquainted, and was Scrooge written with him in mind. To the latter, a categorical no which was somewhat disappointing as it would have been strangely satisfying to make a connection between a Yorkshireman’s reputation of being fiscally prudent (tight), and the most famous miser of them all. However, to the former, some research by Mr Ian Wray, the Great, Great, Great Nephew of Smithson was kindly supplied.

Born in Portsmouth in 1812, Dickens was arguably the most famous novelist of his age, producing works such as Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol and Nicholas Nickleby. However, lesser known; was his work as a campaigning journalist writing controversial articles on social issues like homelessness. In fact, Dickens’s tour of Yorkshire schools researching Nickleby, employed techniques characteristic of modern day investigative journalism, to expose social injustice to Victorian society.

Fletcher, N. (2018). Dickens Malton Museum on Twitter. [online] Twitter. Available at: https://twitter.com/dickensmalton/status/718426405739053058 [Accessed 1 Feb. 2018]. (public domain)

Charles Smithson was born at York house, Yorkersgate, Malton in 1805. Aged 17, he was apprenticed under his older brother John, who was a joint partner in his father’s solicitors business in Chancery Lane. However, John died aged 39, forcing Charles to move to London to continue his apprenticeship under Henry, another elder brother, in his Old Jewry Lane office. In 1829, their father died, requiring Henry to return to Malton and take over the family business, whereas Charles remained in London. It is whilst residing in the capital that Smithson & Dickens met. Thomas Mitton, a friend of Dickens had persuaded him to act as surety on a loan to purchase a one-third stake of Smithson & Dunn. During these business dealings, Dickens & Smithson forged what would turn into a lifelong friendship. In fact, a wider circle of friends developed, for example, Smithson & Dunn acted as London agents for Richard Barnes, attorney for Barnard Castle, County Durham, from whom Dickens derived the character John Browdie, from Nicholas Nickleby.[3] In fact, Smithson appears in the preface of the novel, ‘as the professional friend’ who gives Dickens ‘a letter of introduction to Barnes’.[4]

This story can be picked up, thanks to a marvellous publication by T. P. Cooper, With Dickens in Yorkshire, published in 1923, Cooper tells of Dickens’s Yorkshire expedition with illustrator Hablot K Browne, in early 1838, to obtain ‘material’ to use in Nickleby. Like all great artists, Dickens drew inspiration from his environment, from friends, acquaintances, and through casual observance. He was a master of spotting people’s eccentricities and eagerly caricatured their ‘peculiarities and idiosyncracies’ within his huge portfolio of weird and wonderful characters.[5]

In Yorkshire, Dickens travelled incognito, Smithson facilitated this ‘pious fraud’ by providing documents that gave Dickens a plausible alias as a representative of a widow wishing to board a ‘supposititious little boy’ at a Yorkshire school.[6] As mentioned, from Barnes, Dickens created John Browdie, however, he goes to some lengths to conceal his real identity. According to Cooper, at the time of their meeting in 1838, Barnes would have been 31 years old, but in Nickleby, Browdie was delineated as an ‘old fellow, a ‘jovial, ruddy’, and ‘broad-faced farmer’.[7] The reason for such subterfuge was to protect Barnes’s real identity as he had ‘advised, selected and then directed’ the novelist to ‘visit certain schools’, and the information obtained was used to recreate the infamous cruelty of Wackford Squeers, Head of Dotheboys Hall in Nickleby.[8]

The model for Squeers was William Shaw, teacher and owner of Bowes Hall Academy, who Dickens met during a visit there. Shaw had been convicted of gross negligence in 1823 when eight boys went blind under his tutelage, apparently, reports of abuse continued to emerge. In fact, Dickens passionate indictment in Nickleby was central to the eventual destruction of the Yorkshire school system. According to Cooper, school owners, teachers, assistants and shopkeepers, ‘were thrown out of employment’ causing significant anger towards Dickens: reason enough to maintain Barnes’s anonymity.[9]

Dickens’s social campaigning found a prominent voice in publications, such as, Household Words, Dickens’s Daily News, and his novels. A report published in 1842 entitled, The Treatment of Children Employed in the Mines & Collieries of the United Kingdom compiled by Richard Henry Horne, a friend of Dickens appalled him, and wider Victorian society. The report took oral testimonies from child workers that revealed conditions and brutality that beggared belief. Professor John Sutherland points out, ‘childish innocence’ was central to Dickens novels; none more so than A Christmas Carol. It challenged doomsayers such as, Thomas Malthus, who argued that catastrophe was looming due to over-population, that the weak should be allowed to die so the strong (rich) could prosper, borrowed from Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory. Hence, Scrooges retort when told that the poor would rather die than enter the Workhouse, ‘they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population’. Moreover, Tiny Tim epitomised the hundreds of children crippled by the machinery of Victorian industry. Indeed, Scrooge embodied a prevalent attitude among the well to do in the hungry 1840s,  as Sutherland puts it, ‘hard heads, hard hearts, good business. Soft heads and soft hearts lead to the bankruptcy court’. However, A Christmas Carol  was instrumental in the introduction of the Factories Act 1844 which reduced children’s working week to six, 9 hour days.

Moreover, the novel Martin Chuzzlewit was partly penned during a visit to Malton in July 1843, Dickens, writing to his biographer asked, ‘what did you think of Mrs Gamp’? She is believed to be a facsimile of Smithson’s housekeeper.[10] Malton’s Gazette & Herald newspaper ran a story in 2003 that told of a ‘little book’ published by the Malton Gazette in 1943 entitled, Some people of our Town.[11] The story was of Mr Richard, the manager of a local newspaper who was told by Dickens that, ‘he was the prototype’ for the Fat Boy in the Pickwick Papers.[12] Furthermore, Mrs MacStringer in Domby and son was a replica of Mrs Jump, who lived on Middlecave Road, in a small white house, ‘below a clump of beeches’.[13]

As for A Christmas Carol, the Smithson family were told by Dickens that when he wrote of Scrooges counting house, their Chancery Lane office is what he imagined, also, that the church bells that figure prominently in the story were those of Malton’s St Leonards Church.[14] Smithson died in March 1844 aged 39, following his father and brother into an early grave, surprisingly, he failed to leave a will, Dickens, who attended the funeral wrote to his wife on the 6th April, ‘there appears to be no doubt whatsoever that he died without a will’.[15] True to form, Dickens immortalised Smithson, as Mr Spenlow in David Copperfield, who also died without leaving a will. Later, Dickens sent Smithson’s widow a signed copy of A Christmas Carol, with a note that read, ‘I send to you the long-awaited Carol’. This copy still survives, in the custodianship of the University of York library.[16]

Other resources

The story of how Malton raised money to buy the Smithson copy of A Christmas Carol from an American collector:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9733272/Selina-Scott-and-friends-bring-home-A-Christmas-Carol-the-Dickens-book-inspired-by-her-home-town-of-Malton.html

An in-depth biography of Nicholas Nickleby: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/nicholas-nickleby-and-the-yorkshire-schools

An In-depth look at the origins of A Christmas Carol: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-origins-of-a-christmas-carol

Malton Dickens Society has a comprehensive guide to Dickens’s visits including a map of places he frequented: http://dickenssocietymalton.co.uk/counting-house.html

Information on Dickens as an investigative journalist: https://www.buckingham.ac.uk/latest-news/exhibition-on-dickens-the-investigative-journalist/ https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/08/charles-dickens-campaigning-journalism-museum-london-home

More information political economist Thomas Malthus: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Malthus

Steve presented his work as a Charles Dickens’ watermarked Word file, using Victorian style font, fully hyperlinked.

Notes

[1] Slater, M. (2004-09-23). Dickens, Charles John Huffam (1812–1870), novelist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 22 Jan. 2018, from http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-7599.

[2] Dickens, C. and Leech, J. (2013). A Christmas Carol in Prose Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. London: Arcturus.

[3] Dickens, C. (1950). (Nicholas Nickleby) The Life and adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. London: Oxford University Press.

[4] Wray, I. (1992). Charles Dickens: The Malton Connection (2nd ed.). York: Independent.

[5] Cooper, T.P. (1923). With Dickens in Yorkshire. York: Ben Johnson & Co Ltd. A historian who specialised in the history of his native York.

[6] Cooper, T.P. (1923). With Dickens in Yorkshire. York: Ben Johnson & Co Ltd. (People wishing to be free of wayward or unwanted boys would send them to such schools which were prevalent in Yorkshire).

[7] Cooper, T.P. (1923). With Dickens in Yorkshire. York: Ben Johnson & Co Ltd.

[8] Cooper, T.P. (1923). With Dickens in Yorkshire. York: Ben Johnson & Co Ltd.

[9] Cooper, T.P. (1923). With Dickens in Yorkshire. York: Ben Johnson & Co Ltd.

[10] Wray, I. (1992). Charles Dickens: The Malton Connection (2nd ed.). York: Independent.

[11]Not Known (2003). It’s Kirby-Not Kirkby. Gazette & Herald. [online] Available at: http://www.gazetteherald.co.uk/news/6664512.It_s_Kirby___not_Kirkby_/ [Accessed 25 Jan. 2018].

[12] Not Known (2003). It’s Kirby-Not Kirkby. Gazette & Herald. [online] Available at: http://www.gazetteherald.co.uk/news/6664512.It_s_Kirby___not_Kirkby_/ [Accessed 25 Jan. 2018].

[13] Not Known (2003). It’s Kirby-Not Kirkby. Gazette & Herald. [online] Available at: http://www.gazetteherald.co.uk/news/6664512.It_s_Kirby___not_Kirkby_/ [Accessed 25 Jan. 2018].

[14] Sutherland, J. (2018). The origins of A Christmas Carol. [online] The British Library. Available at: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-origins-of-a-christmas-carol [Accessed 26 Jan. 2018].

[15] Wray, I. (1992). Charles Dickens: The Malton Connection (2nd ed.). York: Independent.

[16] Sutherland, J. (2018). The origins of A Christmas Carol. [online] The British Library. Available at: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-origins-of-a-christmas-carol [Accessed 26 Jan. 2018].

[17] Meckier, J. (1987;1982;). Hidden Rivalries in Victorian Fiction: Dickens, Realism, and Revaluation. Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky.

Jon Browdie-Kyd illustration: Clayton Clarke, J. (2018). Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke) Illustrations of Dickens. [online] Gallery.oldbookart.com. Available at: http://www.gallery.oldbookart.com/main.php?g2_itemId=30853&g2_page=2 [Accessed 1 Feb. 2018]. creative commons out of copyright in public domain

Wackford Squeers-Kyd illustration: Clayton Clarke, J. (2018). Kyd (Joseph Clayton Clarke) Illustrations of Dickens. [online] Gallery.oldbookart.com. Available at: http://www.gallery.oldbookart.com/main.php?g2_itemId=30853&g2_page=2 [Accessed 1 Feb. 2018]. creative commons out of copyright in public domain.

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