When reading a book we love, there is often a surreal sense of recognition: ‘Oh yes’, we may think, ‘I know exactly what the author means’. We understand them so well that it feels like we must know them in our blood. How else can this connection be explained? For Lucinda Hawksley it’s not just a feeling. She is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens.

‘When my primary school teacher asked my class if we knew who Charles Dickens was’, Lucinda remembers, ‘I thought my parents had been playing an elaborate trick on me. So, I nervously told her I was related to him, and she stood there, shocked – that was when I realised that other people knew about him too.’

As this month sees the 185th anniversary of his famous novel Oliver Twist, Lucinda returned to the sea-city to trace his steps. While the largest museum dedicated to the author’s life is situated in London, and estate agents in the capital regularly promote properties by adding that Charles Dickens had once lived there, it was in a city here in Hampshire, where it all began. What Stratford upon Avon is for William Shakespeare, Portsmouth is for Charles Dickens.

Great British Life: Lucinda outside her great-great-great-grandfather's birthplaceLucinda outside her great-great-great-grandfather's birthplace (Image: Anna-Maria Bauer)

‘That is an interesting comparison,’ Lucinda says as we enter into Old Commercial Road, north of Portsmouth’s city centre, ‘because Charles Dickens was one of the leading figures who helped to save Shakespeare’s birthplace.’ The American showman PT Barnum wanted to take it down, brick by brick, ship it to America, rebuild it and show the birthplace off as the star in his museum of curiosities. Initially, Dickens had visited Shakespeare’s birthplace during research for his third novel Nicholas Nickleby, in which – and this brings us straight back to Portsmouth – Dickens’ own birthplace is featured as well.

Lucinda stops in front of an elegant red brick townhouse in a pretty little square that feels a bit out of place between the big housing estate on one and large commercial buildings on the other side. ‘But back then,’ informs one of the front desk staff at the Dickens Birthplace Museum, ‘this would have been the main road from London to Portsmouth.’ The street would have been cobbled and it would have been full of pubs. Inside, the ceilings are high and the staircase imposing, but with its two floors, ornamental wallpaper, and furnished fireplaces, it gives a feeling of cosiness.

Great British Life: Charles Dickens' birthplace is now a museumCharles Dickens' birthplace is now a museum (Image: Anna-Maria Bauer)

‘So, I think,’ says Tim Suffolk from the Dickens Fellowship, and his chest swells a bit with pride as he says it, ‘it was the vibrant life of Portsmouth that nurtured Dickens’ observation and curiosity. These early years,’ he continued, ‘laid the foundation for his childhood, his adolescence and his adult life.’ Would Dickens agree with that? In a letter of 1838, he wrote that Portsmouth was ― ‘an English seaport town principally remarkable for mud (...) and sailors.’

Without a doubt, Portsmouth, at the time, was buzzing. The dockyard was hiring hundreds of men, who settled here with their families. By 1800 the town’s population was four times bigger than that of neighbouring Southampton.

Today, Dickens’ birthplace lies in a calm street, away from the buzz of the city centre and is open on selected days throughout the year. One day, as Lucinda passed while the museum was closed, she saw a family of three in front of the gate. The mother was desperate. Her son was studying in Portsmouth and her husband and she had come from India. She was an English teacher, she said, and a huge fan of Dickens. “Would it make you feel better”, Lucinda asked her. “If you knew you had met a relative of Dickens?” – ‘I don’t think she believed me at first. But I think I had one of my books with me and I showed it to her, and she was so excited!’ Lucinda smiles.

Great British Life: Family resemblance? Lucinda with Dickens' statue in Guildhall SquareFamily resemblance? Lucinda with Dickens' statue in Guildhall Square (Image: Anna-Maria Bauer)

We follow Old Commercial Road southwards to the roundabout and walk along Commercial Road until we arrive at Guildhall Square. Opposite an imposing statue of Queen Victoria and sheltered under ancient trees, sits Britain’s first full-size statue of Charles Dickens. In 2014, sculptor Martin Jennings defied the author’s wish never to be captured in a full-size monument. ‘But I think when Dickens pictured such a statue, he thought of a regal one like that of Queen Victoria,’ says Tim. Instead, Dickens is portrayed seated, on eye-level with the spectator, leaning back in a relaxed manner, a stack of books next to him, and the top of his thighs shiny from all the many people sitting on his lap. ‘My best memory,’ says professor Toni Pointon who was one of the leading figures involved in realising this statute, ‘was when I got a call from the mayor’s office. And the mayor said: “They topped it! There are now 12 children sitting or standing on him,”’ Toni chuckles.

Sharing a space with Queen Victoria is a fitting symbol as the monarch was quite a fan of Dickens’ works. The first instalments of Oliver Twist were published in 1837, the year she came to the throne at the age of 18. ‘And when the Prime Minister,’ Lucinda says, ‘advised her not to read Oliver Twist because, as he put it, it was about thieves and paupers. Victoria, of course, did not listen to him. She thought it was very interesting and said it taught her so much about the country she had inherited. Although,’ Lucinda concedes, ‘we shouldn’t forget that there were still workhouses at the end of her reign.’

From the Guildhall Square, we make our way towards the Historic Dockyard. We pass the red brick building at 42 Kent Street, where Charles Dickens’ mother allegedly attended a dance the night before giving birth to her son, and take a small detour along The Hard where Nicholas Nickleby and his protegee Smike ‘tumbled upon two small rooms up three pair of stairs, or rather two pair and a ladder, at a tobacconist's shop’. For while there ‘is no lack of comfortable, furnished apartments in Portsmouth, and no difficulty in finding some that are proportionate to very slender finances’, unfortunately, as the narrator shares, ‘the former were too good, and the latter too bad.’

Great British Life: Exploring more of Dicken's connections to the cityExploring more of Dicken's connections to the city (Image: Anna-Maria Bauer)

Dickens was writing his third novel Nicholas Nickleby – the journey of a young man who, after the death of his father, struggles to support his family and encounters various trials and adventures while navigating the harsh realities – at the same time as Oliver Twist. ‘As well as’, Lucinda adds, ‘other short stories and editing his weekly journal. He was, in today’s words, probably a workaholic.’

She remembers an anecdote of Henry Burnett, the husband of Dickens’ sister Fanny, during a party at Doughty Street, the author’s home in London: ‘Dickens had a deadline, so he disappeared into his study. But later, he came down, sat in the corner of the drawing-room, in the middle of all the people, and carried on writing.’ He loved to work but he also needed to be with people.

Making our way through the Historic Dockyard, we come to a halt at the former Post Office. Lucinda takes a deep breath. Through a gate, we can see a plaque in remembrance of John Dickens. ‘This is where his father worked then.’ She looks up curiously at this house she has not visited before. It must be strange to view these spots not only as being associated with the famous writer but also as those of a relative. ‘I first began to study my family when I explored the life of Kate Perugini (a painter and Dickens’ daughter). She’s my triple great aunt. When I was doing my master’s degree in art history, her name kept popping up. So I thought: Oh, she needs a biography.’ Lucinda’s other two biographies are of better-known artists she isn’t related to. ‘And I can’t really explain it, it’s intangible, but it feels completely different to write about a relative. There’s some connection; you feel like you know them because you understand their moods.’ And then, of course, there are surprising similarities. ‘When I was little, we used to put on little plays for my grandmother. And I didn’t know it at the time, but this was exactly what the Dickens family would do.’

The day has far advanced as we reach our final stop: Highland Road Cemetery in Southsea. ‘Quite bizarrely,’ Lucinda says, ‘Dickens’ first and his last love are buried here.’ Maria Beadnell and Ellen Wharton Robinson. The cemetery itself offers no map but we manage to find a website with instructions. Looking for the described clues, we study gravestones and inscriptions, venturing into a smaller pathway only to return to the bigger road. ‘Welcome to the life of a biographer,’ Lucinda says and laughs. ‘It’s detective work.’ Finally, we find the white, weathered gravestone that reads ‘Maria Beadnell, 1810 to 1886’. She was the woman Dickens was unrequited in love with for four years. How different everything might have turned out if she had answered Dickens’ feelings. Not only might he not have had the inspiration for the character of Dora in David Copperfield that he based on her. He also might have never married Catherine, Lucinda’s great-great-great-grandmother.

Great British Life: Searching for the final resting places of Dickens' first and last lovesSearching for the final resting places of Dickens' first and last loves (Image: Anna-Maria Bauer)

Take the tour

Dickens Birthplace Museum, 393 Old Commercial Road

The terraced house where Charles Dickens was born is open on selected days throughout the year. The collection also includes the couch on which Dickens died in Kent in June 1870.


Dickens Guided Tours

Portsmouth Visitor Services offers a series of guided walks and talks on literary themes including Dickens.


For more information on Lucinda’s biographies visit lucindahawksley.com/