A Hertfordshire Carol: Charles’ Dickens links to the county

Charles Dicken (Thinkstock)

Charles Dicken (Thinkstock) - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Synonymous with Christmas thanks to his many festive tales, key characters, places and events in Dickens’ stories are closer to home than you might think, writes Michael Long

Nearer and closer to our hearts be the Christmas spirit! It is one of the best-loved Christmas stories, a perennial in seasonal TV listings and on am-dram stages, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has shaped our understanding of Christmas. We have the author to thank for many of our festive traditions, not least the phrase, Merry Christmas. While a cracking Christmas ghost story, Dickens also wrote his most famous work as social commentary for a middle-class audience, offering them a glimpse of the wretched lives of the urban poor. And while an astute observer of the social conditions in Victorian London, he often looked for inspiration beyond the capital. In this respect, Dickens had close links with Hertfordshire. His first recorded visit was as a 23-year-old reporter for the Morning Chronicle. In December 1835, he travelled to Hatfield to report on a huge fire that destroyed the west wing of Hatfield House and killed the Marchioness of Salisbury. It was a time of horse drawn mail coaches and Dickens took one from London along the Great North Road to Barnet, then hired a horse and gig to take him to Hatfield, lodging at the Salisbury Arms.

A year after the Hatfield fire, writing Oliver Twist, Bill Sikes, having killed Nancy, flees London by the Great North Road to arrive at ‘a small public house’ in the sleepy village of Hatfield. Dickens scholars acknowledge this to be the Eight Bells at the junction of Park Street and Fore Street. The Eight Bells was the staging post for the mail coach to London departing at 7am each day, and would have been familiar to the author.

Nearly 30 years later in 1864, Dickens would incorporate the experience of the fire again in a Christmas short story, Mrs Lirriper’s Legacy.

It was during the winter of 1835 that Dickens assembled the ideas and characters for his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. He formulated a character, a lonely embittered old church warden who despised people and the celebration of Christmas. On Christmas Eve he is whisked away by supernatural beings and gains a new perspective on life. No, not Scrooge, but Gabriel Grub. Dickens incorporated the tale, The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton, as Chapter 29 of The Pickwick Papers. Dickens based Grub on Daniel Clark, the sexton and gravedigger at St Mary’s in Standon in Herts. Seven years later he would develop the story into A Christmas Carol.

The route north from London was often travelled by Dickens and he incorporated elements of it in his writing. Barnet features prominently in Oliver Twist, such as here: Early on the seventh morning... Oliver limped slowly into the little town of Barnet. The window-shutters were closed; the street was empty; not a soul had awakened to the business of the day.

It was in Barnet that Oliver meets Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger. Dickens’ description of the town shows his familiarity with the area. He writes, ‘every other building was a tavern.’

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Dickens dined at the Old Red Lion on the east of Barnet Hill on more than one occasion. It was here, in March 1838 that he learned of the birth of his eldest daughter Mary. The Barnet Board of Guardians, responsible for the local workhouse held their meetings at the Red Lion in the 1830s. And it is likely they were partly the inspiration for the plot of Oliver Twist – a member telling Dickens the tale of a boy who asked for more food at dinner time.

Dickens had close ties with Knebworth thanks to his friendship with novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, owner of Knebworth House, where Dickens was a frequent visitor. Although from different social classes, the two men became firm friends as can be seen from the 120 letters between them held in the Hertfordshire Archives. In 1850, Dickens brought his amateur theatrical group to Knebworth to perform, raising money for impoverished artists and writers.

When staying with the Bulwer-Lyttons, Dickens journeyed around the local area absorbing what he saw. In his 1861 short story, Tom Tiddler’s Ground, Dickens unflatteringly describes the village of Stevenage as ‘drowsy in the dullest degree.’ In the story, he included the morbid character of a hermit, Mr Mopes, based on ‘Mad’ James Lucas, a paranoid recluse, and something of a celebrity, who lived at Elmwood House, Redcoats Green. His delusional state of mind made him fear outside contact. Surrounded by filth, with the windows barred, he existed on a diet of bread and milk. It is unclear whether Dickens ever met him or merely heard the stories of the ‘Hermit of Redcoats’.

Dickens chose Hertfordshire as the location of Bleak House, his novel of urban misery, homelessness, illegitimacy and corruption, first issued in serial form in 1852. Dickens describes the journey to the troubled John Jarndyce’s home: ‘we came to Saint Alban’s; near to which town Bleak House was.’

Acutely observational, the setting of the house near St Albans has prompted speculation as to Dickens’ inspiration for it. An 18th-century property in Normandy Road, St Albans has been suggested, but in recent times more weight has been given to Abbots Hill House in Kings Langley. This mansion was built by John Dickenson, a paper manufacturer, with whom Dickens was acquainted through Bulwer-Lytton. The building, now a school, closely fits the description in the novel, with its three gabled frontages and situation on a hill six miles from St Albans. It is also near Leverstock Green, the site of the ‘brickmaker’s house... one of a cluster of wretched hovels’.

When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, celebrating Christmas was nothing like it is today. Dickens and his fellow Victorians helped to change that. It is intriguing to think that the ideas for this classic tale germinated in his mind in the weeks before Christmas 1835 when he was in Hertfordshire and experiencing the heavy snowfall that was frequent that winter.

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