Dickens at Gad’s Hill by Alan S Watts

Publisher: Cedric Dickens and Elvendon Pres (1989) – Reviewed by Brigitte Lucey.


Alan S. Watts when writing Dickens at Gad’s Hill was Honorary General Secretary of the Dickens Fellowship. He later became its President (1990-92). His insight into Charles Dickens’ lifestyle and favourite home was first published in 1989 by Cedric Dickens, the Great Man’s great-grandson. The following is a brief synopsis of Watts’ Dickens at Gad’s Hill, a most readable and compassionate account of England’s greatest novelist and fierce advocate against social ills.

It is well known that Charles Dickens had his eye on the stately home at Gad’s Hill from early childhood. He was only nine years old when on walks with his father he sighted this imposing residence and the seeds of a dream were sown. Conjecture has it that Gad’s Hill used to be called God’s Hill. Well before Dickens’ time, the area on the Old Dover Road, near Dickens’ home, was referenced by William Shakespeare in his Henriad trilogy as being the place where the fictional Falstaff character plans to rob pilgrims to Canterbury before himself being assailed. Apart from this fictional naming of Gad’s Hill, history records numerous real life incidents of highway robberies in the immediate vicinity giving this a rather unsavoury reputation. The nearby Sir John Falstaff pub still pays tribute to the history and legends surrounding the area. Gad’s Hill was built in 1780 by a former Rochester Mayor on the old Dover Road, which is itself immortalised in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. In 1855 Gad’s Hill House with its twenty-six acres of land came up for sale on Dickens’ forty-third birthday, February 7th. The asking price for this ‘dream of his childhood’ was £2,000. It took Dickens, a savvy financial negotiator, till 1856 before, on a Friday, he could clinch the deal for £1,700 with an additional £70.00 for ‘ornamental timber’. Dickens considered Friday a most important day in his life; he was born on a Friday and moved into his previous home, Tavistock House, also on a Friday. Initially, Dickens envisaged Gad’s Hill as a summer residence only, intending to let it at other times. In reality, that never eventuated. Nevertheless, he occasionally swapped houses with London friends to enable him to have a residence in the city.

Just a day after moving into Gad’s Hill, the well ran dry and after a considerable time lapse and at huge financial outlay a reliable supply of water was secured by a new 217 ft. deep well. A horse driven pump brought the water to the surface and was then stored in a cistern on top of the house. To improve drainage two additional cesspools were also required. Other extensive alterations and structural changes throughout the house abound. It appears that the effect of bitterly cold winters could not be overcome. In Dickens’ words: ‘In my study on the morning, long after a great fire of coal and wood had been lighted, the thermometer was I don’t know where below freezing. The bath froze, and all the pipes froze and remained in a stony state for five or six weeks. The water in the bedroom jugs froze, and blew up the crockery. The snow on the top of the house froze, and was imperfectly removed with axes. My beard froze as I walked about, and I couldn’t detach my cravat and coat from it until I had thawed at the fire.’ At times the house must have looked like an immense construction site. Only the anticipated value increase of the property alleviated Dickens’ extreme anxiety about the financial outlays. In order to generate additional income, it was then that Dickens embarked on public readings of his works for which he developed a strong liking. It spread his fame enormously – the occasions became sell-out events. While Dickens sought refuge in public speaking engagements he left his sister-in-law Georgina in charge. Catherine, his soon-to-be estranged wife, resided only four weeks in Gad’s Hill. After completion of the building works, passers-by always knew whether the master was in residence. In that case and similarly to royalty, a flag was hoisted, to be taken down again on his leaving.

On Christmas Eve 1864, Dickens’ famous, ‘prefabricated’ two storey Swiss Chalet, a gift from the French actor Charles Fechter, arrived in some fifty packing cases containing a total of ninety-four pieces. Dickens, a man of many talents, a handyman he was not! He sought professional help to assemble the chalet, which was erected across the road from Gad’s Hill House on land acquired by Dickens in the 1850s. Alfred, Dickens’ brother, had already constructed a tunnel for easy access of the land and later of the chalet. After Dickens’ passing, the chalet was moved and is now located in the gardens of Eastgate House, Rochester. It has had various owners, finally being sold to the Dickens Fellowship for a nominal amount.

A fairly accurate impression of Gad’s Hill’s interior décor can be gleaned from photos, eyewitness accounts and the sales catalogue at the time after Dickens’ death when the house came on the market. Knickknacks abound throughout, too many to list here. The mock bookshelves with dummy book spines in the library doorways though deserve mention. Dickens had come across this type of décor in historical Chatsworth House. Still, I wonder why Dickens, no doubt an erudite reader and admirer of literature, needed that artificial prop. Did he feel the need to impress anybody and if so, whom? Just to name a few, frequently read and well-studied volumes in Dickens’ library were publications of State and Old Bailey Trials, ten volumes of Ballantyne’s Novelists Library, Tennyson’s poems and books on magic.

Dickens’ fastidious tidiness was well known: – the household ran like clockwork! A large family and frequent visitors demanded foresight and effective planning. Visitors to the home reported that despite these challenging demands, maids and servants were totally invisible except when engaged in the serving of elegant dinners. Napkins, folded according to Dickens’ specific instructions, a button hole for each guest featuring his favourite flower, the Geranium and maidenhair fern, printed menus featuring his crest showing a couchant lion holding in his dexter paw a Maltese cross decorated the festive table setting. This crest also decorated household crockery and cutlery and was the distinctive image of Dickens’ book-plates. Challenged on the usage of this crest Dickens’ response was that his father had always used it, and therefore … !

After welcoming his visitors in one of his numerous carriages at Rochester station, occasionally even in London, Dickens provided for their ultimate comfort. He ensured that his visitors’ bedrooms were as comfortable as his own. They all featured a writing desk, large supply of paper and envelopes, ‘an almost daily change of quills’ and all necessities to make oneself a cuppa. A thoughtfully selected choice of literature, tailored to the visitor’s interests, must surely have provided a homely welcome.

Dickens kept a carefully observant eye on all aspects of Gad’s Hill, which in the shrubbery featured a considerable display of bushes, shrubs and flowers and a kitchen garden. Some of the twenty-six acres were set aside for arable purposes and Dickens ensured that two crops were harvested annually. I daresay there was not a single aspect of Gad’s Hill not under Dickens’ meticulous control.

Dickens envisaged Gad’s Hill as a peaceful retreat – perhaps this is what it was for him – but the endless comings and goings of guests, and overseeing all aspects of the house would have impinged considerably on the longed for peace and reflection. When engaged on prolonged London business or on speaking tours, Georgina was left in charge to oversee the execution of Dickens’ fastidious instructions. A visitor to Gads’ Hill describes her as ‘a really delightful person, plain, unassuming, totally unaffected and singularly pleasant’.

It’s impossible to pinpoint any area of day-to-day living where Dickens did not involve himself. House-proud as he was, his eyes were everywhere. Being a lover of nature, the garden and shrubbery were also his domain, and as a lover of animals, dogs were always part of family life. The favourite breeds – Dickens preferred large, muscular dogs – such as St Bernards, Mastiffs, Newfoundlands, and Bloodhounds caused upheaval at time. Horses, cats, ravens, and a canary completed the menagerie. Dickens also kept a close eye on his staff, not only during the time of their employment but also beyond. When physical inability prevented their maintaining their original position/tasks in the Dickens household, he occasionally secured subsequent employment for them. He ensured that the misdemeanour of one employee causing his dismissal did not become public knowledge. In his will he bequeathed a sum of money to all staff in his employ for at least twelve months at the time of his death. Georgina ensured that the only employee who missed out on that prerequisite was not totally forgotten.

Behind Dickens’ jovial, engaging generosity hid much sadness, probably caused primarily by the separation from his wife Catherine of twenty-two years and mother to his ten children. I daresay it caused him genuine heartache. Why, otherwise and shortly after the separation, would his daughter Katey describe her father acting like a ‘madman’? Why did Katey’s wedding cause him to tearfully blame himself for her departure from the toxic home environment? The resultant distancing from some of his children, i.e. Charley and Katey who sided with Catherine, the alienation from some enduring, deeply valued friends because of the marital separation and the death of his son Walter and some long-standing close friends caused further extreme anguish. The fruitless attempts by and on behalf of Frank and Charley, two of Dickens’ eight sons, for steady employ, Charley’s wedding to Bessie Evans, the daughter of Dickens’ former publisher, added to his despair. His marital separation was also cause for the estrangement from the Evans family. A rift with his son Sydney was caused because of the extravagant life style of this son. Other offspring were also financially irresponsible. Finally, the carefully considered and deeply evaluated departure of Dickens’ favourite and youngest son, Plorn, to Australia added further to the general despondency Dickens must have felt. King of his castle, he certainly was, ruling it with relentless energy and demanding obedience. The admiration the general public poured over him was second to none, but broken relationships and disappointments with his immediate family marred the full enjoyment of his fame and much cherished home. Alan S Watts deals only in passing with Ellen Ternan, for whom Charles Dickens separated from his wife Catherine. Although she played a defining role in his later years she was never part of his public or home life.

A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood are Dickens’ four works completed while much time was spent at Gad’s Hill. Alan S Watts points out an up to now little recognised fact that the leitmotif of the first three of these Gad’s Hill novels delve heavily into the subject of repentance. Is that another connection to Dickens’ own repentance? It’s unclear whether the same interpretation can be applied to the incomplete The Mystery of Edwin Drood novel.

Alan S Watts completes his insight into Dickens’ life and home with a selection of pictures and anecdotes as passed on by some of his offspring and friends. It’s an extremely informative account of the Great Man’s world which left me, for one, more sympathetic of the private man than what I was before never, of course, having questioned his legendary genius.

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