Collections Long read

A Tale of Two Cities

On the 150th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s death, Special Collections Librarian, Julie Ramwell, looks at his relationship with Manchester.

The novelist and journalist Charles Dickens (1812-70) is most closely associated with London, the setting of most of his novels.  However, he often travelled north, for both business and pleasure.  Today, on the 150th anniversary of Dickens’s death, Special Collections Librarian, Julie Ramwell, looks at Dickens’s relationship with Manchester.

First impressions

Charles Dickens made his first visit to Manchester on 6 November 1838, as a young man of 26.  Like many visitors to this rapidly growing industrial town, Dickens was both ‘disgusted’ and ‘astonished’ by the grim conditions that he witnessed.  However, he returned to Manchester on numerous occasions, drawn by work, family and friends.

What the Dickens?

Ebenezer Scrooge; Miss Havisham; Oliver Twist.  These larger-than-life characters might never have existed, if Dickens had followed his first love – the stage.  Famously, Dickens may have become a professional actor, had not ‘a terrible bad cold’ prevented him from attending an audition at Covent Garden.   Instead, as his journalistic career took off, Dickens indulged his lifelong passion for the theatre through amateur productions, often for charitable causes.  The John Rylands Library holds two Manchester playbills featuring Dickens as actor and/or manager.

Every Man in His Humour

In July 1847, Dickens led a star-studded cast in a performance of Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour.  The company included two of his brothers, and several close friends: John Forster (1812-76), Dickens’s literary advisor and chosen biographer; Douglas Jerrold (1803-57), the playwright and journalist; John Leech (1817-64), illustrator of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and the Manchester-born artist, Frank Stone (1800-59).  The evening raised funds for Dickens’s impoverished friend, the poet Leigh Hunt (1784-1859).

The Frozen Deep

The death of his friend and fellow amateur actor, Douglas Jerrold in June 1857, prompted Dickens to host a further fundraiser, on behalf of Jerrold’s widow.  Wilkie Collins’s The Frozen Deep was performed at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on 21, 22 and 24 August 1857.

This is one of a series of playbills produced for the occasion. Manchester Central Library holds a complementary playbill, including a cast list:

The play, which was adapted by and ‘performed under the management’ of Dickens, tells the story of John Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition in search of the Northwest Passage (1845), in which 129 men died.  Before coming to Manchester, the play was performed privately at Dickens’s home, Tavistock House, and then at the Gallery of Illustration in London, including a performance for Queen Victoria.  Dickens’s portrayal of Richard Wardour often moved the audience to tears. 

Dickens’s daughters acted alongside him in semi-public performances, but were replaced by professional actresses in Manchester, due to the size of the venue.  Dickens’s secret affair with 18-year-old cast member, Ellen (Nelly) Ternan (1839-1914) led ultimately to the breakdown of his 22-year marriage.

Social conscience

Dickens was a champion of education and self-improvement.  In 1843, at a fundraiser for the Manchester Athenaeum, he applauded the lectures, library and classes that, for sixpence a week, were ‘accessible to every bee in this vast hive.’  The worker bee has been a symbol of industry in Manchester since the Industrial Revolution.  The celebrity author also raised funds by signing autographs at a sovereign a time.

In 1852, despite a hectic schedule, Dickens made time to speak at the opening of the Manchester Free Library in Camp Field. He hoped that the free lending library would be ‘a source of pleasure and improvement in the cottages, the garrets, and the cellars of the poorest of our people’.  In fact, the venue proved so popular in its first week that a police officer was assigned to control the crowds around the borrowing desk.

Manchester in print

When visiting Manchester, Dickens might call on his sister Fanny (1810-48), who lived with her husband and fellow musician, Henry Burnett in Ardwick.  Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in just six weeks, following initial inspiration during a trip to Manchester in 1843.  Scrooge’s sister, Little Fan, is Fanny’s namesake, and some scholars suggest that Fanny’s son, Henry Burnett Jr (1839-49), who was disabled from birth, was the inspiration for Tiny Tim.

Dickens’s trips to Manchester and other northern towns also inspired his tenth novel Hard Times (1854), which was serialised in Dickens’s weekly magazine Household Words. Set in the grim industrial mill-town of Coketown, the novel captures the rigours of urban working-class life.

Elizabeth Gaskell

Tavistock House
(Silver Street, Golden Square, California)
Twenty Fifth February 1852
My Dear Mrs Gaskell. A hasty note, after
writing my head nearly off. Thomas
Wright shall be heartily championed,
and with all possible speed. By a
curious coincidence I had sent, the
day before I received your letter, my small
help to his subscription. O what a lazy
woman you are, and where IS that article!

Ever Faithfully Yours

The Manchester-based writer Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65) was a frequent contributor to Household Words.  She and Dickens had a difficult working relationship, heightened by her failure to meet deadlines.  In this short letter, Dickens discusses the Manchester prison philanthropist, Thomas Wright (1789-1875).  A public subscription, publicised in Household Words, raised a pension for Wright, allowing him to concentrate full-time on his good works.

Public readings

Dickens also visited Manchester on his reading tours, when he gave animated public performances of his own works, including A Christmas Carol.  According to the Manchester Courier, ‘Manchester heard the great novelist for the last time’ on 22 March 1869 when ‘he read – or rather acted – “Sykes and Nancy”’ at the Free Trade Hall.  His ‘almost painfully dramatic’ performance generated a ‘torrent of applause’.  Sadly, the tours took their toll on Dickens’s health.  Charles Dickens died, from a stroke, on 9 June 1870, aged 58.

Find out more:

31 letters written by Charles Dickens to Elizabeth Gaskell, accessible online via the Library Digital Collections.  See also:

0 comments on “A Tale of Two Cities

Leave a Reply