The Chron looks at Northamptonshire’s links with one of the country’s most famous writers

JPNS CHARLES DICKENS pic 2 large image''Charles Dickens 1858
JPNS CHARLES DICKENS pic 2 large image''Charles Dickens 1858

DURING the Christmas period, millions of viewers plonked themselves down on sofas around the country to tune in to thrilling instalments of the BBC’s Great Expectations.

Today marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth and it is perhaps testament to this author’s talent that his books, transformed into dramatic works, can still leave audiences breathless with anticipation.

Charles Dickens 200th anniversary of his birth: Dickens was good friends of Richard and Lavinia Watson and stayed at their home, Rockingham Castle. The Castle was the inspiration for Bleak House. 'The Long Gallery  'Thursday 2nd February 2012

Charles Dickens 200th anniversary of his birth: Dickens was good friends of Richard and Lavinia Watson and stayed at their home, Rockingham Castle. The Castle was the inspiration for Bleak House. 'The Long Gallery 'Thursday 2nd February 2012

And it was perhaps fitting that part of this latest version of Great Expectations was filmed at Holdenby House because Northamptonshire certainly played an important part in the writer’s life, as well as in some of his books.

The stories linking him to the county are numerous but, to mark his bicentenary, the Chron has investigated more about just some of the historic associations Dickens had with Northamptonshire.

Rockingham Castle

For fans of Dickens’ work, Northamptonshire’s own Rockingham Castle is a veritable treasure trove of delights linked to this famous author’s life.

Charles Dickens 200th anniversary of his birth: Dickens was good friends of Richard and Lavinia Watson and stayed at their home, Rockingham Castle. The Castle was the inspiration for Bleak House. 'Letter to Richard Watson from Charles Dickens'Thursday 2nd February 2012

Charles Dickens 200th anniversary of his birth: Dickens was good friends of Richard and Lavinia Watson and stayed at their home, Rockingham Castle. The Castle was the inspiration for Bleak House. 'Letter to Richard Watson from Charles Dickens'Thursday 2nd February 2012

Charles first met the Watsons of Rockingham Castle while he was on holiday, but they obviously made a deep impression as not only did he visit their home on numerous occasions to act out plays with his family, he also used the estate as the inspiration for Chesney Wold in Bleak House and dedicated the book David Copperfield to them.

Among Rockingham’s collection of valued items is a copy of David Copperfield signed “as a token of regard and friendship” by the author, as well as letters sent to the Watsons and various playbills for performances at Rockingham staged by Dickens.

Rockingham’s guide David Shipton said: “He first met Richard and Lavinia Watson on holiday in Switzerland and came to stay at Rockingham about five times. On two occasions he put on plays at the castle, with himself acting, and we have some play bills, one is on display in the Long Gallery.

“They met in 1846 and he visited on several occasions, he put one play on in 1849 and another in 1851. His wife was in it too.”

Charles Dickens 200th anniversary of his birth: Dickens was good friends of Richard and Lavinia Watson and stayed at their home, Rockingham Castle. The Castle was the inspiration for Bleak House. 'A letter from Charles Dickens to Mrs Watson'Thursday 2nd February 2012

Charles Dickens 200th anniversary of his birth: Dickens was good friends of Richard and Lavinia Watson and stayed at their home, Rockingham Castle. The Castle was the inspiration for Bleak House. 'A letter from Charles Dickens to Mrs Watson'Thursday 2nd February 2012

Due to the rarity and value of the signed edition of David Copperfield, it cannot be displayed to the public, but Rockingham still proves a draw for many Dickens fans.

David continued: “In the novel Bleak House, there is a big country house called Chesney Wold and many of the details of that are based on Rockingham and the Long Gallery is used as the basis of a big room in Chesney Wold.

“We have a letter he wrote to Lavinia Watson where he says he took bits from Rockingham for Chesney Wold.”

He added: “We have a huge thing called the elephant hedge and we think he based the story of the Ghost Walk in Bleak House on that hedge.”

Charles Dickens 200th anniversary of his birth: Dickens was good friends of Richard and Lavinia Watson and stayed at their home, Rockingham Castle. The Castle was the inspiration for Bleak House. ''Thursday 2nd February 2012

Charles Dickens 200th anniversary of his birth: Dickens was good friends of Richard and Lavinia Watson and stayed at their home, Rockingham Castle. The Castle was the inspiration for Bleak House. ''Thursday 2nd February 2012

He said: “Richard Watson was a Liberal MP and Dickens had Liberal views. Richard died very young, he was 52, but Dickens continued a friendship with his wife and visited once after that.”

To mark the bicentenary, David has written a booklet about Dickens’ associations with the author, which will be available from Rockingham. 

The elections in

Northamptonshire

There are some important facts about the life of Charles Dickens which are perhaps not as widely known as they should be.

One of these, according to Northampton resident and University of Buckingham English Literature Professor John Drew, is the fact that the writer was a magazine editor for 20 years and had an established journalistic career.

Dickens 200 years feature.  'The Saracen's Head in Towcester where Dickens once stayed, it is mentioned in The Pickwick Papers.

Dickens 200 years feature. 'The Saracen's Head in Towcester where Dickens once stayed, it is mentioned in The Pickwick Papers.

Not only was Northamptonshire mentioned on many occasions in Dickens’ magazine Household Words, but he also covered some particularly raucous elections in the county whilst a reporter on the Morning Chronicle.

John said Dickens was just a “cub reporter” at the time when he covered the hustings in Kettering in 1835.

John said: “What happened was there was dreadful electoral violence cause by supporters of the Tory candidate Thomas Maunsell.”

He explained; “The worst was yet to come as a Tory parson called John George of Bythorn rushed his horse into the crowd and laid about him in all directions with a thick ash stick. He then pulled a pistol and aimed at someone in the crowd. Then there was a massive scuffle and he got hit with a stick on the nose.

“Then he cocked the pistol and was about to discharge it into the crowd when Tory supporters managed to make off with him.

“This appeared on December 16, 1835 in the Morning Chronicle and Dickens also reported on December 19 that Maunsell was re-elected.”

Dickens wrote: “He was re-elected by the most drunken and brutal electors in the kingdom who were probably treated and fed and driven up to the polls the whole day like herds of swine.”

John explained that, at this time, electoral corruption was a major concern and one problem was that certain candidates would take voters out to eat and drink, before having them driven to the polling stations in a drunken state.

He said: “By the time they got to the polls they could be as drunk as lords but would sign off for that candidate.”

John is the director of the Dickens Journal Online programme which has given the public open online access to 20 years of Dickens’ journalistic work. To find out more log onto www.djo.org.uk

Saracen’s Head, Towcester

“‘There’s beds here, sir,’ said Sam, addressing his master, ‘everything clean and comfortable. Very good little dinner, sir, they can get ready in half an hour - pair of fowls, sir, and a weal cutlet; French beans, taturs, tart, and tidiness. You’d better stop vere you are, sir, if I might recommend. Take adwice, sir, as the doctor said.’”

In this passage from Dicken’s The Pickwick Papers, the characters enjoy a visit to the Saracen’s Head in Towcester, one of the author’s best known connections with Northamptonshire.

The menu at the hotel may well have changed over the years, but the Saracen’s Head is very much still in existence and over the years has welcomed many Dickens fans to stay. And it is believed that Dickens even stayed there himself.

Duty manager Mick Polywka said: “Sometimes people will still say to us: ‘Isn’t this mentioned in The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens?

“The hotel has been here since the mid 17th century and at that time it was a coaching inn. We are on the Roman Road and on one side it was the coaching inn and the other side was the tap room where you could buy beer. We still have the archway where the horses used to come through.

“They did a major refurbishment in the 1980s but some of the rooms are basically from the original time.

“We always have been the coaching inn in Watling Street and it was an important meeting point as you could stay here when travelling between London and Birmingham or from the South coast. Everyone would come through here.”