12 July 2011

Charles Dickens' years in Broadstairs, 1837 - 1859

Charles Dickens (1812–1870) spent much of his adolescence and adult life living in London. He and his wife married in 1836 then travelled a great deal, within Britain and overseas. But they always came home to London: 48 Doughty St Holborn (till 1839), 1 Devonshire Terrace (1839-51) or Tavistock House (1851-60). The Holborn house is now a Dickens museum.

While he was still living with his wife, and even after he unceremoniously turfed her out in the 1850s after their 10th baby was born, Charles Dickens and his children spent their summer holidays in Broadstairs, Kent.

High on the Broadstairs cliff top, overlooking Viking Bay, stands a tough-looking house. Originally built in 1801 and called Fort House, it was used as a coastal observation station. I can't tell if the first residents in Fort House were more interested in keeping an eye on the local smugglers or if their biggest concern was Napoleon's navy.

By the Dickens era, Fort House had became a perfectly normal residence with lovely rooms. The place was renamed Bleak House after Dickens’ novel of the same name, written earlier when he was living in Tavistock House London. This was a case of real life copying art.

Bleak House, Dicken's holiday home in Broadstairs from 1837-59.

Dickens must have considered Broadstairs more than a relaxing beach resort during his 22 years there. It was here that he wrote much of his novel, David Copperfield. For ages the lofty Bleak House was a museum; visitors could see where Dickens had worked in his study to the right of the building, looking straight out to sea. This house has now reverted back to a private house, but at least there is an inscribed medallion portrait of Dickens, outside the building.

Luckily many of Dickens’ artefacts, furniture, documents and letters can still be seen at the Dickens Museum, located at Dickens House on the seafront. Visitors can see, for example, a decent collection of prints by HK Browne (Phiz), one of Dickens's principal illustrators. And a writing box, a gift from Dickens’ lifelong friend and biographer John Forster. This house had a slightly weaker connection to Dickens - it was here that Miss Mary Strong lived, the woman who became the model for Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield. Did he personally visit Miss Strong in her home? I certainly hope so.

Dicken's House Museum, Broadstairs. exterior and one room with Dicken's artefacts

Some rooms in the museum deal with Victorian Broadstairs in general, rather than Dickens in particular. There are Victorian costumes, posters and photography of old Broadstairs on display. So it is appropriate that the museum should play a central role in the annual Dickens Festival each June. Locals and visitors are invited to dress-up in Victorian costumes, evoking an era when Broadstairs was a much loved holiday spot.

Charles Dickens must have been a popular drinker because at least three pubs in Broadstairs claim him as a patron. Right below Bleak House, facing the harbour, is the Tartar Frigate Public House. Named after the naval ship, the HMS Tartar, this was a popular drinking place for sea going types (sailors, fishermen and smugglers) in Dickens’ era. The 200+ year old Charles Dickens Public House, right on the seafront, also loved the Dickens connection. And finally the Royal Albion Hotel was a place where Dickens stayed when he didn’t want to be in Fort House. It too is in the centre of the old town, along the seafront.

Dickens 2012 will mark the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth. The year will launch a major celebration of events and activities in London, but also in Kent. The Broadstairs museum will host a season of lectures and special exhibitions to celebrate the house’s connection to Dickens.

Charles Dickens


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this! Dickens living there was the only thing I knew about Broadstairs -- read about it in a travel guide years ago, and that alone has made me want to visit though I've not yet had the chance to do so.

Alberti's Window said...

Interesting post! Your comment about Dickens on my blog has turned me off to the author - I can't believe he left her after she delivered their 10th child! What a jerk!

Do you know if Dickens was the one to rename Fort House? Or was the place renamed as "Bleak House" after his death? It's disappointing that the Bleak House has reverted back to be a private house. I wonder if the museum organization lost funding, or if the space was always privately owned. Do you know, by chance?

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
It is something of a pity that the public no longer has access to 'Bleak House' for it is always so much more inspiring to vist the actual place where an artist or writer [or indeed anyone else] actually lived and worked.

We had not previously known about the separation from his wife.

Hels said...


that is so true. We live amongst living history but only realise the significance of places from travel guides. Or blogging :)

Hels said...


The house was still called Fort House when Dickens stayed there. So we have to assume that it was only changed after 1859 (when he no longer went there each summer) or even after his death in 1970.

I don't know about the previous owners. The real estate agent who handled the last sale said: "The stunning building was damaged by fire in 2006 but has undergone a £40,000 restoration. It is not known why the house has been put up for sale although it is owned by local jewellery tycoon Richard Hilton, whose family business is currently in difficulty for mis-labelling their wares".

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

You are so right! It is a real shame that we can no longer have access to Bleak House. This was where the writer actually ate, slept, worked and had leisure time. His connection to Dickens House Museum is weak: it really was the house of a person who MIGHT have inspired him to create a FICTIONAL character.

We Travel said...

I drank in the pubs that claimed a connection to Dickens. If Dickens was never in those pubs, I was forced to drink beer under false pretences. Never mind. It was a lovely summer afternoon.

Hels said...

We travel,

when touring, it your duty to sample the local pleasures. In Austria you would be obligated by law to taste all the pastry shops, in France the coffee bars and in Britain the taverns.

If Dickens actually drank there regularly, even better still :) But be warned. I once tried to drink a beer at all the Dylan Thomas watering holes in Wales and England. Now I realise he was a big drinker, but even so!!!!!!

Hermes said...

Went there a few years ago when I worked in Dover. I was in awe of Dickens then - so much now apart from the books of course. As a human being not so sure. His daughter Kate interests me personally more.

Hels said...


I hope you know more about Kate's life as an artist and as the wife of an artist than I do. The only time I took a lot of notice of Kate was when she revealed her father's very long and intimate relationship with an actress.

Only the oldest Dickens child was old enough to choose to go and live with his mother when the split came; the others were forced not to see their mother at all. Yet of the others, only Kate wrote "my father was a wicked man.. we were all very wicked not to take mother's part.”

Glen / Kent Today and Yesterday said...

Hi Hels - I remember vaguely as a kid being inside Bleak House and seeing the desk where Dickens used to write. It was in front of a window looking out to sea.

Would take more of an interest in it now of course now we are no longer able to visit the house!

Did you hear the rumour that when Dickens died he was actually with his mistress? The story goes they had to move the body from her house quickly to avoid any scandal.

Dickens has very strong connections with Kent especially around the Medway area.

The pub next door to my office is supposed to be the one (The Ship) on the Thames marshes mentioned in Great Expectations.


Hels said...


Once the babies starting arriving, Catherine's unmarried sister Mary (1820-37) went to live with them, presumably to help out with the children. Dickens became very close to the very young, virginal Mary and was not unfaithful to his wife in the technical sense. But he was certainly holding poor Mary when she died at a very young age. And from that day on, always wore Mary’s ring and idolised her memory.

In the 1840s another of Catherine's unmarried sisters, Georgina (1827–1917), came to live with the family. And she stayed with her brother in law, even after Catherine had been thrown out of the marital home.

You are quite right. On the death of Dickens in 1870, both his sister in law Georgina Hogarth and his mistress Ellen Ternan were at his bedside.

Re The Ship & Lobster pub in Gravesend, I really hope Dickens was a regular. He was a keen observer of real life around him and wrote beautifully about the places and people he knew.

Kristin H said...

What a wonderful blog. Makes me want to start my next Dicken's book which will be "Great Expectations". I did not know about the museum and fun to see the "Bleak House"

Hels said...


thank you :) it is not a coincidence that the first Dickens book students were given here, in English Literature clases, was usually Great Expectations. Enjoy enjoy!

Intelliblog said...

Yes... I always enjoy visiting the places where authors, musicians, artists lived and worked. It does so help one to develop and understanding their creative process.
Dickens had a social conscience and many of his novels highlight the horrors of the "glorious" Victorian times. Seems though, that at home he was guilty of some not so exemplary behaviour.

Hels said...


I often teach a subject called the Life and Times of British Artists and Writers. And you are quite right - it really does pay to visit important writers' homes.

Every person, object or event appears in the writer's novels, at some stage or another. With Dickens, you can even tell who his fictional characters were based on.

Jenny Woolf said...

A fascinating man. I imagine he spent a lot of time roaming around Broadstairs, as he used to think out his ideas during long walks. He had the most extraordinary amount of energy that he seemed to want to use up. I haven't managed to be in Broadstairs during the Dickens Festival.

Hels said...


I think you have hit the nail on the head. There is no better way to understand a writer (or artist etc) than to walk in his or her shoes. Imagine roaming around Broadstairs, even today, thinking out Dicken's ideas with him. Or drinking in his pubs, meeting the locals.

Of course that won't help us understand Dicken's hideous boyhood experiences: father imprisoned in the Southwark debtor's prison and Charles working very long days days at a blacking warehouse.

People say the Dickens Festival is great fun. I love the Kent coast, but my visits to the UK have always been in July.

Hels said...

In his will, Charles Dickens left a heft chunk of his estate to his mistress Ellen Ternan. Did wife Catherine know about the mistress, even before the will was read?

Well yes. Dickens had bought expensive, gorgeous jewellery for Ellen at Asprey's which the jewellery shop accidently delived to Catherine!!

Hels said...

I have added a link to The Victorianist blog regarding an excellent post on Charles Dicken's early life.

It doesn't discuss the Broadstairs years at all, but it shows how the Dickens’ were a perfectly ordinary middle class family in a financially comfortable position. The humiliation and disruptive life that followed his father's bankruptcy go some way to explain Dicken's later behaviour.

Hels said...

The blog Exploring London has written about the very welcome re-opening of Charles Dicken's London house museum. And a link to 10 London sites to celebrate Charles Dickens.


Anonymous said...

Hi there,

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Hopscotch eOne

Discover Britain Magazine said...

It is surprising that Dickens managed to write as many books as he did, so partial was he to what he referred to as his oysters, fog and grog. He was a regular customer of The Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden, working in Catherine Street nearby. He was a visitor to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Steet, which he refers to in a Tale of Two Cities. Dickens was a habitual visitor of The George Inn in Southwark and refers to the pub in Little Dorrit.

Alexander Laman
Drinking With Dickens
Discover Britain Magazine Dec 2015-Jan 2016

Hels said...

Thank you Alexander

Those are lovely old pubs that have been kept in very good condition and not destroyed for something modern, ahistorical and ugly. Clearly Bleak House, Tale of Two Cities and Little Dorrit were not damaged in the writing... by Dickens' booze. I have enjoyed a drink or two myself at The George Inn over the years, but only for historical research of course :)

Train Man said...

Last time visiting Broadstairs, we stayed in Broadstairs B&B near the beach. The Charles Dickens room and the Copperfield suite were luxurious.

Hels said...

Train Man

Although we mortals can never afford to stay in The Charles Dickens room, most people would be delighted to see Charles Dickens study.