Charles Dickens was, and still remains, one of the UK’s most prolific writers, penning a total of fifteen novels, five novellas and hundreds of short stories. His works include some of the world’s most beloved fictional characters, including Oliver Twist, Miss Havisham and Ebenezer Scrooge, and he is widely regarded as one of the best writers of his generation.
Today is the 203rd anniversary of Dickens’ birth, and to celebrate, we’re taking a look at some of the places that were the inspiration behind some of English literature’s most important settings.
St James’ Church, Cooling, Kent
Located amid the bleak heathlands of Kent’s Hoo Peninsula, the village of Cooling was subject to the Dickens’ treatment in the 1850s when its church, St James’, became the setting for the opening character of Dickens’ 13th novel, Great Expectations. St James’ is the backdrop of Pip’s meeting with the convict, and is described as a desolate, sinister and bleak place. Far from being forsaken, the 13th church is a fascinating historic site with many original features, and is open daily to visitors.
Bowes Academy, Barnard Castle, County Durham
Anyone who’s read Nicholas Nickleby will recognise the infamous Dotheboy’s Hall – the imposing boarding school governed by devilish disciplinarian, Wackford Squeers – but have you heard of Bowes Academy? This was an actual Victorian boarding school located in the town of Barnard Castle, which Dickens visited on a tour of northern England. Recently, Bowes Academy was converted into apartments and renamed Dotheboys Hall as homage to Dickens novel. It’s thought Dickens based the brutal Wackford Squeers on the then headmaster of the school, William Shaw, a fact which has caused controversy since the book’s publication.
Restoration House, Rochester, Kent
Beyond the historic city walls of Rochester lies one of England’s most undervalued medieval houses: Restoration House. Dickens chose the palatial manor house as the setting for his revered character, Miss Haversham, one of the primary antagonists of Great Expectations. Looking at Restoration’s imposing exterior and dark furnished chambers, it’s easy to see why the novelist would choose this to be Haversham’s home. Today, Restoration House serves as a fascinating example of a Tudor manor house, and its house and grounds are open to the public on selected dates.
Bonchurch, Isle of Wight
In the Victorian-era, the Isle of Wight was very much the in vogue destination for the filthy rich London elite. Queen Victoria had a holiday home here; Charles Darwin began his Origin of Species on the island; and Lewis Carroll spent many long holidays lounging on the Isle of Wight’s beaches. Dickens too, was a frequent visitor, and was particularly fond of the St Boniface Down. In 1845, the writer rented Winterbourne County House for the entire summer, and it’s thought much of his beloved novel, David Copperfield, was written during his visit.