Charles Dickens in Portsmouth

Of all great Victorian writers, it is Charles Dickens who captured the mood of the time s so eloquently that his stories probably paint the most vivid picture for us all of life in early Victorian England.

Charles was born at number 13 Mile End Terrace, now 393 Old Commercial Road Portsmouth.

The Dicken’s family were not a Portsmouth family, they moved to the city from London. So what brought them to live in the new suburb of Landport, with its neat terraced housing and pocket sized gardens?

The heart of the story and its connection with Portsmouth, lies not with Charles Dickens but with his father John.

John Dickens. Father of Charles Dickens

John Dickens is a bit of an enigmatic figure, born to a servant girl and possibly an elderly butler, his life seemed to be packed with possibilities and opportunities that might suggest his parentage lay elsewhere.

His mother, Elizabeth Ball married William Dickens, butler to John Crewe, a large landowner. In the year that John was born his ‘father’ died but he and his mother stayed on in the Crewe household.

John set himself up as a man with taste and a cultured air. He lived in a household alive with books and witty and clever conversation and he very much aligned himself with that set.

He was undoubtedly helped into his forst position in the Navy Pay Office in London, where he used an excellent annual salary. He had a great collection of books unusual for someone in those times from his background.He enjoyed spending money and spoke in the manner of a man born to a much grander society.

John Dickens had access to many influential people of the time, including George Cannings, Liberal Tory, Treasurer of the Navy, someone who would have been in a position to help John to a better job.

John was transferred to Portsmouth, having married Elizabeth Barrow in London, another family with connections with the Navy Pay Office. Significantly, it was Elizabeth’s family that showed artistic flair, her brothers wrote and showed journalistic tendencies, as well as being interested in art and music.

So John Dickens found himself working in the Portsmouth Dockyard and was kept very busy, the Navy was operating at full tilt throughout the Napoleonic War and so John had plenty of work to do.

The family fortunes fluctuated as John Dickens enjoyed spending the money he earned. They moved from Mile End to a rather less salubrious house and then to 39 Wish Street.

Then in the Winter of 1814, John Dickens was summoned to Somerset House to work and the family left Portsmouth for London, where their circumstances took a turn for the worse.