Charles John Huffam Dickens is well recognised for writing about the ills and societal issues of London during Victorian times, but what is less well known about him is that he had a great love for Liverpool and visited the town many times. In fact, there was nowhere in England, apart from London that he visited so often, and he once said of the place:
“Liverpool lies in my heart second only to London.” Dickens first came to Liverpool in 1838 and stayed at The Adelphi on Lime Street, the hotel that would become his domicile of choice whilst here. In fact, one evening, after a reading in Manchester, he chose to take the train to Liverpool to stay in his favourite hotel rather than spend the night in ‘the gloomy atmosphere of Manchester.’
During his visits to Liverpool, Charles Dickens gave many readings at various venues around the town, the Mechanics Institute on Mount Street (now the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts) and Philharmonic Hall on Hope Street were a couple of the places where he spoke but his favourite place to speak in Liverpool was St George’s Hall.
He performed in the Concert Room of the hall several times and once described the space as ‘the most perfect room in the world’. During one of his penny readings in the Concert Room, so many people turned up to see him speak, that it was said that ‘Those that had tickets couldn’t get in and those without couldn’t get out!’. After the reading, whilst trying to get to Lime Street station to catch a train, Dickens was mobbed by members of the lower classes who wanted to shake his hand to thank him for his stories.
Even though most of Dickens’ famous novels are based in and around London, a lot of his research in regard to the darker side of Victorian Society was done in Liverpool and this has led to a myth that is often repeated. The myth states that on visiting St James Cemetery Dickens saw a young orphan boy’s name on a gravestone with the relatively unusual surname of ‘Twist’.
Combined with the fact that Liverpool Workhouse was situated on Brownlow Hill, he came up with the idea for the story of Oliver Twist and his kindly grandfather, Mr Brownlow. But, John Twist, the boy named on the gravestone died in 1861 at the age of 12. This shows us that the ‘fact’ that he inspired Dickens to write one of his most famous novels cannot be true as the first instalment of Oliver Twist was published in 1839, ten years before John Twist was even born.
During one of his visits to Liverpool Dickens researched information for one of the short stories in his ‘Uncommercial Traveller’ collection. The essay, ‘Poor Mercantile Jack’, describes the experiences and some of the characters that the protagonist of the story comes across whilst accompanying a policeman on patrol around the byways and alleys that surrounded the docks of Liverpool. To help with his research, Dickens was sworn in as a Special Constable so that he could accompany the police around the docks on a real night patrol. We are not 100% certain which station he was posted at, but it seems most likely that it was at Campbell Square Bridewell as that is the bridewell that is closest to where he would have been on patrol.
The old Campbell Square Bridewell is now somewhat more hospitable than it would have been in 1860, when Dickens visited. It was, until a couple of weeks ago, Furnival’s Well (named after Furnival’s Inn. A place in London were Dickens rented rooms in the mid-1830s) and was a rather nice upmarket bar. You could even sit in one of the converted cells whilst you enjoyed one of their excellent cocktails. Sadly they have now closed but the building will see a new lease of life as new owners take over.
You can read ‘Poor Mercantile Jack’ here: http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/uncommercial-traveller/5/
In the ‘Uncommercial Traveller’ collection of short stories, there is another essay regarding Liverpool, ‘The Great Tasmania’s Cargo’ that describes the disturbing sights that the protagonist encounters whilst visiting dying soldiers who have returned from India who are being cared for in the Liverpool Workhouse.
You can read ‘The Great Tasmania’s Cargo’ here: http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/uncommercial-traveller/8/
BONUS HISTORICAL FACT:
If you approach Furnival’s Well from Liverpool ONE, you may notice a rather decorative wall surrounding what is now an electricity substation. In 1882, there was a coal driven generator based here that was run by the Lancashire Maxim-Weston Electric Company. The Chief Electrician on this site was a gentleman by the name of Frederick Henry Royce. Mr Royce would eventually meet a chap named Charles Rolls and on the 15th of March 1906, they went on to form a partnership to manufacture cars and the rest, as they say, is history!