What the Dickens?

Today marks 200 years since the birth of writer Charles Dickens.  Growing up in Hamilton in the 1970s and 80s my limited diet of Dickens consisted of a production of “Oliver” circa 1978 by the local theatre group and repeats of an old version of “A Christmas Carol” on one of the two TV channels. Oh, and there was a street in Hamilton called Dickens Street, presumably named after Charles himself.    As there is a Burns, Tennyson, Shakespeare, Byron and Chaucer Street in Hamilton, it made sense to think Dickens Street was part of the theme the early town leaders had  happening.  Or did it?  Those other guys are poets anyway.

Having missed a copy of the first edition of a book by Hamilton researcher John McKay in 2007,  The Streets of Hamilton , Western Victoria,  Australia: A History of the People behind the Names, which had a limited print run, I was lucky enough to have Dad snare a copy of the revised 2nd edition in 2009.  It is a terrific book, and as I am familiar with all the street names, it was interesting to read who the streets were named after, with some surprises.

The biggest of those was that Dickens Street, Hamilton was not named after Charles Dickens, rather his son Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens.  Why?  Because he lived in Hamilton? What?  The son of one of the world’s most famous novelists could not have lived in Hamilton, my hometown Hamilton, a million miles from the world of Charles Dickens.

Unbelievable but true.  In fact, I find it a little mind-boggling that Alfred Dickens walked the streets of Hamilton 100 years before I did.

Alfred came to be in Australia as his father has sent him off to make his fortune, just as he did with his youngest son Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens (aka “Plorn”), who lived in New South Wales.

UNLUCKY PLORN DICKENS. (1939, November 4). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 13. Retrieved February 6, 2012, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-

Alfred’s travels led him to Hamilton where he set up an auctioneering business with Robert Stapylton Bree known as Bree, Dickens and Co.  They were in partnership from 1875-1882.

John McKay mentions a property at 32 Collins Street, Hamilton  which Alfred rented before building his own home next door.  The house is very familiar to me and I have been along the street  many times, so to think that the son of Dickens lived there is almost unbelievable.

It was an accident which claimed the life of his wife, Jessie Devlin, that saw Alfred Dickens leave Hamilton.

(1878, December 23). The South Australian Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1858 – 1889), p. 5. Retrieved February 6, 2012, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page2115990

GRAVE OF JESSIE DICKENS

Alfred packed up his two daughters and went to Melbourne.  He was known for his elocution skills and he began giving lectures on his father’s works.  It was on a trip to New York as  part of a speaking tour to England and the U.S. that Alfred died.

MR. ALFRED T. DICKENS. (1912, January 4). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1956), p. 7. Retrieved February 6, 2012, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article11643665

First Issue, August 20, 1842. (1912, January 5). Portland Guardian (Vic. : 1876 – 1953), p. 2 Edition: EVENING. Retrieved February 6, 2012, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article63999947

I feel a bit ripped off that it took so long to find out about Hamilton’s brush with Charles Dickens.  But I feel I am not alone.  There would not be many people who either live or have lived in Hamilton that  would know the story of Alfred, except for local historians and those who have read John McKay’s book, of course.  Maybe we would know more of him if he had lived out his years in Hamilton, which it appeared he was preparing to do when Jessie met her death.  So on this day, the birthday of Charles Dickens, let us also remember Alfred and his time in the Western District.

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2 responses to “What the Dickens?

  • Susie White

    Hi Merron
    Your article was sent to me following our book group last night where we discussed Dickens book ‘Great Expectations’ and many aspects of Dickens’ life.

    I, too, come from Hamilton and some of my family is still there. I was a Brown and wonder if the D.Brown mentioned in the article may have been one of those long gone ancestors. It is fascinating to hear of some of these histories.

    I did not know of the book re street names etc., but will try to locate a copy.

    Thank you.

    Susie

    • Merron Riddiford

      Hi Susie
      Thanks for your comment. It’s good to hear from another person from Hamilton.

      Mr D. Brown was brave stopping the horses, but all too late for poor Jessie. The stories from the papers are great and it’s good when you know the places in the stories. In this case, I can envisage the tragic ride as the horses turned right from Gray Street into Kennedy Street and then downhill to Portland Road.

      The Streets of Hamilton (2nd Ed) is available from the Hamilton History Centre http://home.vicnet.net.au/~hamhist/details.htm#pubs4sale They do mail order.

      Regards

      Merron

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