Charles Dickens and his letterbox

I came across this piece on the BBC this morning:

In the 19th Century, when the postal service was in its infancy, Charles Dickens lobbied for his own personal letterbox, writes Kathryn Westcott.

It’s Christmas 1869 and Charles Dickens, prolific letter writer, is hurriedly finishing off a correspondence. “The postman is waiting at the gate to tramp through the snow to Rochester and is unlawfully drinking a glass of gin while I write this,” Dickens reveals to his friend Charles Kent.

The postman was a familiar sight at Dickens’s Georgian home, Gad’s Hill Place in Higham, Kent. A postbox, installed by the postal service at the author’s request, was one of the earliest wall-boxes to be introduced in Britain, following the introduction of the pillar box across the nation by fellow writer Anthony Trollope in 1852.

Dickens had personally lobbied for that postbox in 1859. Perhaps acting on a tip-off by friend and writer Edmund Yates, who worked in the Postmaster General’s office, he replies to a correspondence from Yates stating: “I think that no one seeing the place can well doubt that my house at Gad’s Hill is the place for the letter-box. The wall is accessible by all sorts and conditions of men, on the bold high road, and the house altogether is the great landmark of the whole neighbourhood. Captain Goldsmith’s house is up a lane considerably off the high road; but he has a garden wall abutting on the road itself…”

Dickens's postbag and box

The letter was uncovered by Dickens enthusiast Jennifer Mide, a tour guide at Gad’s Hill Place. Mide came across the decommissioned box a few years ago. She, along with the Charles Dickens Centre (Gad’s Hill) Charitable Trust and the Letter Box Study Group, recently asked the Royal Mail to put it back into service. On Wednesday it is being recommissioned.

According to Mide, when Dickens moved to Gad’s Hill, the closest place to send a letter was the village of Higham just over a mile away. “It was not an easy road – the return journey would have involved a very steep hill,” says Mide. She says Dickens was often seen posting letters in Rochester, which was further away, probably because he had missed the morning Higham post. In Rochester, in 1866, the final dispatch would be 23:00, to arrive in London the next morning.

Over 14,000 letters written by Dickens are recorded in the Oxford Pilgrim Edition of his correspondence between 1820 and his death in June 1870.

“Dickens was a brilliant letter writer,” says Claire Tomalin, author and Dickens biographer. “His letters were almost like a performance. They gave a vivid sense of what he was like and what he had been up to.” But she says that in his later years, he was more circumspect about what he revealed in them – and they were generally shorter than previous letters. “There was a fear that his letters might be used to create some kind of biography,” she says.

Dickens lettersDickens’s personal postbag and box, and letters dispatched from Gad’s Hill (Images courtesy of Guildhall Museum, Rochester)

By the time he moved to Gad’s Hill, Dickens had left his wife and had embarked on a secret affair with a young actress. A letter outlining the reasons for the separation somehow found its way into the British and American newspapers.

Like many Victorians, Dickens burned letters. In 1860, he held a huge bonfire at Gad’s Hill, consigning to the flames “the accumulated letters and papers of 20 years”. According to an eyewitnesses, the author said he wanted his own letters to be treated in the same way.

Dickens died at Gad’s Hill in the evening of 9 June 1870. According to reports, he had written letters that day. Perhaps the postman waiting outside became one of the first people outside the immediate family to learn of the death of the great man of letters.

Letters quoted with permission of Mark Dickens.

Victorian Prisons part 1

The riots across the country in August have given some differing reactions by those who were involved either defending or looting as to why they happened. Currently the police are looking like they are too be blamed…do the police make you turn on, steal, loot and destroy your own communities…we make our own decision on what we do and how we behave!

Anyway the riots have highlighted the ever growing prison population in this country and the large decent law abiding percentage of people are concerned about crime just as they were in the Victorian Era.

In 1840 20,000 offences were recorded and the Victorians very much like the man in street see value in punishment if you choose to commit a crime. The prisons that existed at the time were old, badly run and generally small affairs so ut was a time to change, build more and extend old ones. It had been easy enough to be sentenced to death by hanging but this was no longer the case.

It was clear in the Victorian Era that prison should not be a nice place to be and that they should be thoroughly unpleasant, the idea was to deter people from coming back, and  when imprisoned you were supposed to spend time reflection on the poor decisions that led to your current position in life.

This was helped along by the most tediously boring work such as the treadmill, Scrooge in the ever wonderful Christmas Carol mentions it here

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “ I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

The Treadmill

The treadmill William Cubitt came into existence in 1818 and was specifically intended to break the worst of prisoners including children. It is basically like a very large hamster wheel and could contain up to 40 prisoners at it’s largest.

The idea was that the monotony would allow you consider your life, heinous crimes and that you would reform and do anything to avoid the monotony of such a device and apparently it really was rather successful.

So you could spend all day (bar a 5 minute reprieve every 15 mins), either hours in silence walking nowhere!

According to the The Times in 1827 the amount prisoners walked per day on average varied, from 6,600 feet at Lewes to 17,000 feet in ten hours during the summertime at Warwick Jail.

Prisons in London

Newgate prison
Newgate Prison existed on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey for seven hundred years the first being built by Henry II in 1188.

The prison was destroyed and re-built several times but by 1783, it was London’s main prison and where prisoners were sent to hang being that the city’s gallows had been moved from Tyburn to Newgate Street 1868.

The disgraceful sight of public executions were discontinued and held instead inside the prison but the prison met it’s fate in 1904 and was demolished.

Marshalsea Prison
Marshalsea prison was known as a debtors prison and existed in Borough High Street for over five hundred years eventually closing in 1842. Charles Dickens father ended up in The Marshalsea in 1824 owing a debt of forty pounds and of course we also find it in Dickens great Novel Little Dorritt

The prison was run privately for profit but the Marshalsea apparently looked rather like an a rather well to do college.

For prisoners who could pay and bearing in mind this was a ‘debtors’ prison there was the luxury of a bar, a shop, and a restaurant the very odd privilege of being allowed out during the day to earn some money in with which to pay off your creditors.

However if you had no work or had no one to pay off your debt chances were you’d be in the one of the nine small rooms with many others and quite possibly for the rest of your life as your (even modest) unpaid debts remained unpaid and then unpaid prison fees simply accumulated. It was a never ending circle.

It was pulled down in the 1870’s but you can still see one of its walls and two original gate arches.

Clerkenwell Prison
Clerkenwell Jail, Clerkenwell House of Detention or Middlesex House of Detention (as it was known) was a large prison situated in (not surprisingly) Clerkenwell. It was built in 1794 had the reputation for the harshness of its punishments especially enforced silences and solitary confinement. It was closed in 1877 and demolished in 1889.