Charles Dickens at Bonchurch
On July 16 1849 Charles Dickens wrote to his wife Kate from a Shanklin lodging house, “I have but a moment. Post going out. I have taken a most delightful and beautiful house… cool, airy, private bathing, everything delicious. I think it is the prettiest place I ever saw in my life, at home or abroad”. Over the next three months the Dickens family stayed at Bonchurch where he wrote Chapters 12 to 18 of his favourite novel David Copperfield. The bicentenary of Dickens’ birth is an opportunity to look back to that long lost summer.
Dickens’ early life
Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812. At the age of five his family moved to Chatham and then in1822 to Camden in London. Aged 12 he was working in a rat infested warehouse in a dead end job but persuaded his family to continue his schooling. His mastery of shorthand provided employment from the age of 17. His first literary work was published in 1833 when he was 21. His first major works were published from 1836. In April 1836 his new-found security allowed him to marry Catherine Hogarth. In September 1838 Dickens made his first known trip to the Isle of Wight. He stayed at Groves Hotel at Alum Bay. Regular steamer services had started to Yarmouth from 1830. Then there was an uncomfortable trip by horse drawn coach to Freshwater Bay and along the old Alum Bay Road. Groves Hotel was set back about a mile from the crumbling coast. “The stroll down to the beach is a very delightful one across swelling turf alive with hundreds of rabbits” the Reverend Venables recalled, “A little rugged green chine leads down to the beach to the head of which there is a track across the turf practicable for carriages.” On May 1 1849 the first of the nineteen monthly 32 page instalments of the novel David Copperfield was published. The fourth was completed by mid July. The new novel drew heavily on Dickens’ own childhood. “Of all his novels… he put more of himself into it than into any other, and it cost him more in personal courage to write.” He needed mental space to continue writing the monthly instalments. In July 1849 he agreed to the repeated invitations of his friend James White to stay with him at Bonchurch.
The long isolated community of Bonchurch nestled in the Undercliff between Blackgang to Shanklin. St Boniface Down rises 221m, the highest point on the Island, just 1km from Monks Bay where the tidally clawed sea bed continues to fall away to 44m below sea level 1km from the shore. The village closely hugs the lower steps of this post-glacial landslide, nestling in a spectacular contorted landscape of fractured sedimentary rock overgrown with lush sub-tropical vegetation. The roads wind around hair-pin bends and footpaths descend by stone stairs. In 1811 Rosa Hill succeeded her father as Lady of the Manor and in 1826 married the Reverend James White. He wished to develop holiday and residential villas but was restricted by an anti-development clause in his father-in-law’s will. This was over-ruled by an Act of Parliament in 1836. White set about the redevelopment of Macketts and Marepool farms. Bonchurch Farm had already been transformed into “East Dene” around 1826 and “Uppermount” (Now the Peacock Vane Hotel) built about 1836. In 1839 White retired from his church living in Warwickshire. In the period 1840-43 he oversaw the building of 30 new villa residences. The population of Bonchurch boomed from 302 in 1841 to 523 in 1851. By 1849 “Handsome new villas had arisen everywhere… among the pretty but exceedingly unhealthy cottages of the neighbourhood, which were tenanted by poor fishermen and farm labourers, were ageing spinsters, authoresses and clergymen, all bent on doing good works… and most active and prominent of all was the restless, rotund little figure of the Rev. James White.” James White was also a prolific writer, publishing histories, tragedies and 143 articles between 1828 to 1861. This and his sociable personality brought him into a wide circle of literary friends in London who he invited to visit him and Rosa. In 1848 the current church at Bonchurch was consecrated. The Norman church just 12 feet wide by 48 feet long, capable of sitting about 100 parishioners was no longer adequate. The new church had space for 500. The foundation stone was laid in 1847 by the Reverend William Adams, then the renowned author of “The Sacred Allegories” who from 1843 lived in a converted barn on Macketts Farm owned by White. Adams died in 1848 aged 33 and was interred in the old churchyard. White improved William Adams’ home into a property called “Winterbourne”. It stood about 150 feet above the sea with lawns running to the edge of a sandstone cliff down which a waterfall tumbled down to the private beach at Monks Bay. It was this idyllic property neighbouring the old church that seduced Dickens.
The Dickens family were noted arriving at Ryde by their friend William Thackeray, “abominably coarse, vulgar and happy”. Before them lay the gruelling 12 miles coach ride along the unpaved trackways to Bonchurch where the Whites welcomed them with a gin punch. The Dickens family stayed at Winterbourne from mid July to early October 1849. Charles Dickens was enthusiastic in his praise. “The waterfall… acts wonderfully and the sea bathing is delicious”. He enjoyed walking up the steep paths 800 feet to the summit of St Boniface Down on a daily basis, “It makes a great difference in the climate to get a blow there and come down again.” The Whites made good hosts, James with his “quaint sly humour, love of jest and merriment, capital knowledge of books and sagacious quips at men.” Of Rosa Dickens noted “He is excellent but she is better”. The visit was remembered by Ventnor antiquarian William Mew Judd “…Dickens entertained many authors and literary men, including Thackeray, Justice Talfourd, a brilliant writer and contributor to some of the most important magazines of that period, also Carlyle, Tennyson (then not resident on the Island), Douglas Jerrold and Mark Lemon were among his guests. Once I saw many of those mentioned playing at rounders on the shore at low water, just under the cliff at Bonchurch. I think the Dickens party must have had a gay time of it during the early part of his residence here. Picnics, garden parties and theatricals followed in quick succession.” On the very first day that he visited Dickens arranged for the construction of a shower-house at the bottom of the waterfall. He employed Daniel and Jonathan Day who were responsible for the rebuilding work in the village including the new church, their “pride and joy”. Dickens struck up a warm friendship with these two stonemasons, “very often they joined the novelists circle of friends at Winterbourne, where they sampled the punch and smoked ‘churchwardens’.” This adaptable duo improvised stage props as well as taking small parts for a theatrical performance. This parodied the other residents of the village, who were invited to watch. “The Revd. Canon E. Venables [quoted earlier] however, took particular exception to the characterisation of himself, and volubly expressed his indignation… But otherwise the performance was a great success.” The leading role was taken by Dicken’s friend John Leech, a cartoonist for the satirical Punch magazine who was staying with his wife at Hill Cottage. In late July Dickens gave prizes at the new school “contrived out of Admiral Swinburne’s coach-house.” They were entertained to tea at East Dene by Lady Jane Swinburne. Dickens noted a “golden haired lad” who played with his boys. This young Dickens-fan was the future poet Algernon Swinburne. Dickens struggled to maintain his strict routine of writing from nine in the morning until the early afternoon. On July 31 he wrote a note to Leech “I feel incapable this morning, and if you are for a walk to Blackgang before dinner, will be ready at 12. What do you say?” “It is believed that Dickens did most of his work at Winterbourne in the first floor room facing south over the Channel.” In David Copperfield he writes “The room was as a pleasant one, at the top of the house, overlooking the sea, on which the moon was shining brilliantly… I remember I thought of all the solitary places under the sky where I had slept, and how I prayed that I never be houseless any more, and never might forget the houseless”. As usual Dickens lost himself in his work, “during his walks and while he was actually writing, Dickens… lived utterly in the world of the imagination, where every scene in every detail was vividly presented to him.” He sometimes acted out the scenes in front of a mirror, “his characters were absolutely alive to him, and he bore the weight of all their emotions. He chuckled, he laughed aloud, he grew indignant or grieved, he sorrowed or wept with the creatures of his fancy”. This was a difficult personal journey. Dickens, aged 37, was looking back on the hard years of his youth. In August Dickens experienced the downside of his hyper-active creative genius. He felt depressed, “disposed to tears at all times, and when he walked tended to stagger from one side of the road to the other like a drunken man.” Physically sick and weak he suffered sleepless nights, “his arms quiver when he wants to take hold of any object.” Meanwhile he struggled on against the latest deadlines. The fifth “number” was completed on August 22nd and the sixth on September 20th.
In late September Dickens returned to the Bonchurch high life. “Yes,” he wrote on the 23rd September “we have been sufficiently rollicking since I have finished the number; and have had great games at rounders every afternoon, with all Bonchurch looking on…” At a party “he contrived with the assistance of Mr Leech, Mr White, and one or two others, to convert a succession of ordinary quadrilles into a very animated and amusing performance… [Dickens’] house is full of brothers and brother’s family at present. Mrs White says it is never empty, for they have so many family connections and so many intimate friends, and keep up such constant warm intercourse with them, that they are never without someone.” Dickens also planned a magic performance starring as “The Unparalleled Necromancer”. Then disaster… Taking his daily bathe in the sea John Leech was struck by a wave and his head was smashed on a rock. Dickens was often at his bedside as medical practice prevailed; ice packs, a mustard foot bath and mustard poultices, bleeding by 20 leeches at his temples, and being bled at the arm. Leech continued to deteriorate, “…it was impossible to get him to maintain anyone position for five minutes.” Dickens lamented, “He was like a ship in distress in a sea of bedclothes.” In a final gamble Dickens hypnotised his friend who fell into a deep sleep after 4am on the 25th and recovered thereafter. In early October the Dickens family returned to the Mainland. David Copperfield was completed in October 1850. There is evidence that Dickens visited the Whites again in late November-early December 1860 while writing Great Expectations. Dickens died in June 1870 aged 58 and was interred in Westminster Abbey. Dickens’ visits have a strong legacy. The Old Alum Bay Hotel and Winterbourne still stand both now as private residencies. Old Bonchurch remains delightfully much as it was. His friend Alfred Tennyson was made Poet Laureate in 1850. He moved to Freshwater in 1853 and took like his friend to daily walks up to the Island’s second highest point, now named after him. For this story I am indebted to the re-publication of Dickens on an Island by Richard J. Hutchings, originally published in 1970. (Hunnyhill Publications. Elizabeth Hutchings. Tel. 01983 759090.)