Although he did write several books especially for children, Charles Dickens was so celebrated among the Victorians that children of his day also read his novels and especially his Christmas stories. His works remain immensely popular, although today young people are perhaps more likely to be familiar with their many stage and screen adaptations. In any case, Charles Dickens is regarded as one of the most significant writers in Britain’s history. He lived all over London, including Twickenham and Petersham, and many of his novels include scenes set in or around this area.
Charles Dickens in Twickenham
In the summer of 1838 he and his family rented 2 Ailsa Park Villas, Twickenham, in an area now part of Downes Close, just off St Margarets Road (opposite the present St Margarets railway station). Of the original ten villas, only one remains (the others were either demolished for the development of the railway or damaged by bombing in World War II).
Resources in Richmond’s Local Studies Collection contradict each other as to whether or not the house rented by the Dickens family survived and is the same house (now divided into flats) in St Margarets today.
This undated black-and-white photo from the collection is labelled “Dickens’ house in St Margarets”. (Coincidentally, the writer Mary Hooper, is linked to this house through marriage. Mary’s husband, Richard Tippett, grew up here in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was called Downe House. His family always understood that the house had indeed once been home to Charles Dickens, and Richard recalls that the Dickens Society visited them one summer afternoon in 1966 to see the house and to speak of the novelist’s time there.)
While living at Ailsa Park Villas, Charles wrote parts of Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. He also entertained friends frequently and formed a balloon club for his children’s amusement.
Inspired by Eel Pie Island and the Thames
Eel Pie Island, or Twickenham Ait, as it was once known, lies in the middle of the Thames, with Twickenham on the Middlesex bank to one side, and Ham on the Surrey bank to the other. In the nineteenth century, the island’s hotel was a popular resort among summertime boating parties. This print (below left) shows a view from the Surrey bank as the island would have appeared in Charles’s day, looking across to Eel Pie House (with St Mary’s Church visible to the right, on the Twickenham bank beyond).
The novelist himself dined at least once at Eel Pie House. He also included it in a scene in Nicholas Nickleby (1839):
It had come to pass, that afternoon, that Miss Morleena Kenwigs had received an invitation to repair next day, per steamer from Westminster Bridge, unto the Eel-pie Island at Twickenham: there to make merry upon a cold collation, bottled beer, shrub, and shrimps, and to dance in the open air to the music of a locomotive band …
By the 1950s and 1960s Eel Pie Island was once again a popular music venue, although the “locomotive” bands had by now been replaced by the likes of the Rolling Stones and Black Sabbath, among others. The island’s most recent hotel building was destroyed in 1971 and replaced by houses. Today, Eel Pie Island is a private residential place, with no hotel. It is connected to the Twickenham bank by a picturesque footbridge.
Parts of Little Dorrit (1857) were also inspired by Twickenham. In the novel, the Meagles live in a cottage by the river, thought to be somewhere between Richmond Bridge and Teddington Lock. “The Ferry”, an illustration by “Phiz” for the book (above right), depicts the Twickenham riverside. Today, Hammerton’s Ferry still operates between Ham House and Twickenham.
The good life in Petersham
Charles Dickens’ association with Petersham began in 1836, when he was on holiday here, probably at the Dysart Arms. In the summer of 1839 (and for the next few summers) he rented Elm Cottage in Petersham. The cottage is illustrated here in a sketch from 1903 (about 60 years after the Dickens family was in residence). Charles enjoyed hearty outdoor games in the cottage’s large garden and went swimming in the Thames. He boasted in a letter to a friend:
swimming feats from Petersham to Richmond Bridge have been achieved before breakfast, I myself have risen at 6 and plunged head foremost into the water to the astonishment and admiration of all beholders …
He was continuing to write instalments of Nicholas Nickleby at this time, including a scene where two characters visit the Hampton races (which he himself had seen in June), and then quarrel on the way home through the meadows near Ham House, agreeing to duel in a field at Petersham.
Elm Cottage was later greatly enlarged and renamed Elm Lodge. It still exists as a private residence, at 230 Petersham Road, but much of the original grounds have been redeveloped as a residential area. The former cottage is no longer visible from Sudbrook Lane, and the only testament to the novelist’s time there is the name of the new road that leads to the lodge’s entrance, Dickens Close.
Celebrating in style in Richmond
For many years, Charles Dickens was a regular guest at the historic Star & Garter Hotel on Richmond Hill, near the entrance to Richmond Park. Even when he was living locally he would occasionally stay overnight. He also liked to mark special events with friends and family there: the birth of a son, his own birthday or the completion of a new book. He and his wife spent their anniversary at the hotel every year for about twenty years (except for one year, when they were abroad).
In 1850, the writers W. M. Thackeray and Alfred Tennyson were among Charles Dickens’ guests at a party to celebrate the publication of David Copperfield. These prints show how the hotel would have appeared at that time, viewed from the main entrance near the park gates, and from Petersham Meadows.
The hotel was destroyed by fire in 1870 and then rebuilt several times. The present building, the Star and Garter Home, as viewed from Hammerton’s Ferry in the colour photo above, was built on the same site in 1924 to house disabled ex-servicemen.
The Local Studies Collection in Richmond provided much of the background information for this article, including many of the images. If you are interested in learning more, you can visit the collection in person.
- Bingham, Jane M., ed. Writers for Children: Critical Studies of Major Authors since the Seventeenth Century. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988.
- Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard. The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984. Reprinted with corrections 1985.
- “Dickens in Richmond upon Thames.” Local History Notes No. 20. Richmond: London Borough of Richmond upon Thames Local Studies Collection.
- Eagle, Dorothy, and Hilary Carnell. The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
- Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults: A Selection of Sketches from Something about the Author. 2nd ed. 8 vols. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2002.
- Watson, Victor, ed. The Cambridge Guide to Children’s Books in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- The Dickens engraving was printed on 1 October 1839, after Charles Dickens’ first summer at Elm Cottage in Petersham. It is signed “Faithfully yours/Charles Dickens” (signature not shown here). Reprinted by kind permission of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames Local Studies Collection.
- Black-and-white photo: 2 Ailsa Park Villas, Dickens’ home in St Margarets. (Date unknown.) Reprinted by kind permission of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames Local Studies Collection.
- Downes Close photo copyright © Terri McCargar.
- “Twickenham Ait” ca. 1838. Reprinted by kind permission of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames Local Studies Collection.
- “The Ferry.” Illustration by “Phiz” for Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens (1857).
- Photo of the Dysart’s sign copyright © Terri McCargar.
- Sketch of Elm Cottage from the Richmond and Twickenham Times, Dec. 19, 1903.
- Dickens Close photo copyright © Terri McCargar.
- Prints of the Star and Garter reprinted by kind permission of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames Local Studies Collection.
- Photo of the Star and Garter Home, Richmond Hill, as viewed from Hammerton’s Ferry, Twickenham, 2005. Photo copyright © Terri McCargar.