Charles Dickens and Captain Goldsmith at Gad’s Hill 1857

“Wild legends are in circulation among the servants how that Captain Goldsmith on the knoll above–the skipper in that crow’s-nest of a house–has millions of gallons of water always flowing for him. Can he have damaged my well? Can we imitate him, and have our millions of gallons? Goldsmith or I must fall, so I conceive.”

Charles Dickens, Letter to Henry Austin, from Gad’s Hill, June 6th 1857

Auction Catalogue for Gads’ Hill Place 1870

Captain Goldsmith Heads Home to Higham
Hobart nurseryman and Alderman Frederick Lipscombe proved to be Captain Goldsmith’s nemesis by 1855. Deep-seated resentments dividing locally-born colonists and their wealthy British overlords – those “Heads of Establishment” who had amassed personal fortunes on the back of convict transportation – lie at the heart of the row Lipscombe instigated over a trivial matter, the arrival on Captain Goldsmith’s barque the Rattler of mouldy Mammoth strawberry plants in 1849. This was the excuse for Lipscombe’s misrepresentation in the press in 1853 of Goldsmith as a Committee member and supporter of the Demonstration by The Anti-Transportation League proposed during the Jubilee, an affiliation which Goldsmith firmly denied all knowledge of in reply, stating he only ever agreed to sit on the Gardeners and Amateurs’ Committee. The final straw came when Lipscombe proposed to Council that a slaughterhouse be constructed next to Captain Goldsmith’s shipyard on the Domain, reported in the Mercury, 27 July 1855:

The Government proposes to give land for the erection of a slaughter house,at Cornelian Bay; being near the river, most cattle vessels would be able to land their cargoes there. The matter has been discussed in the Municipal Council. Alderman Lipscombe objects to the site, and proposes another near-Captain Goldsmith’s ship-building yard. The whole matter is to be submitted to the Legislative Council. The municipality spends at present about £16,000 per annum for salaries and labours, and it proposes to ask the Government for endowments of land and grants from the sale of land; the latter they are not likely to obtain at present, because the Government wants money for general purposes….

The patent slip and shipyard at the Queen’s Domain in Hobart was established by Captain Edward Goldsmith in 1854 from machinery he brought out from London on the Rattler. He obtained a long lease on the foreshore of the Domain from Sir William Denison to lay the slip on the condition that the terms of the lease were fulfilled. He withdrew from the lease in 1855 for several reasons: massive costs for which he was not reimbursed; Lipscombe’s proposal of a slaughterhouse in the vicinity; the sudden death from fever of his 25 yr old son Richard Sydney Goldsmith the previous year; and a desire to return to Kent in retirement. Alexander McGregor bought Captain Goldsmith’s interest in 1855, in answer to this advertisement:

Notice of Captain Goldsmith’s sale at the slip, Hobart Courier, 12th November 1855.

TRANSCRIPT

12th November 1855
TO SHIPBUILDERS, CONTRACTORS, AND OTHERS
Unreserved Clearing Sale of the well selected and thoroughly seasoned Gum, Planking, Knees, Treenails, English Pine Spars, Yards, Cut Deals, Huon Pine in Logs; also Pitch, New Ten-ton Launch, Punts, &c, &c,, at the Yard of Captain Goldsmith, Government Domain.

By 1854, master mariner Captain Edward Goldsmith had enriched the colony of Tasmania for more than twenty years through his annual voyages in command of merchant ships bringing immigrants, agricultural produce, ship and engineering equipment and fashionable merchandise from Europe and the Americas. He had benefited the colony through the export of Tasmanian horticulture and timbers, especially the blue gum which he exhibited at the Paris Expo in 1855. He constructed the first patent slip on the Domain, and he had bought land in the northern suburbs of Hobart. He was a Director of the Hobart Town and Launceston Marine Insurance Company, established in 1836, and notably for Tasmanians, the builder of the twin steam ship Kangaroo in 1854. He was a witness at the marriage in 1841 of Rachel Pocock to his brother-in-law James Day, parents of Elizabeth Rachel Nevin and Mary Sophia Axup, nee Day, at St David’s Church Hobart on January 6th. He was present too when his eldest son Richard died in Hobart in 1854, aged 25yrs.

Captain Edward Goldsmith was highly esteemed by both the Hobart City Corporation’s Mayor and aldermen and the business community. He attended the Regattas as a judge, and at his testimonial dinner in 1849 at the Hobart Town Hall, he stated that he might become a colonist and settle in Hobart, but that was not to be. He attended many social functions sponsored by the Governor and Mayor before his final departure in 1855, sometimes with his younger son Edward Goldsmith jnr, who accompanied him to the Governor’s Levee. The construction of the New Market on the Hobart Wharves, and the banquet held to celebrate its opening in January 1854, was another of his interests and an event he attended in the company of Hobart’s most illustrious officers and the colony’s most modest traders alike. His final farewell came at the Ball hosted by His Excellency and Lady Young on the eve of departure of the 99th Regiment on 20 December 1855. The previous day, he had placed a notice in The Courier of his intending departure, with a request for settlement of unpaid claims:

The Courier 19 December 1855

TRANSCRIPT

NOTICE
CAPTAIN GOLDSMITH, being about to leave the colony, particularly requests that all Claims against him be forthwith sent in for liquidation.
Broadland House, 17th Dec. 1855

Without doubt, however, the major factor in Captain Goldsmith’s decision to leave Tasmania permanently was considerable monies owing to him by the Government for the construction of the twin ferry, the Kangaroo. From late December through to February 1856, the colonial newspapers in Hobart, Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane made it known that the contractor, Captain Goldsmith, was paid in small amounts totalling less than £1000 in cash, plus £256 in timber, while his own outlay exceeded £6000 “without any charge for his own time, interest of money, use of yard etc“. The real costs to him personally, he claimed, were higher than £9400. The Colonial Secretary offered just £5000 to Captain Goldsmith and no more. The initial unrealistic estimate of £4000 by Sir William Denison, which paid a deposit on the machinery, the engineer’s dues and little else, was further compounded by inadequate supplies of timber from Port Arthur and Cascades due to scarcity of prison labor, a matter put to a Select Committee inquiry into corruption within the Convict Department. In total, the whole cost of this little ferry amounted to more than £17,629 (Sydney Morning Herald, 6 January, 1856). Captain Goldsmith left Tasmania grossly out of pocket and undoubtedly soured by memories of functionaries who had taken advantage of his generosity and good will.

Debts owing to Captain Goldsmith
Colonial Times, 21 December 1855

SS Kangaroo (n.s. n.d.University of Tasmania Special Collections)

The Famous Twins or SS Kangaroo ca. 1900, built by Captain Edward Goldsmith 1855, for the Hobart-Bellerive service
Source: Pictorial Portrayal of Tasmania’s Past, Beatties Studios, Winnings Newsagency 2011.
Photo © copyright KLW NFC Imprint 2014

At Gad’s Hill, Higham, Kent
When master mariner Captain Edward Goldsmith (1804-1869) prepared his final departure from Hobart Tasmania in December 1855 after more than two decades of commanding merchant ships back and forth from London to Australia via South America and South Africa, he said goodbye to his nieces Elizabeth Rachel Day, aged 8yrs, and her 2yr old sister Mary Sophia Day, daughters of his wife’s brother, Captain James Day. Although he would never see them again, he remembered them through generous provisions in his will, which on his death in 1869, named both nieces, as well as Elizabeth Rachel’s husband by 1871, photographer Thomas J. Nevin, as legatees, an event which led Mary Sophia Day to file a Chancery Suit in 1871 (Ref: National Archives UK C16/781 C546012) . More about this extraordinary case in a later post.

On retirement from the merchant marine trade in 1856, Captain Edward Goldsmith (1808-1869) returned to the area around Chalk in Kent where he was born, settling back at Higham with Elizabeth his wife, to oversee his extensive freehold and leasehold properties. They were resident once more at Gads Hill House by 1857 when Charles Dickens made mention of Captain Goldsmith’s abundant water supply, but by the 1861 Census, the Goldsmiths’ were resident at Higham Lodge while renovations were made to Gads Hill House. The brick wall of Higham Lodge is visible in this postcard view (1905), adjacent to the Sir John Falstaff Inn at the corner of Telegraph Hill and Gravesend Road when the inn’s wall was plastered with theatrical bills.



Postcard: Sir John Falstaff Inn, Gad’s Hill, Published by Hartmann Saxony, 1905


Postcard, Gad’s Hill, 1907. Source: CityArk, Medway, UK.

1861 UK Census:
Captain Edward Goldsmith, retired master mariner, age 56, resident of Higham Lodge, together with his wife Elizabeth, age 54, and servant Louisa Eatten, age 21.

Higham Lodge, foreground, Falstaff Inn on right in distance, the Gadshill Place school sign opposite.
Google maps 2013

Gads Hill House was listed in Captain Goldsmith’s will, 1869, as leased to Mr Andrew Chalmers Dods on a piece of land measuring 6a, 3r, 28p which was undergoing extensions and enlargement, payment for which was to be executed out of the Captain’s other estates, excluding Vicarage Row. Originally named Mount Prospect, Gads Hill House was located at the top of Telegraph Hill with commanding views of the Thames to the north and Cobham Hall to the south west, hence Charles. Dickens’ description of it as “that crow’s-nest of a house“. Outside the gates was a beacon and a ship’s bell on a metal stand at the front door. Although Captain Goldsmith was one of the first owners of the house, if not the original owner in 1825, Mr John Townsend, MP for Greenwich and a Shakespearian actor of note ca. 1842, was thought to reside there. Captain Goldsmith’s generosity in easing Townsend’s considerable debts, among other acts of kindness in the district for which the Captain was known, was mentioned by Cecil Fielding in 1882 on page 7 of his publication, A Hand-book of Higham: Or the Curiosities of a Country Parish.

Charles Dickens’ Water Supply and Letter Box



Victoria & Albert Museum
Charles Dickens,
Coloured albumen carte-de-visite, J & C Watkins,[1863]
Museum no. 1712:21-1956

Aside: This coloured cabinet portrait of Dickens taken in 1863 shows the two most common tints favoured by photographers: red and violet. Similar red and violet tinting, some inept and applied by the purchaser rather than the photographer, is evident too in Thomas Nevin’s coloured portraits of private clientele.

When Charles Dickens (1812-1870) settled finally into the house at 6 Gad’s Hill Place, Higham, Kent (UK) in 1857, his attention was drawn to Captain Goldsmith on two most urgent matters – the water supply to his house and the location of the mail box, both of which Captain Goldsmith seemed to monopolise. At first, Dickens’ excitement at buying the property knew no bounds. These extracts are from his letters. On January 17th, 1857, he wrote –

[Sidenote: M. de Cerjat.]

TAVISTOCK HOUSE, _Monday Night, Jan, 17th, 1857._

MY DEAR CERJAT,
…Down at Gad’s Hill, near Rochester, in Kent–Shakespeare’s Gad’s Hill,
where Falstaff engaged in the robbery–is a quaint little country-house
of Queen Anne’s time. I happened to be walking past, a year and a half
or so ago, with my sub-editor of “Household Words,” when I said to him:
“You see that house? It has always a curious interest for me, because
when I was a small boy down in these parts I thought it the most
beautiful house (I suppose because of its famous old cedar-trees) ever
seen. And my poor father used to bring me to look at it, and used to say
that if I ever grew up to be a clever man perhaps I might own that
house, or such another house. In remembrance of which, I have always in
passing looked to see if it was to be sold or let, and it has never been
to me like any other house, and it has never changed at all.” We came
back to town, and my friend went out to dinner. Next morning he came to
me in great excitement, and said: “It is written that you were to have
that house at Gad’s Hill. The lady I had allotted to me to take down to
dinner yesterday began to speak of that neighbourhood. ‘You know it?’ I
said; ‘I have been there to-day.’ ‘O yes,’ said she, ‘I know it very
well. I was a child there, in the house they call Gad’s Hill Place. My
father was the rector, and lived there many years. He has just died, has
left it to me, and I want to sell it.’ ‘So,’ says the sub-editor, ‘you
must buy it. Now or never!'” I did, and hope to pass next summer there,
though I may, perhaps, let it afterwards, furnished, from time to time….

But serious issues soon emerged “on the great estate” a few months later. On June 6th, he wrote –

[Sidenote: Mr. Henry Austin.]

GAD’S HILL, _Saturday, June 6th, 1857._

MY DEAR HENRY,

Here is a very serious business on the great estate respecting the water
supply. Last night, they had pumped the well dry merely in raising the
family supply for the day; and this morning (very little water having
been got into the cisterns) it is dry again! It is pretty clear to me
that we must look the thing in the face, and at once bore deeper, dig,
or do some beastly thing or other, to secure this necessary in
abundance. Meanwhile I am in a most plaintive and forlorn condition
without your presence and counsel. I raise my voice in the wilderness
and implore the same!!!

Wild legends are in circulation among the servants how that Captain
Goldsmith on the knoll above–the skipper in that crow’s-nest of a
house–has millions of gallons of water always flowing for him. Can he
have damaged my well? Can we imitate him, and have our millions of
gallons? Goldsmith or I must fall, so I conceive.

If you get this, send me a telegraph message informing me when I may
expect comfort. I am held by four of the family while I write this, in
case I should do myself a mischief–it certainly won’t be taking to
drinking water.

Ever affectionately (most despairingly).

In a letter to Henry Austin on 15 August 1857, the water supply problem had been solved with a bore. Dickens wrote –

[Sidenote: Mr. Henry Austin.]

GAD’S HILL PLACE, _Saturday, Aug. 15th, 1857._

MY DEAR HENRY,

At last, I am happy to inform you, we have got at a famous spring!! It
rushed in this morning, ten foot deep. And our friends talk of its
supplying “a ton a minute for yourself and your family, sir, for
nevermore.”

They ask leave to bore ten feet lower, to prevent the possibility of
what they call “a choking with sullage.” Likewise, they are going to
insert “a rose-headed pipe;” at the mention of which implement, I am
(secretly) well-nigh distracted, having no idea of what it means. But I
have said “Yes,” besides instantly standing a bottle of gin. Can you
come back, and can you get down on Monday morning, to advise and
endeavour to decide on the mechanical force we shall use for raising the
water? I would return with you, as I shall have to be in town until
Thursday, and then to go to Manchester until the following Tuesday.

I send this by hand to John, to bring to you.

Ever affectionately.

The second problem Dickens discovered with regard to Captain Goldsmith’s dominating presence in the village was the location of the mail box. On March 29, 1859, he wrote –

[Sidenote: Mr. Edmund Yates.]

TAVISTOCK HOUSE, TAVISTOCK SQUARE, LONDON, W.C.,
_Tuesday, March 29th, 1859._

MY DEAR EDMUND,

1. 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.

Source:  The Letters of Charles Dickens Vol. 2, 1857-1870

THE LETTERS OF CHARLES DICKENS.
EDITED BY HIS SISTER-IN-LAW AND HIS ELDEST DAUGHTER.
=In Two Volumes.=
VOL. II. 1857 TO 1870.        
London:  CHAPMAN AND HALL, 193, PICCADILLY.  1880.
CHARLES DICKENS AND EVANS, CRYSTAL PALACE PRESS.

SUMMARY
Were Charles Dickens and Captain Edward Goldsmith well-acquainted, even on close terms? Most assuredly, it can be assumed at this point, and for these reasons:

WATER SUPPLY: Dickens would have approached Captain Goldsmith as soon as he realized he had a problem supplying water to his new purchase at Gad’s Hill. Captain Goldsmith was knowledgeable about springs, bores, pipes and pumps; his own household enjoyed “millions of gallons“, as Dickens complained at the time. Only a skipper of great merchant and passenger ships at sea for months on end would understand pumps, not to mention 20 years’ experience on the driest continent on earth, the Australian colonies, where bores provided the only solution to endless drought. And as a shipyard and patent slip operator, he was handy with machinery. Dickens would have welcomed his assistance as one of his “friends” who had overcome the problem with a bore by July and promised him “a ton a minute for yourself and your family, sir, for nevermore“.

LETTER BOX: The village mail box was still located up the lane outside Captain Goldsmith’s house in 1859 until Dickens requested its placement at his wall on the Gravesend Road. In those two years or so, from 1857, Dickens would have needed to post and collect his burgeoning mail daily by visiting Captain Goldsmith’s house. And while the Captain might have put questions to Dickens about his fictional characters, Dickens in turn would have learnt a great deal from Captain Goldsmith about transported convicts’ miseries and settlers’ prosperity in the Australian colonies. During the Gad’s Hill Place years until his death, Dickens wrote these great works of fiction:

Little Dorrit (Monthly serial, December 1855 to June 1857)
A Tale of Two Cities (Weekly serial in All the Year Round, 30 April 1859, to 26 November 1859)
Great Expectations (Weekly serial in All the Year Round, 1 December 1860 to 3 August 1861)
The Uncommercial Traveller (1860–1869)
Our Mutual Friend (Monthly serial, May 1864 to November 1865)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Monthly serial, April 1870 to September 1870. Only six of twelve planned numbers completed)

There were tales too told of Sir John Franklin, Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land  who was a close friend and dinner companion of Captain Edward Goldsmith. Franklin’s disappearance in 1847 in the Canadian Arctic inspired Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens to write and perform the drama, The Frozen Deep (1856). Their performances in the play bookend the 2013 film The Invisible Woman  (dir. Ralph Fiennes).

Tom Hollander as Wilkie Collins, and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman (BBC Films)

CHALK CHURCH: Both men favoured the little Chalk Church (St Mary’s) above all others in the area. Dickens would make a greeting to the carving of a tipsy monk above the Church  porch on his walks back from Rochester. Captain Edward Goldsmith, his wife Elizabeth, and their son Edward Goldsmith jnr were all buried in the Chalk Church graveyard.

RENOVATIONS, Extensions, Leases on meadows and fields etc: These were extensive on the part of both Captain Goldsmith and Charles Dickens, intertwining their lives right up to their deaths, respectively in 1869 and 1870. In the 1881 UK Census, Edward Goldsmith jnr, aged 44 yrs,  and his wife Sarah Jane Goldsmith, aged 43yrs, born at Deptford, Kent in 1838, were resident at 13 Upper Clarence Place, Rochester, Kent, next door to the house at No. 11 Upper Clarence Place where Charles Dickens’ mistress Ellen Ternan was born (she first met Dickens in 1857). Edward’s income was “HOUSES” in 1881. He had inherited extensive leaseholds and real estate from his father Captain Edward Goldsmith, and his mother Elizabeth Goldsmith nee Day, but by 1883, Edward was dead, aged 46yrs old. He was buried with his parents at Chalk Church. .More on this phase in their lives later.

Captain Goldsmith’s Will 

Although a more detailed account will follow in future posts about this will and its stipulations concerning Captain Goldsmith’s nieces, Mary Sophia Day, her sister Elizabeth Rachel Nevin nee Day and her husband, photographer Thomas J. Nevin, this page from the will gives some idea of the extent of Captain Edward’ Goldsmith’s holdings in the area of Chalk, Higham, Gravesend, Gad’s Hill and Rochester in Kent, including his contractual arrangements on Dickens’ house at Gad’s Hill Place. Edward Goldsmith died in 1869, just one year before Charles Dickens.

Pages 1, 6.7. and 8 of Captain Edward Goldsmith’s will, 1871
(Ref: National Archives UK C16/781 C546012)

Addenda
Extracts from Dickens’ biographer and contemporary John Forster (1812-1876)
The Life of Charles Dickens (1872-1874)

BOOK EIGHTH: PUBLIC READER (1856-67)
III
GADSHILL PLACE
1856-1870

“I was better pleased with Gadshill Place last Saturday,” he wrote to me from Paris on the 13th of February 1856, “on going down there, even than I had prepared myself to be. The country, against every disadvantage of season, is beautiful; and the house is so old-fashioned, cheerful, and comfortable, that it is really pleasant to look at. The good old Rector now there, has lived in it six and twenty years, so I have not the heart to turn him out. He is to remain till Lady-Day next year, when I shall go in, please God; make my alterations; furnish the house; and keep it for myself that summer.” Returning to England through the Kentish country with Mr. Wilkie Collins in July, other advantages occurred to him. “A railroad opened from Rochester to Maidstone, which connects Gadshill at once with the whole sea coast, is certainly an addition to the place, and an enhancement of its value. Bye and bye we shall have the London, Chatham and Dover, too; and that will bring it within an hour of Canterbury and an hour and a half of Dover. I am glad to hear of your having been in the neighbourhood. There is no healthier (marshes avoided), and none in my eyes more beautiful. One of these days I shall show you some places up the Medway with which you will be charmed.”

The association with his youthful fancy that first made the place attractive to him has been told; and it was with wonder he had heard one day, from his friend and fellow worker at Household Words, Mr. W. H. Wills, that not only was the house for sale to which he had so often looked wistfully, but that the lady chiefly interested as its owner had been long known and much esteemed by himself. Such curious chances led Dickens to the saying he so frequently repeated about the smallness of the world; but the close relation often found thus existing between things and persons far apart, suggests not so much the smallness of the world as the possible importance of the least things done in it, and is better explained by the grander teaching of Carlyle, that causes and effects, connecting every man and thing with every other, extend through all space and time.

It was at the close of 1855 the negociation for its purchase began. “They wouldn’t,” he wrote (25 November), “take £1,700 for the Gadshill property, but ‘finally’ wanted £1,800. I have finally offered £1,750. It will require an expenditure of about £300 more before yielding £100 a year.” The usual discovery of course awaited him that this first estimate would have to be increased threefold. “The changes absolutely necessary” (9 February, 1856) “will take a thousand pounds; which sum I am always resolving to squeeze out of this, grind out of that, and wring out of the other; this, that, and the other generally all three declining to come up to the scratch for the purpose.” “This day,” he wrote on 14 March, “I have paid the purchase-money for Gadshill Place. After drawing the cheque (£1,790) I turned round to give it to Wills, and said, ‘Now isn’t it an extraordinary thing — look at the Day — Friday! I have been nearly drawing it half a dozen times when the lawyers have not been ready, and here it comes round upon a Friday as a matter of course.'” He had no thought at this time of reserving the place wholly for himself, or of making it his own residence except at intervals of summer. He looked upon it as an investment only. “You will hardly know Gadshill again,” he wrote in January 1858, “I am improving it so much — yet I have no interest in the place.” But continued ownership brought increased liking; he took more and more interest in his own improvements, which were just the kind of occasional occupation and resource his life most wanted in its next seven or eight years; and any farther idea of letting it he soon abandoned altogether. It only once passed out of his possession thus, for four months in 1859; in the following year, on the sale of Tavistock House, he transferred to it his books and pictures and choicer furniture; and thenceforward, varied only by houses taken from time to time for the London season, he made it his permanent family abode. Now and then, even during those years, he would talk of selling it; and on his final return from America, when he had sent the last of his sons out into the world, he really might have sold it if he could then have found a house in London suitable to him, and such as he could purchase. But in this he failed; secretly to his own satisfaction, as I believe; and thereupon, in that last autumn of his life, he projected and carried out his most costly addition to Gadshill. Already of course more money had been spent upon it than his first intention in buying it would have justified. He had so enlarged the accommodation, improved the grounds and offices, and added to the land, that, taking also into account this closing outlay, the reserved price placed upon the whole after his death more than quadrupled what he had given in 1856, for the house, shrubbery, and twenty years’ lease of a meadow field. It was then purchased, and is now inhabited, by his eldest son.

Its position has been described, and a history of Rochester published a hundred years ago quaintly mentions the principal interest of the locality. “Near the twenty-seventh stone from London is Gadshill, supposed to have been the scene of the robbery mentioned by Shakespeare in his play of Henry IV.; there being reason to think also that it was Sir John Falstaff, of truly comic memory, who under the name of Oldcastle inhabited Cooling Castle, of which the ruins are in the neighbourhood. A small distance to the left appears on an eminence the Hermitage, the seat of the late Sir Francis Head, Bart.; and close to the road, on a small ascent, is a neat building lately erected by Mr. Day. In descending Strood-hill is a fine prospect of Strood, Rochester, and Chatham, which three towns form a continued street extending above two miles in length.” It has been supposed that “the neat building lately erected by Mr. Day” was that which the great novelist made famous; but Gadshill Place had no existence until eight years after the date of the history. The good rector who so long lived in it told me, in 1859, that it had been built eighty years before by a well-known character in those parts, one Stevens, grand-father-in-law of Henslow the Cambridge professor of botany. Stevens, who could only with much difficulty manage to write his name, had begun life as ostler at an inn; had become husband to the landlord’s widow; then a brewer; and finally, as he subscribed himself on one occasion, “mare” of Rochester. Afterwards the house was inhabited by Mr. Lynn (from some of the members of whose family Dickens made his purchase); and, before the Rev. Mr. Hindle became its tenant, it was inhabited by a Macaroni parson named Townshend, whose horses the Prince Regent bought, throwing into the bargain a box of much desired cigars. Altogether the place had notable associations even apart from those which have connected it with the masterpieces of English humour. “THIS HOUSE, GADSHILL PLACE, stands on the summit of Shakespeare’s Gadshill, ever memorable for its association with Sir John Falstaff in his noble fancy. But, my lads, my lads, to-morrow morning, by four o’clock, early at Gadshill! there are pilgrims going to Canterbury with rich offerings, and traders riding to London with fat purses: I have vizards for you all; you have horses for yourselves.” Illuminated by Mr. Owen Jones, and placed in a frame on the first-floor landing, these words were the greeting of the new tenant to his visitors. It was his first act of ownership.

All his improvements, it should perhaps be remarked, were not exclusively matters of choice; and to illustrate by his letters what befell at the beginning of his changes, will show what attended them to the close. His earliest difficulty was very grave. There was only one spring of water for gentlefolk and villagers, and from some of the houses or cottages it was two miles away. “We are still” (6 July) “boring for water here, at the rate of two pounds per day for wages. The men seem to like it very much, and to be perfectly comfortable.” Another of his earliest experiences (5 September) was thus expressed: “Hop-picking is going on, and people sleep in the garden, and breathe in at the keyhole of the house door. I have been amazed, before this year, by the number of miserable lean wretches, hardly able to crawl, who go hop-picking. I find it is a superstition that the dust of the newly picked hop, falling freshly into the throat, is a cure for consumption. So the poor creatures drag themselves along the roads, and sleep under wet hedges, and get cured soon and finally.” Towards the close of the same month (24 September) he wrote: “Here are six men perpetually going up and down the well (I know that somebody will be killed), in the course of fitting a pump: which is quite a railway terminus — it is so iron and so big. The process is much more like putting Oxford-street endwise, and laying gas along it, than anything else. By the time it is finished, the cost of this water will be something absolutely frightful. But of course it proportionately increases the value of the property, and that’s my only comfort. . . . The horse has gone lame from a sprain, the big dog has run a tenpenny nail into one of his hind feet, the bolts have all flown out of the basket-carriage, and the gardener says all the fruit trees want replacing with new ones.” Another note came in three days. “I have discovered that the seven miles between Maidstone and Rochester is one of the most beautiful walks in England. Five men have been looking attentively at the pump for a week, and (I should hope) may begin to fit it in the course of October.” . . . .

With even such varying fortune he effected other changes. The exterior remained to the last much as it was when he used as a boy to see it first; a plain, old-fashioned, two-story, brick-built country house, with a bell-turret on the roof, and over the front door a quaint neat wooden porch with pillars and seats. But, among his additions and alterations, was a new drawing-room built out from the smaller existing one, both being thrown together ultimately; two good bedrooms built on a third-floor at the back; and such re-arrangement of the ground floor as, besides its handsome drawing-room, and its dining-room which he hung with pictures, transformed its bedroom into a study which he lined with books and sometimes wrote in, and changed its breakfast-parlour into a retreat fitted up for smokers into which he put a small billiard-table. These several rooms opened from a hall having in it a series of Hogarth prints, until, after the artist’s death, Stanfield’s noble scenes were placed there, when the Hogarths were moved to his bedroom; and in this hall, during his last absence in America, a parquet floor was laid down. Nor did he omit such changes as might increase the comfort of his servants. He built entirely new offices and stables, and replaced a very old coach-house by a capital servants’ hall, transforming the loft above into a commodious school-room or study for his boys. He made at the same time an excellent croquet-ground out of a waste piece of orchard.

Belonging to the house, but unfortunately placed on the other side of the high road, was a shrubbery, well wooded though in desolate condition, in which stood two magnificent cedars; and having obtained, in 1859, the consent of the local authorities for the necessary underground work, Dickens constructed a passage beneath the road from his front lawn; and in the shrubbery thus rendered accessible, and which he then laid out very prettily, he placed afterwards a Swiss chalet presented to him by Mr. Fechter, which arrived from Paris in ninety-four pieces fitting like the joints of a puzzle, but which proved to be somewhat costly in setting on its legs by means of a foundation of brickwork. “It will really be a very pretty thing,” he wrote (January 1865), “and in the summer (supposing it not to be blown away in the spring), the upper room will make a charming study. It is much higher than we supposed.” Once up, it did really become a great resource in the summer months, and much of Dickens’s work was done there. “I have put five mirrors in the chalet where I write,” 0 he told an American friend, “and they reflect and refract, in all kinds of ways, the leaves that are quivering at the windows, and the great fields of waving corn, and the sail-dotted river. My room is up among the branches of the trees; and the birds and the butterflies fly in and out, and the green branches shoot in at the open windows, and the lights and shadows of the clouds come and go with the rest of the company. The scent of the flowers, and indeed of everything that is growing for miles and miles, is most delicious.” He used to make great boast, too, not only of his crowds of singing birds all day, but of his nightingales at night.

One or two more extracts from letters having reference to these changes may show something of the interest to him with which Gadshill thus grew under his hands. A sun-dial on his back-lawn had a bit of historic interest about it. “One of the balustrades of the destroyed old Rochester Bridge,” he wrote to his daughter in June 1859, “has been (very nicely) presented to me by the contractors for the workss, and has been duly stone-masoned and set up on the lawn behind the house. I have ordered a sun-dial for the top of it, and it will be a very good object indeed.” “When you come down here next month,” he wrote to me, “we have an idea that we shall show you rather a net house. What terrific adventures have been in action; how many overladen vans were knocked up at Gravesend, and had to be dragged out of Chalk-turnpike in the dead of the night by the whole equine power of this establishment; shall be revealed at another time.” That was in the autumn of 1860, when, on the sale of his London house, its contents were transferred to his country home. “I shall have an alteration or two to show you at Gadshill that greatly improve the little property; and when I get the workmen out this time, I think I’ll leave off.” October 1861 had now come, when the new bedrooms were built; but in the same month of 1863 he announced his transformation of the old coach-house. “I shall have a small new improvement to show you at Gads, which I think you will accept as the crowning ingenuity of the inimitable.” But of course it was not over yet. “My small work and planting,” he wrote in the spring of 1866, “really, truly, and positively the last, are nearly at an end in these regions, and the result will await summer inspection.” No, nor even yet. He afterwards obtained, by exchange of some land with the trustees of Watts’s Charity, the much coveted meadow at the back of the house of which heretofore he had the lease only; and he was then able to plant a number of young limes and chesnuts and other quick-growing trees. He had already planted a row of limes in front. He had no idea, he would say, of planting only for the benefit of posterity, but would put into the ground what he might himself enjoy the sight and shade of. He put them in two or three clumps in the meadow, and in a belt all round.

Still there were “more last words,” for the limit was only to be set by his last year of life. On abandoning his notion, after the American readings, of exchanging Gadshill for London, a new staircase was put up from the hall; a parquet floor laid on the first landing; and a conservatory built, opening into both drawing-room and dining-room, “glass and iron,” as he described it, “brilliant but expensive, with foundations as of an ancient Roman work of horrible solidity.” This last addition had long been an object of desire with him; though he would hardly even now have given himself the indulgence but for the golden shower from America. He saw it first in a completed state on the Sunday before his death, when his younger daughter was on a visit to him. “Well, Katey,” he said to her, “now you see positively the last improvement at Gadshill”; and every one laughed at the joke against himself. The success of the new conservatory was unquestionable. It was the remark of all around him that he was certainly, from this last of his improvements, drawing more enjoyment than from any of its predecessors, when the scene for ever closed.

Victoria & Albert Museum
Charles Dickens House Gadshill
Date: 1850s to 1870s (photographed)
Artist/Maker: Francis Frith, born 1822 – died 1898 (maker)
Materials and Techniques: Whole-plate albumen print from wet collodion glass negative
Credit Line: Acquired from F. Frith and Company, 1954
Museum number: E.208:1513-1994

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