In the spring of 1838 Charles Dickens was a young man on a roll. His first novel, “The Pickwick Papers”, published two years earlier in serial form, was a smash hit. When he introduced the astute and witty cockney servant Sam Weller in Chapter 10 sales were boosted from 500 to 40,000 a month. It was, as one commentator noted, “a publishing phenomenon.”
I put in a book once, by hook or by crook The whole race, (as I thought) or a 'feller'. Who happily please'd the town's taste (much diseas'd) And the name of this person was Weller.
Now Charles was fourteen months into the publication of his second serialisation, “Oliver Twist”. All that was left to do was to tie up a few loose ends and find a satisfactory ending to the story. With that out of the way he could get on with his third serialised novel “Nicholas Nickleby” that was nearing publication.
With summer approaching and publication deadlines pressing Dickens and his wife Kate decided to leave their house in Doughty Street in Bloomsbury for a month or two in the country. In May 1838 Charles wrote to his friend John Forster…
“Kate is going in a fly to Twickenham to look at the cottage and we are to join her there.”
In June 1838, Mr and Mrs Dickens and their two young children, Charley and Mary, moved into 4 Ailsa Park Villas close to where St Margarets Station now stands. (The house still stands but is now renumbered as 2 Ailsa Park Villas.) With so much to do the cottage was not the peaceful summer retreat that Dickens had imagined. It wasn’t just Kate and the children that accompanied him on his riverside walks.
“Though it was a holiday Charles was putting in a good deal of work. He had Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby on his hands and the stories obsessed him equally. Nicholas and Smike, Fagin, the Artful Dodger and Bill Sikes occupied his mind and were his daily companions. The stories developed more easily on that account, but were no less exhausting.
“I worked pretty well last night,” he wrote to Forster, “very well indeed but although I did eleven slips before half past twelve, I have four to write to close the chapter, and as I foolishly left them till this morning, I have the steam to get up afresh.” And later, “I got to the sixteenth slip last night and shall try hard to get to the thirtieth before I go to bed.” Another letter showed how Oliver was drawing to a close. “Hard at work still. Nancy is no more. I showed what I had done to Kate who was in an unspeakable state from which I augur well! When I have sent Sikes to the devil, I must have your opinion.”
The Story of Charles Dickens – Eleanor Graham
As Dickens was soon to discover one of the problems of publishing his work in serial form was his readers formed strong opinions about his characters and their possible fate before he had the chance to fix them in his own mind – and they weren’t afraid to tell him!
“Eminent public men wrote begging him to deal kindly with Fagin’s boys, or with Smike; later to “spare” little Nell or Paul Dombey. Sergeant Talfourd, one evening in Forster’s rooms, pleaded for Charley Bates and the Artful Dodger as eloquently as ever counsel for the defense pleaded at the bar for a client’s life.
Now, when Charles was ready to set down on paper the end of Oliver Twist, he sent round to ask Forster to come and sit with him, to have a chop and to “read, work or do something” but to be at hand with his sympathetic presence.
“How well I remember that evening,” Forster wrote in his Life of Dickens, “and our talk of what should be the fate of Charley Bates!”
The Story of Charles Dickens – Eleanor Graham
As well as being a good friend of Dickens and later his biographer John Forster also found himself saddled with another duty during the two months that the family stayed in St Margarets. Without proper process or election he found himself installed as "President of the Gammon Aeronautical Association for the encouragement of Science and the Consumption of Spirits (of Wine)…
“We had at Twickenham a balloon club for the children, of which I appear to have been elected president on condition of supplying the balloons, a condition so insufficiently complied with as to have led to the subjoined resolution. The Snodgering Blee and Popem Jee were the little brother and sister, for whom, as for their successors, he was always inventing these surprising descriptive epithets.”
(“The Snodgering Blee” and “Popem Jee” were nicknames that Dickens had given to his children Charles and Mary. As Forster suggests most of the 8 other Dickens children acquired strange nicknames as well, “Chickenstalker”," Ocean Spectre" and “Skittles” being examples.)
John Forster clearly failed on the balloon supply side because on June 23rd 1838 he received a letter from the ‘secretary’ of the Gammon Aeronautical Association etc, etc…
“I am requested to inform you that at a numerous meeting of the Gammon Aeronautical Association for the encouragement of Science and the Consumption of Spirits (of Wine) — Thomas Beard, Esquire, Mrs. Charles Dickens, Charles Dickens, Esquire, the Snodgering Blee, Popem Jee, and other distinguished characters being present and assenting, the vote of censure of which I enclose a copy, was unanimously passed upon you for gross negligence in the discharge of your duty, and most unjustifiable disregard of the best interests of the Society.
I am, Sir, your most obedient Servant,
Charles Dickens, Honorary Secretary. To John Forster, Esquire.’
In August, Charles, Kate, the Snodgering Blee and Popem Jee all returned home to Doughty Street where Dickens finally finished off “Oliver Twist”. It may have been the end of the book but it certainly wasn’t the end of Dickens’s affection for Twickenham. Many of his later novels included scenes set in the area and Charles and Kate came back every year to celebrate their wedding anniversary at the Star and Garter Hotel on Richmond Hill…
…and on Tuesday 30th April 1839, a year after renting in St Margarets, Dickens wrote in his diary – “Took possession of Elm Cottage, Petersham (in the Petersham Road) for 4 months – Rent for term: £100.” The writer was returning.
— from Martyn Day
Credits: The 1837 drawing of Charles Dickens is by Samuel Lawrence. The drawing of Sam Weller is by ‘Kyd’ (Joseph Clayton Clarke). The photograph of Ailsa Park Villas is from the Borough of Richmond upon Thames Local Studies Collection