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Canterbury's literary links

A Dickensian Canterbury blog

Sam Hurn, CT Tours
Sam Hurn, CT Tours

Written by local guide Sam Hurn, CT Tours - Canterbury.

Generally considered the greatest English author of the nineteenth century, Charles John Huffam Dickens’ literary influence has translated into everyday life, most notably in the use of the word ‘Dickensian’ to describe poor social conditions akin to the Victorian era. Dickens was born in Portsmouth in 1812, but his childhood years were spent in Chatham, an area to which he often reverted in his fiction. From 1822 until 1860 he lived in London, when he moved permanently to a country house, Gad’s Hill, near Chatham. 

With knowledge of Kent and the means to travel, Dickens was a frequent visitor to Canterbury and even used the city as the backdrop for his semi-autobiographical work, David Copperfield. Serialised between 1849 and 1850, but published as a book in 1850, David Copperfield has been described as a ‘holiday’ from the larger social concerns of earlier novels such as Oliver Twist. The locations of David Copperfield inspired by Victorian Canterbury can still be seen in the city of today, though Dickens himself would find certain areas completely unrecognisable!

In the novel, David...

‘…came to Canterbury, where, as it was market-day, my aunt had a great opportunity of insinuating the grey pony among carts, baskets, vegetables, and huckster’s goods.’

Many have read this as a description of the Butter Market, wherein the late 1790s, a large oval canopy supported by 16 columns was built to house a market that had been present in this location for centuries. The canopy was demolished in 1888, 18 years after Dickens’ death, so the Butter Market would never have been seen by Dickens, as it is today, without this imposing structure.

Old Butter Market image, original 1790s butter market

Dickens was familiar with the cathedral and included it in the tour of the city he often gave visitors. In the diary of Annie Fields, the wife of Dickens' American agent, she ‘explored the city under Dickens' direction’ and attended evensong with him.  In David Copperfield, David attended services there regularly and Mr Micawber wanted his son to become a chorister.

‘It was at Canterbury where we last met. Within the shadow, I may figuratively say, of that religious edifice immortalized by Chaucer, which was anciently the resort of Pilgrims…’.

As you walk down Sun Street away from the Cathedral, you will be able to spot a plaque referencing ‘…a little inn where Mr. Micawber put up, and he occupied a little room in it…’. Built in 1480, despite the date of 1503 on the plaque, the Sun Hotel is one of many places that Dickens stayed during his visits to Canterbury. The reference to the ‘little inn’ is, therefore, most likely an amalgamation of this building and another, earlier, Sun Hotel (currently the Cathedral Gate hotel standing beside the Christ Church gate).

Cathedral Gate Hotel, Canterbury, Burgate, historic hotel, bed and breakfast

Around the corner is Guildhall Street, where following the closure of the nearby Orange Street Theatre in 1859, Canterbury’s new theatre was located. Thomas Sydney Cooper, a successful local painter, designed the new Theatre Royal which opened in 1861. Within a few months of its opening, Charles Dickens came to Canterbury to give a reading of David Copperfield. 

The theatre was next to the Philosophical and Literary Institution (which opened in 1825 and evolved into the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge located on the High Street) and both were incorporated into the Lefevre's department store opened in the 1920s. For approximately 770 years (c. 1180 – 1950) at the corner of Guildhall Street and the High Street stood the Guildhall, the centre of local government and justice. This is reflected in David Copperfield when David is asked by Traddles the barrister to go to the Guildhall during the confrontation with Uriah Heep (‘”Copperfield, will you go round to the Guildhall, and bring a couple of officers?”’). 

The Guildhall is known to have also hosted musical concerts, including one recital by the then nine-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who performed there in 1765! 

In search of Mr Wickfield’s House… 

"…a very old house bulging out over the road; a house with long low lattice-windows bulging out still farther, and beams with carved heads on the ends bulging out too, so that I fancied the whole house was leaning forward..."

This quote can be seen (in part) above the door of Canterbury’s famous ‘Crooked House’ at the end of Palace Street.

The home of Mr Wickfield, the solicitor and father of Agnes Wickfield in David Copperfield, is a structure that would meet the description of many buildings present in Canterbury during the many visits of Dickens. There is no definitive evidence if the house is based on one building alone or an amalgamation of features from multiple buildings. If we are to consider the single building theory, there are two strong contenders for you to consider! 

The House of Agnes 
The House of Agnes in St Dunstan's Street has origins as a traveller’s inn as far back as the 13th Century, and due to its location outside of the city walls, served to provide rooms for visitors and pilgrims who arrived after the nightly curfew and were not able to access the city. 

The current three-storied jettied timber-framed house structure was built during the 16th century and is currently named after Agnes Wickfield, a friend of David’s and at the end of the novel, his second wife. In 1934, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer sent producer David O. Selznick and director George Cukor (who both later worked on Gone with the Wind in 1939) to visit the city, including the house, before the filming of the first Hollywood film adaptation of David Copperfield, released in 1935.

Queen Elizabeth’s Guest Chamber 
The foundations at 44-45 High Street date to the 12th century and housed the Crown Inn between the 15th and 18th centuries. The current three-storey jettied building dates to the 16th century, while the current facade was added in the 17th century. 

In 1899, the first floor was separated from the ground floor shops creating a single large room, known since 1904 as “Queen Elizabeth's Guest Chamber”. This commemorates Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to Canterbury for her 40th birthday in 1573, though it is probable that she stayed at the Archbishop's palace rather than at the Crown Inn. 

No-one truly knows which, or possibly both, building influenced Dickens' description. Until we are able to develop technology with which to ask him, we will never know...

Thanks for reading,