The spirit of Christmas present

As the Charles Dickens Museum approaches its centenary, EC1 Echo talks to director Cindy Sughrue about the museum, his life in this area, and how Dickens gave shape to Christmas

Director Cindy Sughrue (Credit: Alistair Levy)
Director Cindy Sughrue (Credit: Alistair Levy)

Although he died in 1870, Charles Dickens’ reach seems to grow each year. The two Georgian houses on Doughty Street in Bloomsbury that constitute the Charles Dickens Museum are the mere bricks and mortar manifestation of a continuing and growing interest in the 19th century writer – one that sees a huge seasonal spike every Christmas. 

It’s remarkable to think that when the Dickens Fellowship – a group of admirers, associates and two of Dickens’ 10 children – bought the houses in 1922, it was to keep the writer’s name alive lest we forgot him. 

“They feared the impact of Dickens might be lost,” says the museum’s director Cindy Sughrue. “But now the Dickens Fellowship today has branches all over the world.” Next year will see 100 years since the house was acquired, followed by the museum’s centenary in 1925, and although Sughrue won’t be drawn on plans, it can only further his fame. 

But firstly – and taking A Christmas Carol into account – why is Dickens quite so associated with Christmas? “He’s widely credited with inventing Christmas, and while some think that’s an overstatement, he did make it hugely popular,” says Sughrue.

“Of course a festival in the darkest days is universal, and Dickens drew on that tradition. But the celebration of Christmas is fixed throughout Dickens’ writing, beginning with his first novel The Pickwick Papers, where he describes this beautiful family and friends’ gathering for Christmas, with ice skating, walks, feasting, party games and telling ghost stories around the fire – just like in A Christmas Carol. This was the kind of Christmas that Dickens had with his parents, John and Elizabeth, although gift-giving didn’t really take hold until the later Victorian era.” 

Dining Room at Christmas (Credit: Dickens Museum)
Dining Room at Christmas (Credit: Dickens Museum)

Multifarious film and TV adaptations have tied Dickens in with a picturesque London full of snow, carriages and top hats. Has it all been airbrushed? “While some adaptations remove the grittier scenes, all his novels were accurate descriptions of what life was like at that time,” says Sughrue.

And thereby hangs a seasonal message, she adds, “that no one is beyond redemption, and that we all can do something to make the world a little bit lighter.” It’s a powerful message that galvanises the message of Christmas – or as Dickens described it, “a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely…” This is a very important facet of Dickens, who had political antennae. 

“Dickens was a very active social reform campaigner, social commentator and critic, who realised as early on as early as Oliver Twist that he could draw attention to contemporary social issues more powerfully through fiction than he could through his letters to the Morning Chronicle,” says Sughrue. 

“He threw the spotlight on how real people lived to the widest audience. Even Queen Victoria admired Oliver Twist, while her prime minister at the time, Lord Melbourne, didn’t want to dwell on poverty.”

In Clerkenwell, then poor, he chose locations – Saffron Hill, Cowcross Street, Smithfield, Mount Pleasant, Pear Tree Court, Hatton Garden et al – which suited his true-to life writing. And while Tiny Tim, Fagin and ‘Artful Dodger’ Jack Dawkins were fictional characters,says Sughrue, “he was writing about real people, places, situations and issues”.

He’d go drinking alone in the One Tun, near Leather Lane, just to observe the clientele and it became fictionalised as the ‘Three Cripples’ where Bill Sikes was a regular. Small wonder the term ‘Dickensian’ now denotes grim conditions and abject poverty, and that Ebenezer Scrooge, ‘as solitary as an oyster’, is a word commonly used without people consciously thinking of where it comes from.

“People see the film Oliver! and think Oliver Twist is a children’s book, which it isn’t,” says Sughrue. “Dickens was a chronicler and his characters were based largely on people he knew. “When Oliver Twist is accused of pickpocketing he’s hauled up in front of a magistrate at Hatton Garden’s magistrate court, Mr Fang. This was actually Mr AS Laing, a magistrate notorious for sending children to prison ships. In our collection is a letter from Dickens to a court reporter where he says, ‘I know about this magistrate and want to accurately describe him. Could you smuggle me in one morning?’ Dickens wanted people to know exactly what he was talking about.”

For anyone interested in following his trail, the Museum has a number of walking tours that depart or return here, including an Oliver Twistthemed one. As ever in London, the poor and rich lived cheek by jowl and Doughty Street was then a 30-year-old gated development for Dickens’ “frightfully firstclass family mansion, involving awful responsibilities”. 

Here, Dickens lived with his young wife Catherine and his growing brood. He wrote Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby and Barnaby Rudge, edited a monthly magazine, wrote short stories, sketches, theatre reviews, and letters to editors. 

“He was incredibly dynamic and when he left here he was a worldwide phenomenon, achieving international fame at the age of 30,” says Sughrue. 

A newly found daguerreotype of Dickens showing him in profile (Credit: Dickens Museum)
A newly found daguerreotype of Dickens showing him in profile (Credit: Dickens Museum)

The museum is a luscious recreation of the era, with Dickens’s writing desk and walking stick among thousands of other items. But Dickens reforming zeal was never far away. In 1842, a report into the conditions in mines and factories was published and Dickens was horrified. He intended to write a pamphlet, but instead had the Ghost of Christmas Present fly over the factories and spy ‘ignorance and want’. 

“Dickens presented his dire view of what people faced in England in 1843 – and it was supremely effective.” In the mid-19th century many charitable foundations were set up with Dickens’ influence to the fore. “In A Christmas Carol, three men come into Scrooge’s office asking for donations to the poor at Christmas time,” says Sughrue.

“In real life Dickens set up various charitable efforts to help people from poor writers through to the children of cloth workers and weavers.” 

Many still exist today, and Dickens was instrumental in the founding of Great Ormond Street Hospital, after a campaigning article called Drooping Buds talked of the importance of England’s new Hospital for Sick Children. “He galvanised support and was an activist,” says Sughrue. 

He was also a celebrity. When, at 31, Dickens went to America for the first time fans followed him down the street. “It was like Beatlemania,” says Sughrue. “In one of his many funny letters, he talks about not cutting his hair as the barber would sell his locks. Everyone wanted a piece of him.” Even his own father John – the inspiration for the debtor Mr Micawber – cut out his son’s signature to sell to autograph hunters. But Dickens had demons, and was a “complex character with a temper and was manic depressive. He was charming, the life and soul of the party. He would have been the most charismatic person you’d ever met, but challenging to live with.” 

This is also part of his history. Dickens moved to Marylebone, then Gads Hill Place in Kent, but his soul is in the museum, now reopened after a Covid closure. “We launched an appeal and then subsequently got some grant funding and we’re very grateful for that,” says Sughrue. “It’s also testament to the good people of London who came on board for their museum.” There’s always more to discover about Dickens. 

“Items keep coming up,” says Sughrue, showing a newly donated photograph of the writer. “There’s the occasional letter that hasn’t been discovered – there are 16,000 letters so far – publications from the past.” And such is his reputation that he attracts all kinds of people, with half of all visitors from overseas. “Dickens was translated into 18 languages. He’s truly international.” This Christmas alone there are new Christmas Carol adaptations with Mark Gatiss and one with Stephen Mangan. “I love the fact that people still have an appetite for A Christmas Carol and still finding new adaptations and angles.” And to echo Bob Crachit’s toast, ‘God bless us, every one!’

Charles Dickens Museum 48-49 Doughty St, London WC1N 2LX Open Wednesday to Sunday, 10am–5pm

For more information: Call 020 7405 2127 Visit: dickensmuseum.com