In 1839 the young Charles Dickens returned home from Manchester only to be greeted with the news that his parents were in big financial trouble again. His father John Dickens had four times been held in detention centre for debt. It was not for excesses, though they could have been – his father had lost his job as a journalist and he had been not been well, and when he did get better enough and find a job the newspaper folded.
Charles Dickens was 26 years old now a celebrity and newspapers would be keen to have the ‘gossip’ on his private life. So he decided to settle his parents in Exeter.
He bought a wagon from Miss Eldridge Coach Makers in Lincolns Field for £150 to transport their belongings. He wrote to her `to the trade’s people say nothing. I will forward you a cheque by post from Exeter. Speed and secrecy are essential to the success of the scheme.’
So whatever furniture they had and their belongings were to be packed up and await his further instruction.
On the 4th march 1839 Charles arrived in Exeter and booked into the New London Inn. He wrote that he intended to set off early in search of a house. In a letter to his wife, Catherine he writes: `It’s nearly 2.00 o’clock, the post leaves in a quarter of an hour. I have barely time to jot down a few words in anything like a sensible order… I walked straight to it, without turning right or left and was no more surprised when I came across it and saw the bill up (advertising to let) than if I had passed it by every day for years.
He wrote that the cottage was a mile away from the city centre in a place called Alphington. He described it as two white cottages under the same roof brick built with a thatched roof. `There is and excellent parlour with two other rooms on the ground floor. ‘ and drawing room which he is going to set too and furnish for them , and that the paintwork is all new and `fresh and cheerful looking.’
The landlady and neighbour was a Mrs. Pannell, `Mrs. Pannell of whom I must make special mention is a Devonshire widow, with whom I had the honour of taking lunch today. She is a fat and splendidly fresh faced country dame rising sixty, recovering from an `attack of the nerves`.. “. He writes that his mother will find a good friend in this lady. He says these people are of good character with the bank and the local clergyman.
It is believed he based the character of Mrs. Gamp on the landlady. He spent the afternoon sorting out the business and letting terms and payments. Mrs. Pannell `is a kind hearted a specimen of the sort of life – or I have no eye for the real and no idea of finding it out. This good lady’s brother and his wife, came round to help transact the good lady’s business – the nerves not admitting of her transacting it herself, although they leave her in debilitated state something sharper then the finest lancet.’
He describes how they all sat around the table `if you could have seen me sitting in the kitchen with the two women, endearvouring to make them comprehend that I have no evil intentions or covert designs..’ and that he stumbled across the cottage quite by accident.
Next door upstairs was lived her Mrs. Pannell’s brother who had a bad cough and was unable to join us so messages were relayed by the maid to his bedside. `the servant girl was running backwards and forwards to the sick man and when the sick man signed one agreement which I drew up and the old woman instantly put away in a disused tea caddy, … was one of the richest scraps of genuine drollery I have ever saw in all my richest days.
`…and when the business was over, we became conversational and I facetious and at the same time virtuous and domestic` drank beer with them and told them he was a `married man and a father of two blessed infants; how the ladies did marvel.’
With such energy and enthusiasm he sets out to buy furniture from a local second hand shop and then of his visit to the upholsterer `who was fearful of acting in his wife’s absence.’ The upholsterer stood behind a `high little desk in a little dark shop, calling over the articles in requisition and checking them off.’ His daughter assisted him in ways to reduce his bill.
He ordered `six chairs in imitation Rosewood, a Pembroke table a Kidderminster carpet and some second hand red curtains at a cost of £30’ The six better chairs, sofa table, couch, upstairs carpet and bed with white dimity furniture and loads of `kitchen necessities, the crockery and glass, the stair carpet and the floor cloth.’
All in all he spent £70 and agreed a delivery of two days, but some problem must have occurred as the upholster came to visit him that night at his hotel.
`I think the staff here at the New London Inn took me for the great celebrity I am: and no doubt they looked for my being visited by the nobility and gentry of the neighbourhood. My first and only visitor came last night: The man from the upholsterers, – a ruddy faced man in faded black, with extracts from a feather bed all over him; with an extra ordinary and quite miraculously dirty face; a thick stick; and the personal appearance altogether of the amiable bailiff.
He was announced to me by THE waiter as `a person’ P.S. THE waiter is laughing outside my door with another waiter. The upholster was a George Horrell of Magdelan Street, it is possible a family friendship ensued as his son Robert Horrell corresponded with Charles. Sadly Robert became ill and moved to Australia for health reasons. Charles wrote to him in Australia the letters are now in the Melbourne Library.
As it was snowing Charles decided to make coal delivery his next job. He found the cost of locally too `dear just now – twenty shillings a ton,’ so he made some enquires and a young lad was hired to take a barrow two miles out and collect some. `I was debating in my mind whether I should give him eighteen pence or two shillings on his return, when the fee was announced – a mere two pence.’
He also hired two servants to attend Hester and Eliza Drinkwater whom his brother (Augustus) is said that they had been wrongly named for on more than one occasion he had seen them drinking beer. Dickens had paid for his education in Exeter sadly poor Augustus would die in debt in Chicago 16 years later.
A few weeks later his parents arrived in Exeter, he had paid their rent and gave them a monthly allowance of £20. For the next 6 years the Dickens family were very settled, Charles himself spending much of his time there writing he had put a desk under the window in the front bedroom. It had a view of the spires of the Cathedral. All of these family circumstances found their way into his work, in Nicolas Nickleby
It was not long before John Dickens had outgrown this provincial life. He started to sell signed individual pages of his manuscripts. He often received letters for his sons autograph.
It is said that John Dickens was copier and proof reader for his son, one of the pages of manuscript he sold he signed `as the Great Unpaid’ your humble servant John Dickens Alphington 6th June 1842’.
John Dickens made many friends in the village, a local man, John Coles and the church gravedigger described him `chatty and pleasant companion, possessed off a varied fund of anecdotes.’
He would often use his sons’ signature as security for credit and this eventually led to him forging cheques. In 1841 Charles was to receive news from his friend in Exeter Thomas Latimer that his father had borrowed money of his self and several traders in the town by using his name to obtain that credit. Charles was furious `there is no need for him to borrow money off you, or any man; it is a moral outrage.’
Charles was furious he told him sell all the furniture and clear off to `Calais, Boulogne or Antwerp immediately.’ But his father refused he said he had Augustus’s education to think about. So Charles reacted by issuing a public statement in the local newspaper warning traders to be wary of anyone attempting to trade or borrow against his name. This action is the same action that was taken in Barnaby Rudge. The more you read of Charles Dickens family life and domestic matters the more of an insight you have to his writing and the man himself.