The writer Charles Dickens made several visits to Birmingham during his lifetime, to help local causes. Most notable is that Dickens gave his first public reading of one of his works, A Christmas Carol, in 1853. The event proved so popular that further readings would develop into tours and dominate the latter part of his life.
We have attempted to put together the movements of Dickens whilst in Birmingham during his numerous visits based on material such as letters, newspaper reports and articles. There are some small gaps, and we would be grateful for any information to make it into a comprehensive list.
In 1844, Charles Dickens was invited to speak in aid of the Birmingham Polytechnic Institution, an institution that had replaced a defunct Mechanics’ Institute. He arrived on the afternoon of 28 February 1844, after travelling by train from Liverpool. The speech was held at the Town Hall at 8pm, where Dickens was warmly received. Dickens stayed over that night at Dee’s Royal Hotel in Temple Row.
BIRMINGHAM POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTION. A Conversazione in aid of the funds of the Birmingham Polytechnic Institution was held in the Town Hall, Birmingham, this (Wednesday) evening. Charles Dickens, Esq., who is so well known as a writer under the name of “Boz,” presided, and was supported a large number of the County and Borough Magistrates, and of the influential resident gentry of the town and neighbourhood. The interior of the hall was tastefully decorated for the occasion; in the organ gallery were two large transparencies, with banners suspended at the sides the fronts of the galleries were ornamented with festoons of evergreens and roses, and the pillars and chandeliers were surmounted by laurels; a platform for the convenience the President and other speakers was erected immediately under and extended a short distance between the Organ gallery, over which the word “Polytechnic” was inscribed in flowers; and the front of the great gallery bore the inscription “Welcome Boz.” The body of the hall was literally crowded, the side galleries were filled with ladies, and the great gallery was occupied by a numerous assemblage.Aris’s Birmingham Gazette. Monday, 4 March 1844.
In June 1848, Dickens brought his company of friends to perform Ben Jonson’s 1598 comical play, Every Man in his Humour. The play had been first performed at Miss Kelly’s Theatre in Soho, London in September 1845 and was successful enough to be repeated three or four times over subsequent years as benefit performances. A performance at Birmingham was held at the Theatre Royal, on Tuesday, 6 June. A ballot system had to be used for the show, which was sold out, despite admission prices being raised from the normal. The performance was to raise money to help fund a permanent position for a curator at Shakespeare’s House, Stratford.
A second show was added on Tuesday, 27 June, when the company performed The Merry Wives of Windsor. Again, a ballot system was adopted for allocating the best seats which was also held at the Theatre Royal.
On Thursday, 6 January 1853 Dickens attended a literary and artistic banquet put on by the Birmingham Society of Artists. The Society honoured Dickens by presenting him with two locally-made items of jewellery and were presented at the rooms of the Society in Temple Row. The two gifts were a diamond ring manufactured by Thomas Aston of Regent Place and a silver-gilt “Iliad” salver manufactured by the firm Messrs. Elkington, Mason & Co., and which had been previously exhibited by them at the Great Exhibition in London’s Hyde Park. After the presentation, the group proceeded to the town’s Dee Hotel (in Temple Row) for a banquet and speeches.
The Birmingham Polytechnic Institution, which Dickens had supported through his 1844 visit, struggled to gain support, eventually closing in 1853. But its motives and ambitions were not diminished and on 10 January 1853, officials in Birmingham adopted an outline for the formation of a new educational institute, which would become known as the Birmingham and Midland Institute.
On hearing about the plans during his January visit (see above), Dickens wrote and offered his services to help by performing a reading from A Christmas Carol. Dickens honoured his commitment to helping when he came to Birmingham in December of that year, just after Christmas. The novelist read from A Christmas Carol on Tuesday, 27 December and again on Friday, 30 December, and from The Cricket on The Hearth on Thursday, 29 December. About 2,000 people attended each performance which was held at the Town Hall.
Dickens asked for one of the readings to be given to an audience composed of the working classes, so the second reading of A Christmas Carol was set aside for that purpose.
On Saturday, 31 December Dickens was entertained at a breakfast reception put on by the Committee for the Birmingham and Midland Institute to thank him for the readings and support he had given. Catherine Dickens was presented with a silver flower stand and for the young Charles a bronze inkstand.
The institute – a scientific and technical education centre for adults – opened next to the Town Hall, in Paradise Street, several years later. The building was demolished in 1965 and moved to Margaret Street.
In 1858, Charles Dickens put on his first national reading tour, five years after he had first read to a public audience at Birmingham. As part of the tour, Dickens visited Birmingham for three nights of performances in October. All were held in the Music Hall.
The itinerary during this visit was as follows:
- October 18 (Monday). Reading at the Music Hall, Birmingham, 8pm. Reads from The Poor Traveller, The Boots at the Hollytree Inn, and the Mrs Gamp episode from Martin Chuzzlewit.
- October 19 (Tuesday). Reading at the Music Hall, Birmingham, 8pm. Reads the story of Little Paul from Dombey and Son.
- October 20 (Wednesday). Reading at the Music Hall, Birmingham, 8pm. Reads from The Poor Traveller, The Boots at the Hollytree Inn, and the Mrs Gamp episode from Martin Chuzzlewit.
As part of his 1867 national reading tour, Charles Dickens returned to Birmingham, giving just one performance.
February 13 (Wednesday). Reads from A Christmas Carol and The Boy at Mugby. The performance was held at the Town Hall.
On Friday, 2 April 1869 Charles Dickens give a reading at the Town Hall as part of his final public reading tour. He reads from Nicholas Nickleby and the trial scene from The Pickwick Papers.
Last night witnessed Mr. Dickens’s final appearance as a reader, in this town, in which he made his first public essay in that character, some dozen years ago; and both in the entertainment and the attendance, ample evidence was forthcoming that the interval had not been wasted …
… if only for the skill and humour displayed in this recitation, Mr. Dickens would be entitled to rank among the foremost of living readers, as he unquestionably does among living novelists. If only for the loss we shall sustain in this masterly recitation Mr. Dickens’s threatened abandonment of the public-reading platform must be regarded as little short of a national misfortune.Birmingham Daily Post and Journal. Saturday, 3 April 1869.
On Monday, 27 September 1869 Charles Dickens returned to Birmingham to support the Birmingham and Midland Institute. Dickens gave a speech at the Town Hall.
BIRMINGHAM AND MIDLAND INSTITUTE.
BIRMINGHAM, MONDAY NIGHT.
The usual address on the occasion of the opening of the winter session of this institute was delivered to-night in the Town-hall by Mr. Charles Dickens, the president for the year. The hall was filled with ladies and gentlemen in full dress.
Mr. Dickens made his appearance in front of the orchestra a minute or two before 8 o’clock, and was warmly received. He was accompanied by Mr. George Dixon, M.P., Mr. Avery, ex-Mayor; Mr. Henry Wiggin, Mr. Chamberlain, and the principal officers of the institute. Mr. Dickens immediately proceeded to the delivery of his address, which occupied three-quarters of an hour, and was throughout of a thoroughly practical character. In reference to the phrase “inaugural address,” he said that he looked forward to that blessed time when every man would inaugurate his own work for himself and do it. He referred to the great advantages which the institute had conferred on its students in the 16 years of its existence-the practical results of the lectures had been made apparent; and, in illustration of the spirit which had been evoked, they saw masters and workmen studying together. To the students he said, “Courage and persevere” and he earnestly commended “self-improvement.’
If only that it was good in itself, he advocated daily drudging attention and observation, and concluded with the remark that his heart had been in the subject in which he had engaged; that, even for that, he had an old love for Birmingham men and women; and he referred to a ring he wore in exemplification of the kindness he had experienced in the town long years since.The Times. Tuesday, 28 September 1869.
On Thursday, 6 January 1870, Charles Dickens made what would be his last visit to Birmingham when he presided at the distribution of prizes and certificates to the students of the Birmingham and Midland Institute. Dickens made short speeches before and after he had presented the awards, humourously referring to the date of the ceremony (Twelfth Night), a day he traditionally enjoyed family festivities of his own.
Charles Dickens died just six months after his final visit to Birmingham.
Further Reading on The Circumlocution Office.
Click on the links below to visit additional or related pages on our site: