Sheffield is a city and metropolitan borough in south Yorkshire that grew around the River Sheaf which runs through it. Like many industrial northern towns, Sheffield expanded rapidly during the first part of the nineteenth century. In 1801, the town’s first census had a population recorded at over 31,000 people. Fifty years later this had swollen to over 135,000. Rapid and often poorly planned expansion in urban areas during this time often led to overcrowded housing and poor sanitary conditions and Sheffield was no exception. In 1832 an epidemic of cholera killed over 400 people in the town. In 1864 a huge surge of water from the collapse of a poorly constructed dam devastated Sheffield, claiming the lives of at least 240 people and flooding more than 5,000 homes and businesses. Sheffield was given city status in 1893.
The Victorian author Charles Dickens visited the then town of Sheffield at least four times during his lifetime. He gave a number of readings there, both for charity and as part of commercial tours.
We have attempted to compile a comprehensive list of the movements of Dickens whilst in Sheffield during his visits based on material such as letters, newspaper reports and articles. If you know of any other instances we may have missed please let us know.
Charles Dickens first known visit to Sheffield appears to be in 1852, when he was aged 40 and already very famous both nationally and internationally. Earlier that year Dickens had formed an amateur theatrical group to help raise funds for the Guild of Literature and Art, a charity that supported authors, actors and artists who had fallen upon hard times. The amateur players toured the country putting on shows in a number of towns and cities, including Sheffield.
The performance in Sheffield was held on Monday, 30 August 1852 at the Music Hall, Surrey Street. The theatrical company was comprised of a number of Dickens’ close friends including Wilkie Collins, Frank Stone, Augustus Egg and Mark Lemon. Charles Dickens and his friends stayed at the Royal Hotel in the Haymarket during their visit. The following day Dickens and the amateur theatrical company travelled to Manchester, where they also performed.
On Saturday, 22 December 1855, Charles Dickens read from his work A Christmas Carol for the benefit of the Sheffield Mechanics’ Institution. The invitation to Dickens had originally been submitted by Sheffield’s Mayor on behalf of the Institution a year previously. However, Dickens had a number of other commitments on but pledged in a reply that “If they (the committee) should desire to renew their application early next autumn, with a view to a reading next Christmas, I will do my best to return them a favourable reply”. He honoured his promise with the reading at the Institution’s hall in Surrey Street at 7.30pm. After the reading, there was a presentation by the Mayor to Dickens of a locally made service of table cutlery, pair of razors, and a pair of fish carvers as a gesture of gratitude for his visit.
CHARLES DICKENS AT SHEFFIELD. On Saturday evening, Charles Dickens, Esq., read his “Christmas Carol” in the Mechanics’ hall, in behalf of the funds of the institute. The hall was well filled in every part, and Mr. Dickens, on entering, was greeted with a hearty cheer. There are few writers who have obtained such world-wide popularity as Dickens, and few, indeed, possess such intimate knowledge of the varied workings of the human heart. His works abound with passages of exquisite beauty and tenderness, and in his peculiar style of humour, he is unrivalled by any living author.Sheffield Daily Telegraph. Monday, 24 December 1855.
Charles Dickens returned to Sheffield twice in 1858 as part of a national public reading tour in the Autumn of that year. This time the performances were for commercial gain rather than a charitable benefit.
On Friday, 17 September, Charles Dickens performed at the Music Hall, Surrey Street, in a show that commenced at 8pm. Dickens read from The Poor Traveller, The Boots at the Hollytree Inn, and the Mrs Gamp episode from Martin Chuzzlewit. The performance had been originally advertised that Dickens would read from A Christmas Carol, but the itinerary was changed a couple of weeks before the visit.
MR. CHARLES DICKENS IN SHEFFIELD.—At the music-hall, last night, this justly-celebrated and popular author gave some readings from his Christmas stories, “The Poor Traveller” and “The Boots at the Holly-tree Inn,” besides the two chapters from his “Martin Cbuzzlewit” which introduce the nurses Sairey Gamp and Betsy Prig, and Mr. Mould, the undertaker. The hall was densely crowded with a highly respectable audience. Mr. Dickens, on making his appearance in the orchestra, was greeted with a loud burst of applause, which was continued for some time …
… At the conclusion of the readings Mr. Dickens was rewarded with most rapturous applause. The writings of Mr. Dickens have attained far too high a position in the literature of the nineteenth century to require one word of eulogy; but this we will say, that, however graphic and true to nature his works may be, his readiug of them reveals many deeper trains of thought which might pass the casual reader unobserved, and gives new beauty to the whole.Sheffield Daily Telegraph. Saturday, 18 September 1858.
Dickens returned to Sheffield the following month, appearing again at the Music Hall on Friday, 29 October. On this occasion, he read the story of Little Paul from Dombey and Son and the trial scene from The Pickwick Papers.
Charles Dickens’s last visit to Sheffield was as part of his final national reading tour, billed as his ‘farewell readings’. Dickens spoke at the Music Hall, on Wednesday, 31 March 1869 at 8pm. The readings he put on that evening were The Boots at the Hollytree Inn, Sikes and Nancy episode from Oliver Twist and the Mrs Gamp episode from Martin Chuzzlewit.
In a review the following day the Sheffield Independent reported its regret that Dickens visited Sheffield for the last time and also that the venue chosen was not sufficient to hold more people:
Such portion of the inhabitants of Sheffield as could be packed into one not very large Music Hall, had last night the pleasure of hearing Mr. Charles Dickens read three selections from his immortal writings. There were two sources of regret is connection with the occasion: the one that it was the last time Mr. Dickens will ever read in Sheffield, the other that this being so, some larger building — as for instance the Theatre— had not been secured, that a far larger number might have been participators in the treat. However, those who were present, while congratulating themselves on their good fortune, most condole with those who were not.
Mr. Dickens held his audience enthralled as he depicted with unequalled skill and in the words with which every one is so familiar, the watching of Nancy by Noah Clay pole, the crafty working of Fagin on Sykes’s anger, the ghastly murder that resulted, followed by the horror of the murderer and his own grim death— all this was told with intense vividness.
The following locations in Sheffield are associated with the Victorian author Charles Dickens during his lifetime. Click on a location to get more information and to access further pages. The Music Hall in Surrey Street, which Dickens appeared at in three of his four performances in the city, was opened in 1824 and could accommodate up to 1,000 people. It later became a public library and was demolished in the 1930’s to make way for a new public Central Library.