The Charles Dickens Museum Re-Opens : A Volunteers View

For the past two winters I have been fortunate enough to be able to volunteer at what is the last surviving London home of Charles Dickens in 48 Doughty Street London. These are my impressions of the changing year at the museum, and what I’ve gained from it.

I sought out the museum in November 2011 after it had been closed for minor redevelopment that summer. Having worked at the home of George Bernard Shaw for the past few summers I wanted a similar “literary property” to use a National Trust term, or what I call a small and friendly museum that would help extend my knowledge of literary antiques and in particular all things Dickensian.

So the sum total of my Dickens knowledge on joining was that I had “enjoyed” reading Great Expectations for “O” Level (it says here). Faced with a wall of books about or by Dickens from behind the till I pondered on where to start. Hot off the press was the proper chunky but highly engaging “Charles Dickens A Life” by Clare Tomalin, which naturally led me to want to read her earlier biography “The Invisible Woman”, which focuses just on the period 1857-1870 and his love for the young actress Ellen Ternan.

Like many visitors I confess I knew nothing of this aspect of Dickens’ life before joining the museum, and in one sense its surprising how many visitors are still surprised by it; given that The Invisible Woman was published over 20 years ago and the story broke proper way back in the late 1930’s with the publication of his daughter Katie’s memoirs to Gladys Storey in “Dickens and Daughter”.  I also hadn’t known the young Charles had been forced to work in a blacking factory (i.e shoepolish) as child labour when at aged just 11 his father was imprisoned for debt in Marshalsea, or indeed that his later career saw him undertake a grueling Uk lecture tour where he read aloud from his own work. In short his whole life was extraordinary.

And so the museum closed amidst some controversy in April 2012. How could they close it in what was Dickens’ bicentenary year and Olympic Summer? Where would the Dickens-hungry tourist go? Answer : until the end of June to the London Museum to see Dickens in London and thence for just one month only to Gads’ Hill in Higham, Kent which was his last home.

Plenty plenty tourists flocked to see original manuscripts on display at London Museum, and major artifacts such as “Dickens Dream” by Bass (where he sits at his writing desk in a literary trance whilst his characters waft around the ceiling) and said desk from where his characters were originally created prior to wafting.

But a rarer treat for the more determined Dickens fan was at Gads’ Hill, his last home where he died in 1870 and is the only home he ever owned outright.

Run as an Independent Boys School, special arrangements were granted to museum staff to open for just 4 weeks, from late July 2012. A superb tour revealed “Dickens’ Dream” and writing desk installed in the very room they used to belong, and we were shown the underground tunnel he used to access his writing chalet.   A new purpose built school is being built behind the existing building; if Gads Hill then become a permanent museum then Kent and locality will be something of a mecca for literary museums including Rudyard Kipling’s home at Batemans'(Burwash); Ellen Terry’s home (Smallhythe); Broadstairs being the Dickens’ family regular summer holiday venue with the original Bleak House overlooking the cliffs and oooo did I mention the lovely bookshops in Rochester?

And so to the re-opening of Doughty Street on December 10th. After a tour by the bubbly new volunteer manager and armed with museum guide, all important name badge we were all set to room steward.

First impressions wow! The visitor has a whole heap more to see than last year, and its renovated to be generally more as he would have lived in it. 48 Doughty Street was his home on five floors all of which are now open to the public, whilst the adjacent 49 is used for Exhibition, Interpretation and Learning space.

In No 48 the Basement now houses the kitchen, scullery and wash house. The kitchen has Victorian dressing up clothes for children and stuffed hedgehog for educational purposes (seriously…they were kept as early form of pest control). Much of the library stock that used to be here is now housed in the National Dickens’ Archive elsewhere in the museum.

The Ground floor. Fact: all visitors love the 3 dimensional Victorian map of London which is in the hallway. My daughter wants one. (gulp) Framed original letters by Dickens now also adorn the hallway.

First Floor: a light censor triggers a series of readings by Simon Callow, which include The Picwick papers, Oliver Twist and The Chimes. It is in this room over Christmas (including Christmas Day) that visitor numbers could be measured by the square inch to hear Michael Slater read from Christmas Carol.

The Study is the new home for…you guessed it the Dream picture and the writing desk. Although the remaining library stock on display is now greatly reduced since last year I applaud the improved display of those that remain in 3 glass cabinets. These contain both early editions by Dickens and books owned by him, including my current favorite exhibit The Chimes. Opened onto a book cushion, it is a 12th edition with an illustration by Cruickshank opposite the title page …which includes his signature. There is something thrilling about seeing his signature on his book that he wrote!

2nd Floor. Fact : most visitors are not happy with the period lighting when used in conjunction with darkly colored picture labels. We joke about the need to issue miners’ lamps in reception lol, and I explain that new picture labels are in the pipeline. Despite the period lighting most visitors seem genuinely moved by the real life account of the death of Mary Hogarth, the 17 year old sister in law to Dickens who died in his arms, and from whence he would write about childhood death such as Little Nell in the Old Curiosity Shop and Tiny Tim in the Chimes.

The 3rd floor attic now houses an exhibition exploring his own traumatic childhood and the Servants’ Bedroom. From here you retrace one flight down into 49 , to the Dickens’ Timeline. This is my 2nd favorite exhibit; it describes his life in 2 year intervals against a timeline other major literary works (and world events). Hence in 1861 the timeline shows Mrs Beeton’s Household Works …..and Dickens had just published the Uncommercial Traveller etc. This makes perfect sense to me and anyone interested in nineteenth century books; you can quickly see where Dickens’ contribution fits into the bigger picture and the major events in his life. This room will also house the National Dickens’ Archives replete with rooftop view.

Down one flight brings you to the 2nd exhibition room currently housing the costumes and memorabilia from Great Expecations’ Film. Whatever mixed reviews the film received for me the star was Ralph Fiennes, especially having seen him play the suave replacement “M” in Skyfall to the creature from the swamp Magwitch …how versatile !

And down back through the shop and tea room…and exit.

So what do I consider I’ve gained?

It seems to be that with each visit one snippet of information lodges in my brain and stays…although can’t anticipate what the Question I Can’t Answer of the Day will be and normally have to ask; such as why is the cutlery turned up the wrong way in the Dining Room etc? Whilst I shan’t be appearing on Mastermind anytime soon/ever I can chat through a potted history of his life, works and the museum.

I meet interesting people each visit; from new volunteers to visitors and not forgetting that I’ve handed back gloves to Gillian Anderson.

I’ve experienced the full Christmasification of the museum ; I shall always remember Xmas Eve when the family came to visit, the victorian decorations, readings from Christmas Carol, mince pies and mulled wine..

I have seen one dedicated and hardworking team re-open the museum twice in two years just before Christmas, and upsticks to Kent by way of a temporary opening.

Every time I go I stand with my nose in front of the glass fronted cabinets, just completely in awe of the precious books they contain.

Most importantly reading more about the life of Dickens has sucked me back into his work which I now read for pleasure.

For more information on the museum and volunteering please go to


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