In 1821, when Charles Dickens was a nine-year old boy, he and his ne’er-do-well father took a walk along some of Kent’s country roads. On Gravesend Road they passed a house called Gad’s Hill Place, north and west of Rochester. Young Charles was very impressed with the house. The Dickens family was plagued with financial problems – his father was in and out of the workhouse – but Dickens Sr. recognized his son’s interest and told Charles that if he “were to be very persevering and were work very hard” he might some day live there.
And live there he did. After the financial success of The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and a Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens was able to buy Gad’s Hill Place in 1856 for about £1,800. Understandably Dickens was quite the local celebrity. He would host summer parties, cricket games and always had big Christmas parties including a children’s tea.
Well, my grandmother’s grandmother happened to be a child during that time. Harriet was born in 1853 in
one the Medway towns located about 5 or 6 miles from where Dickens would make
his home. When she was a little girl she was one of the lucky local children invited
to Dickens’ house for Christmas tea.
While I will never hear Harriet’s first-hand recollections of the event – she died in 1941 – I like to think the children’s party was jolly frolic in Dickens' grand reception under the festoons of bunting and coloured streamers. There would be the requisite sprigs of holly and mistletoe and crackling fires and Christmas crackers. The air would be redolent with steaming punch and steaming fig puddings. Of course, silly tissue paper hats would be worn. Girls in their crisp tartan dress and boys in their knee britches would perhaps play a giddy game of musical chairs or blind mans buff by the base of the new holiday fad, the Christmas tree
Perhaps instead the timid children would wait, measuring out the minutes with the ticking of the mantle clock, while horses stamped and whinnied in the forecourt as a damp English winter penetrated Dicken’s old brick home.
But I like to think not. His was no Bleak House. Dickens continued to celebrate the season with exuberance until the end of his days. Dickens kept Christmas well until his death at Gad’s
Hill Place in 1870.
|My Great-Great Grandmother circa 1920|