Charles John Huffam Dickens, to give the great writer’s full name, was born in Portsmouth on 7 February 1812. The house that now stands as his birthplace museum is situated on Old Commercial Road, but back then it was called Mile End Terrace.
There’s some dispute over the number at Mile End Terrace the Dickens’ household actually was. Some sources say it was number 1, others claim it was 13. As yet there seems to be no conclusive proof one way or the other.
What’s not in doubt, though, was that Charles Dickens – arguably the greatest and most famous Victorian author – was born within its walls.
The Dickens family came to be in Portsmouth from London as Charles’ father, John Dickens, was hired as a clerk in the Navy Post Office at Portsmouth Dockyard.
In 1809, the newlywed John Dickens brought his young bride Elizabeth Dickens to Portsmouth. They rented the house at Mile End Terrace as their first marital home.
Though Charles was born in this house, he didn’t stay for long. His father John may well have earned a good salary with the Navy (especially so, as the ongoing Napoleonic Wars kept him very busy), but he was as adept at spending money as he was earning it – if not more so. With outgoings spiralling, the family moved twice in Portsmouth, first to Hawke Street and then Wish Street, before leaving the city altogether in 1814.
Charles was still a young boy when he left Portsmouth, but still remembered his time in the city. In later years, when he was writing the semi-autobiographical Nicholas Nickleby (also featuring a father who had amassed sizeable debts), he would return to Portsmouth for research, and set about finding the home in which he was born.
Today the house stands as a museum dedicated to the great author. Much care and attention has been paid to the decor, to ensure it properly reflects the Regency stylings of the time.
It also contains a number of Dickens’ own personal possessions, including his snuff box and the couch on which he passed away at the age of 58. There are also many family photographs, to document the life of Charles Dickens, a veritable Victorian celebrity who travelled extensively and gave public readings to huge audiences and acclaim.