The role of Portsmouth in the Dickens family

The great novelist Charles Dickens was born on 7 February 1812 at 1 Mile End Terrace, Landport. This house, which is now 393 Old Commercial Road, had been the home of his parents since 1809, when they first moved to the city.

This was a time of rapid expansion for Portsmouth, which had started in earnest some 100 years previously. From around 1700, Portsmouth went through huge population growth, driven in no small part by the Dockyard, which was hiring vast swathes of men – and in doing so brought people to the city from far afield. Naturally these new recruits would need somewhere to live, and so a huge number of houses were built on Portsmouth Common – creating a settlement that grew rapidly into a town that dwarfed most others on the South Coast. By 1800, Portsmouth had a population of around four times the size of Southampton – the next largest town in Hampshire.

This expansion also created new settlements outside of the town walls, including Landport – built around the main road leading off Portsea Island. At the northern edge of Landport was the area called Mile End, so named as it was around one mile from the main Portsmouth gate. Among the many houses built here around 1800 were four fairly modest town houses, which formed Mile End Terrace. These houses all had two main living floors (each of two rooms) with semi-basements and attics to accommodate the service rooms (such as the kitchen) and servants’ quarters. As with other houses at the time, there was no running water and lighting would have been by candles or oil lamps.

It was to this busy, expanding area that John Dickens brought his new wife Elizabeth in the summer of 1809. John was transferred to Portsmouth from his job at the Navy Pay Office in London, and offered a salary of £120 per annum. Rent on his Mile End Terrace home was £35 a year – representing over a quarter of his salary and perhaps highlighting a taste for the extravagant that was to land John Dickens and his family in a debtor’s prison a few years later.

John and Elizabeth’s first child, Frances Elizabeth (Fanny) Dickens was born in autumn 1810. Her brother followed on 7 February 1812, and was christened Charles John Huffham Dickens in St Mary’s Church. This church can be visited today, though the building itself has been completely rebuilt in the intervening years. However, the font in which he was baptised has been preserved, and is now in St Alban’s Church, Copnor Road.

The family would stay at Mile End Terrace for just three years. By the summer of 1812 they had moved to a smaller, less expensive house – 16 Hawke Street (destroyed by bombing in 1941). Despite downsizing the house was in a respectable neighbourhood and close to the main gate of the Dockyard, where Charles worked.

That wasn’t to be the only move, however. Before the family upped sticks for London in 1814, they spent a short amount of time in Wish Street (which is now Kings Road), which was the home was where Charles’ brother Alfred was born, on 28 March 1814.

Though he moved to London at a young age, and later spent his years in Kent, Dickens returned to his place of birth on a number of occasions. Among the most notable was in 1838, when he was writing and researching the semi-autobiographical novel, Nicholas Nickleby. In the story, Vincent Crummies’ run-down theatre company visits the old Theatre Royal, which stood on High Street from around 1750 to 1856.

In 1858, Dickens (by now a huge celebrity whose public appearances drew huge crowds) gave one of his famous readings. He returned once more to give another reading in 1866 – and during his visit he looked for, and indeed found, Mile End Terrace.

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