When Dickens came to Sherborne | Looking Back

‘Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.’ So began the greatest occasion in Sherborne’s literary history, and there is no doubt whatever about that either.

The date was December 21, 1854, and the man reading the opening line of A Christmas Carol to an enraptured audience was none other than Charles Dickens himself. What’s more, this was only the second time that Dickens had read his famous Christmas ghost story in public, which makes the occasion even more historic.

Dickens didn’t love Sherborne

Whether the great man was entirely happy to be there is open to question. According to Vickie Macintosh, of Macintosh Antiques in Newland, where the reading took place, Dickens complained to William Macready, who organised the event: ‘Must I come? The place smells of cowshit.’

Macready, a Shakespearean actor and manager of London’s Covent

Garden Theatre, was a great friend of Dickens, who dedicated his third novel, Nicholas Nickelby, to him.
So the cow-poo comment was probably made at least half in jest. But perhaps only half, for Dickens had visited Sherborne before and sampled its aromas with his own nostrils.
‘A public health report in 1852 tells us there was raw sewage running down the walls of Greenhill and that the stench
in Half Moon Street was unbearable,’ Sherborne historian Katherine Barker tells me.
‘At the bottom of town, the boys used to block the sewers.’

Sherborne Literary and Scientific Institution Macready had become a major figure in Sherborne since retiring from the London stage in 1851 and moving his family to Sherborne House in Newland, which he rented from Lord Digby. Within months of his arrival he agreed to become president of the Sherborne Literary and Scientific Institution.
In June 1854 the Institution moved its headquarters from Cheap Street to the former stable block next to Sherborne House, where it hosted classes and lectures and maintained a fast- growing library.
Proceeds from Dickens’ reading would be used to add to the library but preparations for his visit did not go smoothly.
The original plan was to hold the reading in the then Town Hall in Half Moon Street, which could accommodate a larger audience. But some townsfolk expressed their ‘dissatisfaction’ with the admission price of five shillings. (25p – worth about £15 today). It didn’t help that the reading was fixed for 2pm on December 21, which clashed with Sherborne’s last market before Christmas.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A public convenience

Six days before Dickens was due to appear, ticket sales were so slow that the Institution decided to switch the event to their Newland premises.

They even commissioned construction of a toilet block, which Vickie says was Sherborne’s first public loo. Rachel Hassall, Sherborne School’s senior archivist, writes that the change of venue ‘originated in the sensitive desire to compliment Mr Dickens with a full house’.

Macready was outraged. He felt that five shillings was not an unreasonable charge and that Sherborne was snubbing his illustrious chum.

‘A crown, what is it?’ he lamented. ‘The cost of a bottle of bad wine swallowed at a public dinner? The price of a local ball ticket? A sum so often squandered and frittered away when we cannot tell where the money goes?

‘But for a definite and intellectual and laudable object, 5 shillings was found to be a very large sum of money indeed, and it soon became evident that to avoid “the beggarly account of empty boxes” that would have insulted Mr Dickens and disgraced the locality, fresh arrangements must be made.’

According to the Sherborne Mercury, Dickens passed through Yeovil on the afternoon of December 20 on his way to Sherborne.
It’s assumed that he travelled by train to Frome and thence by carriage, although passenger trains now reached Yeovil following the opening of Hendford station the previous year.

Twenty-four hours later he stood on the stairs at the present-day Macintosh Antiques building to deliver his reading in a ‘quiet, unaffected tone’.

‘The room was crowded to excess, and many were unable to obtain admission,’ reported the Mercury. ‘The reading occupied nearly three hours, to the great delight of the audience.’ The reading raised £22 for the library fund, equivalent to about £1,300 today.

The money was spent on many great works of English literature including a ‘cheap edition’ of Dickens’ own books. Macready remained in Sherborne until 1860, by which time his wife and at least three of his children had died, among godson, Henry.
Sherborne House now held too many unhappy memories and the former actor moved his family members to Cheltenham. In 2003 the Friends of Sherborne House hosted an in-costume re- enactment of the Dickens reading at the original venue with John Flint in the starring role.

Macintosh antiques by Roger Guttridge

To buy a copy of Katherine Barker’s £5 booklet on Macready, Dickens and the Sherborne Literary Institution, email: katherinebarker@lanprobi.org.uk

by Roger Guttridge

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