Hundreds of excited fans turned out on 15 December 1857 to hear Charles Dickens, master storyteller of the age, reading from his famous tale, A Christmas Carol, in Coventry.
The venue was the city’s imposing new Corn Exchange in Hertford Street, designed by James Murray and opened just a year earlier to stage concerts and lectures and public meetings of all kinds, as well as the weekly corn market.
The public reading was merely one element in Dickens’s extraordinarily prolific career as a writer; he was constantly on tour in Britain and America. But this reading was a little different.
He was in Coventry at the personal request of his friend Joseph Paxton, designer of the Crystal Palace and Liberal MP for Coventry until his death in 1865. And the reading had a charitable purpose – to support the new Coventry Institute, a particular interest of Paxton’s.
The Institute, founded two years earlier to encourage literary and scientific pursuits amongst the working classes, was an amalgamation of Coventry’s Mechanics Institution and the Religious and Useful Knowledge Society, and was in desperate need of funds. In the event, the reading raised the respectable sum of £50 for its coffers.
Dickens was back in Coventry almost exactly a year later, when on 4 December 1858 he was the guest of honour at a dinner held at the Castle Hotel, Broadgate, to thank him for his fund-raising efforts.
During the evening he was presented with a gold repeater watch made by the leading firm of Rotherham & Sons which bore the inscription ‘Presented to Charles Dickens by his friends at Coventry as a grateful acknowledgement of his kindness to them, and of his eminent services in the interests of humanity.’
Dickens clearly treasured the watch. He kept it as a much-valued possession all his life and on his death bequeathed it to his biographer John Forster.
But he was somewhat less fulsome in his praise of Coventry’s watch-making industry, witnessed during a tour of Rotherham’s Spon Street factory.
While full of admiration for the skills on display, he found the Coventry trade’s way of doing things too conservative, contrasting it unfavourably with practices in its fastest-growing foreign competitor, Switzerland.
Writing in Household Words, the weekly journal he edited throughout the 1850s, Dickens argued that one reason for the cheapness of Swiss watches was that women worked in the trade. In Coventry, he added, ‘the employers desire it, the women desire it, but the men will not allow it.’
A sour note to end with, perhaps, but did the writer have cause to thank Coventry for something else?
Dickens once told a friend that he set a scene in The Old Curiosity Shop, where Little Nell takes shelter in the darkness of an ancient gateway, on a place he’d seen while passing through Coventry in a stage coach.
His description, complete with an empty statue niche over the central archway, perfectly fits Whitefriars Gatehouse on Much Park Street, in coaching times the main entrance to the city from London.
A number of CovSoc Committee members contributed to this article but our thanks to historian Peter Walters for bringing it all together.