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Our Watering Place

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Leading Article i
Prose: Travel-writing i
Subjects Great Britain—Description and Travel
Literature; Writing; Authorship; Reading; Books; Poetry; Storytelling; Letter Writing
Popular Culture; Amusements
Ships; Boats; Shipwrecks; Salvage; Merchant Marine; Sailors; Sailing; Submarines (Ships)
Sports; Games; Leisure; Pleasure; Hunting; Horse Racing; Gambling; Duelling
Other Details
Printed : 2/8/1851
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume III
Magazine : No. 71
Office Book Notes
Views : 1824

Dickens had been taking his family for a summer holiday to Broadstairs, on the east coast of Kent, every year since 1837 apart from 1844 and 1846. Originally a small fishing village, Broadstairs was made fashionable by the Duchess of Kent, who 'visited it every summer for years, coming in with the strawberries and going out with the blackberries' (The Illustrated Times, 29 August 1857, p. 154). When she tired of it, The Illustrated Times added, 'Mr Dickens took it up and fondled it for a time'.

Helped by its topography ('the charmingly tight little harbour', observes John Newman [The Buildings of England: North East and East Kent, 1969], is 'embraced by a horseshoe of low chalk cliffs'), it remained small in size, but this added to its attractiveness for Dickens. He frequently extolled the place in letters, especially in ones urging friends to visit him there: 'A good sea – fresh breezes – fine sands – and pleasant walks – with all manner of fishing-boats, light houses, piers, bathing machines and so forth are its only attractions, but it's one of the freshest and free-est little places in the world' (to Miss Allan, 3 July 1841; Pilgrim, Vol. II, p. 321). Writing from Broadstairs to an American friend Cornelius Felton in 1843, he described the place as 'intensely quiet': 'Old gentlemen and ancient ladies, flirt, after their own manner, in two readings rooms...Other old gentlemen look all day through telescopes and never see anything... (Pilgrim, Vol. III, p. 548). The Dickens family stayed at various addresses in the town during successive holidays, but for the summer of 1851 Dickens was able to rent 'a good bold house on the top of a cliff' (Pilgrim, Vol. VI, p. 125) known as Fort House (afterwards renamed 'Bleak House', though no part of that novel was written there; until recently partly a Dickens museum). Forster records (Book 6, Ch. 6) that there was great local excitement after the publication of 'Our Watering Place.' Of the buildings mentioned in this piece, the writing of which, Dickens confided to Wills, 'pleased me exceedingly' (Pilgrim, Vol. VI, p. 448), the seventeenth-century North Foreland Lighthouse still stands, as do the Albion Hotel and the pier, the latter having been reinforced during [the twentieth] century. The Charles Dickens Inn now stands on the site of the Assembly Rooms and the attached library (original 'Nuckell's Library' but by 1851 called the Royal Kent Marine Library according to The Post Office Directory of the Six Home Counties). The already-cited article in The Illustrated Times comments: 'They evidently cherish [Dickens's] memory at the library, and date the events in their lives from the happy time when the great novelist dwelt among them.' The 'haystack' church, Holy Trinity, was built in 1826 as a chapel of ease to the parish church of St Peter's to serve the growing watering-place population. The 'chief clerical dignitary' was the Vicar of St Peter's, the Rev. John Hodgson, who ceased to be responsible for Holy Trinity when it was made a parish church in its own right. The 'naval officer' so admiringly described was Lieutenant Edward Clarke, RN, in charge of the Coast Guard Station. The phrase 'these days of fraternisation' alludes to the international Great Exhibition.

Literary allusions

  • 'Miss Julia Mills' is Dora Spenlow's intensely romantic young friend and confidante in David Copperfield – see Ch. 33 et seq.;
  • 'have been roaming': from a comic song by C. E. Horn, 'I've been roaming';
  • 'Let there be light': Genesis 1:3;
  • 'And the stately ships go on...': Tennyson, 'Break, break, break';
  • 'Do chase the ebbing Neptune...': Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 5, Sc. 1.

Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume III: 'Gone Astray' and Other Papers from Household Words, 1851–59 (1998). DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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