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The Uncommercial Traveller [xxv]

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Author Charles Dickens
Genre Prose: Report i
Subjects Great Britain—Description and Travel
Industries; Industrial Revolution—Great Britain; Industrialization; Industrial Safety; Industrial Laws and Legislation; Industrial Welfare; Industrial Relations;
Machinery; Machinery in the Workplace; Machinery Industry; Machinery Industry—Automation
Ships; Boats; Shipwrecks; Salvage; Merchant Marine; Sailors; Sailing; Submarines (Ships)
Travel; Tourism; Hotels; Resorts; Seaside Resorts—Fiction; Passports;
Work; Work and Family; Occupations; Professions; Wages
Other Details
Printed : 29/8/1863
Journal : All the Year Round
Volume : Volume X
Magazine : No. 227
Office Book Notes
Views : 925

Retitled 'Chatham Dockyard' in collected editions of the series.

Henry VIII first rented storehouses at Chatham to service his fleet in 1547.

From the Sunne in 1586, until HM Submarine Ocelot in 1962, Chatham Dockyard built and launched vessels of the Royal Fleet, including such famous names as HMS Victory, Revenge, Temeraire and Leviathan, the so-called 'wooden walls' of England. In its hey-day, the Yard covered 80 acres, and it currently boasts 47 Scheduled Ancient Monuments, mainly consisting of Georgian and early Victorian dock buildings: shops, houses, slips, lofts, storehouses, offices and officers' accommodation.

In the early years of AYR, Dickens commissioned several articles describing in detail visits to British and French military and naval installations (see Oppenlander, under Collins, Charles, and Hannay, James). Dickens had himself, moreover, already co-written with R.H. Horne a paper on the Dockyard at Chatham, titled 'One Man in a Dockyard' and published in HW on 6 September 1851 (Vol. III; reprinted in Stone, Vol. I, p. 331-342). In a letter of July 1851, proposing the general notion of this article, Dickens had explained to his Sub-editor that '[t]he notion I think of trying... is a kind of adaptation of an old idea I once had (when I was making my name) of a fanciful and picturesque 'beauties of England and Wales'.... Don't you think a series of places, well chosen, and described well, with their peculiarities and popularities thoroughly seized, would be a very promising series?—And one that people would be particularly likely to identify with me?' (Pilgrim, Vol. VI, p.451). However, all the papers mentioned so far tend to the factual and informative, rather than the 'fanciful and picturesque', which is brought out much more clearly in the present item.

In the summer of 1863, Sydney Smith Haldimand Dickens (Dickens's fifth son) was 'pretty constantly at home', as the ship on which he was serving as a midshipman, HMS Orlando, was 'fortunately in Chatham Dockyard... while the shipwrights are repairing a leak in her' (Pilgrim, Vol. X, p. 253). In his letters, Dickens refers to Sidney with evident pride as 'my Sailor-boy' or 'the Admiral', and recounts how, among his peers, he was referred to as ''Young Dickens, who can do everything'' (Pilgrim, Vol. IX, p. 247). It is probable that in the description here of the 'wise boy' with his store of nautical knowledge, Dickens gives an affectionate portrait of Sidney accompanying his father to inspect the repairs to the Orlando in July or August 1863.

The HMS Achilles, one of ten new ironclad broadside-armed ships commissioned in the 1860s, was launched on 23-24 December 1863 and was the first iron-hulled boat to be built for a national government in its own yard. The 'Military and Naval Intelligence' column of The Times reported in detail on the progress of its construction, noting the following details:

Advantage has been taken at Chatham of the recent fine weather to lay the main and upper deck planking of the Achilles.... The mechanics have been employed overtime for about a fortnight in order that the entire deck might be completed before any change of weather sets in. The iron plating of all the decks is 5-16ths of an inch in thickness, with iron ties 5/8[ths of an inch] thick.... The only remaining portions of the exterior of the Achilles now waiting to receive the armour-plates [are] the stem and stern portions, but in consequence of the difficulty experienced in bending the plates the work proceeds but slowly. (25 August 1863, p. 10, col. f)

Although dated 29 August 1863, the edition of AYR in which Dickens's 'rival' (and much fuller) report on the construction of the 'Achilles' appeared, would in fact have become available the previous Wednesday, i.e. on 25 August: the same day as The Times feature. HMS Achilles remained afloat until 1923 (see Philip MacDougall, The Chatham Dockyard Story, 1987, pp. 111-115).

Literary allusions:

  • 'the identical little man who had the little gun... lead, lead, lead': Mother Goose nursery rhyme called 'The Little Man';
  • 'note of preparation': Shakespeare, Henry V (1600), Act 4, 'Chorus';
  • 'Chinese Enchanter's Car... country': Dickens is here probably recalling some pantomime seen in his early years (D. Mayer notes in his Harlequin in his Element [1969], p. 140f., that there was a strong Chinese element in English pantomime between 1812 and 1823, though makes no mention either of an Enchanter or a Car; 'The Chinese Enchanter', was, however the name of a spectacular equestrian act devised by Ducrow in 1826, though again, no car was involved; see A. H. Saxons's Life and Art of Andrew Ducrow [1978], pp. 204-205);
  • 'telling his keys like Blue Beard': allusion to Charles Perrault's tale 'La Barbe Bleue' (1697);
  • 'braggart Pistol and his brood': group of roguish soldiers, followers of Falstaff, featuring in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Henry V (1600) and Merry Wives of Windsor (1602).


Author: John Drew; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume IV: 'The Uncommercial Traveller' and Other Papers, 1859-1870, 2000.

DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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