The Victorian author Charles Dickens made a number of visits to the West Midlands. This included two visits to the city of Coventry. The first, in 1857, was to help an educational charity. The city was so appreciative they invited him back the following year.
Charles Dickens was involved in a number of philanthropic and charitable causes during his life. One of the ways he could help a large number of institutions around the country was to offer his time by giving readings. Dickens was very famous and large crowds would attend any public event he was involved in. By giving readings he allowed charitable causes to reap the proceeds from admission sales.
Dickens had actually started doing this in the neighbouring West Midlands city of Birmingham when he gave three readings to raise money for the charitable Birmingham and Midland Institute. Held in December 1853 at the town hall, they were his first public readings and being Christmas time he had chosen to read from A Christmas Carol. He would continue to choose the short story for many more of his charitable readings.
Four years later Dickens would be invited to Coventry to repeat what had been witnessed at Birmingham, this time in support of the newly created Coventry Institute.
The Coventry Institute.
The Coventry Institute was established in 1855 by an amalgamation of The Mechanics’ Institution and The Religious and Useful Knowledge Society. The leading principles of the constitution of The Mechanics’ Institution were to promote literary and scientific pursuits among the working classes. Books on controversial theology, novels and plays were excluded, as were those of an exclusively political nature, and discussions on religion or politics were forbidden. The Religious and Useful Knowledge Society was founded by friends of the Established Church, the idea being to provide for subjects which the Mechanics’ Institution omitted from its syllabus, especially in the matter of religious teaching. The societies had been amalgamated about two years when Charles Dickens gave his reading.
Charles Dickens and The Coventry Institute.
In 1857, Charles Dickens was invited to help the Coventry Institute. The request was reported as being instigated by Dickens friend Joseph Paxton, the architect and designer of the famous Crystal Palace exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. Paxton was a Liberal Member of Parliament for Coventry from 1854 until his death in 1865. Dickens duly obliged, on 15 December 1857, by giving a reading of A Christmas Carol which was held at the Corn Exchange, Hertford Street, Coventry. Funds raised from admission, said to amount to £50, went to help the Coventry Institute.
Presentation at the Castle Inn.
As a mark of gratitude for helping the Coventry Institute, Dickens was invited the following year to a public dinner and presentation, which was held in the Castle Inn, on the Broadway, on 4 December 1858. Dickens was presented with a gold repeater watch, manufactured locally by the firm Rotherham and Son. Dickens gave a short thank you speech at the event. The watch sounded the hours and quarters and Dickens kept the watch, which was said to have never stopped until the fateful Staplehurst rail crash.
The watch had the following message engraved on it:
Presented to Charles Dickens, Esq., by his friends at Coventry, as a grateful acknowledgement of his kindness to them, and of his eminent services in the interests of humanity.
In his will, Dickens bequeathed the Coventry watch to his friend and biographer, John Forster.