Derby is an English midlands city and the county town of Derbyshire. In the early part of the nineteenth century Derby emerged as a hub of engineering, particularly when the Midland railway, a merger of the Midland Counties Railway and the Birmingham and Derby Junction Railway, chose to base its headquarters there. In common with many industrial towns and cities during the nineteenth century, Derby witnessed a huge expansion with a population of just under 15,000 in 1801 increase to well over 100,000 by the end of the century.
The Victorian author Charles Dickens visited the then town on at least two known occasions. The first, in 1852, was an amateur theatre performance to raise funds for a charity project Dickens was deeply involved in. The second, in 1858, was on one of Dickens reading tours which he undertook during the latter part of his life. Sadly the visit was not warmly received by the local newspapers and the author did not return to the city.
On Thursday, August 26 1852 Charles Dickens visited Derby and gave an amateur theatrical performance at the Mechanics’ Institute Lecture Hall in aid of the Guild of Literature and Art. The performance commenced with Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s comedy of Not Bad as seem; or, Many Sides to Character.
The performance was part of a number of benefit productions he organised that summer across the country. During the visit, Dickens stayed at the Royal Hotel.
Local newspaper Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal was complimentary of Dickens acting, reporting:
The chief part in the plot devolved upon Mr. Charles Dickens, and its execution was faultless. When Mr. Dickens appeared the stage he was received with the most enthusiastic applause, which was repeated several times during the evening.
On Friday, 22 October 1858, Charles Dickens returned to Derby and gave a reading, held at the Mechanics’ Institute Lecture Hall at 8pm, as part of a national reading tour. He reads from The Poor Traveller, The Boots at the Hollytree Inn, and the Mrs Gamp episode from Martin Chuzzlewit. The performance had been originally advertised that Dickens would read from A Christmas Carol, but the itinerary was changed a couple of weeks before the visit.
Local newspaper Derby Mercury was less than complimentary about the change, and the reading as whole. These are some of the extracts from its review published on Wednesday, 27 October 1858:
The piece originally selected for Mr. Dickens’ reading was the “Christmas Carol,” but it was announced that “in compliance with what he believes to be a general wish,” instead of this, “The Poor Traveller,” “Boots at the Holly Tree Inn,” and some chapters in the history of the notorious Mrs. Gamp, would be read. We certainly think that Mr. Dickens was ill-advised in this change. The picturesque beauty and healthy tone of the “Christmas Carol” would have been infinitely preferable to the stereotyped vulgarity of “boots” and chamber-maids, and the repulsive coarseness of Mesdames Gamp, Harris, and Betsey Prig. The two tales first read may be dismissed in few words. The first was rather dull, and the second amusing without being at absolute variance with good taste or delicacy, while there is much true childish feeling well portrayed in it. But we must say that it was a breach of good taste – a serious and needless affront to ordinary refinement – to obtrude the gross remarks of these professional nurses on the ears of the young ladies who formed so large a portion of the audience : and it struck us that many of those present seemed half ashamed of the very partial laugh which these coarse jokes elicited. It may be said, in answer to these observations, that no objections were raised to the indelicacies spoken of when the work in which they occur was published; and that they were widely read by the same classes who had to listen to them on Friday. First observing that we do not believe they would be read by any cultivated unmarried woman without disgust, we reply that this is begging the question. If people choose to read them in books nothing can be said. Their being there constitutes no offence against public taste and delicacy. But it becomes an entirely different thing when they are read to a large audience of both sexes, who have no alternative but to listen to them.
Mr.Dickens is rather below than above the average height, and looks about five and forty. He has a considerable beard, and a good deal of mustache, which of course hides the mouth, and so conceals the play of one of the most expressive features. Mr. Dickens has a clear but not melodious voice, and his feigned voice “tells” with more effect in scraps of broad humour, such as proceed from “Mrs. Gamp” or “Boots,” than in semi-poetical description.
On the whole we are inclined to doubt whether Mr. Dickens would refill the Lecture Hall on a second visit. We doubt whether there is sufficient intrinsic merit in the entertainment to attract, when you have satisfied the desire, so strong in the English mind, of seeing for the first time any lion, whether literary, military, political, or quadruped.