Royal Leamington Spa, more commonly known as Leamington Spa or Leamington, is a spa town in Warwickshire, England. Originally a small village called Leamington Priors it grew into a spa town in the 18th century following the popularisation of its water which was reputed to have medicinal qualities. The town expanded rapidly in the 19th century. It is named after the River Leam, which flows through the town.
The Victorian author Charles Dickens has a number of connections with Leamington Spa and the surrounding area. In October 1838, Dickens travelled with his friend, the illustrator Hablot Knight Browne (a.k.a ‘Phiz’) to the Midlands and Wales. He stopped off at Leamington en route, where he was able to visit the local castles at Kenilworth and Warwick. Charles Dickens returned to Leamington as part of two national reading tours, in 1858 and again in 1862. Dickens would also feature the town in one of his novels.
Charles Dickens stayed for one night in Leamington Spa, at the Copps’s Royal Hotel on the High Street on 29 October 1838, as part of a longer journey the pair were undertaking to the Midlands and Wales.
The following day, Dickens and Browne visited the castles at Kenilworth and Warwick. He was impressed by the ruins at Kenilworth but said of Warwick Castle that it was “possessing no very great attraction beyond a fine view and some beautiful pictures“.
Inspiration for Dombey and Son.
Charles Dickens is noted for using places he visited and people he met into his works and Leamington Spa was no exception, although it was a number of years later before he would use his experiences in his novel Dombey and Son, serialised between October 1846 and April 1848.
In the novel, following the death of his son, Paul Dombey goes to recuperate at Leamington Spa with his friend Joe Bagstock. While in the area, Dombey and Bagstock meet Edith Granger and her mother and together the group visits Warwick Castle and “the haunted ruins of Kenilworth.”
On Tuesday, 2 November 1858, Charles Dickens returned to Leamington Spa as part of a national reading tour. He gave two readings on the same day at the town’s Music Hall, situated in Bath Street. In the afternoon, Dickens read from A Christmas Carol and in the evening he performed readings from The Poor Traveller, The Boots at the Hollytree Inn, and the Mrs Gamp episode from Martin Chuzzlewit.
An account of the visit was published a few days later in the local newspaper Leamington Spa Courier which records the atmosphere in the hall:
To say that the place was crowded is only to express a literal truth. Upon both occasions —afternoon and evening—a sea of delighted countenances were turned towards the reader—betokening, by their changing and varied expression, how well their owners sympathised with the happy thoughts, the tender sentiments, the wit, humour and profound pathos to which it was their privilege to listen.
On Wednesday, 1 January 1862, Charles Dickens again came to Leamington Spa as part of a national reading tour. Leamington was the inaugural stop and he gave two readings that day, again held at the town’s Music Hall. In the afternoon performance, Dickens read from David Copperfield and in the evening he read from Nicholas Nickleby and also the trial scene from The Pickwick Papers.
The following day, Dickens travelled from Leamington to Cheltenham via Birmingham. Whilst waiting at Birmingham Station, he wrote to his friend, W. H. Wills commenting on the previous day’s performances:
At Leamington yesterday, immense. Copperfield in the morning* absolutely stunned the people. Nickleby and the Trial at night, they roared and roared until i think they must have shaken all the air in Warwickshire.
* Where Dickens performed two readings a day, the early performances were advertised as ‘morning’ although they actually started mid-afternoon. Here, Dickens refers to the first performance as ‘morning’.
The Copps’s Royal Hotel in Leamington Spa, which opened in 1827, was demolished in 1847 to make way for the building of a railway bridge.
Further Reading on The Circumlocution Office.
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