Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire in England, has a number of connections with the Victorian writer Charles Dickens, which he came to on three occasions. He visited this market town in 1838 with one of his closest friends. He returned in 1852 as part of a series of fund-raising amateur theatrical shows Dickens organised across the country that year and finally in 1858 as part of a national reading tour. The town was no doubt on Dickens’s mind when he came to write A Tale of Two Cities, featuring its famous school in the novel. A church in Shrewsbury has also been used to film an adaptation of a classic Dickens Christmas tale.
In October 1838, Charles Dickens travelled with his friend, the illustrator Hablot Knight Browne (‘Phiz’) to the Midlands and Wales. He stopped off at Leamington Spa and Stratford-upon-Avon staying there one night in each town before travelling on to the Shropshire town of Shrewsbury for another overnight stop.
Dickens arrived by coach around 4.30pm on 31 October 1838 after a journey of over seven hours from Stratford-upon-Avon. He had hoped to take a shorter journey but a lack of available coaches had meant he ended up going via Birmingham and Wolverhampton. He described his journey as passing through “miles of cinder-paths and blazing furnaces, and roaring steam-engines, and such a mass of dirt, gloom, and misery as I never before witnessed“.
Charles Dickens stayed at the Lion Hotel, a 16th Century coaching-inn in the centre of the town. In the evening he went to the Theatre Royal with Browne and saw productions of a ballet The Love Chase and a play A Roland for an Oliver.
Dickens’s wife Catherine had not travelled with her husband on this journey, instead staying at their Doughty Street home in London looking after their two children. The couple kept in contact by letter and Charles received a letter from Catherine at Shrewsbury. On the morning of 1 November, Dickens replied with a letter from the hotel to his wife, before continuing his journey to Llangollen in Wales.
Charles Dickens returned to Shrewsbury on Monday, 17 May 1852 to perform a benefit theatrical night. The show was part of a number Dickens put on, along with a number of friends, that year to raise money for the Guild of Literature and Art.
An account of the performance was given in the Wolverhampton Chronicle and Staffordshire Advertiser on Wednesday, 19 May 1852:
The Amateur Company, under the management of Mr. Dickens, performed Monday night, in the Music Hall, Shrewsbury. Every seat in the different parts of the orchestra and the body of the hall appeared to be filled. Nothing could exceed the delight and satisfaction of the audience at the performance, which lasted five hours, and concluded amidst a storm of cheers and plaudits on the recall of the whole amateur corps dramatique. The persons present were about 600, and the receipts were about £300.
Charles Dickens final visit to Shrewsbury was as part of national reading tour he held in 1858. He held just one performance in the town, on the evening of Thursday, 12 August and again he appeared at the Music Hall.
An account of the night from the Shrewsbury Chronicle bemoans the venue, but not the performance:
Notwithstanding the wretched place to speak in which our Music-hall undoubtedly is, Mr Dickens’s reading was so effective that his audience wept with him over the pathetic history of Tiny Tim, and laughed as heartily over many of the highly humorous scenes in this enchanting story … On the whole, the audience were delighted, as was also Mr. Dickens, we should imagine, by the cordial and even enthusiastic reception he met with in Shrewsbury.
Dickens stayed again at the Lion Hotel that night.
Use of Shrewsbury in Dickens Literature.
In the Dickens historical novel A Tale of Two Cities (first published in instalments between April and November 1859) the characters Sydney Carton and Mr. Stryver were both educated at Shrewsbury School, before going on to study law in Paris and work as barristers in London. Shrewsbury School is an independent school founded under a Royal Charter in 1552 granted by King Edward VI. The school was originally in the centre of the town, where Dickens would have seen it. In 1882, Shrewsbury School moved to a much larger site on the outskirts of the town. In A Tale of Two Cities, the two characters refer back to their time at Shrewsbury School during one drinking session (Book 2 Chapter 5, The Jackal).
Filming of A Christmas Carol.
Shrewsbury was used as the setting for the 1984 film version of the Charles Dickens tale A Christmas Carol, which filmed many of its interior and exterior shots in and around the town. The gravestone prop of Ebenezer Scrooge (played by George C. Scott) that was used in the movie is still present in the graveyard of St Chad’s Church.
The Lion Hotel still stands in the town. The Theatre Royal has since been converted for other uses.
Further Reading on The Circumlocution Office.
Further Reading (external sites).