On the 4th of March 1812, Dickens was baptised in the medieval font. The church today is not the one that Dickens knew, having been rebuilt in 1880. The font was given to St James Milton, and the one in the church now is a later addition. It was built at the same time as a number of other institutes and mission halls to help those living in the deprived area. The church and its congregation still uphold the church’s original values of helping those who are disadvantaged in the community.
Charles Dickens created some of the world's best loved fictional characters and is regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era.
His works are considered classics of English literature.
Born in Portsmouth in 1812, Dickens was one of six children. His father worked for the Navy but was summoned back to London in 1822. The family fell into debt, and his parents and siblings moved to Marshalsea debtors prison. Dickens stayed with a friend and worked to reduce the debt.
These experiences inspired many of his novels and his wizened and impoverished characters. Churches often appear in his life and works. Dickens was particularly taken with Unitarianism and attended a chapel on Little Portland Street for many years, including the time he wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’. Unfortunately nothing remains of the chapel now.
Dickens marriage to Catherine Hogarth took place here on the 2nd of April, 1836. Catherine, like Dickens, was a journalist and also a writer and music critic. The couple honeymooned in Kent and then set up home in Bloomsbury and had 10 children. Much like a novel, their marriage had a dramatic ending with their separation in June 1858 when Dickens’ affair with an actress was uncovered. St Luke’s is one of the earliest Gothic Revival churches in London and many other famous weddings of the time took place within the church.
In 1910 the verger of St Bartholomew’s decided to put a false entry into the burial records and create a fake grave in his churchyard. The story goes that the verger George Bowden used post office ink to record the death of Little Nell, the girl from Dickens’ 1840 novel The Old Curiosity Shop, believing that it would bring more visitors to his church. In the book, Little Nell dies and is buried at the village church as her grandfather grieves. Tong could easily be the village Dickens was referencing, and many people believe that it is. The small grave attracted many visitors, and it is believed that Bowden would charge visitors a shilling to see the grave. It can still be seen today.
The church was built in 1792, and is of exceptional design featuring a circular nave. St Chad’s claim to Dickens fame is related to one of his best loved novels: A Christmas Carol, published in 1843. In the churchyard is the grave of Ebenezer Scrooge, the one which Scrooge visits with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and discovers that he died a ‘wretched man’. The grave is not a real one, but one created for a film production of the tale in 1984. Although it is widely known that the grave is fake, many people still visit it as a part of key Dickens related sites in England.
Dickens and his family lived relatively close to St Marylebone, so it was where he chose to have his first son baptised. The event is immortalised in his 1848 novel ‘Dombey and Son’, where baby Paul is christened in the same place. It is believed that Dickens based the fictional ceremony on his real experience at the church. Other famous baptisms to take place here include Lord Byron in 1788 and Admiral Horatio Nelson’s daughter Horatia.
‘I was born at Blunderstone, in Suffolk. There is nothing half so green as I know anywhere, as the grass of that churchyard; nothing half so shady as its trees; nothing half so quiet as its tombstones. The sheep are feeding there, when I kneel up to look out. Here is our pew in the church. What a high backed pew! With a window near it, out of which our house can be seen’. This quote is from Dickens’ novel ‘David Copperfield’ published in 1850. Blundeston in Suffolk was used as the basis for David’s home town and a number of locations described in the novel can be found in the village.
The church is dedicated to the patron Saint of Norway, King Olaf II, who fought alongside Ethelred the Unready against a Danish invasion in 1014. Dickens featured the church in the articles collected as The Uncommercial Traveller published in 1859. He dubbed the church as St Ghastly Grim, having been fascinated by the entrance arch to the churchyard which was built in 1658. The arch features a strange Gothic carving of three skulls across the top. The present church is not quite as Dickens would have known, as that church was devastated by German bombs during the Blitz of 1941, and restored in 1954.
St James is known for being the church which Dickens used for the opening scene of Great Expectations in 1861, even basing the graves of Pip’s parents and siblings on existing tombs in the churchyard. Dickens describes the graves as ‘five little stone lozenges each about a foot and a half long which were arranged in a neat row ... and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine’. The church have since noted that the graves described are in fact of children belonging to two separate families who died in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
Despite his wishes to be buried at Rochester Cathedral, Dickens was laid to rest in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey in 1870. The following epitaph was written following his death: ‘To the Memory of Charles Dickens (England's most popular author) who died at his residence, Higham, near Rochester, Kent, 9 June 1870, aged 58 years. He was a sympathiser with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world’.