Charles Dickens is usually linked with the great city of London. Throughout his career, he immortalised its dark streets and troubled inhabitants in his fiction.
But London isn’t the only city to lay claim to an association. My own hometown of Newcastle upon Tyne also hosted the great man himself!
Arrive at Grey’s Monument and head down south Grainger Street, a main thoroughfare through Newcastle upon Tyne. Take the first right turn into Nelson Street, where you’ll find the Music Hall and Lecture Room.
Or will you?
Built as part of the Grainger development in 1838, sadly all you find now is the facade. Behind it lies the new food hall quarter of the Eldon Square shopping centre. So why is the Music Hall important?
Charles Dickens made actual appearances here!
Readings at Newcastle’s Music Hall
Dickens visited Newcastle six times between 1852 and 1867. He acted as a manager of a touring company on his first visit. He also acted in two plays, Not So Bad As We Seem and Mr Nightingale’s Diary. The Old Assembly Rooms hosted the plays; built to hold 300, the Rooms held 600 when Dickens made an appearance.
Here’s part of the poster for the production of Not So Bad As We Seem. Performed on August 27th 1852, the play featured Dickens as Lord Wilmot, alongside writer Wilkie Collins and illustrator John Tenniel!
Dickens also gave public readings from his own books. He liked his Newcastle audiences, exclaiming in 1861 that “a finer audience there is not in England, and I suppose them to be a specially earnest people; for while they can laugh till they shake the roof, they have a very unusual sympathy with what is pathetic or passionate” (Chronicle, 1939, p1).
The newspapers certainly bear witness to his popularity. According to the Newcastle Chronicle, Dickens gave the first of 2 readings in the Music Hall on Monday 4 March 1867. On the night, “[t]he hall was crowded with a brilliant and appreciative audience”. When Dickens appeared onstage, he “received … an unanimous and hearty burst of applause” (Chronicle, 1867, p3).
On this occasion, he read his Christmas story, ‘Dr. Marigold’s Prescription’. The Journal described how “for about two hours [Dickens] sustained unabated the interest of an audience who filled to overflowing the Music Hall, the passages even being occupied” (Journal, 1867, p2).
The following night, he read ‘The Christmas Carol’ and ‘Bob Sawyer’s Party’, from The Pickwick Papers. According to the Chronicle, “the entertainment was highly successful, and Mr. Dickens was loudly applauded at the conclusion” (Chronicle, 1867, p3).
Disaster strikes for Dickens
Not all of his readings were quite so successful. While reading a Smike episode from Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens watched in horror as “the room on the second night was tremendously crowded and [his] gas apparatus fell down”.
Dickens feared a rush for the stairs and an ensuing disaster. Instead, a woman in the stalls ran towards him. Dickens capitalised on the sudden move, and when she was visible to the whole hall, “addressed her, laughing, and half-asked and half-ordered her to sit down again”.
Unlike authors who only achieve fame after their deaths, the reviews make it clear that Dickens enjoyed popularity and success in his own time.
Yet Dickens continues to provide valuable information about early Victorian London, and his stories find new fans with every retelling.
As the Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury point out, “few writers have ever had so large or wide a circle of readers and admirers; no characters are better known than his; no author has ever been so largely quoted; and none … have done better service in the suppression of abuses” (1861, p1).
155 years on, they’re still right.
Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury (1861) ‘Mr. Charles Dickens’ Readings in Newcastle’, Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury, Saturday 23 November.
Newcastle Chronicle (1867) ‘Amusements’, Newcastle Chronicle, Saturday 09 March.
Newcastle Journal (1867) ‘Mr Charles Dickens in Newcastle’, Newcastle Journal, Tuesday 05 March.
R.B.L.T. (1939) ‘Events in Career of Dickens’, Newcastle Chronicle, Saturday 04 February.