In the 19th Century, when the postal service was in its infancy, Charles Dickens lobbied for his own personal letterbox, writes Kathryn Westcott.
It's Christmas 1869 and Charles Dickens, prolific letter writer, is hurriedly finishing off a correspondence. "The postman is waiting at the gate to tramp through the snow to Rochester and is unlawfully drinking a glass of gin while I write this," Dickens reveals to his friend Charles Kent.
The postman was a familiar sight at Dickens's Georgian home, Gad's Hill Place in Higham, Kent. A postbox, installed by the postal service at the author's request, was one of the earliest wall-boxes to be introduced in Britain, following the introduction of the pillar box across the nation by fellow writer Anthony Trollope in 1852.
Dickens had personally lobbied for that postbox in 1859. Perhaps acting on a tip-off by friend and writer Edmund Yates, who worked in the Postmaster General's office, he replies to a correspondence from Yates stating:
"I think that no one seeing the place can well doubt that my house at Gad's Hill is the place for the letter-box. The wall is accessible by all sorts and conditions of men, on the bold high road, and the house altogether is the great landmark of the whole neighbourhood. Captain Goldsmith's house is up a lane considerably off the high road; but he has a garden wall abutting on the road itself..."
The letter was uncovered by Dickens enthusiast Jennifer Ide, a tour guide at Gad's Hill Place. Ide came across the decommissioned box a few years ago. She, along with the Charles Dickens Centre (Gad's Hill) Charitable Trust and the Letter Box Study Group, recently asked the Royal Mail to put it back into service. On the 10 December, it was recommissioned.
According to Ide, when Dickens moved to Gad's Hill, the closest place to send a letter was the village of Higham just over a mile away. "It was not an easy road - the return journey would have involved a very steep hill," says Ide. She says Dickens was often seen posting letters in Rochester, which was further away, probably because he had missed the morning Higham post. In Rochester, in 1866, the final dispatch would be 23:00, to arrive in London the next morning.
Over 14,000 letters written by Dickens are recorded in the Oxford Pilgrim Edition of his correspondence between 1820 and his death in June 1870.
"Dickens was a brilliant letter writer," says Claire Tomalin, author and Dickens biographer. "His letters were almost like a performance. They gave a vivid sense of what he was like and what he had been up to." But she says that in his later years, he was more circumspect about what he revealed in them - and they were generally shorter than previous letters. "There was a fear that his letters might be used to create some kind of biography," she says.
By the time he moved to Gad's Hill, Dickens had left his wife and had embarked on a secret affair with a young actress. A letter outlining the reasons for the separation somehow found its way into the British and American newspapers.
Like many Victorians, Dickens burned letters. In 1860, he held a huge bonfire at Gad's Hill, consigning to the flames "the accumulated letters and papers of 20 years". According to an eyewitnesses, the author said he wanted his own letters to be treated in the same way.
Dickens died at Gad's Hill in the evening of 9 June 1870. According to reports, he had written letters that day. Perhaps the postman waiting outside became one of the first people outside the immediate family to learn of the death of the great man of letters.
Letters quoted with permission of Mark Dickens.
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