To celebrate Charles Dickens' bicentenary year CALS staff delved into the Local Studies collections to search for Cheshire connections.
His paternal grandparents William and Elizabeth were employed by the Crewe family as steward and housekeeper at Crewe Hall in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. According to Annabella Crewe (daughter of the second Baron Crewe) Elizabeth Dickens was a wonderful storyteller, and on his visits Charles would sit in the housekeeper’s room listening to tales full of imagination and humour. Elizabeth left a great impression on the author and may have been immortalised in the characters Mrs Rouncewell in Bleak House and Mrs Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby.
As an established author, Charles returned to Cheshire to give a public reading of his works. Visiting Chester on 22nd January 1867 during bitterly cold weather he remarked in a letter to his daughter Mary 'I have seldom seen a place look more hopelessly frozen up than this place does. The hall [the Music Hall] is like a Methodist Chapel in low spirits, and with a cold in its head. A few blue people shiver at the corners of the streets'. However, he did enjoy an enthusiastic reception and later wrote that it was a 'tremendous night'. A review of his performance in the Chester Courant newspaper of January 30th 1867 cites his 'sparkling eye and fine voice' and his 'talent for dramatic representation'. The reporter for the Chester Chronicle, initially unconvinced of his acting talents, went on to say that Dickens 'fairly convulsed the audience with laughter' and the reading concluded 'amid loud applause' (January 26th 1867).
Other connections include a professional relationship with Knutsford’s Elizabeth Gaskell, river trips to Birkenhead and New Brighton on the Wirral, and visits to Cheadle Hall and Stanthorpe Lodge near Middlewich. There is speculation regarding a Cheshire experience being the inspiration for Miss Havisham’s untouched wedding breakfast in Great Expectations, and that characters from the story ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’ were based on a Northwich family, although this remains unproven …