Today marks 200 years since the birth of writer Charles Dickens. Growing up in Hamilton in the 1970s and 80s my limited diet of Dickens consisted of a production of “Oliver” circa 1978 by the local theatre group and repeats of an old version of “A Christmas Carol” on one of the two TV channels. Oh, and there was a street in Hamilton called Dickens Street, presumably named after Charles himself. As there is a Burns, Tennyson, Shakespeare, Byron and Chaucer Street in Hamilton, it made sense to think Dickens Street was part of the theme the early town leaders had happening. Or did it? Those other guys are poets anyway.
Having missed a copy of the first edition of a book by Hamilton researcher John McKay in 2007, The Streets of Hamilton , Western Victoria, Australia: A History of the People behind the Names, which had a limited print run, I was lucky enough to have Dad snare a copy of the revised 2nd edition in 2009. It is a terrific book, and as I am familiar with all the street names, it was interesting to read who the streets were named after, with some surprises.
The biggest of those was that Dickens Street, Hamilton was not named after Charles Dickens, rather his son Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens. Why? Because he lived in Hamilton? What? The son of one of the world’s most famous novelists could not have lived in Hamilton, my hometown Hamilton, a million miles from the world of Charles Dickens.
Unbelievable but true. In fact, I find it a little mind-boggling that Alfred Dickens walked the streets of Hamilton 100 years before I did.
Alfred came to be in Australia as his father has sent him off to make his fortune, just as he did with his youngest son Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens (aka “Plorn”), who lived in New South Wales.
Alfred’s travels led him to Hamilton where he set up an auctioneering business with Robert Stapylton Bree known as Bree, Dickens and Co. They were in partnership from 1875-1882.
John McKay mentions a property at 32 Collins Street, Hamilton which Alfred rented before building his own home next door. The house is very familiar to me and I have been along the street many times, so to think that the son of Dickens lived there is almost unbelievable.
It was an accident which claimed the life of his wife, Jessie Devlin, that saw Alfred Dickens leave Hamilton.
Alfred packed up his two daughters and went to Melbourne. He was known for his elocution skills and he began giving lectures on his father’s works. It was on a trip to New York as part of a speaking tour to England and the U.S. that Alfred died.
I feel a bit ripped off that it took so long to find out about Hamilton’s brush with Charles Dickens. But I feel I am not alone. There would not be many people who either live or have lived in Hamilton that would know the story of Alfred, except for local historians and those who have read John McKay’s book, of course. Maybe we would know more of him if he had lived out his years in Hamilton, which it appeared he was preparing to do when Jessie met her death. So on this day, the birthday of Charles Dickens, let us also remember Alfred and his time in the Western District.