Charles Dickens is more commonly linked with the great city of London. Throughout his career, he immortalised its dark streets and troubled inhabitants in his fiction. But you can also go looking for Dickens in Newcastle – and not just in his stories.
The great man himself made appearances at the Music Hall during the nineteenth century.
In his day, you could find the Music Hall and Lecture Room in the network of streets in the old city centre. These days, head for Grainger Street. It’s a major thoroughfare through Newcastle upon Tyne. It leads from Grey’s Monument, all the way down to the Central Station. If you head south and turn right into Nelson Street, you’ll find the Music Hall.
Or will you?
Built as part of the Grainger development in 1838, sadly all you find now is the facade. Behind it lies the Eldon Square shopping centre. It’s now part of the Alchemist bar.
Readings at Newcastle’s Music Hall
Dickens actually visited Newcastle six times between 1852 and 1867. His first visit was while acting as a manager of a touring company. He even acted in two plays, Not So Bad As We Seem and Mr Nightingale’s Diary. The Old Assembly Rooms actually hosted the plays; built to hold 300, the Rooms held 600 when the author made an appearance.
There was always a willing audience for Dickens in Newcastle.
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 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 … a 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 (aff link). 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 in Newcastle
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. And not just in Newcastle.
Dickens’ work continues to provide valuable information about early Victorian London. 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.
Did you know about the popularity of Dickens in Newcastle?
Let me know below!
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.
Ghosts & goddesses
Would you like more folklore and weird tales? Add your email to get them once a month, and receive this free copy of my short story collection too!