King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Charles Dickens: a writing lifetime

An original Dickens speech

... in support of free health care for the poor

The event reported in this pamphlet (digitised in full below) is a fundraising evening,held on Tuesday 12 April 1864, to raise revenue for University College Hospital, then also known as the North London Hospital, 30 years old that year. It was held at Willis's Rooms, in King Street, St James's (the old Almack's ballroom), with Dickens in the chair. The building in which the meeting was held was destroyed in the London Blitz.

Before public funding became available for hospital care in the mid-20th century, hospitals were charitable concerns, and had to be perpetually raising money to keep afloat. As a young man, Dickens wrote scathingly about the oozing self-satisfaction of such events, so it is interesting to see him chairing and steering such an occasion later in life. Dickens here leads the customary royal toasts, and the toasts to the services, which he turns neatly round so as to be able to introduce a speech from the author of Tom Brown's Schooldays, his friend Thomas Hughes. Hughes was the commander of a volunteer corps belonging to the Working Men's College (still at Camden Town) which did its military exercises in the playground of University College School, in Gower Street. From his speech it would seem that some of the volunteers were in the audience.

But what is of most interest here, perhaps, is Dickens's description (see page 3) of his own associations with the 'Field of Forty Footsteps', a pieceof historic open land east of Gower Street to which historic folklore attached, concerning, as he describes:

'... a duel between two brothers, one of whom, advancing upon the other certain paces as he retreated, to wound him mortally, the grass got trodden down by forty dreadful footsteps, upon which the grass grew nevermore'.

Today, there is some doubt about the actual whereabouts of this field, some saying it remains unbuilt-upon in the land which lies just to the north of Senate House (the old Torrington Square) others that it has disappeared under the houses.

In his biography of Dickens, John Forster explained the novelist's associations with this piece of mythical landscape, stating that as a boy Dickens ranged over the fields of Bloomsbury before they were built upon. But Forster seems to have mis-dated this association to the time after the debtors' prison/factory episode, when Dickens was a schoolboy in Mornington Crescent, and the family was living in Somers Town. As we have seen in the outline of Dickens's life given in the first section of the exhibition, at an earlier stage the Dickens family had actually lived for a time in Gower Street itself, in a house which stood very close to the site of the hospital for which funds were being raised at this event over 40 years afterwards.

Dickens himself gives us the date here in this pamphlet, and since Forster was present in the audience (he made a donation, too) it is curious that he later mis-dated Dickens's story. Dickens himself here states his age at the time to have been eleven: which is exactly when the family was living in Gower Street, in late 1823/early 1824, during the days immediately before his unhappy period in the Blacking Factory.

An examination of local maps at the time of Dickens's childhood confirms that the fields of Bloomsbury north of the British Museum were laid out in streets and built over much later than fields either to the east (near the Foundling Hospital and Gray's Inn Lane) or west (Marylebone). Gower Street developed northwards from St Giles's (south to north) and since the northern end of it is not shown as built up at all on the Darton London map of 1817, the house in which the Dickens family lived in Upper Gower Street is likely to have been very new when they were there in the early 1820s. Its main windows would have faced towards the fields on which University College and the squares of Bloomsbury were subsequently built.

The event in 1864 celebrated 30 years of the hospital's activity, but Dickens's memory of its vicinity went back 40 years, and he made much of the number 40 in his speech. He chose to relate a yarn about a local legend and his own piratical boyhood intentions to travel with an adventurous friend to the Spanish main but he did not mention that he had lived right by the future site of University College Hospital. Instead, he utilized the brutal old story of the nearby field so as to turn its murderous implications inside out, to suggest how those sad forty footsteps had become instead 440,000 footsteps of people helped by the very hospital which had transformed the place.

Dickens went on to enumerate a number of reasons the hospital deserved support, not the least important of which (to him) being that it excluded 'no one – patient, student, doctor, surgeon, nurse – because of religious creed.' He praised the hospital's free care of the poor, its liberality in accepting medical students from diverse origins and religions, and for sending out well-qualified doctors trained in its liberality all over the world.

The dinner raised over £1600 for the hospital. This modest pamphlet is of great interest as it shows not only the character of the event it reports, but the uses to which such public events featuring speeches by Dickens were put: it is clear that the reprinting of the speeches and the subscription list in this pamphlet was intended to serve in itself as a further fundraiser for the hospital. The published list of donors at the dinner (pages10-11) demonstrates that quite ordinary people might contribute – there are munificent donations from wealthy figures, to be sure, but eight pounds and three shillings was donated collectively by the shop-assistants of Shoolbred's, a large department store in Tottenham Court Road, the proprietor of which attended the dinner and donated ten guineas on behalf of the company.

From the listing (on page 11) which shows how many tickets for nominating in- and out-patients for which donors of particular amounts might qualify, it is evident that in reprinting these proceedings the hope was to prompt further generous giving. The Committee's appeal on the final leaf,signed by its clerk, Mr JW Goodiff, makes explicit the hope that the recipient of the pamphlet would help diminish the hospital's ongoing shortfall of £2000 by 'taking part in the transformation which Mr Dickens describes as having taken place in the "Field of Forty Footsteps"'.

Dickens himself was toasted in glowing terms by other speakers, as a 'member of an aristocracy and a royalty that extended its sway not only over this island, but over the broad world', and hailed by the title of his current novel, as 'Our Mutual Friend'. We must infer that Charles Dickens's name on the front cover, and his good words inside this pamphlet, could only have served to promote such a humanitarian project.

Anniversary dinner in aid of the funds, at Willis's rooms, Tuesday, April 12, 1864: Charles Dickens, Esq., in the chair. [Wheatstone Collection Pamph.Box RA988.L8 UNI]

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