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Charles Dickens: a writing lifetime

A Dickens manuscript letter, 1847

Withdrawing his son Charley from King's College School

Handwritten letter from Dickens withdrawing his son Charley from King's College SchoolLetter from Dickens withdrawing his son Charley from King's College School [KA/IC/D25/1, King’s College London Archives]A handwritten letter from Charles Dickens survives in King's College London Archives relating to Dickens's eldest son's brief period of attendance at King's College School in early 1847.

On the advice of his friend the philanthropist banking heiress Angela Burdett Coutts, Dickens had sent his son, Charles (known as Charley), her godson, to King's College School, then in the Strand. Dickens had worked as Miss Coutts's eyes and ears in many philanthropic projects. Miss Coutts had nominated Charley to his place at the school as a kindness to Dickens himself.

Dickens was horrified to discover that within months of his son's first arrival at the school, Charley had been exposed to the killer-disease scarlet fever. Dickens and his wife had previously felt their son safe at the school, as they had been travelling in France with the rest of the family when news of his danger reached them. Fearing the worst, Dickens and his wife immediately rushed back to London, leaving their other children in the care of their aunt, in Paris.

The whole emergency was rendered worse because Mrs Dickens was expecting another child, and was not allowed to see her own son for fear of infection, while Dickens had to keep away too, for fear of infecting her. Dickens explained in a letter to a friend that John Forster and the family doctor had collected Charley from the school and carried him to his maternal grandmother's home 'wrapped up in blankets, when the Fever was crimson on him'. Charley recovered, but Dickens was rattled by the experience. (24 March1847, Pilgrim Letters).

The polite manner in which, after a week's thought, Dickens couched this letter to the Secretary at King's, does not fully conceal the curtness with which he states his decisionto withdraw his son from the school. The letter reads:

Mr Charles Dickens presents his compliments to the Secretary of King's College,and begs to say that he finds it necessary, in consequence of the state of his son's health, to withdraw him from that Institution. He will not be able, therefore, to avail himself of the advantages of the ensuing term.

1 Chester Place, Regents Park,
Third April 1847

The document is endorsed below with a handwritten note from the headmaster, noting the facts of the case for the record:

I certify that Charles Dickens left the School from illness at the beginning of the present term.

JR Major
Apr.12th 1847.

A further note on the letter records money refunded to Dickens for unused school fees and stationery. Charley later also caught whooping cough. After a spell with a good private tutor, he was sent – again with the endorsement of Miss Coutts, to Eton.

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