diamond geezer

 Tuesday, February 07, 2012

1 Mile End Terrace, Portsmouth, Hants

Two hundred years ago today, not that anybody noticed at the time, one of the greatest authors of all time was born. Charles Dickens wasn't born in London, because that'd be presumptuous, nor in Kent, because that's only where he ended up. Instead he was born in Portsmouth, in a fairly ordinary terraced house near the Dockyard. John Dickens worked there as a clerk with the Navy, and it was here in Mile End Terrace that the first two of his children were born. The family didn't stay long, indeed Charles was only three months old when they moved up the road to somewhere better. But many years later, when he was considerably more successful, Charles came back to Portsmouth in an attempt to find the house where he'd spent his earliest weeks. He didn't succeed, he'd not come armed with sufficient memories or documentation. But after his death the people of Portsmouth realised they had a tourist attraction in their midst, and sought out the correct building, and turned it into a museum. And it's still going, which is damned impressive for a tiny 111-year-old concern up a sidestreet, but that's a sign of the measure of the great man.

Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum [photo]
Location: 393 Old Commercial Road, Portsmouth PO1 4QL [map]
Open: 10am - 5:30pm (closed Monday)
Admission: £4 (but free today)
Website: www.charlesdickensbirthplace.co.uk
Time to set aside: about half an hour

It's fortunate that the citizens of Portsmouth preserved Dickens' birthplace when they did. The family lived on one of the main roads out of town, just north of what's now the main shopping centre, and approaching the site today things don't look very promising. A broad dual carriageway has replaced the former coaching road, which within a quarter of a mile mutates into a modern motorway to speed traffic out of town. Most of Old Commercial Road has long since vanished beneath four lanes of tarmac, or a line of scarily austere modern brick tenement blocks. But council planners have retained one small length of Georgian Portsmouth, diverting the A3 in a gentle curve around the rear of Dickens' back garden. They've preserved a desirable spot, complete with cobbles and the remains of old tramlines, made slightly incongruous by the number of council estate folk using the road as a cut-through to the deprived streets beyond. John Dickens paid rent of £35 a year, but it costs rather more to live in Mile End Terrace today, hence the houses neighbouring number 1 are beautifully maintained with ornamental front gardens. [photo]

Entrance to the museum is via the steps down to the basement, so don't try entering through the front door, you'll only look stupid. The first room is the kitchen, which is now the shop, and here you'll be welcomed by the staff. This room is also home to the only piece of furniture to have survived since Dickens' day. You'd expect every last piece to have been lost, because nobody in 1812 realised how important the newborn baby would turn out to be. But the sturdy wooden dresser was built into the floor, so it was going nowhere, and now it makes a useful surface for a display of books, trinkets and other Dickens-related gifts. A fine and decent selection, you'll be pleased to hear.

Upstairs, which is the ground floor of this compact triple-decker terrace, two rooms. They're a parlour and a dining room - as I said, absolutely nothing's original, but each is decked out with the furniture and the fashions of the day. It's all very nicely done, and very recently refurbished to add (amongst other things) proper period wallpaper. All the accompanying information is appropriately vague (for example crockery "of the kind that the Dickens might have used"), but the overall effect successfully brings to life how things might have been for a naval clerk and his young family. The grandfather clock in the hallway adds a timely touch, while a rear passage leads out (through a locked door) to the cricket-square-sized back garden.

Ascend the twisting wooden stairs once again to reach the house's special floor. At the front, the bedroom in which Charles took his first breath. History doesn't recall how smoothly the delivery went, but had there been complications we might never have become acquainted with Mr Micawber, Oliver Twist and all. A wooden crib on the floor is the only physical hint of authorial birth - again it's not the original, so don't gaze upon it with great expectations. Instead head to the memorabilia room at the back of the house, where there's a piece of furniture you'd think has no place whatsoever being here. It's a green couch, indeed it's the green couch on which Charles Dickens died. He passed away after suffering a stroke in Kent - described as "apoplexy" on the official death certificate on the wall above - and his housekeeper later bequeathed the couch to Portsmouth because they were the only place at the time with a Dickens museum. It quietly freaked me out, stepping from the bedroom in which Dickens was born to the actual couch on which he died, his opening and closing chapters, in adjacent rooms.

There's an attic too, again two rooms, in which the Dickens family servant(s) would have lived. These have so far been left empty, bar a single table of period documentation and a pair of Charles's Kentish bookcases. Look out of the back window, above the tiny garden, and there's a Morrisons and a hire shop, and the sprawling Naval Dockyard, and in the foreground that very modern dual carriageway. But look out of the front window and there's the Old Commercial Road, preserved almost as it was 200 years ago when a tiny baby made his voice heard for the very first time. We hear it still today.

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