Major-General Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby (1783-1837)

Today we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, an event which I have studied closely in the past. Having already written a post on Wellington, the great hero of the battle, I thought I would focus here on another character- Major General Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby. it’s a great story!

by Thomas Heaphy, watercolour and pencil, 1813-1814

by Thomas Heaphy, watercolour and pencil, 1813-1814

Ponsonby was the second son of the 3rd Earl of Bessborough and Lady Henrietta Spencer, daughter of the 1st Earl Spencer. During the Peninsular War he fought at Talavera, Badajoz, Salamanca, and was wounded at Burgos. He also fought at the Battle of Vitoria and The Battle of the Pyreenes. It was Frederick who gave the news to Wellington that Napoleon had been forced to abdicate.

During Waterloo Frederick took part in a ill-fated cavalry charge with the 12th Light Dragoons. They badly overstretched themselves and Frederick was very badly injured and left for dead on the battlefield. He was wounded in both arms, thrown to the ground by the stab of a sabre, and then pierced through the back. Over the hours that Frederick endured lying on the bloody battlefield, he met a Frenchman who promised to help him and gave him some brandy, was used as a shield from which another Frenchman shot at the British from, was trampled by oncoming Prussian cavalry, and plundered for his possessions; still he survived! At last he was spotted by a passing British foot soldier who stood guard over him until he could be taken to shelter. Miraculously he survived his many injuries, nursed back to health by his infamous sister- Lady Caroline Lamb.

(c) English Heritage, The Wellington Collection, Apsley House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) English Heritage, The Wellington Collection, Apsley House; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. On the left is Frederick and on the right Major-General Sir Colin Campebell

Frederick became quite famous for this adventure, although the exact details of it only came to light later. Frederick had wanted to keep the exact happenings of his traumatic experience away from his mother, who was bound to be shocked by them. Eventually though he was persuaded to tell his tale to Lady Shelley. Lady Shelley then wrote this long letter relaying the details to Lady Bessborough.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

It’s a very long account, so I have abridged some of it, but I promise it is worth a read! Over to Frederick…

‘In the melee I was disabled almost instantly in both my arms, and followed by a few of my men who were presently cut down—for no quarter was asked or given—I was carried on by my horse, till receiving a blow on my head from a sabre, I was thrown senseless on my face to the ground. Recovering, I raised myself a little to look round, being I believe at that time in a condition to get up and run away, when a Lancer, passing by, exclaimed : ” Tu n’es pas mort, coquin,” and struck his lance through my back.


The Battle of Waterloo. Image: Plas Newydd

My head dropped, the blood gushed into my mouth; a difficulty of breathing came on, and I thought all was over. Not long afterwards (it was then impossible to measure time, but I must have fallen in less than ten minutes after the charge) a tirailleur came up to plunder me, threatening to take away my life. I told him that he might search me, directing him to a small side pocket, in which he found three dollars, being all I had. He unloosed my stock, and tore open my waistcoat, then leaving me in a very uneasy posture. He was no sooner gone, than another came up for the same purpose, but assuring him I had been plundered already, he left me. When an officer, bringing on some troops (to which probably the tirailleurs belonged) and halting where I lay, stooped down and addressed me, saying he feared I was badly wounded, I replied that I was, and expressed a wish to be removed into the rear. He said it was against the orders to remove even their own men, but that if they gained the day, as they probably would, for he understood the Duke of Wellington was killed and that six battalions of the English army had surrendered, every attention in his power should be shown me. I complained of thirst, and he held his brandy bottle to my lips, directing one of his men to lay me down on my side, and placed a knapsack under my head. He then passed on into the action, and I shall never know to whose generosity I was indebted, as I conceive, for my life. Of what rank he was I cannot say; he wore a blue great-coat.

By-and-bye another tirailleur came, and knelt down and fired over me, loading and firing many times, and conversing with great gaiety all the while…Whilst the battle continued in that part, several of the wounded men and dead bodies near me were hit with the balls, which came very thick in that place. Towards evening, when the Prussians came up, the continued roar of cannon along their and the British line, growing louder and louder as they drew near, was the finest thing I ever heard. It was dusk when the two squadrons of Prussian cavalry, both of them two deep, passed over me in a full trot, lifting me from the ground, and tumbling me about cruelly—the clatter of their approach and the apprehensions it excited may be easily conceived. Had a gun come that way, it would have done for me.

The battle was then nearly over, or removed to a distance. The cries and groans of the wounded all around me became every instant more and more audible, succeeding to the shouts, imprecations, and cries of ” Vive l’Empereur,” the discharges of musketry and cannon, now and then intervals of perfect quiet which were worse than the noise. I thought the night would never end. Much about this time one of the Royals lay across my legs—he had probably crawled thither in his agony—his weight, convulsive motions, his noises, and the air issuing through a wound in his side, distressed me greatly—the latter circumstance most of all, as the case was my own.

It was not a dark night, and the Prussians were wandering about to plunder, and the scene in “Ferdinand Count Fathom” came into my mind, though no women, I believe, were there. Several Prussians came, looked at me, and passed on. At length one stopped to examine me. I told him as well as I could, for I could speak but little German, that I was a British officer, and had been plundered already. He did not desist, however, and pulled me about roughly before he left me. About an hour before midnight I saw a soldier in an English uniform coming towards me. He was, I suspect, on the same errand, but he came and looked in my face. I spoke instantly, telling him who I was, and assuring him of a reward if he would remain by me. He said that he belonged to the 40th Regiment, but that he had missed it. He released me from the dying man, and being unarmed, he took up a sword from the ground, and stood over me, pacing backwards and forwards.

At 8 o’clock in the morning some English were seen at a distance. He ran to them, and a messenger was sent off to Colonel Harvey. A cart came for me—I was placed on it, and carried to a farmhouse, about a mile and a half distant, and laid in the bed from which poor Gordon, as I understood afterwards, had been just carried out. The jolting of the carriage and the difficulty of breathing were very painful. I had received seven wounds; a surgeon slept in my room, and I was saved by continual bleeding—120 ounces in two days, besides a great loss of blood on the field.’

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

His injuries left him a hero, but partially disabled without the use of his left arm. In 1835 he married Lady Emily Bathurst, daughter of the 3rd Earl Bathurst, and went on to have six months. From 1826-35 he was Governor of Malta. it was during his time in Malta that Frederick the French soldier who had given him brandy on the field of Waterloo; which must have been a remarkable experience.

Categories: 19th Century, Heroes | Tags: , | Leave a comment

A recent favourite quote of mine


Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tiddy Doll

At the British Museum today I went to see ‘Bonaparte and the British’, I urge you all to go (also it is free so there really is no excuse). I came across this rather marvelous print from the British Museum’s own collection, by James Gillray:

Tiddy Doll: The new French ginger bread-baker, drawing out a new batch of Kings

‘Tiddy Doll: The new French ginger bread-baker, drawing out a new batch of Kings’ Image: British Museum

In this caricature Napoleon is depicted in the guise of an extravagantly dressed ginger bread seller, as it turns out this was actually based on a real person. Tiddy Doll (I’m guessing this was not his real name) famously marched the streets of eighteenth century London selling his delicious gingerbread. But his preferred attire was much more akin to the despotic Emperor depicted in the above image. He famously wore a hat with an enormous ostrich feather (making him instantly recognisable and easy to spot through a crowd), a laced ruffled shirt, a white gold suit and white stockings, with a white apron to top it off. He must have showed up even the flashiest dandy walking the streets of the London in that get up. Tiddy was such a well known character to real Londoners that he was included in the print ‘Southwark Fair’ by none other than William Hogarth.


Hogarth’s ‘Southwark Fair’. Tiddy Doll is seen in the middle with his huge ostrich feather hat. Looks like he is getting into a spot of bother with the man to his right!

Tiddy Doll so got his name for the various ballads and popular songs which he would sing as he sold his gingerbread; to which he often included his own lyrics. For example:

‘Mary, Mary, where do you live now Mary?
I live, when at home, in the second house in Little Ball Street,
Two steps underground, a wiscum, a riscom, and a why-not.
Walk in ladies and gentlemen, my shop is on the second floor backwards
With a knocker on the door
Here is your nice gingerbread, your spice gingerbread
It will melt in your mouth like a red-hot brick-bat
And rumble in your insides like Punch and his wheelbarrow’

These verses invariably ended with the refrain ‘Tiddy Diddy Doll, lol, lol, lol’, hence the name (still think ‘lol’ is a modern saying?!) Such was his fame that his name was coined in the saying ‘You look quite the Tiddy Doll’, meaning to dress tawdrily or above your station.

In Gillray’s print Napoleon as Tiddy Doll is drawing out of the oven several fat Kings of Europe that he has just produced. More puppet Kings and Queen’s wearing crowns peer out of a basket in the bottom left. A cornucopia beside it is inscribed ‘Hot Spiced Gingerbread! all hot- come who dips in my lukey [sic] bag!’. From the cornucopia pours crowns, coronets, orders and a cardinal’s hat. Such a cutting depiction of Napoleon as the mad and bad King-Maker, controlling Europe through his puppets, who he then discards when he has no further use for them, would have had enormous appeal to London’s working men and women. This was the kind of image which they could read, and relish. I am sure that Tiddy would have enjoyed the recognition and further fame that being named in a Gillray print would have bought to his gingerbread business!


Categories: 18th Century | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment


If anyone would like to contribute to BiographyUK, please get in touch!

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Flora Sandes (1876-1956)

Ever heard of a British woman fighting on the Serbian front line in WWI? Read on to discover more about this fascinating woman with a true passion for adventure…Bvdy4N0CUAAR8nlFlora was born into a hardworking middle class family from Yorkshire. Eschewing the normal forms of amusement for little girls, Flora adored horse-riding and shooting. She spent hours out of doors, running wild through the woods and fields around her home. Flora wished she had been born a boy so she could become a soldier, but this of course was absolutely impossible at the time. As she grew older, her sense of adventure and desperation to see more of the world could not be abated. As soon as she turned eighteen, Flora used her secretarial skills to travel to Cairo, across British Colombia and the United States. On her return she became of the first women in Britain to obtain a driving license and bought a French racing car. She joined the shooting club and trained with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.

Flora’s first opportunity for adventure was on the horizon. In July 1914 Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia, and the European powers agreed to send support. Flora soon found herself on the way to the front line in Serbia as part of St. John’s Ambulance. Working on the front tending to the sick and wounded, at first Flora communicated using only sign language. By October of the following year however, Flora was fluent in Serbian. She joined the Serbian Red Cross, working for the 2nd Infantry Regiment- known as the ‘Iron Regiment’ because it spent so much of their time at the front. Flora showed such courage and fortitude that she was soon regarded as an invaluable resource for the Serbian troops. The war was going very badly, and as the army was pushed further back through the Albanian mountains, Flora was able to become more and more the soldier she had always dreamt of being.

Flora Sandes portrait with medalWomen were actually allowed to join the Serbian Army, something that would never had been allowed back in Britain. Flora jumped at the first opportunity to join as a private in the infantry. No British woman had ever done so before, so it really was an extraordinary thing to decide to do, in the midst of a war. The Serbs in turn greatly appreciated Flora’s commitment and many skills. She was the utmost professional, game for everything, but also had a humour and humility that endeared her to soldiers from all ranks. For the Serbs she personified Britain’s commitment to help them in their hour of need. Flora was also fantastically brave. She was twice mentioned in Dispatches, and was awarded the Serbian equivalent the Victoria Cross for her bravery during a particularly vicious attack. This attack left her seriously wounded from twenty-eight individual shrapnel injuries down one side. By this time she had been promoted to the rank of Sargeant- Major, and on sick leave in England, raised as much money as possible for her beloved Serbian troops. She returned to the front line in May 1917.

After the war ended Flora became the first woman or foreigner to be raised to the rank of Captain in the Serbian army. It was a huge honour, and Flora was delighted to be given command of her own platoon. In 1922 Flora left the army as the Serbian forces were scaled back after the war. Flora returned to England, but felt very out of place. She said ‘I felt neither fish not flesh when I came out of the army. The first time I put on woman’s clothes I slunk through the streets.’ Living on her army pension, she survived by teaching and writing her second autobiography.


Flora with Yurie (

In 1927 she married a Serbian called Yurie Yudenitch who had been a Colonel in the White Army and had escaped Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. They had met when Yurie was serving in Flora’s regiment, and they had fallen deeply in love. The couple moved to Paris where Flora worked for a time as a chaperone for young ladies at the famous Folie-Bergere bar. Flora and Yurie then moved to Belgrade where Flora worked as one of the city’s first taxi drivers. She also spoke about her experiences in the Serbian Army extensively, lecturing all around the world. She always gave her talks in her Captain’s uniform, which she wore with great pride.

When WWII broke out, having refused to leave Yogoslavia, Flora was arrested and imprisoned by the Gastapo. Flora later recalled of prison life: ‘There were fourteen women in that room–British and Serb. There were also streetwalkers and so on, but we were bound together by our common misfortunes and became good comrades.’  Later one of Flora’s cell mates recalled that she ‘possessed a wonderful fund of Serbian swear words which she launched at the guards with such devastating effect that they behaved almost respectfully.’  After her release she had to report weekly to the Gastapo. Devastatingly Yurie fell ill soon after her release and died of heart failure.

bhbFlora was forced to endure three and a half years of solitude in Belgrade, cut off from friends and family. When the war  ended Flora was free to return to England, but without her beloved husband, it was a difficult decision. However her sense of adventure had not diminished, and so Flora decided to go and live with her nephew in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She loved living there but was forced to leave after only a few months as the locals were appalled to find her smoking and drinking with the African locals, in a fashion that was deemed totally unacceptable! Flora reluctantly returned to England, where she lived out her remaining years dreaming of more adventures. She even renewed her passport in the months before her death in 1956, in the hope that she might get to explore more of the world.

A real heroine of the First World War!

Categories: 20th Century, Amazing Women in History, Heroes | Tags: , | Leave a comment

‘Wellington’s Dearest Georgy: The Life and Loves of Lady Georgiana Lennox’

Some of you may know that I am writing a biography of Lady Georgiana Lennox, known as Georgy to her friends, who later became Lady Georgiana de Ros. I am delighted to say that Georgy’s descendants, who still live on the same estate in Ireland where Georgy lived, have set up a  website to bring Georgy’s story into wider notice.

You can read more about Georgy’s life and particularly her relationship with the Duke of Wellington here:

It’s great to see information and images of Georgy brought together in one place. Do check it out! If you would like further information on the life of Georgy, then see the short biography I wrote on her which can be found by clicking on this link:



Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog!

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,100 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 18 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Charles Dickens says Happy Christmas from BiographyUK!


Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1920-2014)

avt_deborah-devonshire_9082Last month saw the sad news of the death of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who has personal heroine of mine since I began to read the novels of her sister Nancy Mitford at school. As I learnt more about anecdotes and antics of her family, I developed a real soft spot for their youngest daughter, Deborah. I thought a short piece on her life might be interesting. Variously known in society as ‘Debo’, as the saviour of Chatsworth House, and as an all round ‘good egg’, Debo was a national treasure; and shall be remembered warmly in the hearts of many.

Our heroine was born the Hon. Deborah Freeman-Mitford. She was the youngest of the famous Mitford sisters, who became stars of the literary and political social scene in pre and post war London. Daughter to the 2nd Baron Redesdale, the ever growing Mitford family grew up in the Oxfordshire countryside, They enjoyed a rough and tumble kind of life, surrounded by numerous ponies, dogs and chickens. With six older sisters and one brother, Debo was reminded at every opportunity that the Mitford’s would have loved another son. None of the sisters were educated beyond reading, writing and learning to hunt, but luckily they all ended up highly proficient in all three disciplines. Always happiest out of doors, Debo adored all animals. The younger children concocted many secret languages, stories, family jokes and nicknames with which to entertain themselves. Their unique humour and sharp wit made them a hit with friends and peers alike.  Debo was routinely terrorised by her older siblings, especially by the acid tongue of the eldest Nancy; who was soon to become a successful novelist. Nancy (pictured below) had a wickedly sharp humour, and was idolised by Debo.

The family already knew the Churchills, the Kennedys and Evelyn Waugh. As Debo’s older siblings, Nancy, Pamela, Thomas, Diana, Unity, and Jessica (known as Decca) grew older and began to socialise in 1930’s London, Debo was introduced to even more extraordinary characters.  But the political scene in London was changing, and two of the older sisters, Diana and Unity, became infatuated with the cause of the right wing Nazi movement in Germany. Both went to stay for a time in Germany, and Debo and her mother visited Unity there. It was at this time, in 1937, that Debo took tea with  none other than Hitler himself. Unity had fallen deeply in love with the despotic ruler, and the pair chatted away for hours. However but Debo recalled that the ‘atmosphere was rather awkward because neither my mother nor I could speak German’. Hitler made little impact on Debo, and in general she did not take an active interest in politics, saying to one newspaper ‘Well, I’ve never been very interested in politics, you see….and the truth is that I didn’t give it much thought. If you sat in a room with Churchill you were aware of this tremendous charisma. Kennedy had it, too. But Hitler didn’t – not to me anyway’.


Debo, far left, and her sisters

Diana Mitford caused a tremendous scandal when she divorced her Guinness husband, and married instead Oswald Mosley, Leader of the British Union of Fascists. During the Second World War both Diana and her second husband were imprisoned for their extreme right wing views. Unity was in Berlin when Hitler declared war on England, and in despair of the thought of her beloved Germany at war with England, she shot herself in the head with a gun Hitler  had given her. She suffered severe brain damage but the family were able to get her back to England and care for her. Never fully recovering, she died in 1948.

Debo had always been particularly close to her sister Decca, who was only a few years older than her. Decca grew into a very left wing mindset, often clashing with Diana and Unity. At the age of 17 she ran away from home, eloping to America with Esmond Romilly, a committed left wing activist.  One newspaper reported wrongly reported that it was Debo, not Decca, that had run away to marry across the pond. The Mitford’s jumped into action, suing the newspaper for damaging Debo’s marital prospects; for which they were made to pay her the grand sum of £1000. Debo later admitted ‘That really was one of the best things that had ever happened to me. Just wonderful: £1,000 was a huge sum of money in those days’. But her relationship with Decca was never to recover from this betrayal. In the end greater sadness was in store for Decca, as her young husband was killed in the war in 1941. She never returned to live in England, choosing to stay in America.

It was during the war that Debo ‘came out’ and enjoyed her first London season. It was at one of these grand parties that she met her future husband, Andrew Cavendish: ‘That was it for me’, she later wrote, ‘the rest of the Season passed in a would-he-wouldn’t-he be there sort of way; nothing and nobody else mattered’. They married in London in 1941 during the Blitz, in a ball-room with shredded curtains, the floor covered in broken glass. Andrew was the younger Cavendish heir, and Debo married him in the belief that they would probably be ‘terrificially poor’, but at least they could enjoy having lots of dogs. Debo lost many close friends to the war, as well as her only brother Tom; who was shot dead in Burma by a single bullet through the neck. Andrew’s brother was also killed in the war, meaning that Debo and her young husband faced a future as Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. When Andrew’s father died in 1950, the couple were saddled with not only grand titles and the gorgeous house and estates of Chatsworth, but with millions of pounds of inheritance tax and death duties.

Deborah_Mitford_Duchess_of_Devonshire_with_familyAfter moving into Chatsworth, Debo developed a real prowess for business, a talent never considered a necessity in the pre-war partying years of her youth. The Mitfords were from a class of English family had rarely been forced into work. But as a Cavendish Debo proved her worth. The couple set about opening Chatsworth to the public for the first time in its long history, setting a precedent for many other country estates which had fallen on hard times since the end of the war. Restoring the house to its former glory and opening a farm shop, cafe and restaurant on site, Debo worked tirelessly to improve the management of the estate and make Chatsworth self sufficient. It it now a shining example of how a stately home with a large amount of land can be an important provider of jobs and tourism to rural England.

The Duke and Duchess entertained many eccentric and influential people in their home. Debo became very close friends with Lucian Freud, and used to bring him eggs from the country when she visited his flat in London. His portrait of her has become very well known.


Despite her lack of education, and the fact that she claimed never to have read a book in her life, Debo proved a dab hand at writing. She published several popular books over the years, including several books about Chatsworth House, ‘The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters’ (2007), ‘Home to Roost, and Other Peckings’ (2009), and her excellent biography ‘Wait for me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister’ (2010).

The Duke once told an interviewer ‘wonderful things have happened in my life…When I was young I used to like casinos, fast women and God knows what. Now my idea of Heaven, apart from being at Chatsworth, is to sit in the hall of Brooks’, having tea’. After he passed away in 2004, Debo became the Dowager Duchess, and moved into a house on the estate. Her son Stoker, became the 12th Duke of Devonshire, and continues Debo’s hard work with his wife Amanda. Debo was still involved in the management of the house and estate, and continued to write and give interviews until very recently.

At her passing, the Prince of Wales offered this unusually personal and moving epitaph: ‘My wife and I were deeply saddened by the death of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, whom both of us adored and admired greatly. She was an unique personality with a wonderfully original approach to life, and a memorable turn of phrase to match that originality. The joy, pleasure and amusement she gave to so many, particularly through her books, as well as the contribution she made to Derbyshire throughout her time at Chatsworth, will not easily be forgotten and we can miss her so very much.’ Couldn’t have said it better myself.


Debo feeding her beloved chickens

Categories: 20th Century, 21st Century, Amazing Women in History | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

An excellent article by Joe Gardner on Charles Dickens and the authors fascination with death.


The timeless subject of mortality haunts the Victorian novel like the spectres abound in its cruder entries. Just as we as a culture are so enamoured with selfies and BuzzFeed sharing, so were our nineteenth-century ancestors indulging their idle inclinations by delving in death (Penny Dreadfuls in place of list-based click articles); reading about it, writing about it, painting it and most definitely playing audience to it whenever and wherever possible.

Author Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) was a living legend in his day; an outright literary celebrity whose deserved influence on popular culture boasted no precedent – as such an ambassador for Victorian culture and, by extension, the peculiar, morbid fascinations it was notorious for. The self-proclaimed ‘Inimitable Boz’ was, far from being a stranger to the more macabre corners of his society’s contemporary interests, an active enthusiast of such grisly pastimes.


The topic of death was of as much interest to him as the societal injustices he strove to alert his wealth of readers to through his novels. And indeed, the impact of the latter would likely have been impugned without the lingering presence of the former. Would the plight of the poor have been as hard-hitting had socially-maligned characters such as Jo, Little Nell or even Fagin and Bill Sikes lived happily ever after?

Either way it can be argued that Dickens’ interest in the grim coda to Earthly existence may have been formed by his somewhat bleak beginnings – seeing his parents off to debtors’ prison in London as a boy new to the relentless city and swiftly sent against his wishes to work at a laborious blacking factory in Covent Garden (an ordeal which, though recounted in the proportionately-biographical novel David Copperfield, was kept strictly secret in the author’s lifetime, such was his overhanging shame of it). Dickens was denied a cosy childhood and so may have been psychologically nudged onto this darker path rather early on in life. The shame and degradation felt by the young prodigy may well have found clarity in his adult life via his notorious interest in death.

His lifelong proximity to mortality would forever shape his celebrated works. From the premature death of his wife’s sister Mary Hogarth burdening him with a sombre sense of the impending eventual, to his most famous festive misanthrope Ebenezer Scrooge being inspired by a (misread) name on an Edinburgh tombstone, the author and the passing of life are inextricably synonymous. In his earlier writings, Dickens developed a grim, gallows-humour method of dealing with the most upsetting of human trials which would remain and develop throughout his literary career. In Oliver Twist, the author has portly antagonist Mr. Bumble respond callously to the wasting away of an orphan boy in his own workhouse, flatly asking ‘Isn’t that boy no better?’ and swiftly following the enquiry with ‘He’s a ill-conditioned, vicious, bad-disposed parochial child that.’ Undoubtedly, through Bumble, Dickens is aping a sickly societal attitude of the day, though the dark humour underlying the sentiments is clearly that of a writer with an active interest in the macabre himself.

A perpetually active man, Dickens counted among his many hobbies frequent visits to cemeteries and, where possible, mortuaries. Of the former, Dickens counted the churchyard of St. Olave in Seething Lane, East London, ‘One of my best loved churchyards, I call the churchyard of St Ghastly Grim … This gate is ornamented with skulls and crossbones, larger than life, wrought in stone.’ He passed the place often during his beloved city walks and indeed the gateway to ‘St. Ghastly Grim’ is befitting Dickens’ pet name for the place, adorned to this day with sinister skulls which greet entrants to the sullen yard beyond. Cemeteries are abound in Dickens’ fiction, and are largely steeped in geographical precision. The shared burial site of Pip’s parents and still-born siblings in Great Expectations is based heavily off a real-life location in South West England, and the upsetting pauper’s graveyard described and illustrated in Bleak House is also informed by such sorry places found around the fringes of London in Dickens’ day. Furthermore, A Tale of Two Cities’ supporting player Jerry Cruncher holds a second, clandestine career as a ‘resurrection man’ (a grave-digger prone to selling body parts to doctors who had some difficulty acquiring them legally) in a sub-plot which is largely superfluous to the over-arching narrative of revolution and redemption but one which was clearly of such interest to Dickens that it couldn’t be sacrificed. Dickens frequented cemeteries; be it in life or on the page, he was always facing down a headstone with invested interest.


At the bemusement and, by and large, refusal of his friends John Forster and William Macready, the author would take excursions to witness recently deceased corpses first hand, and occasionally even observe the physical passing of terminal patients. A writer’s tool in research for his decidedly morbid subject matter perhaps, but one taken with such frequency and active interest that it is hard to believe Dickens found these events anything less than fascinating.

It is not to be said, however, that the author enjoyed death, or the abundance of it in poverty-stricken Europe. A public beheading witnessed during a holiday in Rome so disgusted him that he later wrote of it as an ‘Ugly, careless, sickening spectacle.’ Though it wasn’t so off-putting as to prevent the author later utilising the visual memory to staggering effect in the violent passages of historical revolutionary drama A Tale of Two Cities.

The fact that the poor were so belligerently neglected by the English government and aristocracy disgusted Dickens to the end of his life. He wrote in publications warning of an impending revolution akin to that of the French a century before, and, in one of his most celebrated prosaic sequences, imbued the death of Jo the street sweeping boy in Bleak House with authoritarian, savage indignation that serves as much as a moving death scene as it does a righteous essay on the societal indifference of Victorian England;

‘Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.’

Tragically, and perhaps somewhat ironically, it is widely held that Dickens’ enthusiasm for the subject of death is what led to his own. Wishing to lace his beloved public readings with more dread and drama, Dickens took to performing a revised rendition of the death of Nancy from Oliver Twist. While audiences were captivated and startled by the grisly descriptions, nightly, energetic performances of such harrowing material may well have led to the author’s declining health, and his death from a cerebral haemorrhage aged just 58.


Categories: 19th Century | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at


Uncleansed, unfiltered neural-scrapings from an author's brain

Mind Body Bowl

yoga, food, wellbeing



London Historians' Blog

Random musings about London's history

Adventures In Historyland

Adventures In The Land of History

James Mulraine

Early Modern British Art

G. E. Gallas

Writer and Illustrator

Diary of a Young Art Critic

A refreshing view of UK art exhibitions...



Broken Mirrors

Version 0.1 - Notes, Thoughts, and Ideas

The Art Studio by Mark Moore

Where Imagination Becomes Realality


Beauty | Life | Style | Inspiration | by Lily Earle

The Neighborhood

The Story within the Story