On 7 February 1812, in a small terraced house in Portsmouth, the canon of English literature was to change forever. It was on this day that Charles Dickens, arguably the most celebrated Victorian author, was born.
John Dickens (who worked in Portsea's Royal Navy Pay Office) and his wife Elizabeth lived on Mile End Terrace - now Old Commercial Road. John was notoriously bad with money, a trait that would eventually go on to become the inspiration for his son's character Mr Micawber (in the semi-autobiographical novel David Copperfield). Both men couldn't be trusted with money, both sold off family heirlooms to pay off debt and both eventually found themselves in prison after failing to meet demands. Likewise, Mrs Micawber bore more than a passing resemblance to Elizabeth Dickens - in being good natured and devoted to her children.
It was his mother who put a young Charles Dickens on the road to becoming a writer. She first taught him to read and, in doing so, opened within him a "desire for knowledge" and a "passion for reading". She also taught him Latin and would no doubt have encouraged him into writing for a living - after all, one of her brothers was a published author and the other a journalist.
Moving on, and coming back
Though Dickens was born in Portsmouth, he didn't stay in the city forever. After less than three years here he was moved to London, when his father's job was transferred. The same would happen again a short while later - with the family moving out of the capital and eastward, to Chatham in Kent.
Despite this, it seemed Portsmouth played a much larger part in Dickens' life than may first appear. He referenced the city in a number of works and returned to Portsmouth on his public reading tours.
Dickens gave nods to Portsmouth in 'The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby', and even paid the city a visit when writing the book. Biographer John Foster wrote in his work 'The Life of Charles Dickens':
"He has often told me that he remembered the small front garden to the house at Portsea, from which he was taken away when he was two years old, and where, watched by a nurse through a low kitchen window almost level with the gravel-walk, he trotted about with something to eat, and his little elder sister with him. He was carried from the garden one day to see the soldiers exercise; I perfectly recollect that, on our being at Portsmouth together while he was writing Nickleby, he recognised the exact shape of the military parade seen by him as a very infant, on the same spot, a quarter of a century before."
Dickens would write more extensively (and more overtly) about the city in an article simply titled 'Portsmouth'. In this he describes the area's history and naval collections, though remarked that continued growth of the naval station made for a less interesting city. He goes on to describe the "terraces of the latest sea-side fashion" in Southsea and the "brilliant spectacle" of Portsmouth Harbour.
Dickens the social reformer
Dickensian Portsmouth was rather different to how it is today. Back then it was seen very much as a 'Little London', with all the industry and infrastructure of the capital, but also the poverty. Dickens was a keen social reformist and campaigned for better conditions in the so-called 'Ragged Schools'. It's said that Dickens considered writing a pamphlet to alert a wider audience to the issue, but instead opted to create a work of fiction, so as to reach a wider audience. His gambit worked, as the resulting novel 'A Christmas Carol' remains not only one of his most celebrated works but one that also brought Dickens renewed critical acclaim at a time when his star seemed to be on the wane.
This wasn't all. Dickens would also ensure that, when he toured the country giving public readings, a percentage of tickets were sold at reasonable prices to allow the poor working classes a chance to attend.
His commitment to social reform was one of the reasons given for erecting a statue of Dickens in the city of his birth. Though Dickens urged friends in his will "on no account to make me the subject of any monument, memorial or testimonial whatever", his family campaigned for Portsmouth to be the first place in Britain for a life-sized statue. This finally happened and was revealed in 2014, on what would have been his 202nd birthday. At the ceremony, the writer's great, great grandson said it would "inspire future generations to discover the genius of his writing and his passionate campaign for social justice."
That statue now stands on Guildhall Square, marking Portsmouth's most famous son.