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Charles Dickens’s milkman and other footnotes to history


J.C. Briggs, author of the Charles Dickens and Superintendent Jones Investigate series, finds inspiration for her books in the footnotes to Charles Dickens’s letters in The Pilgrim Edition. Here, the popular Mystery Press author reveals how the tiniest fragment of information can inspire her next story. 

Robert Browning nursing Tennyson’s baby; Savile Morton, murdered by his mistress’s husband; a girl who attempted suicide and leapt from a window into a water tank, survived and went mad; The Rainbow in Fleet Street, famous for its stout – all found in the footnotes to Dickens’s letters in The Pilgrim Edition.

And, of course, his milkman – and his butcher, and baker. Price, the candle maker, pops up in a footnote regarding the invention of the self-snuffing candle. A clue in a murder case, perhaps? The surname Meteyard – my imagination conjures a butcher, as big as an ox.

I frequently turn to the letters for the research into Dickens’s life as background to my novels featuring Dickens as a detective. I regard the footnotes as little golden nuggets, nearly overlooked in the deep mine of letters. It is extraordinary how from a tiny fragment of information the inspiration for a story might spring.

Mr Dickens’s milkman, in case you were wondering, was Josiah Evans whose premises were on the corner of Warren Street and Conway Street just behind Fitzroy Square. I look on an 1849 map to find it. My eye roves across a few streets to Devonshire Terrace where Dickens lived. I find the Marylebone Workhouse not far away, then the burial ground, and just below, Paradise Place, off Paradise Street, and another dairy in Paradise Lane. The irony in the juxtaposition of the burial ground and Paradise opens out the landscape of another novel.

Murder by Ghostlight, the third Dickens and Jones mystery, begins in Manchester at the Queen’s Theatre. In a letter to Mrs Gaskell, on January 31st 1850, Dickens writes to ask her for a contribution to Household Words. He offers to come to Manchester for a few hours to discuss the matter. The footnote directs me to his other excursions to Manchester, in particular his theatrical performances there.  Ah, I think, suppose Dickens takes a play to Manchester in January 1850. Suppose one of the actors is murdered. I have a slim book on Manchester Theatres. There I find a few paragraphs on the Queen’s Theatre (1831-1869). The first paragraph stops me in my tracks: ‘Mr Campbell, who was appearing in the drama Lilian, was shot and killed by the property man.’

The British Newspaper Archive provides more detail. The property man was arrested, but the verdict was accidental death. Nevertheless, my writer’s imagination is caught by the added information that Mr Campbell’s wife had been instrumental in getting the property man his job – ah, I think, the eternal triangle. My plot thickens. My victim - shot by a rival? He is a blackguard, married yet involved with one of the actresses, one of whom Dickens is particularly fond. Dickens finds the body, picks up the gun. Inspector Hardacre contemplates the possible murderer…

Another footnote lays bare a whole story. Mrs Gaskell wrote to Dickens on January 8th 1850, asking his advice about a young girl who had been in prison and whom she wanted to help. She asked Dickens because she knew of his establishing the home for fallen women.

This footnote sends me to a biography of Mrs Gaskell where I find the tragic story of sixteen year old Miss Pasley, daughter of an Irish clergyman, who is apprenticed to a milliner by a mother who, having remarried, does not want her. The milliner’s business fails. Miss Pasley is passed on to another woman who connives at her seduction by a doctor. Destitution, prostitution and imprisonment follow. Suppose, I think, such a girl is accused of the murder of a doctor. I’m off: Doctor Lancelot Plume is to be murdered. The landscape will be Paradise Street and that Burial Ground. Oh, and seduction, abortion, baby-farming – I find a reference to a Mrs Meatyard, baby farmer. Meatyard then for my butcher? A footnote about Sampson Low, a publisher, completes him: Sampson Meatyard. Mr Dickens’s butcher is only ordinary Mr Tucker of The Strand.

An 1847 footnote yields the aptly named Forbes Benignus Winslow who opened two private mental asylums at Hammersmith, adopting humane methods of treatment.  Another tells me of Dickens’s Brighton landlord and his daughter – both went mad in five minutes between ringing the bell for tea and the appearance of the tray! Something in the air? No matter. I find suddenly that I am in need of a lunatic asylum for Miss Marianne Case, daughter of Sir Neptune Case. Neptune? A stray reference in a biography of Anthony Trollope. Nothing further known. What a name! And another mad girl, eh?

To be continued…

By J.C. Briggs


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