Charles Dickens was one of the most prolific writers of the 19th century: his novels and articles entertained the public as they were published during his lifetime and continue to do so today. His works are now considered classics of English literature.

Born in Portsmouth in 1812, Dickens was one of six children while his father worked for the Navy as a clerk. When his father was summoned back to London in 1822 the family went with him, taking up residence in Camden Town. It was here that the family fell into debt, and Dickens’ parents and siblings were moved into Marshalsea debtors’ prison. Dickens stayed with a very old family friend while he worked to reduce his family’s debt. Personal experiences like these are likely to have inspired many of his novels and his wizened and impoverished characters.

Most of his famous novels were published in instalments; local people would gather in numbers to either read or hear a reading of the latest piece. His success was felt across the pond too, with fans in America waiting at ports for the ships carrying his works to arrive.

While the extent of Dickens’ religious beliefs is often debated, churches often appear in his life and works; here are some of the more famous.

St Mary Portsea, Portsmouth, Hampshire

On the 4th of March 1812, Dickens was baptised here at the medieval font (picture: Basher Eyre, Creative Commons License). The church today is not the one that Dickens would have known, as the current church was built in 1880. It was built at the same time as a number of other buildings in the city, namely institutes and mission halls which were constructed to help those living in the deprived area. For the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, the ward which the church lies within was renamed the Charles Dickens ward, in his honour. The church and its congregation still uphold the church’s original values of helping those who are disadvantaged in the community.

The church has a variety of facilities available to the public, as well as holding regular services and being open to visitors throughout the week from 9am-12pm.

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St Luke, Chelsea, London

Dickens’ marriage to Catherine Hogarth took place here on the 2nd of April, 1836. Catherine, like Dickens, was a journalist and also a writer and music critic. A photograph of the altar is shown on the right. After the wedding the couple honeymooned in Chalk, near Chatham in Kent, and after that they set up home in Bloomsbury and went on to have 10 children. Much like a novel, their marriage had a dramatic ending with their separation in June 1858 when Dickens’ affair with an actress was uncovered.

St Luke’s is a large church, designed by James Savage in 1819, and is one of the earliest Gothic Revival churches in London. Many other famous weddings of the time took place within the church, including the marriages of William Hewson the Victorian theological writer in 1830, and John Prideaux Lightfoot, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, in 1835.

The large graveyard which surrounds the church was transformed into a public garden in 1881, with the headstones being moved to create a boundary wall.

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St Bartholomew, Tong, Shropshire

In 1910 the verger of St Bartholomew’s decided to put a false entry into the burial records and create a fake grave in his churchyard. Story has it that the verger George Bowden used post office ink to record the death of Little Nell, the girl from Dickens’ 1840 novel The Old Curiosity Shop, believing that doing so would bring more visitors to his church. In the book, Little Nell dies in a village in the West Midlands and is buried at the village church as her grandfather grieves. Although not officially noted as such, the village of Tong could easily be the one which Dickens was referencing, and many people believe that it is. The small grave attracted many visitors, and it is believed that Bowden would charge visitors a shilling to see the grave.

A photograph of the grave is shown to the right, featuring a plaque above it reading ‘The reputed grave of Little Nell’ (taken by Gordon Griffiths, used under a Creative Commons License).

Visitors to the church today pay not a shilling but £5 per person to be taken on a tour of the perpendicular church, during which they can see the Golden Chapel, a collection of medieval tombs, their tower which holds one of the largest bells in the country, and of course the grave of Little Nell.

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St Chad, Shrewsbury, Shropshire

The current church of St Chad’s in Shrewsbury was built in 1792, and is a Grade I listed building because of its exceptional design featuring a circular nave. This church’s claim to Dickens fame is related to one of his best loved novels: A Christmas Carol, published in 1843. In the churchyard is the grave of Ebenezer Scrooge, the one which Scrooge visits with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and discovers that he died a ‘wretched man’ and the only people to attend his funeral were businessmen (and they would only go if lunch was provided!) However the grave is not a real one, but one created for a film production of the tale in 1984. Although it is widely known that the grave is fake, many people still visit it as a part of key Dickens-related sites in England. (Picture: Tom Oates, Creative Commons License.)

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St Marylebone Parish Church, London

From his residence in Devonshire Terrace, Dickens and his family lived relatively nearby to St Marylebone, so it was the church he chose to have his son baptised in. The event is immortalised in ink in his 1848 novel Dombey and Son, where baby Paul is christened in the same place. It is believed that Dickens based the fictional ceremony on his real experience at the church. Other famous baptisms to take place here include Lord Byron in 1788 and Admiral Horatio Nelson’s daughter Horatia.

The picture to the right shows the interior of the church.

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St Mary the Virgin, Blundeston, Suffolk

"I was born at Blunderstone, in Suffolk. There is nothing half so green as I know anywhere, as the grass of that churchyard; nothing half so shady as its trees; nothing half so quiet as its tombstones. The sheep are feeding there, when I kneel up to look out. Here is our pew in the church. What a high-backed pew! With a window near it, out of which our house can be seen.”  This quote is taken from Dickens’ novel David Copperfield, published in 1850. Blundeston in Suffolk was used as the basis for David’s home town, and St Mary’s being the parish church. A number of locations described in the novel can easily be found when visiting the village, suggesting that Dickens visited a number of times so that the details were as exact as possible.

The church is open to visitors, with guided tours and a café available.

The picture to the right is an illustration from the first issue of David Copperfield, showing a crowded interior of the church (scanned by Phillip V Allingham).

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St Olave, Hart Street, London

This Grade I church is dedicated to the patron Saint of Norway, King Olaf II, who fought alongside Ethelred the Unready against a Danish invasion in 1014; the church is apparently built on the site of the battle. In more recent years, Dickens featured the church in the articles collected as The Uncommercial Traveller published in 1859. In his notes, Dickens dubbed the church as St Ghastly Grim, having been fascinated by the entrance arch to the churchyard which was built in 1658. The arch features a strange Gothic carving of three skulls across the top (picture: R Soanes, Creative Commons License).

The present church is not the one which Dickens would have seen during his visit, as that church was devastated by German bombs during the Blitz of 1941, and restored in 1954.

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St James, Cooling, Kent

St James is known for being the church which Dickens used for the opening scene of Great Expectations (1861), even basing the graves of Pip’s parents and siblings on existing tombs in the churchyard. Dickens describes the graves as “five little stone lozenges each about a foot and a half long which were arranged in a neat row ...and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine” The church have since noted that the graves described are in fact of children belonging to two separate families who died in the late 18th and 19th centuries, a picture of three of the graves is shown on the right. (Picture: Chris Whippet, Creative Commons License.)

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Westminster Abbey, London

Despite his wishes to be buried at Rochester Cathedral, Dickens was laid to rest in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey in 1870. The following epitaph was written following his death: “To the Memory of Charles Dickens (England's most popular author) who died at his residence, Higham, near Rochester, Kent, 9 June 1870, aged 58 years. He was a sympathiser with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world.”

Westminster Abbey is open to visitors every weekday from 9:30am. The picture on the right (Chris O, GNU free documentation License) shows its west front.

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