Ever since Charles Dickens died in 1870, Rochester has attempted to cash in on him. Today we have the Dickens Festival and many High Street shops still link their name with the great novelist’s.
And why not? Rochester is a beautiful city (even if Medway Council’s incompetence let it mutate back into a town) and a suitable stopping-off place for tourists.
Indeed in 1935 a plan was mooted to make Rochester a “Mecca of Charles Dickens”. The idea, briefly, was to dig up his body from Westminster Abbey and rebury it in his beloved Rochester.
No one was suggesting in 1935 that the plan was intended to draw tourists, but this act of reverence would have had a considerable commercial spin-off.
It was the idea of Henry Smetham, author of many local history books, and gained support from the Chatham News, although not, ultimately, the city council.
An unsigned item in Jottings by the Way in January of that year said: “Sixty-four years have passed since the great novelist died at Gad’s Hill and was quietly interred at Poets’ Corner, but the atmosphere which has made Rochester a place of pilgrimage to Dickensians persists even in this modern day while every ancient nook and corner of the city reminds us of the love and reverence which Dickens felt for it.
“It is of course well known that Dickens himself wished to be buried in the Rochester district and support for his belief is given by the book The Letters of Charles Dickens written by Mamie, his eldest daughter, and Georgina Hogarth, his sister-in-law, who state in the last chapter:
‘As the family were aware that Charles Dickens had a wish to be buried near Gad’s Hill, arrangements were made for his burial in the pretty churchyard of Shorne, of which he was very fond, but this intention was abandoned in consequence of a pressing request from the Dean and Chapter of Rochester that his remains might be placed there [the cathedral].
“‘A grave was prepared — believed to be in the nave — and everything was arranged when it was made known to the family through Dean Stanley [of Rochester] that there had been a very earnest request that Charles Dickens should find a resting place in Westminster Abbey — such a fitting tribute to his memory that they could make no objection although it was with great regret that they relinquished the idea of laying him in a place so closely connected with his works.’”
Smetham warmed to his theme in a letter that April. “The Westminster decision was very deeply and sorely against the feeling of our entire locality,” he wrote to the News. “Its echoes have not died … the March issue of The Dickensian contains my plea that Rochester should be the Mecca of Dickens.
“The grave was dug [in Rochester Cathedral] below the spot where the tablet [a memorial plaque] is fixed; and now Dean Underhill renews the offer made 64 years before.”
Another reason for the transfer was made in the News the next January. “Dickens, who ruthlessly exposed the hypocrisy of ostentation must have detested the vulgar ceremonial that attended funerals of his time. In his will, which he made a week before his death, he directed that he should be buried ‘in an inexpensive, unostentatious and strictly private manner’.
“No public announcement was to be made, not more than three plain mourning coaches were to be used and those who attended were forbidden to wear black scarves, cloaks, bows, long hat-bands, or ‘other revolting absurdity’.
“These were observed faithfully … but the novelist’s desire to be buried in Rochester was over-ruled by the nation’s desire to place him in Poets’ Corner.”
Presumably, any reburial in Rochester would have been a simple affair. But where would the publicity have been in that?
By the end of the 1930s, however, the city of Rochester had other things to worry about — not least the Second World War — and the Dickens idea fizzled out.
The legend, however, still lives on. Dickens was also said to have wished to be buried in the cemetery in Rochester Castle’s moat, according to a plaque nearby.
All the upright gravestones have now gone and only a few slabs remain — moved, presumably, when it was thought right and proper to shift memorials for the convenience of lawnmowers.
As a lad in the early 1960s I recall it was an ornate cemetery — featuring a particularly impressive angel statue which was occasionally stolen by the hooligans (Teddy boys, I was told) of the day.
I doubt if photographs of it then exist. Or do they?