Shelf lives: Does size matter?

Does a donation have to be large and impressive to be important? The answer is most emphatically “No”! One of our star items is a single sheet of paper measuring no more than 18 x 22.7 cm. It is a modest piece of nineteenth-century writing paper with no “bling” about it – but it still has the wow factor because it is a letter from Charles Dickens!

This small piece of pale blue Victorian writing paper, covered with Dickens’s distinctive handwriting in dark blue ink, was given to us by the author’s great-great-grandson and Trinity Hall alumnus Christopher Charles Dickens. In it the famous author gives advice to his son, Henry Fielding Dickens, “My Dear Harry”, at the start of his time as an undergraduate at Trinity Hall in October 1868. This parental advice has a timeless quality that still rings true today and the letter always catches the imagination of our visitors!

“Farewell Tour”

The letter is written on Dickens’s headed paper with the address of Gad’s Hill Place embossed at the top. Dickens bought this beloved home in February 1857 and it was the only house that he ever owned (all the others had been rented). But at the time of writing on Thursday 15th October 1868, Dickens was away from home, staying at the Adelphi Hotel, the best hotel in Liverpool.

Dickens was one of the first “celebrities” in the sense that we use the word today. He was a public figure in much demand – a real “superstar”! In May 1868 Dickens had returned exhausted from his long and demanding tour of America. However, by October 1868 he had started a new tour, a series of performances in London and the provinces, which he called his “Farewell tour”. He stayed at the Adelphi Hotel for a week from 10 October, giving readings at Manchester Free Trade Hall and in Liverpool. Of his reading in Liverpool on 12 October, Dickens writes to Georgina Hogarth “We had a fine house here last night, and a large turnaway. Marigold and Trial went immensely. I doubt if Marigold were ever more enthusiastically received.”

These public readings of dramatised extracts from his novels lasted at least two hours. They placed a heavy strain on Dickens’s voice and were so emotionally draining that he suffered from extreme exhaustion when they were over. But these performances were important to Dickens, not just for pleasing his public but also for the money they brought in. In fact the expense and financial practicalities of Harry’s life as an undergraduate take up a large part of the letter of advice he received from his father.

“Your past expensive education”

So what of Harry himself? Henry Fielding Dickens (1849-1933) was the author’s eighth child and the only one to go to university. The eldest son, Charles, was actually sent to the most expensive school, Eton,  in January 1851, but his school fees were sponsored by Angela Burdett-Coutts, one of the richest women in England at that time and a great friend of the author’s.

Harry as a boy (image from “Katey” by Lucinda Hawksley)

The schooling of the other Dickens boys was by no means cheap! All of the sons were sent to private school, whereas the daughters were educated at home. When Harry was nine years old (in 1858) he was sent to a boarding school for English boys in Boulogne. The intention was that he should learn French, but it was not a happy experience. According to Harry in his “Recollections“, “I was very young then and although two of my brothers were at the school I felt very sad and forlorn.” It must have been a relief when in 1861 he was sent to Wimbledon School, “which was kept by Messrs. Brackenbury and Wynne; a very well known private school then at the height of its reputation.” Harry did well there and was fortunate to have an excellent maths master who prepared him for entrance to Trinity Hall.

It was common in those days for sons to follow their fathers in their choice of college at Cambridge. The entry for Harry in the Trinity Hall register shows that, as the first of the Dickens family to attend the College, he came on the recommendation of J. Brackenbury, Master of Wimbledon School.

From the Trinity Hall Archives

“Handsome for all your wants”

A few weeks previously, aware of his own lack of university experience, Dickens had written to his friend Sir Joseph Chitty asking for advice.  He doubtless turned to Chitty because of the latter’s brilliant career at Balliol College, Oxford.  “My dear Chitty, One of my sons, just 20, is going up to Trinity Hall, next October. He has been highly educated – is possessed of considerable mathematical qualifications – and goes to College to work, and to achieve distinction. He perfectly understands that if he fail to set to in earnest, I shall take him away… Will you tell me what the allowance of such a youth should be, at Cambridge – to be enough, and not by any means too much – and whether there is any express precaution I can take or enjoin upon him?”

Chitty obliged Dickens by sending him a letter of advice which the author enclosed (“I therefore send you Joe Chitty’s letter bodily”) along with his own letter to Harry. Thanks to Chitty, Dickens was able to state confidently “It seems to me that an allowance of £250 a year will be handsome for all your wants, if I send you your wine.” Undergraduates were expected to entertain their contemporaries, providing wine and brandy for drop-in guests and to accompany the occasional dinner party held in their own rooms!

In those days, undergraduates generally came from well-off families who could afford to pay for their son’s living costs and tuition fees. Thus Dickens also encloses a cheque for £5 and ten shillings for tuition fees made out to the Reverend Frank Lawrence Hopkins, who was a Fellow at Trinity Hall and Harry’s Tutor.

Whatever you do, above all other things keep out of debt

Charles Dickens had suffered a childhood of extreme poverty and his own education had been cut short because his father’s indebtedness. This trauma cast a shadow over Dickens’s life and he was constantly preoccupied by money matters. In the letter he emphasises to his son “We must have no shadow of debt” and seeks to guide him as to how to manage his money – especially what not to spend it on, “I strongly recommend you to buy nothing in Cambridge”!

Perhaps it was the fear of falling back into poverty that drove Dickens to work so hard, starting his tour of the provinces before he had fully recovered from the tour of America. He says to Harry “You know how hard I work for what I get, and I think you know that I never had money help from any human creature after I was a child.”

Dickens finishes the letter by reminding Harry about the value of the Christian life and the importance of prayer. “These things have stood by me all through my life, and you remember I tried to render the New Testament intelligible to you and lovable by you when you were a mere baby.” Dickens had written “The life of our Lord” especially for his children in 1846.


While Harry was at Trinity Hall, Dickens continued his performances for another seventeen months. However, his health was so badly affected that he finally followed his doctor’s orders and gave his last performance on 16 March 1870.

At this time Dickens also started writing his last and unfinished novel, The mystery of Edwin Drood. As research for his books, the author often took lengthy walks at night to the seedier parts of London accompanied by a policeman for safety. In his “Recollections” Harry tells us, “I just once missed a great opportunity. It had been arranged that I was to accompany him on one of these excursions, but unfortunately I was detained at Cambridge on the appointed day and I was unable to go. That night he visited the opium den which is described in the first chapter of Edwin Drood.” That would have been an exciting prospect for a young undergraduate and Harry was obviously disappointed to miss it!

“In the court” – illustration of the opium den by Luke Fildes from “The mystery of Edwin Drood”

Dickens lived long enough to complete only six numbers of the novel, passing away in the early hours of 9 June 1870 at the age of fifty-eight. Harry took his father’s advice to heart and studied hard at Trinity Hall. He gained his B.A. in mathematics in 1872, with the respectable distinction of being the 29th Wrangler. It is sad that his father was not there to celebrate his son’s success.

Subsequent career

Sir Henry Fielding Dickens, K.C.

Harry was called to the Bar in 1873 and subsequently had a distinguished career as a barrister and judge. He became a K.C. in 1892 and was knighted in 1922. Sir Henry Fielding Dickens is described by Venn as “A capable and conscientious advocate, who had a large practice in the Common Law Courts, and proved an admirable Judge. For many years he delighted thousands with readings from his father’s works. During the War he raised large sums by this means for the wounded, and later for the Charles Dickens Home for Blinded Soldiers and Sailors.” Harry was very much his father’s son – both the love of performing and a social conscience were in his genes!

The Dickens connection

Harry was the first of the Dickens family to attend Trinity Hall but he was by no means the last! Crawley tells us that three of Harry’s sons went to Trinity Hall: Henry (1892), Philip (1906) and Cedric (who was killed on the Somme in 1916). Philip’s son, also called Cedric, matriculated at the College in 1935.

The entry for Christopher Charles Dickens (Trinity Hall Archive)

The donor of the letter, Christopher Charles Dickens (1937-1999) was Harry’s great-grandson and the grandson of Henry (1892). Christopher Charles Dickens came up to Trinity Hall in 1957, where he read English for part I and then changed to Archaeology and Anthropology. In 1965 he married the Hungarian countess Jeanne-Marie Wenckheim Teleki who is described by the Charles Dickens Heritage Foundation as being “a hurricane of a countess. Handsome, forceful and humorous.” They settled at Spofforth in north Yorkshire and raised a family of two daughters. Jeanne-Marie became involved in charitable works, and in 1991 with the help of her husband she set up the Charles Dickens Heritage Foundation in order to help the disadvantaged.


The name of Christopher Charles Dickens was posthumously in the news in 2008 on the occasion of the sale of Charles Dickens’s writing desk and chair at Christie’s. The desk and chair had passed down through the family to Christopher Charles Dickens and were donated for sale by his widow Jeanne-Marie in order to raise funds for Great Ormond Street Hospital.  They sold for £433,250! At the time Jeanne-Marie commented, “Charles Dickens was a champion of the poor and needy and an enthusiastic patron of Great Ormond Street Hospital in its early days.  My husband Charles shared his ancestor’s desire to help the disadvantaged and when I became aware of the fundraising needs of Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, I knew that I had to give the desk and chair to them.  I felt that it was Charles’ wish, and it is an honour for me to fulfil this wish, it is fitting that their sale will provide care and support for the patients of Great Ormond Street hospital 150 years after Dickens himself spoke at their first fundraising dinner.”


The recollections of Sir Henry Dickens, K.C. (London: Heinemann, 1934)

The letters of Charles Dickens, volune 12: 1868-1870 / edited by Graham Storey ( Oxford: Claredndon Press, 2002)

Alumni Cantabrigienses. Part II, from 1752 to 1900 / compiled by J. A. Venn (Cambridge: University Press, 1944)

Trinity Hall: the history of a Cambridge college, 1350-1992 / by Charles Crawley; 2nd ed. enlarged by Graham Storey (Cambridge: Trinity Hall, 1992)

Katey: the life and loves of Dickens’s artist daughter / by Lucinda Hawksley (London: Doubleday, 2006)

The mystery of Edwin Drood / by Charles Dickens (London: Chapman and Hall, 1870)