The Black Eyes of Norwood

Alan S Watts, Secretary of the Worldwide Dickens’ Foundation, held members spellbound at last November’s meeting, on Charles Dickens and Norwood.

The lecture was so fascinating and so valuable to local scholars that it is reproduced here, in a slightly abbreviated form. (Some individual references, such as in David Copperfield, have had to be omitted but keen scholars will soon find them).

Norwood played an important part in the life and in the writings of Charles Dickens. There are several things which are not clear about this relationship, and it might that enquiring minds in the Norwood Society could solve some of these little mysteries. Let us look, first of all, at mentions of Norwood in Dickens’ writing.

We have to go back to his very first work and taking down the volume entitled “Sketches by Boz” look up the tale within that collection entitled “A passage in the Life of Mr. Watkins Tottle”. In this story, Mr Watkins Tottle is invited to the home of a friend Mr Gabriel Parsons who lives at Norwood. To get there, Mr Tottle took a coach – they ran three times a day from Charing Cross to Beulah Spa, the fare being 2/6d, inside and 1/3d, outside. We read “When the coach drew up before a cardboard-looking house with disguised chimneys and a lawn like a large sheet of green letter-paper. He (i e the sun) certainly had never lighted to his place of destination, a gentleman who felt more uncomfortable.”

We get another picture of a house in Norwood if we turn to “Dombey and Son”. In chapter 33 entitled Contrasts, we are invited to compare two homes – “The first is situated in the green and wooded country near Norwood. It is not a mansion: it is of no pretensions as to size, but it is beautifully arranged and tastefully kept. The lawn, the soft smooth slope, the flower gardens, the clumps of trees where graceful forms of ash and willow are not wanting. The conservatory, the rustic verandah with sweet-smelling creeping plants entwined about the pillars, the simple exterior of the house, the well-ordered officers, though all on the diminutive scale proper to a mere cottage, bespeak an amount of elegant comfort within, that might serve for a palace. This indication is not without warrant, for within it is a house of refinement and luxury.” This is the house of the villainous James Carter.

Norwood came fuly into its own when Dickens wrote “David Copperfield” in 1849. David was articled to a firm of proctors, Spenlow and Jorkins, and one day Mr Spenlow invited him to spend the weekend at his house in Norwood. “When the day arrived, my very carpet-bag was an object of veneration to the stipendiary clerks, to whom the house at Norwood was a second mystery. When David arrived he found: “There was a lovely garden to Mr Spenlow’s house: and though it was not the best time of year for seeing a garden, it was so beautifully kept, that I was enchanted.” It was at Mr Spenlow’s that David met Dora and Norwood features much in the book.

These are the main references to Norwood in Dickens’ work, but there are several minor references and several of these are about the Norwood Gipsy. In the essay entitled “Poor Mercantile Jack”, in the “Uncommercial Traveller” papers, there is the following paragraph:

“Somebody was sitting over a fire, waiting for Jack. Now it was a couching old woman, like the picture of the Norwood Gipsy in the old sixpenny dream books.” The most original of the tribe and the ‘original Norwood Gipsy’ was Margaret Finch who, about the junction of the 17ith and 18th centuries came here to live and of whom it is related that, from constantly sitting in the same position, it was discovered at her death in 1740 at the age of 109, that her limbs could not be moved, necessitating burial in a deep square box.

Connections with Norwood

Now let us look at Dickens’s personal connections with Norwood. Dickens’s first published piece was entitled ‘Dinner at Poplar Walk’. It appeared in the monthly Magazine in December 1833. Dickens had purchased a copy of the magazine in Fleet Street from bookseller named William Hall. Two years later the same gentleman knocked on Dickens’s door. “When I opened my door in Furnival’s Inn to the managing partner who represented the firm, I recognized in him the person from whose hand I had bought, two or three years previously, and whom I had never seen before or since, my first copy of the Magazine in which my first effusion – dropped stealthily one evening at twilight, with fear and trembling into a dark letter-box, in a dark office, up a dark court in Fleet Street – appeared in all the glory of print”.

“I told my visitor of the coincidence, which we both hailed as a good omen; and so fell to business.” “The business is the proposal from the firm of Chapman and Hall that Dickens should write a serial in monthly numbers. So I thought of Mr Pickwick and wrote my first number.”

The reason I tell you this is that William Hall lived in Norwood where Dickens dined with him on several occasions. We know he went there on 7 July 1840. Dickens had then recently moved into Devonshire Terrace and was having difficulty with a smoky chimney. With this problem on his mind, Dickens went to dine with Mr Hall out in Norwood. The day afterwards he complained of being “kept abed by some very doubtful wine at little Hall’s”. Dickens quarreled with Chapman and Hall, and little Hall was the main cause of the trouble. But Dickens was genuinely sorry when William Hall died in 1847. His affection for Mr and Mrs Hall is reflected in one of the essays in his book “Sketches of Young Couples”, published in 1840. The sketch “The nice Little Couple” has been held to refer to the Halls.

“Mr and Mrs Chirrup are the nice little couple in question. Mr Chirrup has the smartness, and something of the brisk, quick manner of a small bird. Mrs Chirrup is the prettiest of all little women, and has the prettiest little figure conceivable.”

But Dickens had become acquainted with Norwood several years before he became acquainted with little Mr Hall. When he was a shorthand-writer and reporter he wrote to his friend Williams Kolle, explaining why he had not been able to keep an appointment with him. “I only returned from Uncle’s at Norwood (where I have been busily engaged for a week past and whither I return again today) late last night. Business in the shape of masses of papers, plans and prospectuses; and pleasure in the shape of a nice pair of black eyes, call me to Norwood; and of course, the call is imperative and must be obeyed.”

Barrow. This uncle was a younger brother of Charles’s mother. His name was John Henry Barrow, who came to live in the parish of St Luke, Norwood in 1831. He had been called to the bar in November 1828, but never practiced. Instead he went into journalism, founded and edited “The Mirror of Parliament”, on which he was joined by his brother Edward, his brother-in-law John Dickens and later, his nephew, Charles Dickens. On 12 May, 1834, Barrow presented a petition to the House of Commons submitting that it was the utmost importance that “a fully faithfully, and impartial parliamentary record, such as is comprised in “The Mirror of Parliament” be maintained and continued”. The Speaker, however, pointed out that “The Mirror” was based on a breach of privilege, and the petition had to be withdrawn. Ten days later, however, Barrow’s friends in the House introduced a motion calling upon the Select Committee on the Business of the House “To consider and report on the expedience of establishing the publication of an authentic Report of the Debates arising in the House, etc.” This motion was lost by a mere 18 votes. It may well have been the papers connected with this attempt to get “The Mirror of Parliament” adopted as the official Parliamentary Report with which young Charles Dickens was busy in December 1833.

Let us investigate a little more closely this interesting uncle of Charles Dickens, Mr John Henry Barrow, barrister-at-law. Dickens’ maternal relations were an interesting lot. His mother’s father, Charles Barrow, was “Chief Conductor of Moneys”, (but shortly before joining the Navy Pay Office in 1801, he had been a music teacher and had run a circulating library). Just how he gained promotion to responsible post of Chief Conductor is not known. Was he related to Sir John Barrow, Arctic explorer and Second Secretary to the Admiralty from 1804-1845. This has been denied. Then in 1810 it was discovered that Charles Barrow had been sating false balances in his accounts ever since 1803. He owed the Navy £5,689.3s.3d. He absconded to the Continent. His furniture was seized and the Navy received £499.9s from this. They never got another penny.

Yet his son, Thomas, who was also in the Navy Pay Office, retained his post. So did John Dickens. But they lacked the support which Charles Barrow had given them. To return to John Henry Barrow, he was a good journalist and shorthand-writer. He said that he had taught Charles the Gurney stem of shorthand and so he helped Dickens to get a post on the “Morning Chronicle”. He married Kitty Collins in 1817. He separated from her in 1828. He then lived with Lucinda Pocock by whom he had ten children. From 1831-35 he lived in West Norwood and three children were baptized at St Luke’s. In 1836 he moved to Ellens Villa, Beulah Park, on the south side of Collier’s Water Lane, later called Thornton Heath High Street. The register of All Saints’ Church, Beulah Hill, Upper Norwood, records of the burials of two young children and the baptism of another. J H Barrow died in 1858 and was buried in Norwood Cemetery near the grave of Lucinda who had died in 1851. (It is interesting to note that the name Lucinda was used by the young Dickens in one of his early sketches “Mrs Joseph Porter”.

Just before his death, when he was very ill and in reduced circumstances, J H Barrow applied for aid to the Royal Literary Fund who granted him £50. Notices about his death appeared in the newspapers and this grant was mentioned. Thereupon his real wife wrote to the Committee of the Fund. She wrote “I was to receive £150 per annum, which I did receive for a few years – after which my income was rapidly decreased, and for the last three years I have had positively nothing from him and have generally been ignorant of his residence”. She had received a small weekly sum from Dickens. However, the Committee granted him £25.

But Lucinda – was she the black-eyed beauty who attracted the young Charles? The Pilgrim Editors think it likely. If not, whose black eyes were they? Research at Norwood may yet solve the mystery.

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