A town’s literary Christmas past

Brian Oxberry and Linda McCarthy in period costume outside The Counting House, Malton.
Brian Oxberry and Linda McCarthy in period costume outside The Counting House, Malton.
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The essence of Christmas was captured by Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in which Malton played a part. Local enthusiasts are promoting the link, especially in the New Year, the writer’s bicentenary. So why is the town reluctant to back them? Stephen McClarence reports.

The Christmas Eve chill in Scrooge’s counting house is so palpable that the print almost freezes on the page. The misanthropic old miser, Dickens writes, made do with a miserably small fire, even in December’s “cold, bleak, biting weather”.

He allowed his clerk Bob Cratchit an even smaller fire that “looked like one coal”, forcing him “to warm himself at the candle”. Yes, it was cold in Scrooge’s counting house. And, on a December morning nearly 170 years later, it still is.

We’re sitting, four of us, variously chilled and mufflered, in the office that many believe inspired that counting house in the book that has defined the convivial ideal of the modern Christmas. It’s in a solid, big-windowed building up Chancery Lane, a narrow alley in Malton, and it was once the office of Dickens’ friend Charles Smithson, a solicitor who lived at Easthorpe Hall, an 18th century mansion just outside the town.

Ian Wray, Smithson’s great, great, great nephew and president of the Charles Dickens (Malton) Society, is here, along with the society’s chairman Brian Oxberry and its secretary Linda McCarthy. They tell a fascinating tale of the novelist’s North Yorkshire links, which, along with every other facet of his life and work, will doubtless be endlessly explored next year, his bicentenary. Our discussion eventually turns into an impromptu Audience with Charles Dickens, but more of that later.

The 40-member society was formed three years ago. They hoped to convert the then-empty Chancery Lane office – little changed for a century and a half – into a Dickens visitor centre and run it as a commercial project. It needed money, but Great Expectations were hit by Hard Times, and the commercial side of the project was abandoned.

The society still, however, saw Scrooge’s Counting House, as they’ve called it, as a potential focus for tourism in Malton – “It needs all the attractions it can get,” says Linda – and they’ve created a scaled-down centre with displays tracing Dickens’ connection with the town. It opened on Saturdays over the summer and by special arrangement, pulling in 500 people, and the society took over the office’s £2,000 lease. “A benefactor who wants to remain anonymous paid the lease,” says Brian.

If that sounds intriguingly Dickensian (think Pip and his mysterious benefactor in Great Expectations), what happened next had a pathos the novelist would have appreciated. The society staged an open day to publicise the Counting House and help raise funds to renew the lease next April. “We blitzed the town with invitations and had wine and nibbles ready,” says Linda. “But only one person turned up. I was distraught.”

Now the society has put in grant applications and is hoping, like Mr Micawber, that something will turn up (perhaps another benefactor).

“Unless we get some sort of sponsorship or a grant, we might have to close the Counting House,” says Linda. “And that would be a bit strange in a year when everyone’s going to be lauding Dickens.”

It’s true. Dickens is already all over the BBC from now until well into 2012. The British Film Institute is holding a season of dramatic adaptations of Dickens’ novels made both for the big screen and small one. No writer has proved more popular with the film makers.

The Malton enthusiasts deserve success. The Counting House may not be packed with the gimmicky gadgetry of more modish museums, but it treats its visitors as intelligent people who might actually read the books. And it traces the Dickens-in-Malton story in impressive detail, with plenty of photographs and a bust of the great man (decked out with a red Christmas ribbon round his neck).

His family connection with Malton was through his younger brother Alfred, a civil engineer who helped build the York, Malton and Scarborough Railway and worked with with the Malton & Driffield Railway Company. He had an office in the town’s Market Place and doubtless helped organise Dickens’ trip on what he called “the Whitby Railroad” (from Pickering). The author loved it: “I never saw such varieties of scenery crowded within so small a space... From Devonshire to the Scottish Highlands, all the grades and diversities are there.”

Less well-known is Dickens’ connection with Charles Smithson, whom he met in London in the late 1830s. Smithson was born in Malton and went back to live there after his elder brother died. Acquaintance turned to friendship and Dickens stayed with him several times at Easthorpe Hall, eventually becoming godfather to his elder daughter Mary.

Shortly before Christmas 1841, Smithson sent the novelist an impressively large pie. Dickens’ letter of thanks could come straight from one his novels: “Topping put his shoulder out, in carrying (the pie) from the waggon to the hall-door; and John is in the hospital with a damaged spine – having rashly attempted to lift it... We are mad to know what it’s made of, but haven’t the courage to cut it. Indeed we haven’t a knife large enough for the purpose... We sit and stare at it in a dull astonishment, and grow dizzy in the contemplation of its enormous magnitude.”

Dickens declared: “There never was such a pie!” – a striking pre-echo of “There never was such a goose” in the account of the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner in A Christmas Carol, published two years later.

In his booklet Charles Dickens: The Malton Connection, Ian Wray describes the author’s three-week stay in the summer of 1843 at Easthorpe (demolished 40 years ago after a fire). “I am quite serious in saying,” he wrote from there, “that this is the most remarkable place of its size in England and immeasurably the most beautiful.”

He was hugely taken with the local landscape: “Oh Heaven,” he wrote to a friend, “Such green woods as I was rambling among, down in Yorkshire! For days and weeks, we never saw the sky but through green boughs.”

He was equally taken with the Smithsons: “The jolliest of the jolly: keeping a big old country house, with an ale cellar something larger than a reasonable church... we performed some madnesses there, in the way of forfeits, picnics, rustic games, inspections of ancient monasteries at midnight when the moon was shining.”

Though A Christmas Carol wasn’t written in Malton, Dickens is reputed to have told the Smithsons that the Chancery Lane premises were the model for Scrooge’s “mouldy old office”. Frustratingly, there’s no detailed description of it in the book to verify that.

Dickens was working on Martin Chuzzlewit during his stay and supposedly based the character of Mrs Gamp the midwife (“a fat old woman with a husky voice and a moist eye” with a nose “somewhat red and swollen”) on Smithson’s housekeeper.

The author’s journeys were like field trips, recruiting characters and settings for his books. In Malton he met a Mrs Jump – a Dickensian name in itself – who inspired Mrs MacStinger, a landlady in Dombey and Son. One of the most memorable of all his characters, Wackford Squeers, the brutal owner of Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby, was based on schoolmasters he met on a trip to the Bowes area which Smithson helped organise.

Smithson himself has his own sad memorial in one of Dickens’ most famous works. He died in 1844, aged just 39, and Dickens attended his funeral (“very solemnly performed... the rector walking before the hearse”) at St Mary’s, Old Malton, where his gravestone is included in the Malton society’s Dickens Trail.

Smithson died without leaving a will. Dickens helped search for one, but drew a blank. “Every place has been searched that could be thought of and nothing has been found,” he wrote. Smithson lives on in David Copperfield as Mr Spenlow (“a little light-haired gentleman, with undeniable boots”) – a lawyer who impresses upon David how vital it is that clients draw up a will. When Spenlow dies unexpectedly, David is astonished to find he has not followed his own advice.

Dickens’ search would obviously have included Smithson’s offices, which were subsequently used as a storeroom for many years. “In the late Fifties there were still letters and documents here signed by Smithson,” says Ian Wray.

The room is charged with history, particularly for Brian Oxberry, who performs Dickens one-man-shows, reciting extracts from the novels by heart. “I think I’m the only man who has performed Scrooge in his own office,” he says, and needs little prompting to do a favourite section from A Christmas Carol – the appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Past.

What, I wonder, is Dickens’ appeal? “His amazing energy, the detail and knowledge in his books, and his great wit,” says Ian.

“He makes me so glad to be living in a time when we have pension schemes, social services, warmth in our houses and unemployment benefit,” says Brian. And for Linda: “He was a conscience at a time of great Victorian hypocrisy.”

And with that, we shake (very cold) hands and as I leave, Linda gives me a bag of sweets. They’re labelled “Scrooge’s Humbugs”.

No “Bah!” please. Tiny Tim got it right: “God bless us every one!”

Charles Dickens (Malton) Society: 01653 698701; www.dickensmalton.org

A new three-part adaptation of Great Expectations begins on BBC1 on Tuesday, as part of a Dickens bicentenary jamboree on BBC TV and radio.