Fort Road, Broadstairs
Event with dates Holidays in Broadstairs 1840-43, 1845, 1847, 1849-51; usually spent at Fort House from late 1840s, and parts of David Copperfield written here.
Publications of local interest David Copperfield (1848-50), ‘Our Watering Place’ (1851).
We have a pier – a queer old wooden pier, fortunately without the slightest pretensions to architecture, and very picturesque in consequence. Boats are hauled up upon it, ropes are coiled all over it; lobster-pots, nets, masts, oars, spars, sails, ballast, and rickety capstans, make a perfect labyrinth of it. For ever hovering about this pier, with their hands in their pockets, or leaning over the rough bulwark it opposes to the sea, gazing through telescopes which they carry about in the same profound receptacles, are the Boatmen of our watering-place. … These are among the bravest and most skilful mariners that exist. Let a gale arise and swell into a storm, let a sea run that might appal the stoutest heart that ever beat, let the Light-boat on these dangerous sands throw up a rocket in the night, or let them hear through the angry roar the signal-guns of a ship in distress, and these men spring up into activity so dauntless, so valiant, and heroic, that the world cannot surpass it. ‘Our Watering Place’. Household Words 1851.
Fort House in Fort Road, like Dickens House (2 Nuckell’s Place) was the source of considerable confusion both during and after Dickens’s lifetime. It was his ‘holiday’ house of choice in Broadstairs for many years and it was here that he entertained a succession of literary and artist friends including the novelist Wilkie Collins and Hans Christian Andersen as well as distinguished guests including Angela Burdett Coutts. Parts of David Copperfield were written here, including the ending.
By 1864 it was sometimes informally known as Bleak House, leading many visitors to assume that this novel too had been written in the town. But the name was formally changed to Bleak House only after Dickens’s death (somewhere between 1883 and 1885)1. The original name seems an obvious choice based on the striking appearance of the house as it is today, but ironically in Dickens’s day there was nothing fort-like about it. Dickens scholar Frederick Kitton visited the house in 1889 and was horrified when a later owner ‘thought fit to restore, alter and extend the premises, converting the building into a pretentious-looking mansion of Tudor design, with castellated eaves and other “improvements,” by which it is changed beyond all recognition.’2
This creative confusion of different novels with the houses associated with Dickens is characteristic of the town’s history. In 1897 a precursor of the Dickens Festival saw Broadstairs transformed into a ‘Dickens Village’, complete with costumed figures and buildings such as Peggotty’s boat (from the Suffolk scenes of David Copperfield) and Defarge’s wine shop from A Tale of Two Cities (Again, Paris is chosen over the Dover Road for representation). During the festival visitors were given a chance to make a tour of Bleak House. One journalist noted with amusement that ‘On one side of the panels of the nursery door is daubed a garish sprawling spray of apple-blossom. Above it is inscribed by a sacrilegious pencil, ‘Fillia de Carolus hoc tecit’(done by the daughter of Charles).3
Kitton, Frederic G. The Dickens Country. London: A. C. Black, 1925 [first published 1905].
–. Scrapbook 2 (p80). Dickens House Museum.
Oulton, Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton. Down from London: Seaside Reading in the Railway Age. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2022.
A plan from August 1883 gives the name as Fort House (Kitton Scrapbook 80). The 1885 Directory for Broadstairs and St Peter’s gives the name as Bleak House (165). ↩
Kitton (195-6). ↩
‘A Dickens Village at Broadstairs. In Memory of the Great Novelist’. Pall Mall Gazette. 8 June 1897. 7. British Newspaper Archive. ↩