Charles Dickens is of course well known for his association with London. However people might be less familiar with his links to Manchester. These are discussed here and accompany a small exhibition on the Ground Floor, Central Library running until January 2022.

Dickens made a number of visits to Manchester and three notable ones are mentioned here. One of his earlier visits was to lend his support to the Athenaeum building on Princess Street in 1843. The Athenaeum was a club that aimed to promote and enable learning amongst the middle classes offering a newsroom, library, lecture hall and coffee room. Dickens attended a soiree at the Free Trade Hall in support of the institution. The Free Trade Hall is another significant building in the Dickens-Manchester story as we will discover later in this blog.

The Athenaeum in 1836 (building second from right)  Manchester Libraries Local Image Collection (m58907)

Dickens also visited the city to attend the opening of the new Manchester Free Library in 1852 at the Hall of Science, Campfield, Deansgate/Liverpool Road.   This was one of the precursors to the current Manchester Central Library and was the first rate supported public lending and reference library in the country.  Dickens did, in fact, make a speech for the opening and this can be viewed in the exhibition and in the book Dickens in Manchester (our ref. 823.83B139).

Manchester Free Library in 1855
Manchester Libraries Local Image Collection (m51802)

Returning to the Free Trade Hall, Dickens’ play The Frozen Deep (written in collaboration with Wilkie Collins) was performed there 21st, 22nd, and 24th August, 1857.  It was based on the Franklin Expedition – the disastrous 1845 expedition to the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic led by Captain Sir John Franklin.

Dickens also appeared in the play and it is also significant in his personal life, as he hired the 18 year old actress Ellen Ternan to appear in the Manchester production. It is believed she became his mistress and he left his wife the following year.  The play also spurned a watercolour by the artist Robert Dudley which is held by Manchester Libraries; this appears in the exhibition.

Free Trade Hall 1865 Manchester Libraries Local Image Collection (m51890).

As well as visits our exhibition draws attention to the fact that the wider Dickens family had Manchester connections.  He actually stayed with his sister, Fanny, at her house at 3 Elm Terrace, Ardwick when he visited in 1843. She was a talented singer and married fellow musician Henry Burnett, moving with him to Manchester. As Dissenters the couple attended services at Rusholme Road Chapel. Their sickly son Harry was Dickens’ inspiration for Tiny Tim when he wrote A Christmas Carol later that year.

Manchester also influenced some of Dickens other novels. Shortly after his 1852 visit, Dickens started work on Hard Times.  The town in it is fictional but is widely believed to be based on cities like Manchester and Preston where Dickens had observed the appalling conditions in the factories and mills.   His 1843 visit also affected him profoundly, namely in his observations of child poverty which inspired A Christmas Carol.

The Dickens-Manchester story has many facets and there is more to explore (his connection with Elizabeth Gaskell for instance) but that is for another time…


Illustrated London News 11th Sep, 1852 F072I8 – opening of the library

Dickens in Manchester, 823.83B139

Charles Dickens and Manchester q942.7369Di1