On this day … 4 February 1854

Charles Dickens

The Preston Guardian reported a visit by Charles Dickens from which he left a very unflattering description of Preston, and especially of the Bull and Royal hotel. He had come to spend several days in the town because he wanted to witness a strike in a manufacturing town and the Preston Strike of 1853/4, then at its height, seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

But he was to be disappointed, to judge by the account he penned while in town, and which John Forster includes in volume three of his Life of Charles Dickens:

I am afraid I shall not be able to get much here. Except the crowds at the street corners reading the placards pro and con; and the cold absence of smoke from the mill chimneys; there is very little in the streets to make the town remarkable. I am told that the people “sit at home and mope” …
It is a nasty place (I thought it was a model town); and I am in the Bull Hotel, before which some time ago the people assembled supposing the masters to be here, and on demanding to have them out were remonstrated with by the landlady in person. I saw the account in an Italian paper, in which it was stated that ‘the populace then environed the Palazzo Bull, until the padrona of the Palazzo heroically appeared at one of the upper windows and addressed them!’ One can hardly conceive anything less likely to be represented to an Italian mind of this description, than the old, grubby, smoky, mean, intensely formal red brick house with a narrow gateway and a dingy yard, to which it applies.
At the theatre last night I saw Hamlet and should have done better to “sit at home and mope” like the idle workmen.

What is especially interesting is a comment by Forster on the visit:

There was one thing nevertheless which the choice of his subject made him anxious to verify while Hard Times was in hand; and this was a strike in a manufacturing town. He went to Preston to see one at the end of January, and was somewhat disappointed.

It is generally assumed that Dickens based his fictional Coketown in his novel Hard Times on Preston. He began publishing the novel a few weeks later in his weekly journal, Household Words. Does Foster’s comment imply that the Coketown scenes had already been written and that the visit to Preston added little to the description?

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