On this day … 27 April 1867

The Preston Guardian carried a report on Charles Dickens’ readings at the Preston Theatre Royal. Two years later, a second visit ended unhappily when Dickens had to cancel his reading after being taken ill (see post for 24 April)

His tour manager, George Dolby, left an account of both visits in his book, Charles Dickens As I Knew Him. In his account of the earlier, and happier visit, he describes how he and Dickens decided to walk the twelve miles from Blackburn, where Dickens had just given a reading, to Preston, for his next appearance.

On the way, they called in at Hoghton Tower, and that visit provided Dickens with the inspiration for his last short story, George Silverman’s Explanation. In the story, Dickens implies that the Hoghton family might have bought its baronetcy from a king, James I, hungry for money.

Here is Dolby’s account:

The two last towns being only about twelve miles distant, we decided on performing this journey on foot, sending the men on alone with our effects.

There was nothing particular on the road to interest us, the route lying almost entirely amongst factories and mills; and it was with no ordinary degree of pleasure, when about seven miles on our way, that we discovered, high up on elevated ground to our left, the picturesque ruins of an old mansion, fast falling into decay, but standing out weird and melancholy on the summit of the precipice on which it was erected.

Such a building had always a fascination for Mr. Dickens; and inquiring of a native the name of the place, we ascertained that it was called Hoghton Tower. Having some knowledge of the history of the place, Mr. Dickens decided on making an inspection, if permission could be obtained.

There was no trouble about this, for the habitable part of the place was in the occupation of a farmer, who readily assented to our request. We were allowed to roam about the curious old ruin at our leisure, much to the gratification of Mr. Dickens, who at that time was occupying himself with the construction of a new story which he had undertaken to write for America.

This spot at once suggested to him the idea of making Hoghton Tower the scene of the tale, then imperfectly fixed in his mind; and it is here that the story entitled “George Silverman’s Explanation” found its local habitation.

The story took him but a very few days to complete … It was originally intended that it should appear in a New York periodical, and the price agreed upon was one thousand pounds, the largest amount ever paid for a story of similar length.

Charles Dickens reading on stage
Charles Dickens as he appeared when reading (C. A. Barry / Library of Congress)

As well as Hoghton Tower, Dickens made use of Preston in the short story. He set its opening in one of the town’s cellar dwellings, where his hero was living in abject poverty as an infant with his parents. Soon after both parents died, and he moved to live at Hoghton Tower, described in the short story as part farmhouse, part ruin:

What do I know of Hoghton Towers? Very little; for I have been gratefully unwilling to disturb my first impressions. A house, centuries old, on high ground a mile or so removed from the road between Preston and Blackburn, where the first James of England, in his hurry to make money by making baronets, perhaps made some of those remunerative dignitaries. A house, centuries old, deserted and falling to pieces, its woods and gardens long since grass-land or ploughed up, the Rivers Ribble and Darwen glancing below it …

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