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The Ghost of Dickens' Past




FOR MANY, at the festive season, Charles Dickens’ annual favourite A Christmas Carol has become the literary equivalent of turkey with all the trimmings.


The tale of Scrooge and his ghostly visitors on Christmas Eve has sent a chill down the spine of readers since first appearing in print in 1843.


And while the counting houses of London and the squalor of Victorian England are thought to have provided the imaginative spark for Dickens’ classic short novel, new evidence suggests he was haunted by Yorkshire as the inspiration for the tale.


Enthusiasts now argue Malton, in North Yorkshire, perhaps surprisingly, is the spiritual home of the much-loved characters Marley, Bob Cratchit, Scrooge and Tiny Tim among others.


The story was first published on 19 December 1843 and quickly met with commercial and critical acclaim.


Dickens was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, but lived largely in London and Kent as a boy, enjoying a happy childhood, though with a dark episode of poverty and factory labour.


Many Dickensians have always thought the south of England to be the inspiration for the classic, but Malcolm Chalk, of the Charles Dickens (Malton) Society, says when it comes to A Christmas Carol, Dickens’ connection with Yorkshire has more credence.

 He says:

“The town of Malton was visited often by Charles Dickens because of his long friendship with Charles Smithson, a solicitor in the town. The Smithson family had their offices on Chancery Lane in Malton and they also shared a practice in London.

 “Some of the connections, although not written down, are so obvious they must be true.

“The novel A Christmas Carol wasn’t actually written at Malton, but the Smithson family were told by Dickens that the office in Chancery Lane was the model for Scrooge's Office and that the midnight 'Bells' in the novel were those of St Leonard's Church on Church Hill.

"I think Dickens must have been inspired to use the Smithson building as the model for Scrooge’s counting room, because it’s not a big office and would be a typical solicitor’s office of the day.

 “Charles Dickens acted as surety for a friend of his to buy into the Smithson’s London business and that’s how he and Charles Smithson met and became lifelong friends. Dickens came up regularly to see him.

"And because Dickens was famous, his visits made the news!

“It is said in The Yorkshire Gazette on July 8th 1843: ‘We understand that Charles Dickens Esq the admired and talented author of "Pickwick", etc is now on a visit with his lady at Easthorpe, the hospitable abode of Charles Smithson Esq Solicitor, Malton, and that he has visited Old Malton Abbey and other remarkable places in the vicinity.’

"When he was in Malton, Dickens used to stay with Smithson at Easthorpe Hall and then at the Abbey house, and he was inspired by the town, by the people in it and by the surrounding area.

"Unfortunately in 1844 Charles Smithson died early like his brothers, he was only 39. He died without leaving a will, but he became one of Dickens’ characters too. The family were told he was Mr Spenlow of Spenlow and Jorkins in David Copperfield.

"Dickens attended the funeral at Old Malton. He left York by fast carriage at 7.00 am on 5th April and arrived in Malton just in time for the funeral at 9.30 am.

"Now it's time Malton made more of this great literary connection…..”

Over time, Dickens met other people connected with Smithson and Yorkshire.  John Brodie in Nicholas Nickleby, is allegedly modelled on Richard Barnes, a Barnard Castle attorney.

Dickens also wrote part of Martin Chuzzlewit while staying in Yorkshire, and it’s widely believed he entertained an audience at Malton’s Saville Street’s theatre (now defunct).

A Christmas Carol received immediate critical acclaim, one reviewer declaring it: ‘A tale to make the reader laugh and cry—to open his hands, and open his heart to charity even toward the uncharitable [...] a dainty dish to set before a King.’”


Poet and editor Thomas Hood wrote: "If Christmas, with its ancient and hospitable customs, its social and charitable observances, were ever in danger of decay, this is the book that would give them a new lease.”


‘Dickens’ A Christmas Carol’, says Professor Francis O’Gorman from the School of English at the University of Leeds,remains a favourite partly because it mixes the pleasures of a ghost story—the rattling chains, the night-time visitations, the glimpses of hell—with a story of real earthly redemption and good cheer.  The ghosts scare Scrooge, but more importantly they come to teach him a moral lesson about generosity and kindness.  It is a tale about the affirmation of life, about the chances of doing things better’.


Prof John Bowen, from the University of York, an acknowledged expert on Dickens, adds a word of caution.


He says:


“While there is no doubt that Dickens did visit Malton – and enthusiasts can trace his visits in the great Pilgrim edition of Dickens’ letters – he also visited many, many other places.


I'm also pretty sceptical about identifying his fictional characters with real people, other than the few attested cases, such as Jane Seymour Hill as Miss Mowcher, in David Copperfield, evidence for which exists in the letters.


“Briefly, I'm sceptical about the idea that Dickens based Marley's office on a place in Malton, although it's well known that he stayed in the town.


A Christmas Carol is clearly set in large city, almost certainly London, and Dickens must have known many offices like Scrooge's, as he worked for several years as a lawyer's clerk.”


Dickens himself returned to the tale time and again during his life to tweak the phrasing and punctuation, and capitalized on the success of the book by annually publishing other Christmas stories in 1844, 1845, 1846, and 1848.


The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain were all based on the pattern laid down in Carol. While the public eagerly bought the later books, the critics bludgeoned them.


By 1849, Dickens was working on David Copperfield and had neither the time nor the inclination to produce another Christmas book, though he would return to A Christmas Carol as part of his ongoing popular public readings every Christmas.


Whatever the geographical truth, the minor classic, written by a man who witnessed the horrors of extreme poverty at first hand, just before the passing of the Poor Laws, remains a popular seasonal morality tale with children, parents, and curmudgeonly employers, to this day.


  • The Charles Dickens (Malton) Society has opened a Charles Dickens museum at the Chancery Lane premises and has ambitious plans to open a Dickens Experience in Malton to attract visitors over time. The society was formally started in February 2008 at a meeting of the initial eight members and now boasts a membership of over 50.

·         Dickens would go on to write 15 major novels and countless short stories and articles before his death on June 9, 1870.