Charles Dickens on Peterborough

07:55 Tuesday 7th February 2012
Peterborough Breakfast Show
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON BBC: We heard earlier that he had a friend in Wisbech. We’ve got a crystal ball in the Wisbech Museum up there, and a manuscript from Great Expectations. But he’s been to Peterborough as well, hasn’t he?
STUART ORME PETERBOROUGH MUSEUM: He has indeed. .. Dickens is supposed to have visited Peterborough in 1837, and visited the parish workhouse, which at that time was over on Westgate. It’s the building that’s now the Almshouse Pub. And apparently he met the Peterborough Beadle and was so impressed with the character he used him as the model for Mr Bumble, the man who was played by Harry Secombe, “More?”. He was based on the Peterborough man. And in fact actually if you read to the original version as it was published, he describes the town in which Oliver is in the workhouse as being about 75, 90 miles north of London. He calls it something like Mudflat. That’s the made up name for it. So you can guess between the lines where he was referring to. And of course Peterborough is one of the few towns that still has Beadles. Nowadays they’re civic officers of the Town Hall, who escort the Mayor on civic occasions. But it was the Peterborough one he was referring to there. He also did quite a few readings in the town. In fact it was probably one of the towns he most visited in terms of doing his acclaimed public readings. It’s arguable that his first ever public reading was actually performed in Peterborough in 1852. He changed trains here in early 1856 at the railway station apparently.
PAUL STAINTON BBC: Still look like it does today.
STUART ORME PETERBOROUGH MUSEUM: Not quite, no. But interestingly he bought a cup of tea and a scone which he said was “of great antiquity”. And sat there with his tears mingling with his tea about the appalling service he’d received in Peterborough railway station.
STUART ORME PETERBOROUGH MUSEUM: So I’ll leave your listeners to make their own judgments about whether that’s still the case today. He did other public readings here as well. His last one was in 1859, when he said he’d done readings in the Corn Exchange, which was the building that used to stand round the corner from here. And he said it was one of the best readings he ever did. It was crammed to the doors inside there. It was a remarkably attentive audience, although unfortunately he made some very cutting remarks about Peterborough as a town. He s aid that other than the Cathedral, which he said was one of the most beautiful he’d ever seen, he said he thought that Peterborough was one of the most depressing small towns, even possibly the most depressing small town in the whole of the British Isles, which I thought was a bit unfair. Interestingly he never came back to Peterborough after that.