Early Dickens  

 

I selected the above photograph of my paternal Great-Grandfather,  JOHN DICKENS, as an introduction to the Dickens family history because he represents the great military aspect of the family. At the time of his retirement, he had been promoted to Quartermaster Honorary Captain as against Honorary Lieutenant as stated in the photograph above. 

It is with gratitude that I have to thank Peter and John Dickens, grandsons of John Dickens (and my Great-grandfather) for their not inconsiderable efforts in researching and recording the extensive military aspects of this family history. I would also like to acknowledge, in particular, Peter's academic and painstaking research in ferreting out so much information about the family in the very early days.

Early Dickens

In the second half of the eighteenth century, village life in England deteriorated as common lands were enclosed and large numbers of labourers could no longer make a living. They wandered from place to place looking for work but nobody wanted itinerants who might try to become resident paupers and seek aid from the poorhouse. Consequently, they were encouraged to move on. They could not read or write, even their own names. Few reliable records exist and little can be learned about them. Recorders of births and marriages had to guess at the spelling of the names of itinerants so that even in a single family, brothers and sisters could have surnames with different spellings. Recognising these uncertainties, here is what we have learned from Surrey Parish records kept at the County Record Office in Kingston-on-Thames.

For the purpose of getting these early days into perspective with today's times, the earliest documented detail of the Dickens family starts with my Great-great-Grandfather, ROBERT Dickens.

Robert's baptism is recorded in the Parish records of Reigate, Surrey for 1799 as 'January 20th. Robert, son of James and Sarah Deacins'.  This is confirmed by later Census date as to time and place of birth. 

Going back further than this, it is probable but not certain, that Robert's father James was the son of James Deekins and Elizabeth, whose baptism was recorded in the Cranleigh (Surrey) Parish records of 22 July 1753. The parents were there described as 'travellers'. It seems most likely that James followed in their footsteps and became an itinerant with his wife, Sarah, as did Robert later with his wife Keziah.

That Robert and his partner Keziah were also travellers, is confirmed by the baptism of their daughter, Charity, in 1824, at Walton on Thames where Robert's abode was given as 'Cranley, Surrey, Itinerant'.  His trade, as his later life demonstrated, was one of tin worker and, in his earlier days, he could have been described as a travelling dealer in hardware. He and Keziah, like the great majority of the labouring poor of that time, signed their names on official documents with crosses. (There was no compulsory free schooling before 1870 and the spelling of their names varied widely until it finally settled down as Dickens). Keziah is most likely the Cassia Wright whose baptism took place in Seale (Surrey) December 6, 1801. These data are compatible as regards time and place in later Census data.

It is by no means certain that Robert and Keziah ever married, though they stayed together for forty years and had eighteen children. Most of these years were spent in Feltham (Middlesex) where Robert settled, after an attempt made in 1827 to have him removed as an incomer without settlement papers proved to be unsuccessful. He gradually built up an ironmongery business there, which was carried on by his son George (b.1842).  Robert died in 1872 and George carried on the business, latterly at 15 High Street, Feltham until he died in 1922.

John was the seventeenth, and second youngest, child of Robert and Keziah, born in 1846. As one of the younger children, John's living conditions were not quite as cramped as having sixteen older brothers and sisters might suggest, partly because of the then prevailing high mortality rates for infants and children. When John was born in 1846, there were five other children at home from 2 to 21 years old. The family lived in a rented cottage in Bedfont Lane, close to Feltham High Street. (See photograph below)

In the 1851 Census, the same number of children was present, but in 1861, when John was 14, only one other sibling, BEN, 12, who was the last child, remained at home. Elder brother George had left home in 1859 to join the Navy and John's mother Keziah had died in 1860, so it is likely that over the next four years, John was his father's principal helper in the plumbing business. In later life, it was said of John that he could mend 'anything,' ... a tribute to the skills he learned in Feltham.

Other children of Robert Dickens and Keziah Wright were:

James b.1819 or 1820, married Sophia Gipson from Bedfont in 1846 and then set up his own tinsmith and brazier business in Kingston-on-Thames, remaining there as a tinplate worker until his death in 1887. 

Thomas b.1822 

Charity b.1824 (known as Dinah but baptised Charity at Walton-on-Thames in 1824), married Charles Pearce, a shoemaker of north Feltham at St. Dunstan's in August 1853. Robert was a witness at the wedding and signed his name with a mark. 

Emma, b.1831 married William Horton at Isleworth in the same year. Children were born to all three couples and since they continued to live locally, it may be presumed that Keziah and Robert saw quite a lot of their grandchildren.

Sadly, in 1874, their youngest daughter, Keziah Anne, died at the age of three and in 1856, another daughter, Sarah (b.1836) apparently unmarried, lost her daughter on Christmas Eve aged two months.

Other children were:  MaryAnn (b.1826); William 1827-29; Elizabeth (b.1830); Emma (b.1831); William 1832-38; Robert 1834-38; Eliza 1835-36; Sarah (b.1836); Solomon (B.1838);  Frances (b.1839);  Samuel 1840-41;  George 1840-1922;  John 1846-1927; Ben (b.1848).

Before George returned to help his father, Robert, in the Feltham ironmongery business, he joned the Navy at Woolwich in 1859, enrolling on the ship Fisgard. He was seventeen years old and signed on for a period of continuous service to run for ten years after reaching the age of eighteen. Should he wish to do so, he could qualify after five years service for discharge by purchase; that is, he was permitted to leave the service, when qualified, by payment of £12. His description stated that he was 5'1.1/2" tall, his complexion ruddy, brown hair and blue eyes. Most encouragingly he was able to sign his name. His rate of pay as a Boy 2nd Class was 15s.6d per month.

His basic training was brief because in August 1859 he joined the crew of Pioneer, a Wooden Screw Steam Gun Ship, which was waiting to sail from Portsmouth to Hong Kong. His naval travels involved much excitement and he appeared something like Flashman in a minor role at world shattering events.

In September 1860, several thousand French and British troops had moved up both sides of the Peiho River, supported by four gun boats and reached Peking. George went from Hong Kong via Shanghai to a rendezvous in the Gulf of Pechili near the mouth of the Peiho River. The Ta-ku forts had been taken at the rear by the large force and on 21 August 1860, George's boat was laying off the Ta-ku forts! A month later they were on their way to Tientsin; altogether a successful assault on Chinese forts at the mouth of the Peiho River.

Aside from all the obvious adventure, it was a hard, disciplined and monotonous life and just now and then the sailors were allowed to let their hair down, for example, at the traditional crossing of the line ceremony, or to put their feet up on Christmas Day.

After many exploits on other ships, George's last posting was to a new, state of the art battleship Bellerophon which cruised in ceremonial fashion moving smoothly between Portsmouth, Spithead, Portland and Plymouth.It was from this ship that he purchased his discharge for £12 on 10th February 1868. His Discharge Certificate stated: Service Conduct: Very Good. China Medal.

Although his eye colour, hair and complexion were unchanged, he appeared to have gained one inch in height and finally stood all of 5ft.2.1/2 ins. tall. He had been in the navy for eight years, seven months.

On his return to Feltham, he lost no time in picking up his former trade of tinsmith and plumber and took over his father's business in 1872. He married a Feltham girl, Isabel Gardner on Christmas Day 1869 and they proceeded to have eleven children, the last, William, being born in 1891. In the war of 1914-1918, four of his sons served with the colours; one was in the navy and one, William, died in the Somme and his name is on the Feltham War Memorial.

George died, aged 80, in 1922; a well-known figure in Feltham. On the death certificate he was described as 'Plumber and Gas Fitter (Master)' and between George and Robert, his father, the two of them had provided a hardware repair service for Feltham residents which had lasted continuously for very nearly a hundred years.

In Ken Baldwin's 'Memoirs of Old Feltham' circa 1900, it was written of George Dickens: 'What a character, an old sailor;  was to be seen most days touring the district with his pony and trap, his bowler hat at a jaunty angle plying his trade, scissors to grind, kettles to mend, knives to sharpen and anything else within reason. He was also a member of the Minstrel Troupe and noted for his Stump Speeches that he used to give.'  Clearly, George was something of a local celebrity and a 'card.'  Over the years I have heard many a Dickens described in just such a manner - there are and have been many 'cards.'  Card-sharps too!

George, Robert and Keziah share a grave in St. Dunstan's churchyard at Feltham, marked by a small headstone.

 

The ironmongery at Feltham High Street:

 

 Palmers and Millards

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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