By Gerry Wolstenholme
Charles Dickens never did like Preston, in fact he once said, 'It [Preston] is a nasty place.' So it was perhaps not surprising when, after completing one of his readings in Bolton and due to give another two days thereafter in Preston, he decided that he would spend his free time in Blackpool. His manager George Dolby duly telegraphed ahead and booked the pair in for a two-night stay, 20 and 21 April, 1869, at the Imperial Hotel, 'which on our arrival there [Dolby wrote to his family] we found most comfortable'.
But, despite Dolby's words 'we had arranged to pass a quiet day', all was not well, for Dickens was suffering from the immense strain of the 'Farewell Reading Tour', which had seen him give 72 readings beginning on 6 October, 1868. As a result, his health had suffered and his literary friend Edmund Yates, dining with him at Leeds on 16 April, noted ‘[he] looked jaded and worn, and had to a certain extent lost that marvellous elasticity of spirits which was his great characteristic’. In addition, Dolby had remarked, ‘the old geniality had disappeared’ and the Bolton Guardian gave the only mention of any impending disaster as its critic stated, ‘Before the close of the reading, Mr Dickens’s voice appeared somewhat to fail him, and it was evident that he was compelled to abridge the trial by omitting the speeches for the defence.’ Dickens himself had professed to feeling ‘giddy’ and admitted that he had a feeling of insecurity in his left leg and had some ‘strangeness’ in his left hand and arm.
However, he settled in comfortably at the Imperial Hotel and on the following day, Wednesday 21 April 1869, he went for a walk on the sands and was seen by observers chasing his hat that had blown off in the high wind! He then wrote to his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth, who ran the family home at Gad’s Hill, Kent, stating, 'I send you this hasty line to let you know that I have come to this sea beach hotel (charming) for a day’s rest. I am much better than I was on Sunday, but shall want careful looking to, to get through the readings. My weakness and deadness are all on the left side, and if I don’t look at anything I try to touch with my left hand, I don’t know where it is. I am in (secret) consultation with Frank Beard; he recognises, in the exact description I have given him, indisputable evidence of overwork, which he would wish to treat immediately. So I have said, "Go in and win". I have had a delicious walk by the sea to-day, and I sleep soundly, and have picked up amazingly in appetite. My foot is greatly better and I wear my own boot.'
The following day Dickens and Dolby left Blackpool for Preston by the midday train and took adjoining rooms at the Bull Hotel where they learned that all tickets for the Guild Hall reading had been sold with almost £200 received in takings. But clouds were gathering as Dickens had received a telegram from his surgeon Frank Beard stating that, since receiving his patient’s letter, he was travelling at once to Preston for a consultation and that he would be arriving at 3.30pm. To occupy themselves in the meantime Dickens and Dolby oversaw the erection of the reading screen at the Guild Hall before going to the station to meet Beard, whose train was almost an hour late. Even though it was past their normal dinnertime, Dickens insisted on waiting for his doctor.
The trio walked to the Bull Hotel via the Guild Hall so that Dickens could proudly show Beard the venue. All the time Beard was concerned about Dickens’ health and dinner was postponed until a consultation had taken place. The doctor spent half an hour with his patient, who was given a thorough examination before the pair joined Dolby in the sitting room.
Dolby later reported their all-important conversation. He asked, 'Shall I ring for dinner?' Dickens’ melancholy reply was, 'Wait until Beard has said what he has to say, and then do as you think best.' The doctor then advised, 'All I have to say is this. If you insist on Dickens taking the platform tonight, I will not guarantee but that he goes through life dragging a foot after him.'
At this Dickens broke down and with tears rolling down his face said to Dolby, 'My poor boy! I am so sorry for all the trouble I am giving you. With all the tickets sold and so late in the day too. How will you manage these people?' And then to Beard he added, 'Let me try it tonight. It will save so much trouble.' Beard was adamant and replied, 'As you like. I have told Dolby what I think. If you insist on reading tonight I shall have only to stand by and watch the results.'
Common sense eventually prevailed, the reading was cancelled, all monies were returned and Dickens and his doctor took the 11.14pm train from Preston to London, leaving Dolby to sort out the administrative arrangements. Dickens' reading tours were over.
Charles Dickens may never have given a reading in Blackpool but his unexpected visit in April 1869 gave the town more than a passing connection with the great author and his reading tours. His brief but kind words about his stay at the seaside were well received by the townsfolk and are recorded for posterity. And Blackpool has its place in Dickensian folklore, as it was there that the fateful decision to end his provincial reading tours took shape.