Boz in Oz and Exeter

Charles Dickens is a constant favourite. Some weeks ago, we received a copy of Boz in Oz, the wonderfully named annual journal of the New South Wales Dickens Society in Australia (‘Oz’, of course, meaning Australia, while ‘Boz’ was Dickens’s pen-name). What a treat – 86 pages of beautifully presented articles, news, snippets and reviews, illustrated with loads of colour and black-and-white pictures. It is surely worth joining the society for its journal alone. We have an article in it called “Mile End Cottage, Alphington” (pp. 73–5, with footnotes on p. 86).

Rural banishment

Dickens never had a good relationship with his parents, mainly because he had to constantly deal with unpaid debts incurred by his father. After a particularly wretched episode in early 1839, Dickens decided to move his parents from London to the rural backwater of Devon, effectively exiling them. Four years earlier, when working as a reporter for the Morning Chronicle, he went to Exeter to cover the election speech of Lord John Russell. He now travelled there again and stayed at the New London Inn, a coaching inn that was long ago demolished. Its site is now a featureless building occupied by a Waterstones bookshop.

House hunting

Almost immediately, he found a suitable cottage to rent south of Exeter, as he told his friend Thomas Mitton:

“I succeeded yesterday in the very first walk, and took a cottage at a place called Alphington, one mile from Exeter.” He then described the cottage, which had “on the ground-floor, a good parlour and kitchen, and above, a full-sized country drawing-room and three bedrooms; in the yard behind, coal-holes, fowl-houses, and meat-safes out of number; in the kitchen, a neat little range; in other rooms, good stoves and cupboards; and all for twenty pounds a year, taxes included.”

“Mile End Cottages” was a sizeable semi-detached property, built in about 1820 alongside the Exeter to Plymouth road and named after the first milestone that had been set up here when this operated as a turnpike road. Dickens said that the cottages were brick built and painted white, with a thatched roof. Their owner, Mrs Pannell, was a “Devonshire widow … a fat, infirm, splendidly fresh-faced country dame, rising sixty”. She lived with her brother in the right-hand cottage, while Dickens rented the left-hand one from her. He also told Thomas Mitton how he negotiated for the produce from her adjoining garden:

“There is a good garden at the side well stocked with cabbages, beans, onions, celery, and some flowers. The stock belonging to the landlady (who lives in the adjoining cottage), there was some question whether she was not entitled to half the produce, but I settled the point by paying five shillings, and becoming absolute master of the whole!”

Dickens lived here (sort of)

Dickens installed his parents and younger brother Augustus in the house. He stayed with them from time to time and wrote parts of his novels here. In November 1845, the executors of Mrs Pannell put both cottages up for sale by auction:

“The one which is let comprises good sized dining and drawing rooms, 3 bedrooms, kitchen with a good cooking apparatus, a wash house and copper. The other Cottage (which was occupied by the late owner) is not quite so large, but, as well as the first, replete with Fixtures; together with an excellent Garden well stocked with fruit trees, in which is a lead pump. The above Cottages were newly built about 25 years since and are in good condition … Immediate possession may be had of one of the Cottages, if required.”

It is unclear whether or not any of the Dickens family were still living there, but in 1897 a local newspaper published some letters from people in Alphington, including an intriguing memory from a local auctioneer, Mr Hussey:

Mr John Dickens (father of Charles) lived at Mile End Cottage for some years, and then he went into a house that stood by itself a little further on, and nearer Alphington. There he lived for some years longer. The place, however, did not quite suit Mrs. Dickens, and she lived principally in London. Mr. Hussey remembers the elder Dickens as a jolly old man, full of conversation, and as genial as anyone a person could wish to meet. He lived at Alphington for four or five years altogether, and then he, too, went back to the Metropolis.”

All change

The cottages were made into a single house in the 1930s and renamed Mile End Cottage. The milestone has long gone, the thatched roof has been replaced, and a plaque has been put on the house to commemorate its occupation by the Dickens family. Alphington became bisected by a railway line that was later closed down. It is no longer an idyllic rural village, but a suburb of the ever-expanding city, near a major road and cut by one of the main routes into the centre of Exeter. The once tranquil country turnpike road that passes Mile End Cottage is now a busy thoroughfare leading to supermarkets and a business park.