Bonfire at Gad’s Hill Place

Gad's Hill Fire
Last Updated March 5, 2021 – Originally Published July 5, 2012

In September of 1860, behind his home at Gad’s Hill Place, Charles Dickens gathered “the accumulated letters and papers of twenty years” and set them ablaze in his backyard. Did the bonfire mark a turning point in his life or was he trying to cover his tracks?

Gad's Hill Place

Gad’s Hill Place – Dickens bought the home in 1856

There seem to be two factors in his life that could explain this drastic action.

The first is fear of the press.  He was concerned that his personal letters would be published and details of his life would become public knowledge.  What did he have to hide?

In 1858 he had a very public separation from his wife.  What wasn’t  widely known was that he had a mistress. 

Ellen Ternan in 1858

Ellen Ternan in 1858

Ellen Ternan, his mistress, was an actress who was much younger than Dickens.  If his relationship with Ellen had become public knowledge, it would have created a scandal.

In 1843 he’d written about workhouses and prisons in A Christmas Carol.   However, very few people knew that Dickens’s father had been sent to Marshalsea prison for failure to pay a debt. Charles Dickens, then only twelve years old, was sent to work in a shoe-polish factory

Dickens was deeply scarred by these incidents and rarely spoke of them.

A second inspiration for the bonfire at Gad’s Hill Place could have been that Dickens was at a turning point in his life. The destruction of his private papers might have been his way of dealing with his past.

In 1860 he was still coming to terms with the separation from his wife and his relationship with Ellen. 

Kate Dickens

Kate in a painting by her husband, Charles Edward Perugini

Also in July of that year his favorite daughter, Katie, married and left Gad’s Hill Place. 

Ten days after the wedding Dickens’s brother, Alfred died.  

Additionally, Dickens’s mother had become senile and needed constant care.

All of these items could have motivated Dickens, at least on a subconscious level, to try to free himself from the demons of his past.

Whatever his motivations, we can only imagine the things we might have learned about the era, Dickens’s life and the lives of famous Victorians.  Burned on that day were letters from authors like Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, and William Makepeace Thackeray.

Dickens’s two youngest sons, Henry and Plorn, carried out baskets and baskets of letters to feed into the fire.  His daughter Mamie begged him to reconsider and save some of the letters.  However, Dickens was determined that the task be completed.  

As they were finishing it began to rain.  Dickens said, ” . . . I suspect my correspondence of having overcast the face of the Heavens.”

Charles Dickens at Gad's Hill Place

The above photo shows Dickens at Gad’s hill in 1862. The back row from left to right is; H.F. Chorley, Kate Dickens, Mamie Dickens, and Charles Dickens. Seated are C.A. Collins and Georgina Hogarth.

Learn More About Gad’s Hill Place

  • Gad’s Hill Place – When he was a boy Charles Dickens and his father took a walk through Kent. On Gravesend Road they passed a house called Gad’s Hill Place.