What was it like to be at a Dickens speech?

This page will explore what it was like to attend one of Charles Dickens’s speeches and why they are useful today. Dr. Peter Orford describes here the importance of Dickens's speeches and how they help us to understand his views on social issues: 

Just as the letters fill the void of a diary, so the speeches give us as close an approximation to an interview as we can get. Here is Dickens speaking on matters of the time to a public audience. While the novels use a stylised narrator which leaves ambiguity over how much they reflect Dickens’s own views, the directness of the speeches allows us more confidence in ascertaining Dickens’s personal views.

 Dickens's speeches were often given in the London Tavern (pictured left) or the Freemasons' Tavern, and accompanied with a dinner.   

An example of an occasion where the dinner was just as important as Dickens's speech is the banquets in Charles Dickens’s honour in America. They were grand events, with thousands of people attending, and huge quantities of food.

Below is a menu for one such dinner in New York, 1842. But these dinners were not the normal context for Dickens to make a speech. They were celebrations rather than days of work, and the opportunity was taken to be lavish and indulgent. 

Shepard, G. 1809. The London Tavern at Bishopsgate.


1842. Dinner in Honor of Charles Dickens Esq. Available from: https://www.readex.com/blog/charles-dickens-turns-200

1855: A Dinner to William Thackeray

Dickens would often speak at dinners in honour of authors, or for audiences of literary fellows. One example is his speech from a dinner organised ahead of the novelist William Thackeray journeying to America in 1855, at which Charles Dickens took the chair. The dinner was held at the London Tavern. This is one reporter’s description of the seating arrangements: 

The table at which we were dining was horse-shoed in shape; and this table was allegorically or metaphorically pitched at Mr. Thackeray, and nailed on to him in a way of securing good luck.

Click here to read the speech Dickens gave at this event.

At such events, alcohol was consumed, often in large amounts. The same reporter, at the Thackeray dinner, writes: “by that time each literary gentleman had had claret enough to put him in a felicitous condition of mind” in response to the applause of Thackeray’s speech. He then describes how the evening descended into drunken song:

But it was only half-past eight o’clock. Mr. Dickens rose and said he would make no more speeches; speeches were a nuisance, and he called on somebody for a song. An idiot (whose name I’d rather not mention) sang a song of about 60 verses, in praise of Thackeray, sounding like an elegy, sung as if from a treadmill: that commenced the smash of the evening.

This was likely a common experience of the dinners; they were not always serious, but evenings of entertainment and jollity. 

The consumption of alcohol was often an issue for the journalists present, who were employed to write a report of the speeches for the following day’s paper. Many would join in with the toasts and drink, and so would inaccurately remember what was said. We must, therefore, read the speeches reported in newspapers with caution, as the words attributed to Dickens could be inaccurate both in transcription and in tone.

This is something Dickens was well aware of. In a letter to Sir John Forbes, writing about his General Theatrical Fund Speech in 1855, he says:

The Government hit took immensely, but I'm afraid to look at the report, these things are so ill done. It came into my head as I was walking about at Hampstead yesterday. . . . On coming away I told B. we must have a toastmaster in future less given to constant drinking while the speeches are going on. B. replied 'Yes sir, you are quite right sir, he has no head whatever sir, look at him now sir'—Toastmaster was weakly contemplating the coats and hats—'do you not find it difficult to keep your hands off him sir, he ought to have his head knocked against the wall sir,—and he should sir, I assure you sir, if he was not in too debased a condition to be aware of it sir.'1 

However, it wasn't just alcohol which resulted in the uneven reporting of his speeches. The reporters were writing in shorthand, which could lead to ambiguity in what Dickens had actually said the night before.

Shorthand is a way to quickly notate the rough idea of the content and structure of speeches as they're being told, in order to write them up in full at a later date. Prior to becoming an author, Dickens too was a reporter and was well practiced in the art of shorthand. He, therefore, would be very critical of the reporters who failed to accomplish an accurate portrayal of his speeches.

For more on Dickens's shorthand skills, click here to visit the 'Decoding Dickens' exhibition.

Public Readings

Dickens didn’t just speak at dinners; he would often make speeches at public readings. He would ‘read’ out loud (although the passages were memorised) his own work, most often A Christmas Carol. Men and women attended these, and it would have been similar to going to see a play, with Dickens as the only actor, and no set or costumes!

Barry, C. A. 1867. Charles Dickens as He Appears When Reading.

His readings would always feature a small desk to rest his book upon, and a short table on which there was a water beaker and glass. This is one eye witness report of a public reading he gave in New York 1867 (the same year that the above image was made):

The set-up is interesting. There's a large maroon screen – a kind of backcloth. In front of that and about 12 feet off the ground is a horizontal row of gas-jets with a tin reflector. This is supported by two lateral rods each carrying a small gas-jet. In the centre of this softly lit, warm coloured frame is a little red-covered Reading desk: it seems to glow under the subdued lights.3

It is clear that by this time, Dickens was a master of public speaking and knew how to set the stage for a whole evening with just one man and his words. The lighting and backdrop made sure all eyes were on him, and his dramatism and engaging performances meant the audience was captivated for the entire performance. 

At these events, he would often make short speeches as well. We will come across a few of these throughout the exhibition. 

'Hospital For Sick Children' Speech 1858

Other contexts in which Dickens made speeches were events for social institutions. One of his most famous speeches was made to raise funds for the Hospital for Sick Children (now Great Ormond Street Hospital) in 1858. This speech was given at the Freemasons' Tavern.

Click here to read the speech he gave.

One reporter from this event writes: 

About 150 gentlemen in all sat down to a dinner provided in the best style of the Freemasons' Tavern. The gallery was filled with fashionably-dressed ladies. 

Men were present for such speeches, whereas the women were often left out or separated. This was a long-standing tradition from before Dickens's time, and he often tried to push against this norm.

The attendees of these events were also of the middle and upper classes, so Dickens tailored his speeches to evoke sympathy and charitable giving from these particular groups. For example, the hopsital speech is based on the juxtaposing of the life of the rich child and of the poor child; listeners might have imagined their own child in the same position as those in the hospital. 

The tradition at such formal events was for the chair to toast first to the Queen, the Royal family, and the army and navy. Then the main speech would be addressed and, once all speeches had been made, the women (if present) would be toasted to. These formal events were long occassions, and might have felt more like work than leisure!

Dickens's speech raised £3000 for the hospital, which would be worth approximately £310,000 today. It clearly made an impression on the audience, which is one of the reasons this particular sperech is held in such high regard even now. 

However, before he got into the speech itself, which was disseminated widely, he discusses the contemporary war in India, in which the British army were fighting for colonial control and to establish the 'Raj'. He expresses racist sentiment and strong British patriotism in describing:

a large portion of the army [...] at this moment in India employed in punishing great treachery and great cruelty, and in upholding a government which ... had proved immeasurable superior to any Asiatic rule. 4 [Cheers]5  

Sometimes, reporting of speeches misses this kind of context, which contrasts starkly with the rest of his speech, which was about helping poor sick children. This imperialist attitude underscores that Dickens wasn't speaking up for all people who were suffering due to governmental failings.

  1. Dickens, C. cited in: Fielding, K.J. 1960. The Speeches of Charles Dickens. (Oxford: Clarendon Press) 

  2. Curtis, G. W. cited in: Andrews, M. 2006. Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves: Dickens and the Public Readings. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) (p. 5)

  3. The words in square brackets represent the audience's reaction to Dickens's speech.

  4. Dickens, C. cited in: Fielding, K.J. 1960.

What was it like to be at a Dickens speech?