Gad’s Hill is the name of the house in Kent where Charles Dickens lived at the end of his life, where he wrote works including Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities and the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood - and where he died in the year 1870.
As a boy, Dickens had admired the substantial red brick house and at about the age of five had been advised by his father – ‘If you were to be very persevering and were to work hard, you might some day come to live in it.’
Dickens senior didn’t live to see his prophecy come true but Charles Dickens bought the house in 1856 for £1,790, or close to a million pounds in today’s money. Gad’s Hill dated from 1780, when it was built for the then mayor of nearby Rochester.
Charles Dickens left his mark on the house, extending the drawing room, building a conservatory and making benches under the porch with timber he claimed he’d brought from Shakespeare’s house in Stratford upon Avon.
The drawing room contains numerous mirrors, evidence, says Dickens Museum guide Robina Lamche Brennan, of the lasting legacy of the blacking factory. Charles Dickens loathed darkness and constriction; he installed the mirrors to increase the sense of light and space.
Some of the smaller touches are among the most interesting. His daughter Katey Dickens hand painted the decorative panels Dickens installed in the staircase leading up from the hall.
In the same hall hangs a horseshoe. Now, we think horseshoes need to be pointing upwards, to conserve the luck. The Victorians apparently believed they should be open at the bottom, so that the luck might rain down.
He commissioned idiosyncratic features such as a tunnel that let from the garden, under the road outside, to a patch of land called ‘the wilderness’ where he had his two-story wooden writing chalet. The chalet now stands in the garden of Eastgate House in Rochester High Street.
The arch of the tunnel features a mask of Comedy, on the side leading from the garden.
He put up the Tragedy mask on the side of the tunnel that led away from the chalet and the wilderness, and back to the house. Both tiles were brought by Dickens from Italy.
The house is now in use as a private school; the head teacher occupies what was once Dickens’ study in the house. The inner side of the study door is a false book case, first made for Dickens at his house in Doughty Street in London, later moved to the house in Kent, where it was cut down to fit. Dickens’ sense of humour is evident in the volumes that features on the ‘book shelves’. Hansard’s Guide to Refreshing Sleep is one, and the nine volumes of Cat’s Lives occupy a good part of another shelf.
As part of the Dickens bicentenary observations, the Dickens museum was enabled to open up the house for a series of summer tours, and have installed pieces of the original furniture for the duration.
The iconic desk and empty chair are back in situ, the desk on loan from the private collector that owns it.
The well-known painting Empty Chair, by Luke Fildes, features this desk and chair and was a popular memorial of Dickens in the nineteenth century. Fildes arrived by arrangement to paint Dickens – and learned that he had died the day before.