There are many associations with Dickens’ stories, and his life, in Rochester. Many are obvious or have plaques, but others may be less known – even to locals. In this blog I propose to feature three.
The back-story to the names of two coffee houses in Rochester:
- “The Deaf Cat” in Rochester High Street.
- “Miss Twickletons” along from Eastgate House / opposite the adult education centre, Rochester.
And an unlabelled site near
- Priors Gate / Minor Canon Row that provided the setting for a scene in Dickens’ “Mystery of Edwin Drood”.
The Deaf Cat, 83 High St, Rochester, ME1 1LX.
The name of this Coffee House does not come from any known novel of Dickens but from the life of Charles Dickens himself. The story was recounted by his daughter Mary (Mamie) in her book “Charles Dickens, by His Eldest Daughter”.
Mary tells of being given a white kitten that she named Williamina. Williamina moved with the family to Gad’s Hill and quickly settled in and set about having many litters. Although Williamina was Mary’s cat she was a firm favourite of the whole household but had a particular affection for Charles Dickens.
One occasion, having given birth to her litter in the safety of the cellar, Williamina brought her kittens, one by one, up to Dickens’ study and attempted to set up a ‘nest’ for them in a corner of the room. On her father’s insistence Mary removed the kittens from the study but this was not acceptable to Williamina who immediately set about returning her kittens to the corner she had chosen in Dickens’ study. Again Mary was required to remove them and again Williamina returned them to the study. But on this attempt, the third one, Williamina ‘got smart’ and placed the kittens near Dickens’ feet and gave him a heart melting pleading look – she won, the kittens were allowed to stay in the study.
As can be expected the kittens enjoyed exploring and frolicking in Dickens’ study. However it was noticed that one of the kittens was less able to join in and took refuge on Dickens desk. It turned out that it was deaf. When it came to rehoming the kittens it was decided to keep the one that was deaf. Probably because it could not hear and thereby respond to its name being called, this kitten was not given a name and was generally referred to as “the master’s cat”.
This ‘deaf cat’ became incredibly loyal to Charles Dickens – following him around more like a dog than a cat, and sat on his desk while he wrote. There is a story that one evening Dickens was in the drawing room reading – in the company of ‘The Master’s Cat’ – when the candle that Dickens was reading by went out. Dickens relit the candle only for the cat to put it out again with its paw. Clearly this ‘kitten’ had learnt a lesson or two from its mother – on extinguishing the ‘reading candle’ the ‘deaf cat’ looked appealing at Dickens who rewarded it with the petting it was craving – thus proving, to my mind, that cats own us!
Miss Twinketons Fine Coffee House, Rochester, ME1 1EW.
Miss Twinkleton is a character from Dickens’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”. She is the headmistress of the ‘Seminary for Young Ladies’ that was attended by Rosa Bud.
There is little doubt that Dickens envisaged the ‘Seminary for Young Ladies’ being located in Eastgate House off Rochester High Street.
Dickens started this novel in 1860 but sadly died before he could completed it. Friends ensured it was published in 1870.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
is a murder mystery built around complex relationships and many places that can be found in Rochester that Dickens named, in this novel, ‘Cloisterham’:
“In the midst of Cloisterham stands the Nuns’ House: a venerable brick edifice, whose present appellation is doubtless derived from the legend of its conventual uses. On the trim gate enclosing its old courtyard is a resplendent brass plate flashing forth the legend: ‘Seminary for Young Ladies. Miss Twinkleton.” (Mystery of Edwin Drood, Chapter 3, ‘The Nun’s House‘.)
If any doubt remains about the location of the school take a look at the following illustration, from the original publication, of Rosa Bud saying goodbye to her school mates. Look closely and you can spot the lantern over the gate, leaded-light windows, and the porch, and the similarity with the Eastgate House of today. (Illustration from Mystery of Edwin Drood, Chapter 13, ‘Both at their Best‘.)
In the novel Rosa Bud and Edward Drood were both orphans whose marriage had been arranged by their fathers – whilst they were both children. It is therefore not surprising Rosa had doubts as to whether she wished to marry Edwin. Apart from her youth and having no choice in the matter, Miss Twinkleton would not have helped Rosa develop an understanding of ‘adult’ romance.
Miss Twinkleton would read to the girls however when she reached a lovey-dovey passage she would omit it and replace it with her own words which stressed the importance of chastity!
“Tired of working, and conversing with Miss Twinkleton, she [Rosa] suggested working and reading: to which Miss Twinkleton readily assented, as an admirable reader, of tried powers. But Rosa soon made the discovery that Miss Twinkleton didn’t read fairly. She cut the love-scenes, interpolated passages in praise of female celibacy, and was guilty of other glaring pious frauds. As an instance in point, take the glowing passage:
“Ever dearest and best adored,—said Edward, clasping the dear head to his breast, and drawing the silken hair through his caressing fingers, from which he suffered it to fall like golden rain,—ever dearest and best adored, let us fly from the unsympathetic world and the sterile coldness of the stony-hearted, to the rich warm Paradise of Trust and Love.
“Miss Twinkleton’s fraudulent version tamely ran thus:
“Ever engaged to me with the consent of our parents on both sides, and the approbation of the silver-haired rector of the district,—said Edward, respectfully raising to his lips the taper fingers so skilful in embroidery, tambour, crochet, and other truly feminine arts,—let me call on thy papa ere to-morrow’s dawn has sunk into the west, and propose “suburban establishment, lowly it may be, but within our means, where he will be always welcome as an “evening guest, and where every arrangement shall invest economy, and constant interchange of scholastic acquirements with the attributes of the ministering angel to domestic bliss.” (Mystery of Edwin Drood, Chapter 22, ‘A Gritty State of things to come‘.)
In these circumstances it is hard to envisage how an orphan such as Rosa, schooled by Miss Twinkleton, would have ever achieved ‘marital bliss’!
Priors Gate / Minor Canon Row (ME1 1SR) provided the setting for a scene from Dickens’ “Mystery of Edwin Drood”
The illustration above, shown in juxtaposition with a photograph of Priors Gate, appears in the Mystery of Edwin Drood, Chapter 12, ‘A Night with Durdles‘.
Although perhaps 150 years apart, it is not difficult to see that Dickens may have envisaged Mr. Durdles cautioning the mayor, Mr Sapsea, against boasting, in the cathedral Precinct on the approach to Minor Canon Row. Note particularly the window and the silhouette of the gate tower that may be more clearly seen in the larger illustration.
The location has no specific significance other than its proximity to the cathedral and the crypt which was Mr. Durdles ‘domain’.
The company of men that included Mr. Sapsea, the mayor and auctioneer, the Dean, the verger and Mr. John Jasper were talking about Mr. Durdles, the stone mason with a detailed knowledge of the crypt, when he is observed approaching with his dinner-bundle in his hand. The following exchange illustrates the contempt in which the upper class held the working class at this time.
“Slouching nearer, and perceiving the Dean, he pulls off his hat, and is slouching away with it under his arm, when Mr. Sapsea stops him.
‘Mind you take care of my friend,’ is the injunction Mr. Sapsea lays upon him.
‘What friend o’ yourn is dead?’ asks Durdles. ‘No orders has come in for any friend o’ yourn.’
‘I mean my live friend there.’
‘O! him?’ says Durdles. ‘He can take care of himself, can Mister Jarsper.’
‘But do you take care of him too,’ says Sapsea.
Whom Durdles (there being command in his tone) surlily surveys from head to foot.
‘With submission to his Reverence the Dean, if you’ll mind what concerns you, Mr. Sapsea, Durdles he’ll mind what concerns him.’
‘You’re out of temper,’ says Mr. Sapsea, winking to the company to observe how smoothly he will manage him. ‘My friend concerns me, and Mr. Jasper is my friend. And you are my friend.’
‘Don’t you get into a bad habit of boasting,’ retorts Durdles, with a grave cautionary nod. ‘It’ll grow upon you.’
‘You are out of temper,’ says Sapsea again; reddening, but again sinking to the company.
‘I own to it,’ returns Durdles; ‘I don’t like liberties.’
Mr. Sapsea winks a third wink to the company, as who should say: ‘I think you will agree with me that I have settled his business;’ and stalks out of the controversy.
Durdles then gives the Dean a good evening, and adding, as he puts his hat on, ‘You’ll find me at home, Mister Jarsper, as agreed, when you want me; I’m a–going home to clean myself,’ soon slouches out of sight. This going home to clean himself is one of the man’s incomprehensible compromises with inexorable facts; he, and his hat, and his boots, and his clothes, never showing any trace of cleaning, but being uniformly in one condition of dust and grit.” (Mystery of Edwin Drood, Chapter 12, ‘A Night with Durdles‘.)
“Mystery of Edwin Drood” by Charles Dickens, 1870.
“The Masters Cat” by Eleanor Poe Barlow, 1999.