Walk 13: Broadstairs to Margate

Map: Emily Duong

This splendid walk, spanning a string of sandy bays and airy clifftops, is a perfect sunny-day hike. What’s more, our destination, Margate, is one of the least expected treasure houses of Dickens’ personal story. It was here that his mistress Ellen Ternan created a new life for herself after his death.

This is one of 17 walks described fully in my new guidebook, Walking Charles Dickens’ KentYou can get a copy here and get a full guide to the walk, and details of all the locations on the map above.

For a GPX file of this route you can download and follow on your phone, go to this link: https://www.plotaroute.com/route/1713215

Dickens had met Ellen Lawless Ternan, known as Nelly, in 1857, when she was 18 and he was 45. Ellen’s father was dead, and her mother and sisters were struggling to make a living in the theatre. Dickens took them under his wing, seeking to further their careers, especially Nelly’s.

In a coincidence that will have seemed highly significant to Dickens, Nelly was born in Rochester, a city that had played a crucial part in his childhood, and where he returned to live in middle age. (See Walk 4: Rochester city trail.)

He and Nelly embarked on a 13-year affair, during which Dickens abandoned his wife, and which only ended on his death. Although their relationship was never publicly acknowledged – Dickens’ reputation would never have survived the revelation that such a pillar of the community was unfaithful – the author’s family and friends were well aware of it.

When her lover died, Nelly was in a terrible position. Quite apart from overwhelming grief at her loss, Dickens had housed her, in Peckham, and funded her completely. The prospects for a bereaved mistress in Victorian England were dire. Yet Nelly was able to achieve a remarkable reinvention of herself, in which her past was erased. She dropped her age, incredibly, by 14 years – from 37 to 23 – and in 1876, six years after Dickens’ death, she married George Robinson, a clergyman and Oxford graduate 12 years her junior who knew nothing of her relationship with Dickens.

With George, Nelly came to Margate, where they ran a school, a private boarding establishment they named Margate High School (A), off Hawley Street, where there is now a Morrison’s supermarket. The couple became pillars of Margate society, and had a son, Geoffrey, and a daughter, Gladys. Claire Tomalin, in her biography The Invisible Woman, commented: ‘By her boldness – the boldness she had observed in Dickens and learnt from him – she had achieved the ambition of the right-minded Victorian girl.’

Nelly always acknowledged Dickens as a friend of the family, but as she had dropped her age so drastically, she would appear to have been little more than a child at the time of his death.

In a sign of how closely Nelly was still connected with Dickens’ family, his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth – for many years the author’s besotted housekeeper – stayed with Nelly for a week’s summer holiday in Margate in 1877.

George became a magistrate, and Nelly returned to the stage, in An Evening with Dickens, featuring readings and recitations from A Christmas Carol, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield and Bleak House. She appeared at the Theatre Royal (B) in Hawley Square before Christmas 1885 in an adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop.’

Perhaps unknown to her, Dickens had visited this theatre regularly in the years he summered in Broadstairs, which had no theatre of its own. Her own father trod these boards, and her own children would attend theatre school here. Yet Nelly kept secret the fact that, from childhood until she became Dickens’ lover, she had been a professional actress.

There was, however, one person Nelly confided in in Margate: her priest, the Revd William Benham of St Johns Church (C).We know that because, years later, he broke the seal of the confessional and passed her confidences on to a Dickens biographer.

Claire Tomalin writes: ‘She told him, it seems, that she had been Dickens’ mistress; that he had set her up [in a house]; that he had visited her two or three times a week; that she had come to feel remorse about her relations with him during her lifetime, and that her remorse had made them both miserable; and that she now “loathed the very thought of this intimacy”. It may be that Nelly had become pregnant by him in April 1867, when the words ‘arrival’ and ‘loss’ appear in Dickens’ diary. There may have been other pregnancies.

In another coincidence, this area of Margate has a connection with Dickens before he met Nelly. The area off the High Street, in front of St John’s, was called Six Bells after a notorious pub of that name. This was a slum area, and the primitive cesspool drainage contaminated the wells, causing outbreaks of cholera. It was also a place of prostitution.

Dickens was a passionate social reformer, and in London was involved with a charity to assist what were then known as fallen women. In Margate, his interest appeared to be not solely in such women’s welfare. In 1841 he wrote to his friend Daniel Maclise describing the joys of Margate, and commented ‘there are conveniences of all kinds at Margate (do you take me?) And I know where they live’.

Sadly, Ellen Ternan’s new life in Margate was not to last. Seven or eight years after her arrival, the school failed, her husband George suffered a breakdown, and the couple moved to a succession of addresses in suburban London. Nelly died in 1914.