Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Charles Dickens (1812–1870)

by Coral Lansbury

This article was published:

Charles Dickens, G. W. Wilson & Co., 1870s

Charles Dickens, G. W. Wilson & Co., 1870s

National Library of Australia, 24393283

Charles Dickens (1812-1870), novelist, was born on 7 February 1812 in Portsmouth, England, son of John Dickens, a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, and his wife Elizabeth, née Barrow. Dickens received intermittent schooling and indifferent care from his parents who were once obliged to take up residence in Marshalsea prison for debt. First apprenticed to the law, he began writing unpaid pieces for popular journals. Sketches by 'Boz', Dickens's pseudonym, were published in two volumes in 1836 and The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club in 1837. Sam Weller and Mr Pickwick created a world-wide furore and Dickens's imitators were legion. Pickwick parties were held as far apart as Canada and Kangaroo Island, whilst the first pirated edition of Pickwick Papers was printed by Henry Dowling of Tasmania in 1838.

Fame was assured for Dickens with the publication of Oliver Twist in 1838 and Nicholas Nickleby in 1839. As novelist, journalist, public speaker and social critic, his popularity was universal and the world of his novels changed contemporary attitudes. At first aware of Australia only as a place of penal servitude, Dickens in Pickwick Papers has the convict, John Edmunds, transported and sent up country as a shepherd. The infamous Mr Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby is similarly sent to the colony. Always fascinated by crime, Dickens acquired knowledge of Norfolk Island from his friend Alexander Maconochie. He never forgot Australia's prison origins and in his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend (1865), Jenny Wren threatens her delinquent father with transportation. Similarly in David Copperfield, Mr Littimer and Uriah Heep are dispatched to Australia to complete their sentences.

In 1849 Dickens was writing David Copperfield and faced with the problem of a satisfactory disposition of Micawber and his family. He had already met Samuel Sidney, who was advocating Australia as a home for working class emigrants, and Mrs Caroline Chisholm through a common friend, Sidney Herbert. The last chapters of David Copperfield embodied material from Sidney's Australian Hand-Book (1848) and Wilkins Micawber duly became the best known emigrant to Port Middlebay (Melbourne) where he attained affluence and the office of magistrate. Micawber was accompanied by little Em'ly, Peggotty, Martha Endell and Mrs Gummidge. The downtrodden schoolmaster, Mr Mell, founded an academy for boys at Port Middlebay and his fiddling and oratory delighted colonial society.

Household Words, Dickens's journal, began publication in 1850 and the first article was an approving exposition of Mrs Chisholm's Family Colonization Loan Society. Later articles and stories in that year were written by Samuel Sidney. The discovery of gold lent feasibility to Micawber's success and mitigated the country's reputation as a gaol. In Great Expectations (1861) Dickens created Magwitch, the convict who amassed wealth in New South Wales and so produced an English gentleman.

Dickens had contemplated a lecture tour of Australia in 1862 and intended to write a travel book, 'The Uncommercial Traveller Upside Down', but the tour was abandoned. In Australia, as in England, his novels were adapted as stage plays; with Our Emily, Old Curiosity Shop and Cricket on the Hearth as perennial favourites. The articles from Household Words and All the Year Round were widely published in the Australian press and helped to impose Dickens's own view of Australia on Australian life and society.

Dickens died on 9 June 1870. Of his surviving sons, Alfred D'Orsay Tennyson (b.1845), had migrated to Australia in 1865. He bought a partnership in a stock and station agency in Hamilton, Victoria, but after his wife died left in 1882 to join the Melbourne branch of his brother's agency. After a lecture tour he died in the United States in 1912. The youngest son, Edward Bulwer Lytton (b.1852), went to Australia in 1869 and settled at Wilcannia where he became manager of Momba station; in 1880 he married Constance Desailly. He opened a stock and station agency, was elected to the local council and bought a share in Yanda station near Bourke. He lost heavily from bad seasons and in 1886 he became a civil servant. He represented Wilcannia in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1889-94. He died on 23 January 1902 at Moree and was buried by a Wesleyan minister.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Lansbury, ‘Charles Dickens and his Australia’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 52, part 2, June 1966, pp 115-28.

Citation details

Coral Lansbury, 'Dickens, Charles (1812–1870)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Charles Dickens, G. W. Wilson & Co., 1870s

Charles Dickens, G. W. Wilson & Co., 1870s

National Library of Australia, 24393283

Life Summary [details]


7 February, 1812
Portsmouth, Hampshire, England


9 June, 1870 (aged 58)
Higham, Kent, England

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.