Dickens' Love Affair with Bury St Edmunds

Bury St Edmunds has been the setting for a new film adaptation of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, we take a look at Dickens many visits to Bury St Edmunds and his love for the town which he immortalised in his novel The Pickwick Papers.

You cannot miss the blue plaque at the front of The Angel Hotel, installed on the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth to commemorate his visits to Bury St Edmunds. 

Dickens, who created some of the world's best-known fictional characters and is regarded by many as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era, first stayed at The Angel in 1835 as a journalist for the Morning Chronicle (staying in what was then room 11). 

In 1859 and 1861 he returned to The Angel to read to a captive audience at the nearby Athenaeum, staying in what is now room 215, now known as the Charles Dickens Suite (pictured below). He gave readings from The Pickwick Papers on 13 October 1859 and again on 30 October 1861 when he read from A Personal History of David Copperfield.

The Angel's ground floor refurbishment completed in April 2019, features some wonderful nods to Dickens including quotes from the author on mirrors, artwork and copies of his books in and among a new look which embraces the hotel's Georgian roots. Guests can also sample one of the new signature Dickens inspired cocktails in the bar area.

Bury St Edmunds and The Angel itself feature extensively in The Pickwick Papers. In Chapters 16 Mr Pickwick and his manservant Sam arrive at Bury St. Edmunds, on the trail of the charlatan Alfred Jingle:

"Beg your pardon, sir,' said Sam, suddenly breaking off in his loquacious discourse. “Is this Bury St. Edmunds?”

'It is,” replied Mr. Pickwick. 

The coach rattled through the well paved streets of a handsome little town, of thriving and cleanly appearance, and stopped before a large inn situated in a wide open street, nearly facing the old abbey.

“And this,” said Mr. Pickwick, looking up, “is the Angel! We alight here, Sam.”

When Sam and Pickwick hear Jingle's plans to elope with a girl from a nearby boarding school, Pickwick hides in the school grounds as part of a plan to save her, causing panic among the teachers and boarders “all half-dressed and in a forest of curl-papers”. It is thought this school may have been based on a school open in the 1850s on 42 and 43 Southgate Street.  

Bury St Edmunds is again mentioned in 'The Personal History of David Copperfield':

‘What is your part of the country now?’ I asked, seating myself near him.

‘I am established within a few miles of Bury St. Edmund’s, sir,’ said Mr. Chillip. 

The Charles Dickens Suite '215' at The Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on 7 February 1812 in Landport, Hampshire, England, and left school to work in a factory when his father was incarcerated in a debtors' prison. Despite his lack of formal education, he edited a weekly journal for 20 years, wrote 15 novels, five novellas, hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles, lectured and performed readings extensively, was an indefatigable letter writer, and campaigned vigorously for children's rights, education, and other social reforms.

Dickens's literary success began with the 1836 serial publication of The Pickwick Papers. Within a few years he had become an international literary celebrity, famous for his humour, satire, and keen observation of character and society. 

The Athenaeum where Charles Dickens gave readings of his famous works while in Bury St Edmunds

David Copperfield was Dickens' eighth novel and was first published as a serial in 1849–50, and as a book in 1850. The novel features the character David Copperfield, and is written in the first person, as a description of his life until middle age, with his own adventures and the web of friends and enemies he meets along his way. Copperfield finds career success as an author, and is a person of deep emotions.

Many elements of the novel follow events in Dickens's own life, and it is often considered his veiled autobiography. It was Dickens' favourite among his own novels. In the preface to the 1867 edition, Dickens wrote, "like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield."

From his letters to friends and family, we know Dickens was very fond of Bury St Edmunds and its inhabitants. "Last night I read Copperfield at Bury St Edmunds to a very fine audience,” he wrote. “I don’t think a word – not to say an idea – was lost.”

Legendary actor Bob Hoskins, who was born in Bury St Edmunds, even played Wilkins Micawber in the 1999 BBC adaptation of David Copperfield! 

Scenes in ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’ based on Dickens' novel, directed by Armando Iannucci and starring Dev Patel, were shot in Bury St Edmunds in July 2018 and was released in 2020 - 185 years after Dickens first stayed in Bury St Edmunds. The film locations included Angel Hill in front of The Angel Hotel where Dickens stayed, Crown Street, Charter Square, and inside the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. Former Chairman of the Bury St Edmunds Tour Guides Mike Dean even appears in the film as an extra!

Producer Kevin Loader said that originally they hadn't thought of using Suffolk as a location but were visiting locations where David Copperfield was set or Dickens had visited. “But, when we saw Angel Hill and The Athenaeum we knew we just had to use it. Also, I have never seen a more impressive coaching inn than The Angel Hotel, it’s huge and it looks just perfect for what we need.”

Loader said that the discovery of a period theatre in Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal clinched the deal. During filming he said: “Today, we are filming the young David Copperfield’s arrival in London with all the carriages and horses moving about on Angel Hill. Then, at the end of the week, we are spending two days shooting at The Theatre Royal shooting two sequences which will bookend the movie.

“David Copperfield is a very biographical novel, so David is a writer and in one scene he goes to the theatre with some rather raucous friends and in a scene towards the end of the film he is reading extracts from his novels from the stage, on one of his reading tours.”

Director Armando Iannucci told BBC Look East: “Bury St Edmunds gave us a big sort of open square and a coaching inn that we made into central London and the theatre there is a genuine 1830s theatre do that was great because the film opens with the old David Copperfield telling his story to an audience in a packed theatre and that was fantastic. 

“It was great to see the crowds come out in Bury St Edmunds and in Kings Lynn where we recreated as much as we could what those places looked like in the 1840s. It was great to see schools come out and watch as a bit of a history lesson for them to see their surroundings turn into a show and tell.”

Dean Rogers, courtesy of Lionsgate UK
Dean Rogers, courtesy of Lionsgate UK

Where to Find Little Nods to Dickens in Bury St Edmunds

The Angel Hotel

The Angel Hotel features some wonderful nods to Dickens including quotes from the author on mirrors, artwork and copies of his books in and among a new look which embraces the hotel's Georgian roots. Guests can also sample one of the new signature Dickens inspired cocktails in the bar area.

Charles Dickens Blue Plaque

The blue plaque at the front of The Angel Hotel was installed on the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth to commemorate his visits to Bury St Edmunds. 

The Bench Outside The Corn Exchange Wetherspoons 

A quote from Dickens' The Pickwick Papers sits proudly on a bench outside The Corn Exchange Wetherspoons at the top of Abbeygate Street.

Pickwick Crescent

Named after The Pickwick Papers in which Bury St Edmunds features, Pickwick Crescent provides yet another nod to Dickens in the town!

There's so much more to see and do in Bury St Edmunds - check out our guide to Places to Stay and plan your future visit!

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