Charles Dickens’s Deputy, or, The Other Mystery of Edwin Drood

The High Street in Rochester by Frederic George Kitton.  Image in William Richard Hughes A Week’s Tramp in Dickens-Land (1891) page 73.

On an August Friday in 1888, with the temperature at 80o in the shade, two seemingly mismatched friends met up in London.  The older of the two, William Richard Hughes, was in his late fifties, while the younger, Frederic George Kitton, was in his early thirties.  Hughes was an important financial official, the Treasurer of the City of Birmingham.  Kitton was an illustrator and writer.  On the face of it, they could have not have been less alike.

However, they were united by a shared passion for Charles Dickens.  Hughes had long been known as a collector of the finest editions of the novels, and his admiration was so deep that he once went to a fancy-dress ball dressed as his literary hero.  Kitton, who was understandably interested in the work of Dickens’s illustrators, had published studies of Hablot Knight Browne—“Phiz”—and John Leech.  And it was in connection with the great writer that the two men had joined forces on that sultry late summer’s day, to visit the places that he had known and loved, to follow—literally—in his footsteps, to speak with anyone and everyone who remembered him.

Accordingly, after visiting the obvious London sites, they caught a train at Victoria Station, and, having travelled through the drama of a summer thunder storm, they arrived in the cool of the evening at Rochester in Kent.  The next day, after spotting a number of buildings with Dickensian associations, they came to the cathedral, where they fell in with an amiable old fellow by the name of William Miles.  Then in his seventies, Miles had been a verger at the cathedral for very many years, and he had met Dickens, who was about the same age, on many occasions.  Dickens had been a particularly frequent visitor in the late 60s—the time when he was writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood—and Rochester provided much material for his descriptions of Cloisterham.

The interior of Rochester Cathedral by Frederic George Kitton.  Image in William Richard Hughes A Week’s Tramp in Dickens-Land (1891) page 115.

Well, Rochester and its citizens, as Miles was able to explain.  For example, he himself was the original of Mr Tope.  Rather more curiously, the slouching Stony Durdles—he of the dinner bundle—had been inspired by an inebriated old German who prowled about the cathedral in search of little bits of broken stone ornaments, which he stored in a cotton handkerchief.  He worked for a local squire, and spent most of his earnings at a tavern in the High Street.

And what of the small boy—the “Deputy”—who pelted Durdles with stones if he caught him out of doors at night?  He was the most intriguing of Miles’s identifications, precisely because Miles could not come up with a name.  But Miles was convinced that the Deputy was a definite type of boy, a type belonging perhaps more to London than to Rochester.  The boys he had in mind were the little “arabs” of the streets, and one could not hope to find a label more expressive of the condition of poor children in the nineteenth-century capital.

Boys outside a “ragged school”.  Image in Alexander MacLagan Ragged School Rhymes (1851) frontispiece.

COARSE LAUGHTER AND CAT-CALLS
The idea of the “street arab” is first found in a pamphlet published in 1847 by Thomas Guthrie, a Scottish philanthropist, and a leading light of the “ragged school” movement.  According to Guthrie, these young urban nomads were as “wild as those of the desert”, a description which in spite of its nod towards Orientalism speaks volumes about an underclass of rootless and homeless children.

Not everyone was as sympathetic as Guthrie.  Many nineteenth-century commentators expressed annoyance at the habits of street children, who swarmed around pedestrians and carriages, demanding tips in exchange for small services.  Alienated from mainstream society, these urchins were fearless and insolent, as the journalists Henry Mayhew and John Binny discovered when they met a group of young London outcasts to listen to their stories.  The meeting was endlessly disrupted by coarse laughter and cat-calls, and a plain clothes policeman, who evidently looked just like a plain clothes policeman, was so intimidated that he was forced to beat a hasty retreat, accompanied by jeers and hisses.

Although the wretched peeler was not actually pelted with stones, one suspects that he would have found himself in grudging agreement with William Miles.  The Deputy was indeed the literary counterpart of an all too real London phenomenon.  However, whereas Miles did not think that Dickens had a particular street arab in mind, another man, by the name of Edwin Hodder, begged to differ.

Elliott & Fry photograph of John “Rob Roy” MacGregor.

A SPLENDID SPECIMEN
Hodder was a biographer, and his thoughts on the matter were recorded—not at any great length—in his account of the remarkable John “Rob Roy” MacGregor.  In describing the subject of Hodder’s biography, it is hard to know where to begin.  MacGregor—who, incidentally, was related to the famous Scottish outlaw—was in the first place a sportsman and an explorer.  He paddled canoes which he had designed himself along the rivers of Europe and the Middle East—he was once taken captive by villagers in Palestine—and to all intents and purposes he created the sport of canoeing.  More importantly for our story, though, he was a trained barrister with a strong Christian faith, and his involvement with the “ragged school” movement and other charitable enterprises marked him out as an important philanthropist.

He also wrote.  Not unnaturally he published accounts of his explorations, but long before then, starting in 1847, he had been contributing articles and drawings to Punch.  The proceeds went to the poor boxes maintained by the police court magistrates for the relief of cases of destitution and distress.  And so we might well expect a man of MacGregor’s temperament to be acquainted with Dickens, and indeed he was, possibly as early as the winter of 1848 but certainly by the summer of 1869, when Dickens wrote to him on the subject of his travel books.

However, the common ground between the two men was not canoeing but the plight of the poor.  We can easily imagine that Dickens took a keen interest in MacGregor’s work with London charities, and we have it on the authority of Edwin Hodder that through MacGregor he got to know one of the young “arabs” who lived on the streets of the capital.  According to Hodder, the boy was “a splendid specimen”, and he duly became one of the novelist’s characters.

The sad reality for countless London street children.  Image in The Ragged School Union Quarterly Record (1889) page 98.

NAMING THE NAMELESS
So have we found the model for the Deputy?  The dates make the identification secure.  Between 1869, when he wrote to MacGregor, and 1870, when he died, Dickens was working on Edwin Drood.  So yes, almost certainly, we have found the original Deputy.

But do we know the street boy’s name?  Hodder for his part did not know—or knew but did not say—and one might have thought that the trail ended there.  However, a tantalising possibility remains.  For in the spring of 1870 Dickens wrote a letter to one of his many correspondents, whose name—again!—is not known.  At one point in the letter he says the following:

H Jones is a wonderful creature, and I feel truly obliged to you for your introduction to him; for I have had more than one good laugh over his wonderful account of himself, I assure you.

Could H Jones—probably Henry Jones—be the overlooked Londoner we have been searching for?  Quite likely.  And if he were, would we be able to find him in the almost limitless ranks of the nineteenth-century London poor?  Highly unlikely.  Alas, his name—Henry Jones or just plain Jones—makes him a very small needle in a very large haystack.

© london-overlooked 2019

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