Writing to Charles Dickens
AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 12 MARCH 2023
If you have been following the story of Charles Dickens and the begging-letter writer, John Walker, of which Part One and Part Two can be accessed on the London Overlooked website, you will remember that the episode culminated in a hearing at the police court in Marylebone on 22 May 1844. Walker’s guilt was uncontested, yet the case was thrown out by the magistrate, John Rawlinson.
Dickens thought that the prosecution had fallen through because Walker had been arrested without a warrant. But it is obvious from the extensive coverage of the case in the newspapers that Rawlinson had been affected by Walker’s pitiful circumstances. He lived with his wife and four children in poverty. His wife had been seriously ill following a traumatic miscarriage. Their house in Mitre Street in Lambeth was in poor condition and there was no money to meet essential costs.
The creature and the monster
Dickens’s view of the outcome is recorded in two brief letters he wrote to John Forster and Thomas James Thompson only hours after the hearing. He did not like Walker one bit. Even so he was relieved that ‘the creature’ had ‘found the loophole for escape’, a reference to the procedural blunder over the arrest, the blame for which lay with the Mendicity Society.
Dickens explained the cause of his relief in an article he published in Household Words some years later, in 1850, as arising from the atmosphere in the courtroom. He had left the hearing with the distinct impression that he had been seen as unpleasantly vindictive — ‘as a sort of monster’ — and the fact that a collection was made for Walker by those who felt sorry for him did not help.
The very first letter
A further insight into Dickens’s experience of Walker’s unwanted attentions is a curious reference to ‘the greatest lie of all’ in his letter to Forster. Apparently, when he handed over the bundle of begging letters to the officers of the Mendicity Society, he removed an item he did not want them to see. This was in fact the very first letter he had received — at an even earlier date than the letter that sent his brother, Fred, scuttling off to Upper Crown Street — and in it Walker introduced himself as a literary gentleman who was down on his luck.
In his Household Words article Dickens summarised the letter, adding some dashes of sarcasm, as follows:
He had had a play accepted at a certain Theatre — which was really open; its representation was delayed by the indisposition of a leading actor — who was really ill; and he and his were in a state of absolute starvation. If he made his necessities known to the Manager of the Theatre, he put it to me to say what kind of treatment he might expect?
So why did he not hand over this letter with the others? Dickens tried to convince Forster that the sight of Walker, who looked miserable, and the despairing behaviour of his wife, who had waited outside the police court all morning in the hope of speaking to the complainant, had undermined his determination to go through with the prosecution. However, it is equally likely that he was embarrassed by his failure to see through the letter, and that his willingness to accept it at face value encouraged Walker to write again, and again, and again.
Lamb and asparagus
But the matter did not end with the scene in the Marylebone police court. On the next day, which was 22 May, Dickens received a visit from a good friend by the name of Augustus Frederick Tracey, who was the governor of the Westminster Bridewell at Tothill Fields. Tracey told Dickens that Walker was a known offender.
Once again the Household Words article supplies the details, recording the prison governor’s words and conveying something of his dismay:
‘Why did you ever go to the Police-Office against that man,’ says he, ‘without coming to me first? I know all about him and his frauds. He lodged in the house of one of my warders, at the very time when he first wrote to you; and then he was eating spring-lamb at eighteen-pence a pound, and early asparagus at I don’t know how much a bundle!’
What you put me through!
Tracey obviously realised that the real Walker — the fraudster — hid beneath the pitiful image of himself he had presented in his begging letters. And his assessment was correct, for Walker now sent yet another letter to Dickens — this time an angry letter — in which he demanded compensation from the woebegone writer. Compensation for what? For his having to pass the night in a ‘loathsome dungeon’ at the Marylebone police court following his arrest!
The Mendicity Society was no more sympathetic. As we have seen, they had been dealing with Walker for some two years before the Dickens incident, and they pointed out in their report for 1844 that in that time he had become a ‘systematic’ writer of begging letters. Apparently he had previously secured employment with an unnamed benefactor who felt charitable towards him. He duly robbed his employer, who, fortunately for him, was too concerned for the well-being of his family to take him to court.
As if to rub salt into the wound, Dickens was targeted by another scrounger on 24 May. The fellow must have read the newspaper report of the hearing in the Marylebone police court, for he
was very well persuaded I should be chary of going to that Police-Office again, positively refused to leave my door for less than a sovereign, and, resolved to besiege me into compliance, literally ‘sat down’ before it for ten mortal hours.
Dickens barricaded himself indoors in order to sit out the siege. As there was plenty of food in the house, it was only a question of waiting, and indeed the scrounger gave up in the middle of the night. As he left, he made his point with ‘a prodigious alarum on the bell’.
In his 1850 article in Household Words, to which we have referred more than once, Dickens unleashed a stinging attack on the writers of begging letters. He argued that fraudulent claims made it harder for charitable individuals to put their hands in their pockets with confidence, which naturally worked against the interests of those who were in genuine need. He called for the harshest punishments and suggested that fraudsters were more deserving of the penal settlement on Norfolk Island than ‘three-fourths of the worst characters’ who were actually sent there.
The article is Dickens at his best, the brilliantly satirical writing barely concealing his anger. To take just one of many possible examples, in an early passage he combines great perspicacity with deep disdain to convey the ingenious inventions of this type of criminal:
He has fallen sick; he has died, and been buried; he has come to life again, and again departed from this transitory scene; he has been his own son, his own mother, his own baby, his idiot brother, his uncle, his aunt, his aged grandfather. He has wanted a great coat, to go to India in; a pound, to set him up in life for ever; a pair of boots, to take him to the coast of China; a hat, to get him into a permanent situation under Government.
A wasted talent
There is a wonderful irony in the writer’s grudging recognition of the fraudster’s peculiar talent, which was after all a talent for creating convincing fictions. A further irony in the 1844 case is of course the fact that John Walker very obviously had a with words, which, had it been put to better use, might have expressed itself as a literary talent.
Not long after the article was published, Dickens referred once again to the 1844 episode in a letter to Angela Burdett-Coutts, which he sent on 14 August. Evidently she had been approached by a man who called himself Elliot, a name Dickens assumed was a cover. He thought the real ‘Mr Elliot’ was either a begging-letter writer called Collins, who had pestered him for years, or the ‘great Imposter’ himself, that is to say John Walker. He advised Burdett-Coutts against sending a reply.
A rod for his own back
An interesting question is why Dickens so deeply resented men like Walker. Of course, he was offended by them as parasites, and put out by them as, for want of a better word, pests. But there is a truly venomous quality to his descriptions of begging-letter writers, not only in Martin Chuzzlewit and Household Words, as we have already seen, but later in Our Mutual Friend in his account of the unsolicited attentions paid to the newly wealthy Noddy Boffin.
Without doubt he was working through some of his resentment of his feckless father. As a consummate scrounger, John Dickens must have visited untold humiliations on his family. But another factor, as his friend John Forster understood, was what Dickens would probably have recognised as a problem of his own making.
Forster’s view was that Dickens had made himself an easy target by ‘giving so largely’ in the early days to ‘almost every one who applied to him’. He carried on in this way until one particular swindler went too far by asking in one of his many letters for the use of a donkey. The story he told was that he had been travelling through Kent with a cart laden with crockery — presumably he was passing himself off as an itinerant salesman — when his horse dropped down dead near Chatham. No doubt Dickens felt foolish for encouraging a begging-letter writer capable of such cheap tactics, who, interestingly, was a former school friend, a man by the name of Daniel Tobin.
Your benevolent nature
Forster may have regretted his friend’s credulity, but not everyone shared his view. The writer of religious tracts, George Mogridge, sent Dickens a letter — the last that will appear in this curious epistolary tale — in which he recorded his feelings on reading about the Walker affair in The Times:
I am moved by feelings which I trust are common to humanity, as one of the great family of mankind, to offer you my heartiest thanks. The kindest acts when publicly performed are liable to misconstruction, but the circumstances alluded to (in connexion with others whispered abroad by those who have a right to be grateful) sets forth beyond the power of scepticism to deny it, the fact that you are accustomed thus privately to gratify the benevolence of your nature, a fact more creditable to your heart than your happiest literary efforts are to your understanding.
We may speculate that Dickens had mixed feelings about the letter. Certainly he would have appreciated Mogridge’s moral support, but he might also have noted, with a wry smile, that he expressed himself in an overwrought style that out-Walkered Walker himself.
The elusive Walker
By way of a postscript it is worth recording the fact that Dickens’s correspondent has so far defied all attempts at detection outside Upper Crown Street, Mitre Street and the Marylebone police court. Even though pseudonyms were an essential item in the fraudster’s toolbox, he was ‘John Walker’ in the hearing before the Marylebone magistrate, and ‘J. W.’ in the report printed by the Mendicity Society.
What this suggests is that he really was called John Walker. However, many men have borne that name, and it is unlikely that he will ever emerge from the documents where one customarily hunts for overlooked Londoners.
As for his two known addresses, they too have refused to hand him over. Even the prison warder with whom he lodged at the outset of the affair remains unidentified. The best we can do is note that a few doors away from his lodgings in Westminster, at Nos. 13, 16 and 18 Upper Crown Street, stood a police station, which might strike us as oddly appropriate.