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Charles Dickens was born 201 years ago today. In celebration, his great-great-grandson Mark Dickens yesterday afternoon unveiled a replica of the Dog and Pot shop sign–a significant landmark in Charles’s early life–in the Southwark section of London. The sign consists of the figure of a dog, carved from elm wood, and an original iron pot.

Dog and Pot sign

Dog and Pot sign

The sign is at the junction of Blackfriars Road and Union Street. As a twelve-year-old, lonely, miserable, and bereft of the education he craved, Charles passed it daily on his homeward trek from his job at a blacking warehouse to his solitary lodgings in Lant Street. The rest of his family was in a debtor’s prison a few blocks away.

In an essay about his early life, Dickens wrote:
“My usual way home was over Blackfriars Bridge and down that turning in the Blackfriars Road which has Rowland Hill’s chapel on one side, and the likeness of a golden dog licking a golden pot over a shop door on the other.”
These words are now inscribed on a plaque set into a paved area surrounding the sign.

Members of the Canterbury Branch of the Dickens Fellowship, dressed in Victorian costume, attended the ceremony. So did pupils from Charles Dickens Primary School, who enlivened the occasion with a stirring–and appropriate–rendition of “How Much Is that Doggy in the the Window?”

Happy Birthday, Charlie!

See the full story and more photos here.

The graceful and elegant Mrs. Bouncer

The graceful and elegant Mrs. Bouncer

Dickens had a special fondness for Mrs. Bouncer, who belonged to his daughter Mamie. A Pomeranian, sometimes called a Spitz in the 19th century, she was by far the smallest of the Gad’s Hill dogs. Essentially, she was a miniature Spitz, with the typical pointed ears and curled tail, but, Mamie said, just “a tiny ball of white fluffy fur” when she arrived.

Dickens loved watching her, “so preposterously small,” yet “assuming great airs” among the huge mastiffs, bloodhounds, Newfoundlands, and St. Bernards surrounding her.

He thought about her when he was away, even dreamed of her. “In my mind’s eye I behold ‘Mrs. Bouncer,’” he wrote to his daughter, “still with some traces of anxiety on her faithful countenance, balancing herself a little unequally on her forelegs, pricking up her ears with her head on one side, and slightly opening her intellectual nostrils. I send my loving and respectful duty to her.”

My favorite Mrs. Bouncer story involves two other dogs, Gypsy and Fosco. Gypsy, a mongrel, was temporarily being cared for at Gad’s Hill. Since she wasn’t allowed in the drawing room, she spent her days dozing on a rug outside it. Fosco, a clever poodle, was invited with his master to Gad’s Hill drawing room expressly to display his tricks.

As soon as Fosco began his performance, Mrs. Bouncer trotted out to Gypsy and escorted her into the drawing room, as much as to say, Mamie writes, “If strange dogs are to be made much of, surely the dogs in the house may be at least permitted to enter the room.” Mrs. Bouncer sat with her back to Fosco throughout his performance, “the picture of offended dignity.” Once he’d left the house she escorted Gypsy back to her rug.

Mrs. Bouncer, who outlived Dickens, had a long and happy life. When the end came, several of her admirers felt compelled to write poems to her memory. Among these was Ellen Ternan, who shared some of Mrs. Bouncer’s qualities and of whom Dickens was also inordinately fond. According to Dickens scholar Michael Slater, Ellen penned a verse that began with these lines:

We miss your soft and dainty step,
Your bright eye’s loving gaze,
Your pretty head, your graceful mien,
Your thousand winning ways . . .


“I think his strongest love, among animals, was for dogs.” Mamie Dickens

Dickens's house at Gad's-hill. Note the dog.

Dickens’s house at Gad’s-hill. Note the dog.

At Gad’s-Hill Dickens surrounded himself with a pack of wonderful dogs. Two were usually tied to either side of the entrance gate to protect the house from the ruffians and vagabonds that tramped down the well-traveled road.

Charles Dickens and Turk

Charles Dickens and Turk

Turk, intelligent and affectionate, was Dickens’s favorite. In this wonderful photograph they appear well matched. Both look noble and dignified. Dickens grieved terribly when Turk died in a railway accident, not long after Dickens’s own traumatic experience in a railway crash at Staplehurst in 1865.

This is Governor, a 19th century mastiff.

This is Governor, a 19th century mastiff.

Mamie called Turk a “beautiful mastiff, ” but he doesn’t look like the mastiffs shown in 19th century illustrations. Libby Hall, in her wonderful collection of vintage dog photos, These Were Our Dogs, identifies Turk as simply, “a dog.” Can anyone solve the mystery?