Well after toasting the Queen it's now time to charge the glasses again and let's hear it for dear old Charles, two hundred today and doesn't look a day older for all the love he's getting right now....
and I'll be shot for this desecration of the sacred image, but something tells me that the Charles Dickens I am getting to know quite well this year might just have smiled and quite enjoyed a bit of merriment amidst all the serious eulogizing... before writing me a stinker of a letter about the visual humiliation to which his attention has been drawn.
Except I hope he might have read the rest of the post and felt the respect, because, having asked lots of people to write about their own experience of Dickens I have been wondering, and pondering and thinking... what does Dickens really mean to me. Surfacing unbidden every time and before any thoughts of the books, is his Great Ormond Street connection and now well-documented on here, my nurse-training at the alma mater. That hospital connection will see me in London for the October 1972 set's fortieth reunion later this year, and I hear friends are travelling from America and Australia to be there so I'd better hie me to London for that weekend.
I never cease to be amazed by the circularity of reading either because my attentions are also currently guided in the direction of sick children thanks to Linda Grant's recommendation on Twitter at about 7am one morning last week that I read Pilcrow by Adam Mars-Jones. The joy of the Kindle is the instant gratification of the downloadable sample, swiftly followed by the book in this case, because it makes such compelling reading from the off. It's the 1950s and a late diagnosis for little John Cromer of Still's Disease starts yet another Great Ormond Street train of thought, Sir George Frederic Still, a clinical assistant there in 1894 and eventually to become one of London's most popular paediatricians.
I also buy every book I see and hear of about Great Ormond Street, but my favourite remains a slim volume published in celebration of the hospital's centenary in 1952, an apposite year for us on here this week, and written by Senior Surgeon, Thomas Twistington Higgins. Mr T-H makes a very prescient observation in 1952 that seems no less relevant now...
'There is a remarkable parallel so far as the hospital is concerned between 1852 and 1952. Then as now, the national environment was charged with revolutionary change. Our forbears had to plan their new hospital venture in a changing world in which the tumultuous developments must have made it exceptionally difficult for them to look ahead...'
I find it harder and harder to imagine, given twenty-first century communications, the constraints of effective information sharing back in the nineteenth century, and how great must have been the impact of having a figure like Charles Dickens on your side if you were a small, impecunious team setting up such a mammoth venture as London's first proper hospital for children. Not unlike asking Stephen Fry (almost four million followers) or Neil Gaiman (lagging behind with only a million and a half) to re-tweet something for you on Twitter these days perhaps, and requests to do so apparently come back with warnings about making sure your own website can cope with the potential volume of traffic.
So when Charles Dickens made his legendary speech in April 1852 at the first Great Ormond Street Festival Dinner, a fund-raiser to acquire further premises in Gt Ormond Street , and then published his article Drooping Buds in Household Words, news spread fast, and to many who hadn't even know of the existence of the hospital. The dinner alone raised enough to buy the premises and with plenty left over.
In searching online for this I made a very fortunate discovery, has anyone else come across the Dickens Journals Online Project??
A team of volunteers have scanned and transcribed every edition of each of Dickens's journals and after a quick registration process they are accessible free online. I was staggered at the scope of the undertaking and apparently the plan is that every one will be completed by today...98% there on Saturday, so congratulations to them for a fantastic endeavour and the provision of a brilliant resource. I have already been sidetracked into reading other articles so beware, it is slightly addictive.
'...My Highgate journey yesterday was a sad one. Sad to think how all journeys tend that way. I went up to the cemetery to look for a piece of ground...in a foolish dislike to leaving the little child shut up in a vault there, I think of pitching a tent under the sky...Nothing has taken place here: but I believe, every hour that it must the next hour...'
Charles and Catherine's eight-month old daughter Dora had died the previous year and the birth of their next baby is imminent. Of all men Dickens knew that his family would not 'be exempt, as to our many children, from the afflictions of other parents,' and it is not difficult to imagine how acutely this may have focused his attentions on his speech on that April evening or the article that followed.
But those famously melodramatic lines had the desired effect on the public consciousness...
'Oh! Baby's dead and will be never, never, never seen among us any more!'
along with the news that one in three coffins made in London is for a child, and with some religious overtones added in, Dickens, who surely never lost touch with his own 'inner child', cleverly appealed to all the right people and the donations poured in.
Just looking at the infant mortality rates gleans a perspective, currently standing at 4.6/1000 live births per year here in the UK in children under a year old, and though Dickens quotes the figures for children up to the age of two, the figures in 1852 add up to 240/1000.
As a cause the Hospital for Sick Children, as it was known until very recently, rapidly captured the hearts and souls of the wealthier Victorians for whom philanthropy and religion were comfortable soulmates, whilst there is much evidence that the Anglican church also benefited from an alliance of opposing high and low church factions, offering good opportunities for some extra displays of holiness and moral earnestness and a chance to pull together.
But the motives for giving were genuine too,
'...it is above all things the charity which, in the old scriptural words, beareth much and is kind. Children cannot repay.'
said the London Journal in 1875, and the plight of London's children, whose health had been sorely neglected for too long suddenly achieved much greater prominence.
Working as one of the first doctors at the hospital with Charles West was Queen Victoria's physician William Jenner, and surely it is no coincidence that Queen Victoria announced royal patronage within two weeks. Dickens's fund-raising legacy continued apace and by 1868 the endowment of cots had became an established money-maker; for £2000 wealthy Victorians or collaborative groups could see their names in perpetuity over the head of a sick child, and by 1880 120 beds were thus favoured.
I have dragged countless friends through Great Ormond Street to look at the hospital chapel whenever we are in London and passing. It is a dazzling microcosm of Victorian ecclesiastical decoration... even Oscar Wilde moved to acknowledge its beauty and spirituality.
Tiny child-sized pews and astonishingly intricate and colourful frescoes, stained glass and a rich and elaborately painted dome depicting the pelican in her piety, an image of self-sacrifice, surrounded by the angel choir peering down on the little people below.
And there, to one side of the chapel, a plaque dedicated to the man who surely helped give the hospital the financial start it needed...
Inspirer and Champion of the Hospital for Sick Children
"Charles Dickens the children's friend, firstly fairly set her
on her legs and in a few eloquent words which none who heard can
ever forget, gave her the gift that she should win love and