Charles Dickens and Stanthorne Hall near Middlewich - Putting a Local Rumour to Rest

(by Edward Dutton, August 23, 2012)

Charles Dickens was the literary mega-star of Victorian England and beyond. In a time before television and internet, the popularity of Dickens’ regularly produced novels amongst the Victorian literate classes is probably hard for us to comprehend. How popular would the Harry Potter series be if there was simply no alternative to books? Dickens’ novels were serialized in journals with each installment feverishly awaited.

Dickens’ fame was such, that it is understandable that people might look into Dickens’ life and want to imagine that it was a landowner from their village who inspired Martin Chuzzlewit, or a thief from their borough who was behind Fagin, or even that Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham - the elderly spinster who was jilted at the alter and became a lifelong recluse - was inspired by a spinster from Stanthorne Lodge, near Middlewich, who was stood-up at the alter by a gentleman from neighbouring Stanthorne Hall.

This is the rumour in parts of Cheshire and, for those who firmly believe it, this article will disappoint. According to local gossip, Charles Dickens stayed at Stanthorne Hall at the time one Richard Dutton (1806 - 1880), my 3 time great-grandfather, lived there. Middlewich man Alan Langley wrote a letter to the Northwich Guardian in January 2012 in which he said that his mother had told him that Charles Dickens, who wrote Great Expectations in 1860, had been inspired to create Miss Havisham by events at Stanthorne Hall. His mother, who was born in 1924, had told him that when she was a young girl ‘it was said that Dickens stayed at Stanthorne Hall in the 1800s, and might have used the story line of Miss Havisham from the farmhouse, Stanthorne Lodge, which is across from the hall.’

She told him that ‘there was a room in it which had been left for years with a wedding feast set out for a bride who had been jilted on her wedding day. The window was boarded up. Her cousin, born in 1921, told the same story.’

His letter provoked a whole article in the Middlewich Guardian. Various readers claimed to have heard the story. Alan Ravenscroft, of Winsford History Society, said that Dickens had lived in Winsford, Cheshire, for a while and had heard the story there. He said that a girl whose surname was ‘Joule’ was had been betrothed to ‘a gentleman living at Stanthorne Hall.’

He continued that:
‘On their wedding morning the gentleman eloped with another lady leaving his fiance so distraught she flipped mentally, her father had the room closed off and it was never used again by the family. Stanthorne Hall was rebuilt in 1804 and the Leicester family lived there from the 18th century to the early 19th century. At the time a farmer named Dutton was living in the hall. The man who jilted Miss Joule has not yet been identified. The story was well authenticated at the time of his visit. When Stanthorne Grange was run as a restaurant up to 1982 there was a room dedicated to the event.’
The ‘farmer’ named Dutton is, of course, Richard Dutton of Stanthorne Hall. And there are a number of reasons why Dickens’ stay at Stanthorne Hall is unlikely.

Dickens’ supposed stay in Stanthorne Hall is not mentioned at all in Memoir of Richard Dutton of Stanthorne Hall, a biography of Richard Dutton which was published in 1881, the year after he died. The book was written by the Rev’d George Walker using interviews with friends and acquaintances, published articles by Dutton and Dutton’s correspondence, which had been, in the main, meticulously preserved. It seems unlikely that a visit by Dickens would have been arranged without correspondence, unlikely that correspondence with such a famous author would not have been kept and further unlikely that Walker would have deliberately omitted the stay from his biography.

Further, it seems that, Dickens’ stay aside, if it is true that somebody at Stanthorne Hall jilted a girl and inspired Miss Havisham, the only person who could have jilted a girl at the altar while living at Stanthorne Hall prior to 1860 was Richard Dutton himself. His sons were far too young - as it is most unlikely that they married in their teens - and he had no brothers. The hall was built for Dutton’s father between 1807 and 1811, but the father, who died in 1819, was already married at the time.  

Local historian Tony Bostock then has argued that: “An interesting twist on this is that at Stanthorne Lodge lived Ellen Chatterton, a lady in her late 60s, and her single daughter Elizabeth, aged 38 in 1851. Between 1851 and her death in 1871 the younger Miss Chatterton lived in the house alone and unmarried. “You will recall that Dickens' jilted bride in the story is a Miss Havisham. Haver' was once used in northern England and Scotland to mean 'babble' or 'chatter'. Both '-ham' and '- ton' are the same word indicating a place of settlement. So 'Haversham' is another way of saying 'Chatterton'. Coincidence or what? It is my belief that Ellen Chatterton didn't marry or was deserted shortly after marriage as there seems to be no male resident at this address, in which case the Ellen Chatterton could be represented by Miss Havisham and the daughter Elizabeth Chatterton by Estelle Havisham.’

However, the problem with this is that the father was alive, and recorded on the census, in 1841. Whether the story is an exaggeration, and really a betrothal was simply broken off, is difficult to say. Also, such behaviour would be most out of character for Dutton who seems to have been a deeply religious, Non-Conformist Christian. His biography, which does mention negative as well as positive aspects of his life, makes a point of mentioning, and illustrates with correspondence, that never strayed from his piety, even if some of his religious views were occasionally unorthodox. He did not join a ‘Congregationalist’ (Non-Conformist) church until 1830, but his committed, puritan religiosity is tracked by 1819 onwards.

  Dutton left school in 1822 to help his widowed mother with the estate. George Walker suggests that Dutton, as a young man of considerable means and of leisure, could easily have been led astray. ‘There are few positions in life more pleasing or more inductive to evil,’ he states. But Dutton survived this apparent test.

 And it should be remembered that there many competing claims for being the inspiration behind Miss Havisham from as far afield as the USA and Australia.

Edward Dutton is Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at Oulu University in Finland. His family history, The Duttons of Stanthorne Hall, is published by the Family History Society of Cheshire.