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‘What the Dickens is so special about villa’

After his many tribulations, recorded by one Mr Dickens, Samuel Pickwick, tired of his wanderings, put aside his Papers and took up residence in a pretty little villa in Dulwich, complete with drawing-room, dining-room, smoking-room, conservatory and a number of bedrooms, writes Jan Bondeson.

There was a nice lawn in front of the house and a comfortable garden to the rear, complete with a number of trees.

Whereas there is consensus that Mr Pickwick was a fictional character, there has been debate whether his villa in Dulwich, or rather the building that inspired Charles Dickens’ description of it, really existed.

In June 1900, the Sphere newspaper wrote that “The house reputed to be Pickwick’s Villa is still existent in the ‘quiet, pretty neighbourhood in the vicinity of London’ – a good stone’s throw only from Dulwich College.

“A neat brass plate on the front gate proclaims the fact. The ‘lawn in front’ exists no longer – it is now filled with trees and shrubs, but the other pleasant characteristics of the house still remain, although it may be objected that a street lamp outside is not quite in accordance with the general harmony.”

Pickwick Villa, a postcard stamped and posted in 1907. Note the offending lamp post

The Sphere’s account of Pickwick Villa in Dulwich was greeted with much enthusiasm, quoted by several other London newspapers, and inspired at least four postcards of the building in question.

Pickwick Villa became one of the sights of Dulwich, along with Mr Pickwick’s Tree, a large sycamore taken down in 1908 due to severe decay, and the Old Greyhound pub where Charles Dickens used to drink.

Pickwick Road, named after the famous character, was situated not far away. Pickwick Villa would cling on to its Dickensian fame for many years to come.

The third volume of the 1920s encyclopaedia Wonderful London has a chapter about the London of Charles Dickens, illustrated with a large photo of Pickwick Villa and another of the bogus Old Curiosity Shop near Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Pickwick Villa had been well looked after in Victorian and Edwardian times, but when discussed in the Dickensian magazine of 1924, it was said to have become quite dilapidated and in danger of being demolished.

The inscription on the brass plate on the front garden gate had become almost unreadable.

The Hon. Maurice Baring had lived there for a while, but house maintenance was clearly not one of his interests.

‘What the Dickens is so special about villa’
A colour postcard of Pickwick Villa, stamped and posted in 1907. Note the brass plate on the front garden gate

A removal contractor named Evan Cook managed to restore the old house, however, and for a while it was lived in by Sir Arthur Temple, the director of the Guildhall Art Gallery.

In the coming decades, Pickwick Villa was kept in good repair by its owners.

It would take until 2012 for the myth of Pickwick Villa to be openly challenged.

In a paper presented to the Journal of the Dulwich Society, Mr Bernard Nurse, who had studied old deeds at the Dulwich College Archives, presented the bombshell that at the time of the publication of the Pickwick Papers, ‘Pickwick Villa’ had been two small semi-detached cottages.

Unless Mr Pickwick had an identical twin, he could hardly have resided there.

The two cottages were later joined together and the house extended; in became known as ‘Trewyn’ for several decades before becoming Pickwick Villa in late Victorian times.

A certain Robert Allbutt, who wrote a [deservedly] rare book about Charles Dickens and London in 1886, could possibly have been the first to suggest that Mr Pickwick’s house had been identified, but since he placed it near the North Dulwich railway station, he may well have been writing about another house.

And if the myth of Pickwick Villa had been established already in 1886, it would hardly been considered as news in 1900.

Mr Nurse’s article is to my mind fully convincing, and it proves without doubt that the house announced as Pickwick Villa in 1900 has no association whatsoever with Charles Dickens or the fictional Mr Pickwick.

A handsome and valuable house, it still stands today at 31 College Road, in what looks like an excellent state of repair.

On the front garden gate is the sign ‘Pickwick Cottage’.

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