Custom contrived: Broadstairs’ Dicken’s festival, Kent

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Broadstairs is one of those old fashioned genteel seaside towns, with picturesque views across the beach one can just imagine genteel Victorian ladies and gentlemen promenading along the road overlooking the bay. Well one does not have to imagine it come June time and one can see them!

What the Dickens?

Charles Dickens one great Victorian writer stayed in 1837 when he was 21 after the fame of Pickwick Papers, lodging at 12 High Street. After writing this he purchased a house, now part of the Royal Albion Hotel, where he finished Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens clearly loved the place he stayed at Lawn House where he wrote part of Barnaby Rudge and then finally Fort House. Here he wrote three works ‘David Copperfield’, ’The Haunted Man’ and ‘American notes’. He visited Broadstairs for many holidays finally writing ‘Our English Watering Place’ his homage to the town in August 1852.

Great expectations

With such an affection shown for the town it was not surprising that there was a great proud and love for the writer such that in 1937 a Broadstairs Dicken’s Fellowship was formed. Gladys Waterer, the resident of Dicken’s House then had the idea of celebrating the 100th anniversary of his first arrival in the town. This consisted on putting an production of David Copperfield which was advertised via people dressed in Victorian dress. Such was the Dicken’s festival born. It has continued with the exception of the World Wars and the Coronavirus ever since with some Victorian themes added to it. The fun includes readings, a Dickensian cricket match, a Victorian bathing party, and vaudeville acts.

Christopher Trent in his 1966 Festivals and events in Britain records:

“The centre piece of the week’s celebration is the performance of a play adapted from one of the novelist’s works. In Miss Waterer’s own words: ‘The festival is unique that it is the only Dicken’s festival in Europe. It is a completely local effort. The whole town joins in. In 1936 we put on the first Dickens play. After the war I wrote Christmas Carol and that was really the start’ It was a very good start.”

Of course other Dicken’s festivals have developed over the years such as Rochester, doubtlessly based on Broadstairs’ success

Trent continues:

“For many years a different play was staged each year. In 1964 the wheel turned full circle and a Christmas carol was staged again. In 1965 Our Mutual friend. The players are members of the Broadstairs Dickens Players’ society.”

The plays take up a considerable amount of dedication as he continues:

“the adaptation and rehearsals take on average nearly eight months. The result is the modest Festival Theatre is always satisfying, throwing a new and original light on the novelist, who is still one of the favourite writers of hundreds of thousands of people, young and old.”

What begun as a play developed into fringe entertainments doubtlessly in some cases there to advertise the play, became more and more and more and more imaginative. Trent noted that:

“Gradually the scope of the festival has been extended, though the play remains the most important part. Bleak House and Dickens House are open to the public throughout the week. There is Dickensian garden party in the grounds of Bleak House, with prizes offered for the best costumes. There are concerts of Victorian music, talks on Dickens and his work and a Victorian exhibition. A festival dance s organized in the grand ballroom, and the proof of Miss Waterer’s assertion that the whole town joins in is well illustrated by the number of  shops and the number of people, especially shopkeepers, who wear Dickensian costume in spite the difficulty in modern times of moving about in crinolines! A stage coach on he front is a sign that the festival is in progress. It is a replica of a coach in which many of Dickens’ characters travelled, and in which he must have made many of his journeys to Broadstairs.”

Dolby and son and son and daughter and grand children!

In 2017 it celebrated its 80th anniversary and the press said locally:

“Expect top hats, bonnets and billowing dresses as the community gathers for events including the grand parade, Dickensian picnic and beach party. Other activities includes a traditional Victorian country fair and theatre production of Dombey and Son – the author’s novel follows the fortunes of a shipping firm, whose owner is frustrated at not having a son to follow him in the job, and initially rejects his daughter’s love, eventually becoming reconciled with her before his death.”

Over the 82 years the theatre productions were still a focus on the event. However, back in 1994 I arrived to see two of its more custom like events – the Victorian bathing and the Grand parade.

The former was bizarre as if I had been sent back in time only the camera and the boats on the horizon reminded me I was back in the 20th century as there on the beach ready to dive in a collection of people dressed head to toe in Victorian bathers. Although this was June the water did not look that inviting and warm and a head to toe ensemble might not be too bad an idea. They all rushed to the water to have a paddle and the obligatory photo and some slipped away. Other rushed headlong and dived in.

The parade was a much more spectacular affair and it was clear that a lot of effort had been put in by those involved. Fronted by Oliver Twist and Mr Bumble with his ‘comforting’ arms around him with a pipers band. Behind them every character Dicken’s fertile imagination had concocted appeared to be there for David Copperfield to Pickwick. A great entertainment could be had trying to name the characters and some had really gone to town even affecting their characteristics. There were a few non-dressed entrants like the Brownies as well which rather broke the illusion. Each carried banners and shields. One of the most impressive was the stilt walking ghost from Christmas carol! But of course the most were in Victorian day wear and one could even hear the sound of crinoline!

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