Volunteers in Bloom by Danielle Bain

In honour of national volunteering week we are taking the opportunity to highlight our wonderful volunteers Helen and Kay who have made it their duty to rejuvenate the garden here at 48 Doughty Street. They aim, over the coming months and years, to create a full and vibrant space that reflects both Charles Dickens’s real and imaginary worlds. 

Charles Dickens Museum Garden

Charles Dickens Museum Garden

To achieve this they turned to his novels for horticultural inspiration, as Dickens often referred to various flowers in his works. As a result of this research they found ‘an unlimited number of marigolds’ in Sketches by Boz, ‘Dora sitting on a garden seat under a lilac tree’ in David Copperfield, and gooseberry bushes so laden with fruit that ‘their branches arched and rested on the earth’ in Bleak House. However, it was concluded, that the most commonly mentioned flower was the simple, yet beautiful garden rose. Alas it was mentioned no fewer than ninety-five times across all of his seventeen novels in the form of rose plants and also as various adjectives, similes and metaphors.

‘She was a widow, but years ago had passed through her state of weeds, and burst into flower again; and in full bloom she was now; with roses on her ample skirts, and roses in her bodice, roses in her cap, roses in her cheeks, - ay, and roses, were gathering too, on her lips’.

Martin Chuzzlewit

The volunteers are therefore very excited by the new ‘Charles Dickens’ rose that was named at the Royal Horticultural Hampton Court Flower Show in July 2016. They are currently in the process of acquiring a ‘Charles Dickens’ rose from a specialist rose nursery in Holbeach Lincolnshire.


‘Charles Dickens’ Rose ©Styleroses.

‘Charles Dickens’ rose ©Styleroses [via]

Afterwards the pair turned inward and found inspiration amongst the Museum exhibits. They found subtle yet beautiful references to various flowers that could be easily introduced in to the garden space. An example includes a Copeland & Garrett china cup and saucer (c.1833-47) that Dickens once owned that boasts a simple yet wonderful design of wild flowers. However, the volunteers found most of their inspiration within the paintings of both Katey and Catherine Dickens. In the portrait of Catherine by Daniel Maclise (c.1847) you cannot help but notice a magnificent summer bouquet of roses, godetia, stocks and white dianthus. Likewise, if you look very carefully at the glorious portrait of Katey Perugini by Carlo Perugini (c.1874) you may notice a rose in Katey’s bonnet and a small bunch of forget-me-nots in her dress. Thus Helen and Kay made note to introduce these classic flowers in to the space.

 Portrait of Katey Perugini by Carlo Perugini (c.1874)

Portrait of Katey Perugini by Carlo Perugini (c.1874). Charles Dickens Museum collection

Rose buds in Katey's bonnet & forget-me-nots in Katey's dress

Rose buds in Katey's bonnet & forget-me-nots in Katey's dress, Charles Dickens Museum collection

Although Dickens claimed he was no gardener he did ‘delight to be found in gardens and amongst its productions’. Therefore, Helen and Kay took time to consider the importance of adding personal touches to the garden. The pair planned to incorporate an array of wild flowers and wild strawberries as an ode to Dickens’s childhood in the English countryside. Understandably they continue to add more of Dickens’s favourite flower- the red zonal pelargonium (commonly known as the red geranium) as it provides a wonderful pop of pillar-box red that must have been a revolution in colour for Dickens. Extraordinarily they are cultivating a cutting from a descendant pelargonium that once belonged to Dickens whilst he lived at Gads Hill. The pair also included many contemporary flowers such as the ‘Madame Hardy’ rose from the 1830s and various colourful pansies as an ode to the time in which Dickens lived at 48 Doughty Street.

Armed with their new found knowledge, Helen and Kay are now very busy replacing the current planting with a variety of contemporary plants and flowers. They have already introduced various rose and lavender bushes with lilac and forget-me-nots scattered in between. Alongside this they have planted a smattering of wild flowers and strawberries interwoven with fern bushes. The garden remains a work-in-progress, but do not worry, it will continue to develop over the coming years to include high climbing roses, a theatre-style three tier geranium trellis and ultimately a garden space that has no visible earth!


Further Reading

Jennifer M. Ide, ‘A Rose for Charles Dickens.’ Dickensian No. 501 (Spring, 2017) p.37

Charles Dickens: Speech to the Gardeners’ Benevolent Institution, 9 June 1851 in K. J. Fielding (Ed), The Speeches of Charles Dickens, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1960, p. 133


Also check out A Closer Look: the language of flowers


Danielle Bain is a history graduate and is currently the Front of House Assistant at the Charles Dickens Museum.


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