Today (May 7) in London History – An Inexplicable Death and Its Consequences

Charles Dickens’s beloved sister-in-law, 17-year-old Mary Hogarth, died suddenly, with no warning, on May 7th, 1837. With untold consequences for his personal life and his art. This Today in London History podcast takes up the tale.


London calling. London Walks connecting. Here’s your daily London fix.  Here’s the May 7th episode of the Today in London History series.

Away we go. Back we go.

Who? What? Where? When? What all that led to – what the consequences were – all of that we have precise knowledge of. What we don’t know is why it happened. That’s never been satisfactorily explained. I don’t believe in fate as an agent in human affairs. But in this one instance the temptation to lay this one at the door of fate is all but overpowering. You look at the individuals, the situation, what happened it’s very hard not to shake your head, resignedly, and say, “that was Fate, playing the cruellest trick imaginable.”

Ok, let’s begin to get this into focus.

It’s March 7th, 1837. A young London couple are just beginning the second year of their married life. 

They’ve got a four-month-old baby son. They’re newly set up – they’ve just been there a month – in a handsome, newish – it was built in 1801 – Georgian townhouse in central London. 

They’re a young family but it’s already got the beginnings of one of those large Victorian households. The young husband’s younger brother lives with them. The young wife’s younger sister lives with them. They’re on their way up – they’re prospering, markedly so. They’ve got servants.

Just a month previously the husband had been handed a cheque for £60,000 in today’s money. That cheque was a little something extra, a sweetener on top of his already handsome remuneration.

The young couple and the wife’s younger sister decide to have a night on the town. Go and see a show.

They do. It’s a happy time. Everything’s going so well for them. He’s young, handsome, successful. His wife is a dark-eyed beauty. She adores her husband. And their baby son. Oh and she’s pregnant again. She dotes on her younger sister. The younger sister is a happy, chattering, full-of-life, beautiful 17-year-old girl.

The night out is a success. Hugely fun. The happy three-some come home. The vivacious, much-loved younger sister goes to bed at about one o’clock in the morning. Goes to bed “in the best health and spirits.”

Moments later her brother-in-law hears a strangled cry. He rushes into her bedroom. That full-of-life 17-year-old girl has collapsed. Something is desperately wrong. She can barely swallow a little brandy he tries to give her. Full of life has become full of death in a matter of a minute or two. She will die in her brother-in-law’s arms 14 hours later. He wrote later, she died so calmly and gently he continued to support her lifeless form long after she had stopped breathing.”

It’s impossible to be anything but aghast at what happened to that poor girl. And secondly to feel deeply for her sister and her brother-in-law and the rest of her family and friends. 

What happened there, in that Georgian townhouse in Bloomsbury on May 7, 1837 – what happened to that poor teenage girl and those who knew her and loved her was shattering. Devastating. Hideously cruel. Inexplicable. Bears repeating: one minute she was a happy, chattering, full-of-life, beautiful 17-year-old girl. One minute more she’d collapsed. Was dying.

Inexplicable is the word. What happened to Mary – that was her name – was never satisfactorily explained. The best the doctors could do was hazard a guess that her heart had been diseased for a great length of time. 

Idiopathic medicine might say today. Unknown. What wasn’t unknown was what her death did to the heart of her brother-in-law. The death of his beloved 17-year-old sister-in-law Mary Hogarth broke Charles Dickens’ heart.

Snap! Sharp focus now, wouldn’t you say.

Now we take stock. Who? was Charles Dickens, his pregnant young wife Catherine – she’ll have a miscarriage very soon – Dickens’ younger brother Fred who was living with them. And of course Mary, that beautiful teenage girl who died, in Dickens’ arms, in her bedroom at 48 Doughty. And then of course her parents and the rest of her family and Dickens’ family. And their circle. And there’s another “who?” But you need to be patient.

Where, well, Mary’s bedroom, where she went to bed in the best health and spirits and then a moment later uttered that strangled cry. You can visit the bedroom where she died. It’s at 48 Doughty Street. 48 Doughty Street – their new house, they’d only been there a month, remember – the first house Charles Dickens owned, the house where Dickens completed his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, and wrote two new works, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby – 48 Doughty Street is of course the Charles Dickens Museum.

So that’s who, what, where, when. As I said, why – why that full-of-life 17-year-old girl suddenly collapsed and died – there’s no answer to that why.

There is another why, though, that we can answer. We can add that to that additional “who?” that I’ve already referred to.

But we need a bridge to get to that “who?” and that “why?”. We erect that bridge by answering the question, what happened next?

Dickens – his heart broken – wore Mary Hogarth’s ring for the rest of his life. He bought her burial plot. He vowed that he would be buried next to her.

He never got over her, over that loss. And of course, inevitably, “the fairest flower of spring” as a visitor to the Dickens house described Mary Hogarth, found her way into his fiction. With regrettable consequences. Mary Hogarth would be, forever, 17 and perfect. An ideal instead of a real woman. Dickens’ heroines – until his affair with the young actress Ellen Ternan – she was young enough to be his daughter – until that affair – which came along over 20 years later – an affair that was a rocky ride for Dickens (let alone Ellen Ternan, I think we can be sure) – until Ellen Ternan comes into his life Dickens’s heroines are not very well done. They’re just not credible. They’re drawn from an ideal – from a vision of youthful female perfection – Mary Hogarth, in other words – rather than from flesh and blood, real, living, breathing women.

And finally, we can think of the consequences of what happened at 48 Doughty Street on May 7th, 1837 for Mary’s sister, Catherine, Dickens’ wife. She grew older. She put on a lot of weight. Her husband found her dull. She was almost permanently pregnant. In the end, he didn’t just lock the door between their adjoining bedrooms at their house in Tavistock Square. He brought in workmen and had them brick the door up. It’s unimaginably cruel, that. And of course the ugly separation followed. Basically, Dickens threw Catherine out. 

Catherine’s great failing was that she wasn’t permanently 17 and perfect. She wasn’t her sister Mary – her eternally perfect sister. 

Personal note here. I’m in this country because of Dickens. I did a Ph.D. on Dickens at University College London. Had the thrill of making a Dickens manuscript discovery at the V & A. And so on. So there’s no question but Dickens was life-changing for me. From a small town in the American midwest to a life in London thanks to the magic carpet of Charles Dickens. I’ll take it. I have taken it. And that candle’s still burning bright. Next month I’ll be taking the City Pickwick Club on a walk through the neighbourhood. A walk that will begin not just at the Dickens House Museum but in the Dickens House Museum. Greatly looking forward to it. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

The secret? It all comes down to the guiding, doesn’t it. The muzzle-loading velocity of the guiding. This is not a summer job guiding done by college students. It’s not paint-by-numbers guiding. You will NOT be guided by a callow youth who’s memorised a script. You will be guided by accomplished professionals – barristers, doctors, Museum of London archaeologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, historians, distinguished academics, elite, professionally-qualified Guide of the Year Award-winning Blue Badge, City of London and Westminster Guides. Well-connected, experienced, savvy, assured guides – Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new. It’s elementary my dear Watson: A top-flight guide is worth every penny. A mediocre guide is time and money wasted. The time wasted is of course compounded by the opportunity cost. 

And on that caveat emptor note, good night from London. See ya tomorrow. 

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