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Wanstead United Reformed Church solve Charles Dickens’ mystery links to the borough

PUBLISHED: 16:30 25 August 2017

Undated picture of author Charles Dickens, whose books are considered by many to be amongst the finest works of literature produced in the nineteenth century. Mr Dickens owned two properties in Wanstead. Picture: PA/PA Archive/PA Images.

Undated picture of author Charles Dickens, whose books are considered by many to be amongst the finest works of literature produced in the nineteenth century. Mr Dickens owned two properties in Wanstead. Picture: PA/PA Archive/PA Images.

PA Archive/PA Images

“And I am bored to death with it. Bored to death with this place, bored to death with my life, bored to death with myself,” remarks Lady Dedlock in Charles Dickens’ famed novel Bleak House.

Wanstead United Reformed Church along the top of a road Charles Dickens, owned a house on in Wanstead. Picture: Paul Bennett Wanstead United Reformed Church along the top of a road Charles Dickens, owned a house on in Wanstead. Picture: Paul Bennett

First published as a serial between March 1852 and September 1853, the novel – about the injustices of the British legal system and the consequences of secret love affair – now celebrates its 164th anniversary.

But who was really bored, Dickens or the character he was writing about?

In January, the Recorder set out to explore whether the legendary writer and social critic owned and possibly lived in a house in Wanstead.

In the words of Hard Times’ schoolboard superintendent Mr Gradgrind what we wanted was “facts, sir; nothing but facts”.

And facts we found.

We discovered Dickens loved the area. He immortalised the Ye Olde Kings Head (now Sheesh restaurant) in High Road, Chigwell, as the Maypole Inn in Barnaby Rudge, his fifth novel.

Reporter Ann-Marie Abbasah in Grosvenor Road, exploring Charles Dickens' links to Wanstead in January. Picture: Paul Bennett Reporter Ann-Marie Abbasah in Grosvenor Road, exploring Charles Dickens' links to Wanstead in January. Picture: Paul Bennett

We found an advert for a double room in a three-bed house near Wanstead Station which claimed the author once lived there.

And viewed photographic evidence of documents - the world’s oldest and largest auctioneers, Bonhams, once held but have now sold, for £840 – that showed Dickens once owned property in Wanstead.

A Bonhams spokeswoman explained, the first was a lease for 16 Grove Road [now Grosvenor Road] Wanstead – a detached villa residence of one detached villa residence and the second a conveyance document for land and premises at 18 Grove Road Wanstead.

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens described Ebenezer Scrooge as a cold-hearted miser, “the cold within him froze his old features”.

Our trail ran colder.

But thanks to the Wanstead United Reformed Church, Nightingale Lane, Wanstead, the mystery can at last be solved.

Dickens did own property in the area and for sordid reasons.

“In 1857, Charles Dickens began an adulterous affair with Ellen (known as Nelly) Ternan that would end only with his death 13 years later,” said Maggie Brown, the church’s archivist.

“It was an affair that revealed Dickens as a man driven by extraordinary obsessive passion.”

According to Maggie, Bonhams’ researchers believed the motive for the building and purchase of the Grove Road property was because, Ellen is recorded as having retired from the stage in 1860 that is about the time that Dickens made his Wanstead investment.

“He is known to have bought the Ternan family house in St Pancras, transferring the lease to Nelly on her coming of age on 3rd March 1860.

“[And] on 12th November 1860 we find him giving George Wilkinson a mortgage for the Wanstead development.

“Dickens made a payment of £108 to George Wilkinson for the property known as no 18 Grove Road Wanstead, mistakenly referred to as no 16 in the written indenture of lease, although correctly identified as No 18 on the Conveyance of land and premises.”

According to Bonhams researchers, there was a high level of secrecy involved in the purchase of the property, and Dickens did not use his usual solicitor and friend Frederic Ouvry.

“So,” added Maggie.

“Just possibly, it was his love for Nelly Ternan that gave Dickens this taste for the suburbs, and that it was their future together he had in mind when making his Wanstead investment.”

Maggie unearthed the research in time for the church’s 150th anniversary in May.

Founded in 1865, Wanstead Congregational Church (known as the United Reformed Church since 1972) opened in Grosvenor Road in 1867.

George Wilkinson was a timber merchant, property developer, and the church’s deacon.

On September 4th 1873, he became a member of the church transferring from Bishopsgate Chapel in the City of London when his office as senior deacon came to an end.

According to Maggie’s research, George was the property’s owner and was developing Grove Road at the time, having moved his family to “The Grove” – on the east side of Wanstead High Street, approximately where the entrance to Grove Park and the Avenue now opens up – during the early 1860s.

“The Grove Estate covered most of the area between Grosvenor Road and the Avenue, about 60 acres in its ‘Wanstead Grove’ heyday, and the residence became Wanstead’s premier house of the time.”

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