It was at Tavistock House . . . that in the middle of March Catherine Dickens gave birth to her tenth child — named in honour of the baronet, Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens (Bulwer-Lytton himself was godfather). It was to be her last child, the conclusion of her long and unhappy history of pregnancy. [Ackroyd, 655]
Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, "Plorn," or "The Baby" (13 March 1852 – 23 January 1902)
A contemporary photograph of sixteen-year-old Edward, armed as if demonstrating his readiness to take on the Outback, from Lucinda Dickens Hawksley's 2012 book on Dickens: "The dark circles under his eyes suggest Plorn's deep unhappiness at being sent away" (Hawksley 35). [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
Charles and Catherine Dickens's tenth and final child was given the grandiose name of Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens ("Plorn"). He was to live to just fifty years of age — all but the first sixteen of those spent in the hinterland of Australia.
It must have been hard to be a son of the period's preeminent novelist, and harder still in school and later life for the last son, whose namesake was another leading writer of the period. How could a young man brought up in an affluent household in the mid-Victorian period ever measure up in intelligence and drive to Charles Dickens? Nicknamed "The Baby," the youngest child received a Church of England oriented education at Tunbridge Wells, Kent, at a private academy owned by the Reverend W. C. Sawyer (later Anglican bishop of Armidale and Grafton). When his father decided that the boy was not suited to the professions or the civil service, but should be trained as an agriculturalist for the Australian Outback, "Plorn" as he was later known in the family also briefly attended lectures at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, Gloucestershire. Plorn would thus be Dickens's last Son of Empire, but neither an naval officer like Sydney Smith Haldimand Dickens (1847-72) nor a army officer like Walter Savage Landor Dickens (1841-1863).
Dickens made arrangements for him to join his older brother, Alfred D'Orsay Tennyson Dickens, in Australia, the Victorian "land of opportunity" for younger sons — as he had implied in the later episodes of David Copperfield, in the emigration of the ne'er-do-well Micawbers. When the time came, Edward, equipped with only the rudimentary skills with which to survive in a challenging environment, was clearly unhappy to be leaving. His comfortable childhood as the sole boy at home had ill-fitted him for this abrupt and wrenching departure. The baby of the family, he had been spoilt and pampered in every way, and (ironically) nicknamed "The J. B. in the W." (The Jolliest Boy in the World). While his older brothers had at least had the experience attending Mr. Gibson's boarding school in Boulogne, France, Plorn had remained at the idyllic Gadshill Place in the Kentish countryside. Now he was accompanied to Portsmouth by his elder brother, the already academically successful Harry, there to take ship to the Antipodes, never to return. Dickens wrote to Mamie on 26 September 1868 that the boy "went away, poor fellow, as well as could possibly be expected. He was pale, and had been crying, and (Harry said) had broken down in the railway carriage after leaving Higham station" (qtd. in Tomalin 372).
Anticipating his son's misery, Dickens, Polonius-like, had penned him this highly religious and sententious note about the necessity of partings, a theme that he had sounded seven years earlier in Great Expectations, which also features a reluctant Australian emigrant:
I write this note to-day because your going away is much upon my mind, and because I want you to have a few parting words from me, to think of now and then at quiet times. I need not tell you that I love you dearly, and am very, very sorry in my heart to part with you. But this life is half made up of partings, and these pains must be borne. It is my comfort and my sincere conviction that you are going to try the life for which you are best fitted. I think its freedom and wildness more suited to you than any experiment in a study or office would have been; and without that training, you could have followed no other suitable occupation. What you have always wanted until now, has been a set, steady, constant purpose. I therefore exhort you to persevere in a thorough determination to do whatever you have to do as well as you can do it. I was not so old as you are now, when I first had to win my food, and to do it out of this determination; and I have never slackened in it since. Never take a mean advantage of any one in any transaction, and never be hard upon people who are in your power. Try to do to others as you would have them do to you, and do not be discouraged if they fail sometimes. It is much better for you that they should fail in obeying the greatest rule laid down by Our Saviour than that you should. [qtd. in Forster II: 272]
Alfred had already been in the colony some three years when Edward arrived at Momba Station in 1868, just before his sixteenth birthday, having left England, home, and family five months earlier. His accommodation there cannot have been much different from that of the typical British settler depicted in The Illustrated London News in 1849: Interior of Settler's Hut in Australia — what a comedown from the Dickens family's toney London mansion Tavistock House! Initially, however, Edward seems to have done well. He settled in the colony of New South Wales at Wilcannia, where he became station manager. In 1880, apparently prosperous, he married Constance Desailly, the daughter of a local landowner. He opened a stock and station agency, was elected as an alderman of Bourke Shire Council, and for a time owned a share in Yanda station nearby. However, through severe drought he suffered heavy financial reversals. In 1886 he was forced to give up ranching for a government appointment as inspector of rabbit-runs in the district. Still,
[h]e took an interest in politics, specifically in land legislation made in Sydney for this region that most politicians had never seen. In 1888, a new electorate of Wilcannia, 550,000 sq km in extent, had been established to elect a member of the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales in Sydney, and Plorn was asked to stand as Liberal candidate. After policemen had ridden out to all the remotest stations and mining camps delivering ballots, Dickens won by a two-to-one majority.
No wonder, in view of recent experiences, that he referenced rabbits and rain in his maiden speech in September 1889. The account continues:
At the end of summer, Plorn was introduced to parliament. In his maiden speech, he impressed on the legislators the futility of making a single land law for all of New South Wales. He also announced that in some cases, the capacity to carry livestock had been reduced by one half through rabbit plagues. Plorn was so persistent he heard members cry, "Hang the rabbits, we are sick of rabbits!" [The Observer, 2010]
Plorn held his seat in the legislature until 1893, vigorously representing the interests of his fellow Moree Jockey Club members, the ranchers and stockmen who yearned to recreate England in the Outback, despite the highly variable rains, and periods of drought — MP Dickens is recorded as having read the rainfall numbers into Hansard. Essentially, Plorn tried to do a good job, but the name which had probably helped him to be elected also brought him constant jibes in the legislature, and he lost his seat when the Australian Labour Party appeared:
The miners of Broken Hill were led by the handsome, demonic, 23-year-old Richard Sleath. Son of a Fifeshire ploughman, he was another kind of Briton to Plorn Dickens. The first Labour government in the world was in the offing, Sleath was part of the movement which would reap the discontent of miners and bush workers.
In 1894 Sleath was selected to oppose the relatively easy target, gentle Plorn Dickens. Sleath won with a majority of more than 60%. [The Guardian, 7 November 2010]
Obviously facing still-declining fortunes after the 1894 election, Edward found himself unable to re-pay his brother Henry an ₤800 loan he had solicited. He now became an officer in charge of the Moree district for the Lands Department — after which, employment entirely dried up, and he died, still in middle age, after an illness of several months. Having initially prospered and even had a career in politics, he had, unfortunately, piled failure upon failure: gambling, drinking, and getting into debt; and in consequence his wife had left him. Bankrupt and childless, he passed away at fifty, and was buried in the local cemetery.
Photograph of Edward Dickens's monument in Moree graveyard, by Grahamec, available from Wikipedia on the Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.
According to Australian historian Thomas Keneally, "For many years the location of the grave was not known. But money was collected by the Dickens Fellowship in Sydney, and more than 60 years after his death a memorial tablet was placed in the Church of England in Moree." The spot where he was interred with little or no fanfare in 1902 is now marked by an impressive plinth, perhaps the only truly impressive aspect of Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens's life Down Under.
- Catherine Dickens (née Hogarth), 1816-79: Dickens's Wife and Travelling Companion
- A Chronology of Dickens's Life
- The Children of Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth Dickens, 1837-52
- Major Biographies of Dickens — a Critical Overview
- Where the Dickens: A Chronology of the Various Residences of Charles Dickens, 1812-1870
Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.
Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1999.
Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. London: Chapman and Hall, 1871. 2 vols.
Hawksley, Lucinda Dickens. Charles Dickens. Dickens' Bicentenary 1812-2012. San Rafael, California: Insight, in association with the Charles Dickens Museum, London, 2012.
"Review of Thomas Keneally's Australians: Origins to Eureka (published by Allen & Unwin)". Online version available from The Observer. Web. 7 November 2010.
Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2011.
Created 19 September 2019