Great Expectations — photograph by Margaret MacKenzie of the Victoria Dickens Fellowship. Since Dickens grew up in the nearby Medway town of Chatham, where his father worked in the Naval Pay Office of the Admiralty, he would have known the row of shops in the mile-long High Street well before he wrote the 1860-61 novel, and would have visited Rochester often in the 1860s on walks from his estate at nearby Gads Hill. [Click on the image to enlarge it.], in Dickens's
Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]
Mr. Pumblechook's premises in the High Street of the market-town, were of a peppercorny and farinaceous character, as the premises of a corn-chandler and seedsman should be. It appeared to me that he must be a very happy man indeed, to have so many little drawers in his shop; and I wondered, when I peeped into one or two on the lower tiers, and saw the tied-up brown paper packets inside, whether the flower seeds and bulbs ever wanted of a fine day to break out of those gaols, and bloom. [Great Expectations, Chapter 8, Household Edition, p. 24]
Margaret MacKenzie of the Victoria Branch of the Dickens Fellowship remembers the shop well as it was her parents'. Relics of the seedsman's shop that have survived as part of the place of business to the present day, the little drawers contained candies or sweets in her childhood.
This splendid gabled house in Rochester High Street has been described as among the best timbered town houses in Kent, and should be preserved not only because of its architectural interest but also because of its Dickensian associations. The building is of the early 17th century and was originally one house with three storeys, though now it provides premises for an estate agent, a wine merchant, and a tea shop. You can get a good idea of the interior by visiting Elizabeth's tea shop where there are low beams, old fireplaces, and period furniture. The building belongs to the City Council and is kept in good repair. Charles Dickens chose it as the home of of Mr. Sapsea in The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Mr. Pumblechook in Great Expectations. The building blends well with city's museum at Eastgate House opposite, though it belongs to an earlier period than the majority of buildings in Rochester High Street. — Chatham, Rochester & Gillingham News, circa 1960.
Left: Uncle Pumblechook's House, Rochester, High Street, photograph by Philip V. Allingham, 2012. Right: Half-timbered House - High Street - Rochester drawn by Owen W. David, showing details from the gabling below (19th c., from the collection of Margaret MacKenzie, President of the Victoria Branch of the Dickens Fellowship).
In Great Expectations Dickens utilizes a setting familiar to him from his childhood, the mile-long High Street of the market town of Rochester, Kent. To the west the Medway River divides the cathedral town from its twin, the dockyard town of Chatham. In the census of 1810, the city of Rochester had a population of 9,000, most of whom were involved in commercial and maritime occupations as local tradesman provided goods and services for the Royal Navy. According to David Paroissien, Dickens used the shop of local corn chandler John Bye Fairburn the basis for Uncle Pumblechook's establishment. In 1860 Dickens must have visited Fairburn's business since he accurately describes the rows of little seed drawers in the shop. A plaque on the shop-front alerts the passerby to the building's Dickens connection.
Above: Historical plaque on the right of the three buildings on Rochester's High Street. [Click on image to enlarge it.]
In the novel, Pip reflects on the mercantile nature of Pumblechook's end of the High Street, where the seedsman habitually studied the activities of his fellows in trade: the saddler across the street, the coach-maker, the baker, the grocer, and the chemist. Pumblechook lives in quarters behind the shop, rather like the Tetterbys, the family who run a London newsagent's business in The Haunted Man, their snug parlour, like Pumblechook's, being immediately behind the shop. J. A. Nicklin in Dickens-Land describes the area as markedly commercial, in contrast to the civic buildings at the west or bridge end of the High Street:
Farther up the High Street towards Chatham, about a quarter of a mile from Rochester Bridge, are two sixteenth-century houses, with fronts of carved oak and gables, facing each other across the street. One has figured in both Great Expectations and Edwin Drood, for it is the house of Mr. Pumblechook, the pompous and egregious corn and seedsman, and of Mr. Sapsea, the auctioneer, still more pompous and egregious. 
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Bentley, Nicolas, Michael Slater, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. Oxford and New York: Oxford U. P., 1988.
"Buildings in Rochester High Street. Chatham, Rochester & Gillingham News, circa 1960.
Clarke, Jeremy. "Dickens's Rochester and Chatham." Presentation to the 2012 Dickens Conference, "A Tale of Four Cities: Dickens and the Idea of 'The Dickensian.'" Guildhall, Rochester. 6 February 2012.
Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File and Checkmark Books, 1998.
Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. (1861). Illustrated by F. A. Fraser. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1876.
Dickens, Charles. Pickwick Papers (1836-37). Illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1873.
Langton, Robert. Charles Dickens and Rochester. London: Chapman and Hall, 1880. rpt. Rochester: Old Towns Books and Maps, 2009.
Lynch, Tony. Dickens England: An A to Z Tour of the Real and Imagined Locations. A Traveller 's Companion. London: Batsford, 2012.
Nicklin, J. A. Dickens-Land. Illustrated byE. W. Haslehust. Beautiful England series. Glasgow & London: Blackie & Son, 1911.
Paroissien, David. The Companion to 'Great Expectations'. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 2000.
Last modified 18 November 2017w