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Friday, 12th September 2008
Wot the Dickens?

Charles Dickens was a thoroughly modern writer, at least he was 100 years ago. Some people have suggested that if Shakespeare was alive today he would be writing for television. I doubt it, more likely his work would be adapted for television and pitched at the high-brow viewer. Hardly a radical viewpoint as this is basically what has happened. Dickens though would probably write directly for TV.

Dickens would have approved of this marketing ploy

TV is essentially a conservative media don't look for much ground-breaking material or thinking. The BBC seem determined to adapt every Victorian melodrama possible in the name of ' culture '. It would be strange to think Dickens would be writing Victorian period drama if he were alive today. More likely, if he was alive today he would not be living in England.

Interestingly this delineation exists between Shakespeare and Dickens in the cigarette card world (at least it does if you stare at it hard enough). Shakespeare is dealt with rarely and for the most part these sets are both elusive and expensive, the exception proving the rule being Players, Shakespearian Series. Dickens gets better coverage although again, I admit, many are difficult to get hold of today.

Charles did in fact go to the U.S. in 1867-68 where he was reading extracts from some of his novels. As a book tour it was a huge success and the tobacco manufacturers were not going to let the opportunity pass them by. Various characters from the books were soon on early cigarette cards expounding the virtues of a particular brand. Dick Swiveller was a likely character to promote tobacco products living as he did over a tobacconist shop.

WC Fields, the great drinker, who fell into acting, quoted huge drafts of Mr Micawber on his death bed much to the amazement of those about him. The great WC had a passion for Dickens but he probably did not utter the following;

'I am in the hopes that something will soon turn up; meantime if you would post me a box of Allen & Ginter's world-renowned Straight Cuts it will much oblige. - Yours most sincerely and expectantly, Micawber.

This of course comes from the tobacco mills of Allen & Ginter and their Dickens Characters Burlesqued. Forgive me if I do not furnish you with more information on this set, but surprisingly I do not have it, and I am not sure I know anyone who has.

As a note, if anyone really wants to get into the Hall of Fame, write in with information regarding Belfast Ship Stores Co. Ltd set on the same theme. This first came to light in 1945 and remain about as rare as hen's teeth. Anyway I am floating away into a world of cards which are rarer than hens teeth and so do not have a lot to do with us normal human beings.

Special mention should be given to Hills, Historic Places from Dickens classics [1926] which deals with the Dickens theme in an imaginative manner.

Again as in the case of Shakespeare Players come to the cigarette card collecting public.

In a town not far from where I sit now there is a cafe that rejoices in the name 'Wot the Dickens' complete with all the trappings of modern day Victorian England. The actual phrase is probably 200 years older than Dickens the writer and relates more to Dickens the slang for ' the Devil'. It might be the effect the cafe is looking for in which case I tip my hat to their adventurous spirit.

Issuing, as they did, a number of sets on the Dickens theme. In 1912 Characters from Dickens as two distinct series of 25 cards. Labeled ' A' series and ' 2nd series' the cards were numbered 1-25 and 26-50. A few years later in 1914 they issued an extra-large series of 10 cards which were inserted into the large boxes of 50 cigarettes. Players were quite fond of doing this at the time.

There was a break in cigarette card production for a few years and when cards were issued once more one of the first series Players put out was a 50 card issue of Characters from Dickens which brought together the two series previously issued. This might have been a stop-gap measure upon the commencement of mainstream card production or it might have been a genuine attempt to allow the collecting public a second chance at collecting a very popular set.

This also allowed Players to correct the Silas Wegg error card; more of which later.

Please Sir, Can I have some more

Dickens would have approved of this marketing ploy I am sure. Although we now read his books in one bound volume originally the books were issued as a series of monthly installments. He worked at an incredible pace which almost certainly reduced his life-span. This made the fact that he missed an installment because of the death of his young and beloved sister-in-law all the more poignant. The young woman had moved in with his wife and himself.

With the character Little Nell his reading public mourned with him. Although Oscar Wilde was clearly not going to when he quiped 'You would need to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell.'

For a period of time Dickens worked as a lawyers clerk which he disliked intensely and in his novels would make sure lawyers and their trade got a bad press at every available opportunity.

His father's business failed and from relative comfort the family fell into dire-straits. Moving to London the young Charles saw all the social divisions of the great city. He worked for a brief period sticking labels on tins of boot black. Eventually his father and family were imprisoned for debt. Only the death of a relative enabled the family to get out of prison.

Dickens in his first commercial success, ' The Pickwick Papers' created the character of Sergeant Buzfuz who was leading council for Mrs. Bardwell against the much-loved character Mr. Pickwick himself.

Mr Justice Stareleigh, card 14, fairs no better in the same case. Then again set up against the much-loved character of Mr.Pickwick himself there was little chance of being anything other than ghastly if you did not agree with the " delightfully innocent and lovable elderly hero. " Just to prove there is nothing new in commercial spin-offs Victorians were able to buy Pickwick, hats, canes, coats and all manner of other goods. Although the word 'good' is used with specific meaning.

Details from Card 13
Sergeant Buzfuz
Leading council for Mrs. Bardwell in the immortal breach of promise case "Bardell against Pickwick" A red-faced, pugnacious bully, he makes his various points with sledgehammer force, while keeping an ever-watchful eye upon the " the enlightened, high-minded, right-feeling, conscientious, dispassionate, sympathising, contemplative jury of his civilized countrymen. "

Mr Micawber (card 41) could be considered a relative of Mr Pickwick in David Copperfield. A cheery, jovial character he also has some trouble with the legal establishment and has the misfortune of having to know the most unpleasant Uriah Heap (card 31), clerk to Wickfield and later Wickfield and Heap.

It does not take much effort to see David Copperfield as semi-autobiographical in nature. A point that is made on the card dealing with the young David himself, card 39.

Much of what Dickens wrote has passed into English history as being definitive of the period. His romantic notion of Christmas has altered forever our concept of what Christmas actually is. There is not a major shopping center in Britain that will not have a late night shopping which will have a Dickensian theme. He also created great characters who are still used today as pro-forma description for certain types of person. Everyone knows a 'Scrooge' and most can conjure an image of Fagin without any difficulty. There is a column in my daily paper which is written by 'Newman Noggs' in the safe knowledge that most people know the character from Nicholas Nicklebey (card 46).


Time has reduced some of the power in the characters. It would be difficult to write, '"Codlin's the friend-not Short ", is firmly embedded in the most quotable strata of English proverbs.' today, as could be written on card 31 of this series. Nor perhaps would the majority of people know what you were referring to when you described someone as a Bill Sykes (card 9) as once they would. A character in Oliver Twist, a brutal ruffian and burglar lending his name to that particular sort of person.

Codlin is a character from The Old Curiosity Shop which is a name reflected from hundreds of shop windows throughout this imaginative land.

Producing a set of such well known characters is fraught with danger. The original stories were illustrated so to move to far from that ideal would have been disastrous. The job of bringing the characters to cigarette cards was given to 'Kyd' and done in some style it is to. Obviously 'Kyd' was not a real name but that was even better, Clayton Clark, who also did Characters from Thackery (Players). Each card showing the individual full frame with their name and the novel from which they came. I doubt many readers would have been surprised at the illustrations, apart from card 32 as it first came out.

Silas Wegg was given a pretty raw deal by Dickens as can be seen from the text from the card.

Details from Card 32
Silas Wegg
( our mutual friend)
A sour-faced, hard-headed, vindictive, timber-legged vendor of popular ballads and proprietor of a small portable stall for the sale of the sourest of apples and hardest of nuts. Engaged by illiterate Mr.Boffin to read aloud o' nights, he " Declines and Falls " into the position of " a literary man with a wooden leg, " and promptly proceeding to bite the hand that feeds him, comes to a bad end.

You would hardly think the fellow could suffer more but in the first print run Players managed to remove the wrong leg. This was remedied in the 50 card set, making it one of the classic cigarette card errors.

It might be possible to overstate the importance of Dickens in our national conscience but it would take some doing. Even if you do not like his books at all in one sense nobody in Britain can get enough Dickens appearing as does on the reverse of our 10 pound note, which also includes the cricket match from Pickwick Papers. Card 5 shows Dumkins striding out to the wicket. Its all more British than apple pie.