24 December 2015
A Likely Story
Inspired by Yorkshire Generosity
by J R Thomas
It is the best-selling Christmas tale of all time (bar the original, of course), has inspired numerous films (from a Donald Duck version to enchanting hamming by George C Scott), is a perennial favourite on the stage, and the original book has never been out of print since it was first published in 1843. It is a tale that has everything that a seasonal morality ghost story could possibly encompass. It popularised the expression “Merry Christmas!” Redemption mingles with charity and gentleness to overcome greed and austerity, our heartstrings are tugged by a simple worthy family, our humane instincts infuriated by meanness and needless austerity; ghosts rattle chains, snow falls and carol singers charm, the butcher opens on Christmas morn, and even the bankers are suitably wicked.
You couldn’t make it up, except of course Charles Dickens did make it up; and thought of the perfect title, ‘A Christmas Carol’. He knew himself that he was onto something very special, so much that he would not agree his usual deal with his publisher but instead published the tale himself at his own expense. That, wryly, he soon came to realise as an error. There were endless revisions and difficulties before publication, and although it sold well after a slow start (no publisher to push it along), it made Dickens very little money in its first couple of years – though before long it became a money-spinner and stayed so for the rest of his life.
But some of it Dickens did not make up. The locations at least were based on a real place and one that has little changed. This is far from London, in the town of Malton, in North Yorkshire, now a slightly decaying market town halfway between York and Scarborough. Dickens’s connection with the town was purely fortuitous. The Smithson family were the leading solicitors in the town, and had a partnership also in a London firm which had easier access to the main law courts. Dickens, early in his success, stood surety for a friend to become an associate at that London office, and met Charles Smithson who had worked in the London office and was now taking over the family practice back in the North Riding.
Smithson and Dickens became instant friends, and Dickens began in the late 1830’s a series of visits to Malton, staying for quite long periods with Smithson and his family. Dickens did not write ‘A Christmas Carol’ here, but he did write part of Martin Chuzzlewit, and also gave a performance at the town theatre. Several locals inspired characters who featured in various Dickens novels, mostly notably Charles Smithson himself, who formed the model for Mr Spenlow in David Copperfield. And Smithson’s two pet ravens inspired the raven “Grip” – and its name – in Barnaby Rudge!
Smithson and his family lived at Easthorpe Hall, a fine Georgian house about four miles west of Malton. Easthorpe stood in a most magnificent position on one of the highest points of the eastern ridge of the Howardian Hills, looking over Castle Howard (later itself to become a literary star as Brideshead in a rather different morality tale) and across the Plain of York to the Pennines. Sadly, Easthorpe Hall was demolished in 1967 after a fire and is now the site of a small housing estate, but the wonderful views and unspoilt rural outlook remain.
But what is perhaps more interesting to lovers of Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit and even those who exclaim “Bah! Humbug!” at every inconvenience to life caused by Christmas cheer, is not Smithson’s house, but Smithson’s office. For this was the original of Scrooge’s counting house – acknowledged to be so by Dickens. And it is still there today, and very fitting to the imagination it is. It stands in Chancery Lane, Malton, which to those who know the London version of Chancery Lane will be not as they might imagine. Malton’s Chancery Lane is a narrow alley, suitable only for foot traffic, leading from the market place through an anonymous arch next to a greengrocer, down to Yorkersgate, the main route through the town until the bypass arrived in the early 1980’s. On the east side of the lane was the corn exchange, and opposite it, Scrooge and Marley’s office. Or rather, Smithson’s office.
It is a brick Georgian building, rather dark and grim, with a grandish front door, suitable for a lawyer. And on the front door, a glaring iron face of a scowling man, constituting the knocker. The current version was placed there when the office became a museum to Dickens’s local activities and inspirations, but forty years ago it was still an office and had then a large and grim knocker – it is tempting to believe that it was the one that Smithson had and that it inspired Dickens.
Also still there is St Leonards Church (since 1971 the Roman Catholic church for the town when it was gifted to the local Catholic community, in fact the oldest Catholic church in use in England). It has the same eight peal of Georgian bells which rang in early Victorian times across Malton and found their counterpart in those which awoke Scrooge from that terrible night of dreams on Christmas morning. Halfway between Chancery Lane and St Leonards is a crossroads always known as “Butcher Corner” – there were at least three butchers close to the corner until recent times, and more in Victorian times, so getting a boy down to the butcher to buy a turkey for the Cratchit family would have been easy.
In fact the whole geography of the town fits that of supposed Scroogian London remarkably neatly. In spite of that, and that the Dickens connection was well known (indeed Smithson’s descendants still live locally), very little has been made of it until the relatively recent opening of Scrooge/Smithson’s office as the Counting House Museum. This low-key and touchingly non-commercial approach fits the ethos of that great Christmas story rather aptly, and on a busy market day and especially under a blanket of snow the town does still feel nicely… well….Dickensian.
The Counting House Museum, Chancery Lane, Malton, North Yorkshire, is open on Saturdays from May to October, admission free. No admittance, sadly, on Christmas Eve, even to Jacob Marley, but the two town churches, St Michaels (Market Place) and St Leonards (Church Hill) will be glad to see visitors. Merry Christmas!