‘Marley was dead: to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.’  So, began Charles Dickens’s reading at Sherborne’s Literary and Scientific Institution on Thursday, 21 December 1854.

Charles Dickens was a close friend of the Shakespearean actor-manager, William Charles Macready (1793-1873), who had retired to Sherborne with his family in 1850, renting Sherborne House in Newland from Lord Digby of Sherborne Castle.  Although Macready had been worried when he left London that he would miss the ‘varied, brilliant, and powerful minds’ of his friends in this sleepy backwater, he need not have worried for in September 1851 he was invited to become President of the Sherborne Literary and Scientific Institution and, feeling ‘that it was my duty to do my best in such a cause. I assented.’

Founded in 1846 as a Mutual Improvement Society, the Sherborne Literary and Scientific Institution went from strength to strength under their new President.  Macready promoted the Institution and on 26 June 1854, they moved from their rooms in Cheap Street to larger premises in the former stable block next to Sherborne House (now the home of Macintosh Antiques).  The new premises not only allowed the Institution to offer a wider range of classes, including music, drawing and French, but also gave them space for a library and to hold lectures.  Macready gave many readings and lectures at the Institution himself and also invited his friends to do so, including such famous names as William Thackeray and Charles Dickens.

The former Sherborne Literary & Scientific Institution.

By 1854, Charles Dickens was not only a famous author, having already published The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Hard Times and A Christmas Carol, but he was also famous for the public readings he gave of his own works, which were considered to be the great theatrical sensation of the day.

Preparations for Charles Dickens’s reading at Sherborne began at a committee meeting held at the Institution on 16 November 1854.  Similar readings given elsewhere by Dickens had raised large amounts for charity (£300 was raised in Birmingham), so it was proposed that the reading should raise funds for the Institution’s Library Fund.  An entrance fee of 5 shillings (about £15.00 today) was agreed and, as it was assumed that Dickens would attract a large crowd, it was proposed to hold the reading in the Town Hall (then situated in Half Moon Street opposite the Digby Road and demolished in 1884).  Due to Macready being too unwell to attend the meeting, the committee adjourned to Sherborne House where Macready agreed the ticket price and the proposal to send out circulars requesting applications for tickets to booksellers in Yeovil, Wincanton, Crewkerne, Dorchester and Bruton.

Sherborne Town Hall in Half Moon Street, c.1884.

However, by the next committee meeting on 28 November 1854, it was noted that ‘Mr Macready be informed of the feeling of dissatisfaction which had been expressed by persons in the town at the price of admission to Mr Dickens’s Reading’.

William Charles Macready (1793-1873).

By 15 December, just six days before Dickens was due to give his reading, ticket sales were still low and it was decided to move the event to the Institution Lecture Room.  The change of venue evidently ‘originated in the sensitive desire to compliment Mr Dickens with a full house’.  Macready was outraged and felt that Sherborne had snubbed Dickens, stating ‘The tickets of non-members had been priced at five shillings, certainly no unreasonable amount when the man and his object were jointly or even severally considered.  A crown, what is it?  The cost of a bottle of bad wine swallowed at a public dinner, the price of a local ball ticket, a sum so often squandered and frittered away when we cannot tell where the money goes to.  But for a definite and intellectual and laudable object, five shillings was found to be a very large sum of money indeed, and it soon became evident that to avoid ‘the beggarly account of empty boxes’ that would have insulted Mr Dickens and disgraced the locality, fresh arrangement must be made.’

Another reason put forward for the low ticket sales was that Thursday 21 December, was the last market before Christmas and that 2 pm was not a convenient time.  Macready concluded his rant saying, ‘A bumper audience would undoubtedly have greeted Mr Dickens if the time and the cost had suited the class which furnish his most ardent admirers. Sherborne, Yeovil, and Milborne alone, without a single adjoining parish, could and would have filled our Town Hall had the reading been at night and the tickets at two shillings’.

And so, on Thursday, 21 December 1854, at 2 pm, Charles Dickens took to the stage of the Sherborne Literary and Scientific Institution to give a reading of ‘Marley’s Ghost’, taken from the first chapter of A Christmas Carol.  We can imagine that before Dickens began his reading he asked his audience, as he had done a few days earlier in Reading, ‘to regard themselves, for the time being, as a small snug party assembled round the Christmas fireside, giving utterance to their emotions without restraint, and in their own accustomed way, without the slightest fear of disturbing him.’

Despite the room being crowded and the reading lasting three hours, we are told that the interest of his audience was sustained to the last and that Mr Dickens read in a quiet, unaffected tone.  Amongst the audience were Robert Gordon, Esq. of Leweston House; John Goodden, Esq. of Compton House; the Rev. Edward Nares Henning of Sherborne; the Rev. William Hector Lyon, Rector of Oborne (later Vicar of Sherborne); the Rev. Charles Robert Dampier, Vicar of Thornford; the Rev. George Southwell, Vicar of Yetminster; the Rev. John Blennerhassett, Vicar of Ryme Intrinsica; the Rev. Richard Messiter, Vicar of Stourton Caundle; and the Misses Chadwick and Mrs Cookson.   After the reading, a vote of thanks to Mr Dickens was proposed by Sir William Medlycott of Ven House and seconded by William Macready.

The Sherborne Mural by Mike Fenton-Wilkinson and Peter Sheridan, depicting Charles Dickens giving his reading at the Sherborne Literary & Scientific Institution.

The reading raised £22 for the Library Fund (about £1,300 today).  The committee was careful to get the most for their money and amongst the books purchased (at trade prices) was a ‘cheap edition’ of the works of Charles Dickens.  Also purchased where Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels, Lord Byron’s poems, Thomas Gray’s poems, Thomas Hood’s poetical works, Tennyson’s poems, Heber’s and Heman’s poetical work, Thomas Moore’s works, Thompson’s works, Macaulay’s History of England, Thomas Carlyle’s Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, Campbell’s Lives of the Lord Chancellors, Humboldt’s Cosmos, Bloxam’s Principles of Gothic Ecclesiastical Architecture, Wilson’s Treatise on Chemistry, Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico, and Herschel’s Outlines of Astronomy.  The books were shelved in a separate bookcase, with an inscription stating that they had been purchased with the money raised from Charles Dickens’s reading.

At the Institution’s AGM held on 25 June 1855, the Secretary reported that ten public lectures had been delivered that year, seven gratuitously and three by paid lecturers, and that William Macready had also given a private reading from some of the English poets.  Thanks to the £22 worth of books purchased with the money from Charles Dickens’s reading, and generous donations of books and money from John Penny (520 volumes), Robert Gordon of Leweston House (£10), Mr Pocklington (£2), William Frederick Pollock (books), the Rev. James White (books), the library now contained 1150 volumes and from it 1472 issues had been made during the year.

William Macready and his wife had arrived at Sherborne in 1850 with eight children.  By the end of June 1858, his wife Catherine and three of their children, including Henry, Charles Dickens’s godson, had all died.  Sherborne House now held too many memories for Macready.  He said it had become ‘mournful to look on the many empty seats around the once crowded table, and life had lost much of its charm in the absence of those whose presence made its happiness.’  By 1860, Macready had decided to leave Sherborne and start anew in Cheltenham.   On 27 March 1860, he gave his last reading for the benefit of the Institution (‘a reading from the masterpieces of Shakespeare’) and donated to the Institution a large collection of fossils and minerals and a working model of a steam engine.  The committee resolved that a photographic likeness of Mr Macready should be hung in the Institution’s Reading Room and, following a collection, presented him with a silver-plate epergne (costing £30).

Sherborne House, c.1850s.

At the Institution’s AGM held on 9 July 1860, the committee recorded their thanks to William Macready for all he had done for the Institution during his nine years as President: ‘In reporting on the operations of the Society during the past years and on its present state your committee wish prominently to notice the loss which the Institution has sustained in the removal of Mr Macready from the Town.  During the last nine years he has taken a pleasure in working with your successive committees and by his continued active exertion and thoughtful consideration, by the aid of his own time & purse and with the co-operation of his many Friends who have resided in the neighbourhood and those who have come from a distance, he has greatly contributed to place the Institution, the Classes belonging to it, and its Library in the position they have now attained and even after he had resigned his connection with the Institution on the 30th March, you had the pleasure of thanking him for the present of a large and valuable collection of minerals and fossils which it is hoped is the nucleus of our extensive Museum.’

And so Macready’s association with the Sherborne Literary and Scientific Institution came to an end, but the man and the Institution had become synonymous and for many years afterwards the building was still known locally as the Macready Institute.

Macready Institute bookplate, 1888.

Rachel Hassall
School Archivist
Sherborne School

Macready Literary Institution of Sherborne Archives: minute books 1852-1892; members’ subscription book 1856-1889; accounts 1865-1892, 1877-1892; lecture proceeds 1877-1889; cash book 1877-1890 (Dorset History Centre, ref. D-FFO/22/3-8).

Sherborne Literary Institution programme of events for the 1855-1856 session (Dorset History Centre, ref. D-BKL/H/K/98).

K. Barker, ‘William Charles Macready, The Sherborne Literary Institution and Charles Dickens’ (Centenary Facsimile Edition, 2012).

S.M. Hill, Sherborne House and Its People (1996).

F. Pollock (ed.), Macready’s Reminiscences, and Selections from his Diaries and Letters (London, Macmillan & Co., 1875).

Sherborne Literary Institution circulating library books now held in the Rare Book Collection at Sherborne School:
Edmund Burke, The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (London, 1819), volume 12. Bookplate: Sherborne Literary Institution. Circulating Library no.346.

John Locke, The Works of John Locke, in nine volumes (London, 1824, 12th ed.), volume 7. Bookplate: Sherborne Literary Institution. Circulating Library no.332. Bookplate: Ex Libris Sherborne School for Girls.

William Robertson, The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V, in four volumes (Edinburgh, 1805), volume 4. Bookplate: Presented to the Macready Institute by the representatives of the late Joseph Pitman Symes, Esq. Sherborne, 1888.

Sir Walter Scott, The poetical works of Walter Scott, in twelve volumes (Edinburgh, 1820), volume 2. Bookplate: Sherborne Literary Institution Circulating Library (no. 43 crossed out and replace with 50).

T. Smollett, The History of England; from the Revolution in 1688 to the Death of George II, in five volumes (London, 1822), volume 4. Bookplate: Presented to the Macready Institute by the representatives of the late Joseph Pitman Symes, Esq. Sherborne, 1888.


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