Arguably the greatest writer ever known, Charles Dickens was also feted as a fine stage performer... and North audiences were among his favourite.

The story of the Victorian author Charles Dickens’ visit to Barnard Castle and Teesdale early in February 1838 to find material for his book Nicholas Nickleby has been told many times but his many other associations with the North-East, which show another side of the man, are much less well-known. Just a year later, for example, he is recorded as having visited the spa near Shotley Bridge, on the River Derwent.

AS well as being one of the world’s greatest writers, Charles Dickens, the bicentenary of whose birth falls on December 7, next year, was celebrated in his day as a brilliant stage performer, particularly for the readings he gave from his books, but also as an actor.

In 1844, he visited Loftus, Redcar and Marske, in North Yorkshire (now east Cleveland), where he saw the turrets of Marske Hall, searched for the graves of Captain Cook’s parents in St Germaine’s churchyard and stayed overnight in the Dundas Hotel.

As early as 1850, he had organised his own amateur theatre group with which he toured and in which he himself acted, even appearing in front of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

The Northern Echo: LOVING THE LIMELIGHT: Charles Dickens on stage as Captain BobadillLoving the limelight: Charles Dickens on stage as Captain Bobadill

On August 27, 1852, this troupe acted at the Assembly Rooms in Newcastle where the bill included the plays Not So Bad As We Seem and Mr Nightingale’s Diary, directed by Dickens himself.

The next night, the same bill was to be performed at the new Lyceum Theatre, in Lambton Street, Sunderland, but, as Dickens recorded in a letter to a friend, the venue left much to be desired:

Last night in a hall built like a theatre, with pit, boxes and gallery, we had about twelve hundred, I dare say more.

When we got here at noon, it appeared that the hall was a perfectly new one and had only had the slates put upon the roof by torchlight overnight.

Dickens made inquiries as to the safety of the place and was considering cancelling the play when he encountered a local builder who told him that there was no need to do so:

He told me there wasn’t a stronger building in the world and that, to allay apprehension, they had opened it on Thursday night to thousands of the working people and induced them to sing and beat with their feet and make every possible trial of the vibration.

Partly reassured, Dickens gave instructions that the show must go on, but was pleased when it was safely over without incident or accident.

In 1858, as part of his great national tour, he found appreciative audiences both in Darlington, where he read at the Central Hall on September 21, and the following day at Durham in the new town hall:

At Durham we had a capital audience, led by Dean and chapter, and humbly followed up by Mayor and local bores.

From Durham, Dickens walked the 13 miles to Sunderland to perform at the Theatre Royal.

He next walked to Newcastle and stayed at the Station Hotel, performing at the new Town Hall, which, now demolished, then stood on the site of the Bigg Market.

At all four venues, he read from A Christmas Carol, but at Newcastle added a matinee in which he performed Dombey and Son.

In 1861, he returned to Newcastle to read from his works at the Lecture Room, in Nelson Street, and at Sunderland he did so at the Music Hall, in Wilson Street. These solo public readings by Dickens were originally put on to help charities:

The first of the Readings generously given by Mr. Charles Dickens on behalf of the Birmingham and Midland Institute took place on Tuesday evening, December 27, 1853, at the Birmingham Town Hall, where, notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather, nearly two thousand persons had assembled. The work selected was the Christmas Carol.

These performances, lasting three hours, were so rapturously received that Dickens was soon asked to give more readings and, so much did he enjoy them, that by 1858 he turned professional.

YEAR after year, he undertook extensive tours of the country, including visits to several places in Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland.

In Manchester in 1857, he had met the 18-year-old actress Nelly Ternan, who soon became his mistress.

Her parents were popular entertainers on the Newcastle stage where they had settled in 1838, living with Nelly and her sister first at 53 Westgate Street and then at 113 Pilgrim Street.

On one of his tours, Dickens himself stayed at 98 Pilgrim Street – The Queen’s Head.

He had a soft spot for Newcastle people in general, regarding them as not the most genteel as individuals but as:

An unusually tender and sympathetic audience, while their comic perception is quite up to the high London average. A finer audience there is not in England and I suppose them to be a specially earnest people, for while they can laugh till they shake the roof, they have a very unusual sympathy with what is pathetic or passionate.

At Berwick-on-Tweed in 1861, he read to an audience in the King’s Arms Assembly Rooms, although he had been billed to appear in a much less satisfactory venue:

A most ridiculous room was designed for me in this odd out of the way place. An immense Corn Exchange made of glass and iron, round, dome-topped, lofty, utterly absurd for any such purpose. Full of thundering echoes with a little lofty crow’s nest of a stone gallery breast high, deep in the wall, into which it was designed to put me! I instantly struck, of course. Terrified local agents glowered, but fell prostrate.

Another of his seaside excursions, while at Newcastle in 1867, was to Tynemouth, of which he wrote in a letter:

We escaped to Tynemouth for a two hours’ sea walk. There was a high wind blowing and a magnificent sea running.

Large vessels were being towed in and out over the stormy bar with prodigious waves breaking on it, and spanning the restless uproar of the waters was a quiet rainbow of transcendent beauty. The scene was quite wonderful. We were in the full enjoyment of it when a heavy sea caught us, knocked us over and in a moment drenched us and filled even our pockets.

THERE is a reference to Charles Dickens living for a short time in Cleadon House, Front Street, in the village of Cleadon, five miles outside Sunderland.

In 1868, Dickens was unable attend the burial in Darlington of his brother, Frederick William, but did contribute to the funeral costs and sent his eldest son as his representative.

Fred, by then an alcoholic, had been in the town for a year working as a journalist.

Not good at handling money, just like his brother’s creation Mr Micawber, he had staggered from one financial disaster to another throughout his life, accruing then discharging debts as he went and, again like Micawber, and his own father, spending time in debtors’ prison.

At last, he could borrow no more and had left London for LOVING THE LIMELIGHT: Left, Charles Dickens on stage as Captain Bobadill. Right, the famed writer in 1858 Darlington, where he lived in a property in Elton Parade with his friend, Jonathon Ross Feetum, whom he knew as the former manager of the White Horse Tavern, in London’s Regent Street.

For the last few years of his life, Fred Dickens was reportedly living on a one penny bun washed down with a glass of gin and ginger beer a day.

He is buried in Darlington’s West Cemetery.

CHARLES DICKENS was infatuated with everything theatrical and was seen by hundreds of thousands both in Britain and overseas, rarely failing to please his audiences.

Always alone on the stage, his set, which travelled with him, consisted of a red reading stand with a fringe around the shelf which held the book, a maroon backdrop which stood behind him and reflected the sound of his voice, and a lighting rig powered by gas.

On his tour of 1868-69, over six months he gave 72 readings at 54 different venues, a team of three people facilitating the arrangements.

His manager dealt with travel arrangements, with ticket agents and the booking of theatres and halls. His valet looked after his clothes and helped him to dress for his performances. A technician saw to the maintenance, assembly and preparation of the lighting rig for each show.

Dickens was a brilliant showman who gave his readings a vivacity that enthralled his audiences, many of his performances being delivered without reference to his book.

The murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes was one of his most highly-acclaimed pieces when he ranted and raved across the stage with a mock violence that was truly frightening and so realistic that he reduced most of his audience to tears.

His impersonation of Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim elicited a similar response and was the same were he in the US, London or the North-East.

It has been suggested that because of his touring habits and the adoration he received wherever he went, Charles Dickens was the world’s first pop idol.

He could well have been!