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Unique and priceless Dickens collection opens to public
The original bookcase sits in the archive
The original bookcase sits in the archive

A priceless library of 400 books once owned by a friend of Charles Dickens opens to the public for the first time.

The Fitzgerald Collection is one of the world's most comprehensive collections of books by, and relating to, Dickens.

The books belonged to Percy Fitzgerald, also a writer and a personal friend of Dickens.

Fitzgerald donated his collection to the City of Rochester 1912 and it is now being stored in the Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre in Strood.

The books are kept in Fitzgerald's original bookcase and it forms a unique sight - a beautiful Edwardian bookcase ensconced amongst the stark metal corridors of a typical archive strong room.

"We couldn't bear to get rid of the bookcase," said Medway archivist, Alison Cable. "It's integral to the collection. It's also quite possible that Percy Fitzgerald purchased this bookcase specifically for his collection.

"To come here and see this beautifully carved wooden bookcase, I just think it gives the archive down here a bit of a feeling of history and it makes you hark back to the time of Dickens."

A unique collection

The cover of The Old Curiosity Shop
The cover of The Old Curiosity Shop

The books, of which there are roughly 400, are beautifully bound with gold tooling on the spines and there are an extraordinary amount of copies of Pickwick Papers which appear to be a firm favourite of Fitzgerald.

Although the collection alone is of great interest, the fact that they belonged to a personal friend of Charles Dickens makes them unique.

"Knowing that this was collated by a friend of Dickens gives it an extra dimension for us," said Alison. "We know that the person who put these books on this shelf used to regularly go to Gads Hill and spend time with Dickens and he even accompanied him on his travels around America - so that really does make it special."

The collection includes all of Dickens's major novels plus many of his minor works, precious first editions, translations into Dutch and Russian, a Braille edition, photographs of Dickens and even a "scrap" book compiled by Fitzgerald with Victorian picture cards of Dickens characters stuck to its pages.

A surprising find

However, Alison discovered something unusual within the collection - a large leather bound volume with "Jennings Papers etc" on the spine.

"We had a look inside and it's not a printed book at all - it's a bound volume of what looked to be copies of legal papers," explained Alison. "So straight away I'm thinking - this isn't a library book at all - it's some sort of archive."

The leather bound "Jennings Papers etc" date from the mid 1700s
The leather bound "Jennings Papers etc" date from the mid 1700s

On closer inspection, Alison found them to be copies of official legal papers dating from the mid 1700s, relating to a case to do with the Jennings family.

This raised a few questions as to why Dickens or Fitzgerald would have bothered to keep these papers. In the front of the volume, in Fitzgerald's own handwriting, were scribbled the words "Jarndyce vs Jarndyce" which is the court case integral to the plot of Bleak House.

As a young man Charles Dickens worked for a legal firm in London and Alison believes that during the course of his work Dickens managed to acquire the Jennings papers and use them as inspiration for one of his most famous books.

"For me as an archivist this is possibly the most exciting thing because Charles Dickens may well have handled these documents," says Alison. "I can't believe that he didn't because why else would Percy Fitzgerald have written that in the front of his volume? So these are really exciting for me."

The Fitzgerald Collection is available for public access at the Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre.

About Percy Fitzgerald

Percy Fitzgerald, an author and critic, was a personal friend of Dickens and wrote for his magazines Household Words and All The Year Round. After Dickens's death, Fitzgerald was one of the founders of The Boz Club and was the first president of The Dickens Fellowship.




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