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7 Feb 2018

Celebrating Charles Dickens at Centennial Park for his 206th Birthday

Did you know that on 7 February every year a small celebration is held in Centennial Park to celebrate Charles Dickens? This year, there is more to celebrate with the announcement that Sydney will play host to over hundred Dickensians and bibliophiles.

After winning the coveted bid to hold the International Dickens Fellowship Conference, now in its 112th year, the NSW Dickens Society and Booker Prize winner Thomas Keneally AO will lead an impressive line‐up of speakers at the 2018 conference.

This announcement coincides with the literary giant’s 206th birthday celebrations at Centennial Parklands today, held beneath the famous life – size statue of Charles Dickens ‐ one of only three of its kind in the world.

The State Library of NSW holds an original manuscript

Head Librarian of the NSW State Library was also in attendance saying, “the State Library is thrilled to be part of the International Dickens Fellowship 112th Conference in October where the NSW Dickens Society has organised a rich and wide‐ranging program of speakers and special events.”

“The State Library holds the original manuscript of an essay Dickens wrote in 1852 encouraging people to settle in NSW, together with a number of other unique works by him. He was so interested in the colony as a place where people could make a fresh start that he sent his two sons to live here. In return, his popularity in NSW was, and remains huge.”

NSW Dickens Society – Boz in OZ

Louise Owens, President of the NSW Dickens Society, was part of the driving force behind Sydney’s successful bid. “Dickens’ statue, which has a fascinating and mysterious backstory, is a major drawcard for international and interstate visitors.” The statue was erected in Centennial Park around 1891 at the request of then Premier of NSW Sir Henry Parkes, but in 1972 it was placed in storage and subsequently lost for over 40 years!

After years of sleuthing and appeals to the public for help, the statue was eventually found headless in Rozelle in NSW, was carefully restored and placed back in the park in 2012. Ill health and personal circumstances prevented Dickens from visiting Australia but his colonial connections can be seen through his sons, Alfred and Edward (Plorn), who immigrated to NSW in the 1850s, and both went on to lead politically active lives,” says Ms Owens.

More information about the 112th International Dickens Fellowship Conference 25–30 October 2018 can be viewed here.

So, what’s the big deal with the statue of Dickens in Centennial Park?

Here’s an excerpt from Dickens’ will…

Excerpt from Charles Dickens Will

Ummm…no one is to make “…a monument, memorial or testimonial whatever”. Hmmm…

How did a statue come about then?

Charles Dickens Statue in Centennial Park, circa 1891

Back in the late 1880s, a group of politicians led by Sir Henry Parkes were ruminating over their new project (ie. Centennial Park) and how true Victorian parks featured statuary. An allocation of £1,970 was eventually paid in c1889 to acquire 11 statues for Centennial Park.

This collection of statues was gathered together by Job Hanson, a well-known stonemason in Sydney at that time.

Some statues were purchased, and some were believed to have been created in Hanson’s stonemason yard.

The Charles Dickens statue was amongst this collection of 11 statues.

But Dickens said not to…

Exactly who made the call to include a Dickens statue is not known, however Sir Henry Parkes had corresponded on numerous occasions with Dickens in the 1860s, and was later to become friendly with Dickens’ son, Edward.

The statue of Dickens was debated heatedly in NSW Parliament, arguments were thrown around the chamber regarding Dickens stipulation in his Will and whether the statue should be destroyed.

Despite this debate (and despite Dickens’ own son sitting in that Parliament at the time), the purchase went ahead the Dickens statue was placed in Centennial Park around 1891.

The statue’s original location was on the junction of Parkes Drive and Hamilton Drive in Centennial Park, but was moved in 1897 to its current location on the corner of Dickens Drive and Loch Avenue.

Interestingly, the chief reason for the movement of the statue was that it made way for a statue of Sir Henry Parkes himself!

Deterioration and removal

As with many of the original statues in Centennial Park, the Dickens statue suffered over time from weathering, petty vandalism and other bumps and scrapes. In 1972, the Dickens statue was one of eight statues that were eventually removed from public display and placed in the Park depot for protection. The intention being to restore and return him at a later date.

A little mystery then starts to unfold…

A headless Dickens at the Royal Botanic Gardens – probably suggests why he wasn’t immediately recognisable!

What exactly happened next – and over the best part of the next 35 years – is a little sketchy and the statue was lost in the mists of time. Only recent research by NSW Public Works has pieced together some of the details.

The basic timeline as can be ascertained was:

  • the statue was wrapped up for protection and sat in the Centennial Park depot for a number of years, it then ‘disappeared’ for the best part of a decade;
  • the statue then re-appeared (headless…and missing a few other bits) as part of a collection of statues at a stonemason business in the Sydney suburb of Rozelle ear-marked for restoration. The stonemason went out of business (the Dickens curse?), and the statue disappeared again.
  • some time in the next 25 or so years the statue found its way to the depot of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney where it sat unidentified.

In 2008 when a formally identification was made, and plans to repatriate him to Centennial Park were put in place.

So, how did they eventually recognise him?

The sleuthing Dickens Society in Australia played a large part.

Gaenor Vallack, a volunteer at the NSW State Library and member of the Dickens Society, was flicking through a book one day when she noticed a picture of a Charles Dickens’ statue. She asked the Society’s then President, Sandra Faulkner, about it, to much puzzlement and interest.

In November 2006, Sandra wrote to The Sydney Morning Herald’s Column 8 asking if anyone had any idea if the statue still existed and if so, where was it?

No response.

The request was republished in February 2007 and the Editor of Column 8 declared: “We must find Mr. Dickens”!

The Column 8 campaign begins!

Later in February 2007, Column 8 jubilantly announced that the statue was found and had been “placed into protective custody by the Royal Botanic Gardens some time ago…necessary due to the damage inflicted by vandals (he lost his head)”.

Restoration

In September 2008, the Royal Botanic Gardens offered to return the statue to Centennial Park.

NSW Public Works then committed funding to restore the statue, commissioning the creation of a new head, quill, scroll and finger for the statue. Work began in 2009 at the Alexandria stoneyard.

Dickens curse strikes again?

Throughout the restoration process, the stonemasons from NSW Public Works tell stories of the numerous challenges and obstacles they had to overcome in restoring the statue. They labelled them all “Dickens curse” on the project.

There was trouble sourcing the right marble stone from Italy. When eventually it arrived (after a long waiting period) it cracked and broke apart.

More waiting, more sourcing of marble. More mishaps.

The deadline for completion of the project was Dickens birthday – 7 February 2011. A major event celebrating the reconstruction and return of the statue was organised. The NSW Governor would be in attendance.

Eventually, the fantastic reconstruction work was completed and the statue lowered into place in Centennial Park the day before Dickens birthday (with the last element, the delicate finger, being attached as the statue was being installed in the Park).

Charles Dickens Statue being lowered into place

A brilliant celebration becomes an annual occasion

A large crowd, and some very interested media, gathered on 7 February 2011 in Centennial Park to celebrate the return of the statue.

Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO, Governor of New South Wales, gave an emotional and very personal speech on her love of Dickens’ writing, and her own personal knowledge of, and engagement with the Charles Dickens Statue when she was young.

From this event has grown an annual tradition – members of the NSW Dickens Society now gather every 7 February and celebrate the birthday of Dickens, mimicking a tradition that has also grown up around the other Dickens statues.

Members of the NSW Dickens Society at their annual gathering in Centennial Park

Where are the other two statues?

A bronze statue of Charles Dickens, sitting on a chair with the Little Nell character at his feet, can be found in Clark Park, Philadelphia. It was cast (interestingly) in 1891.

Then in 2014 a statue of Dickens was unveiled in Portsmouth, England.

That’s it. Just three lifesize statues of Dickens in the world. That surely makes our friend a world treasure!

The NSW Dickens Society will be meeting in Centennial Park today at 2.30 pm to celebrate Mr Dickens. All are welcome to join!

If you are in the Park, take a snap and share with us on Instagram @centparklands.

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