The ghost of Charles Dickens returns to Birmingham Town Hall each year to give a spectral reading of his Christmas classic, says ANDREW HOMER
What would Christmas be without Charles Dickens and his classic ghost story, A Christmas Carol? Written in just six weeks, what is the connection with Birmingham of all places and a seasonal haunting?
Our present-day ghost story begins in 1853 with plans to found an adult education institution with the rather grand aim of promoting ‘Diffusion and Advancement of Science, Literature and Art among all Classes of Persons resident in Birmingham and Midland Counties’.
This became the Birmingham and Midland Institute (BMI) and caught the attention of none other than Charles Dickens himself. Some years later in 1869, Dickens would go on to become one of the institute’s long list of distinguished presidents.
More recently, the BMI moved location to Margaret Street not far from Birmingham Town Hall.
Opened in 1834, the construction of this colossal Roman Temple style Town Hall did not pass without tragedy. Two experienced stonemasons, John Heap and William Badger, were working on the outside of the building. A crane pulley block failed causing a massive stone roof truss to crash down. The two men died from their appalling injuries and are commemorated in St Phillip’s Cathedral churchyard.
Since then, staff working at night have sometimes heard the sounds of tapping and chiselling echoing through the empty building. The two stonemasons have never been seen as far as is known, but another more famous ghost haunting the building around Christmas time certainly has been, and by several different witnesses.
Dickens gives readings at Birmingham
Charles Dickens was keen to help raise money for the proposed new Birmingham and Midland Institute. Public readings were popular in Victorian times and in 1853 the first public reading of A Christmas Carol was given by Dickens himself to a large and very appreciative audience in the magnificent Town Hall.
Charles Dickens died in 1870 but is reputed to return to Birmingham Town Hall each Christmas to repeat his successful inaugural reading of A Christmas Carol.
As unlikely as this might seem, his apparition has been observed on a number of occasions at this time of year. His ghost is generally seen in the corridors of the building or in the empty auditorium but quickly disappears should anyone approach.
One member of staff who did get quite close was able to give a clear description of his features and Victorian attire right down to the pipe he was smoking. Assuming it to be a real person dressed in period costume, you can imagine their astonishment when he simply vanished into thin air right in front of them.
Was it really Charles Dickens? Well, there are certainly enough pictures of the great man to be able identify him. Ironic then that the author of the most famous Christmas ghost story should manifest as a Christmas ghost himself!
I found it interesting that the ghost of Charles Dickens should be smoking a pipe. Whilst the smell of pipe and cigarette smoke is very commonly experienced much rarer is to witness an apparition actually smoking as in this case. Out of interest, after writing the article I did a bit of research. Lo and behold, not only did Charles Dickens smoke a pipe but his rather fine Meerschaum is actually preserved in the library of Yale University in America.