Dickens Bicentenary 2012: The Polytechnic seen through the eyes of Dickens and his contemporaries.
7 February 2012
Household Words and All the Year Round published a range of articles by anonymous contributors, edited by Charles Dickens. Contributions ranged from poems and serialised stories, to articles on education and social issues. The above quote comes from an article penned by Dickens called The Amusements of the People, which explored the habits of the working classes.
From the sheer number of references to the Polytechnic (as the University of Westminster was formerly known), it’s clear that its activities left an imprint on the collective consciousness of the writers involved.
Two full articles, dating from 1859 and 1869 are dedicated to the Diving Bell, which was exhibited in the Great Hall from 1838, and offered visitors the chance to be submerged in the canals that had been built into the floor. The first describes ‘a deep green pool, into which the diving-bell, mysterious engine, was let down, full of adventurous spirits, who invariably returned to the upper air flushed and sheepish.’
The Polytechnic was also famous for its magic lantern shows, so popular that Dickens himself arranged a private show at home for his son’s birthday. Later in the century, the popularity of optical illusions developed into full stage shows, the most famous of which included Pepper’s Ghost – a theatrical trick whereby ghostly figures appeared to walk straight through solid objects on the stage. The Christmas programme of 1866 features a dramatic reading of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, during which a succession of ghosts silently walked the stage.
Dickens's proximity to Regent Street (he lived nearby in Cleveland Street), and the interest that he and his fellow writers showed in the activities of the Polytechnic, leads us to feel sure he walked through our doors.
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