The Misses Dickens or Two Dear Little Girls Grow Up

In this blog, I will look at the lives of Katherine and Maud Dickens after they left school and throughout their adult lives. Whilst neither were unconventional in the broadest sense, equally neither followed what we might consider a ‘normal’ pattern.

If we were to judge only by the census returns, offering a snapshot every ten years, any closeness of tie between Katherine Louisa and her sister Augusta Maud ceased when they left school. Between 1871 and 1901, Katherine is never found on a census return with members of her immediate family although, as her status in the returns is given variously as visitor or boarder, it is quite possible that she was simply absent from home each time.

In 1871 Katherine is a visitor to the Woodhead family in Kingston upon Hull (Crystal Terrace) and in 1881 she is again a visitor but to two aunts at 90 Ledbury Rd, Marylebone.

Ledbury Road, Google maps street view image from 2008
Ledbury Road, Google maps street view image from 2008

Here the head of household is given as Mary Austin, the widow of Henry Dickens, and also sharing the house is Harriet Dickens, who had married into the Dickens’ family, being the widow of Augustus Dickens. Both women were therefore sisters in law of Charles Dickens. Ten years later again, and Katherine has travelled even further from her birthplace of York as we find her in Cornwall. Here she is given as a boarder in the household of 2 Devonshire Terrace, Truro. The term boarder implies, but without certainty as the term was used differently by different enumerators, that her residence there is more than just holidaying. Reading between the lines of the census is an inexact science as the same term can mean entirely different things. The only census return which infers a permanent household for Katherine (other than any family home) is in 1901, when she is living at 20 Shortlands Road, Beckenham, and where her status is given as Companion. However, both she and Elizabeth Pentland (for whom Katherine was presumably the companion) are described as ‘living on own means’ so this does not appear to be a paid role. There are also two servants in the household.

Shortlands Road, image from Google street view 2014
Shortlands Road, image from Google street view 2014

In 1911, we find Katherine, for the first time since 1861, with her immediate family in a census return. Helen, Katherine and Florence Dickens (her sister) are at 53 Culmington Road, Ealing. The actual site of 53 Culmington Rd is unclear and may no longer exist.

Culmington Rd, Google street view image Aug 2014
Culmington Rd, Google street view image Aug 2014

Beyond the point shown in the image, it is now parkland on either side. Many of the houses appear to be Victorian-style rather than original with the possible exception of the house in the image above. At the end of 1921, Katherine Louisa died, the record of her death being in the Richmond registration district. Further research would be needed to discover her address at that time but it is possible that it was 53 Culmington Rd.

Augusta Maud, on the other hand, appears to be more of a home bird. In 1871, she and her mother are living in Queens Crescent, St Pancras. This is an area that seems to have waxed and waned as far as gentility is concerned. Charles Booth described the area as respectable, whereas a modern website refers to it as always having been an area somewhat down at heel.

Queen's Crescent, Google street view 2014
Queen’s Crescent, Google street view 2014

“By the 1870s it [Queens Crescent street market] was in full swing, making it one of London’s oldest street markets …

So frantic were its golden years that shops would take additional stalls on the street to increase selling space, and a whistle was blown to mark the start of trading. It would be packed at 8pm on Friday nights, and even at midnight on Saturdays eager folk, with fresh pay packets, would tumble out of pubs to press against stalls selling meat cheaply, or even giving it away, in the days before refrigeration. You can picture the scene: the flicker of an oil lamp, a heavy smell in the air, the riot of the auction…and, most famously, an elderly women perched in the corner with a bucket of live eels, decapitating them in front of customers.”

Ten years later (1881), Maud is again with her mother but now at 14 Richmond Gardens, and at 63 Shepherds Bush Green in 1891. Comparison of the street view and the map view of this latter address suggest that the actual place was in the small street between the larger buildings, opposite Shepherd’s Bush Common.

Street view from Aug 2014
Street view from Aug 2014
Google maps
Google maps

In the following census, Maud and her mother had now been joined by older sister Florence at 129 The Grove, Ealing.

The Grove, Ealing - Google street view 2014
The Grove, Ealing – Google street view 2014

This modern picture shows substantial Victorian housing (whilst not the actual address given) and despite the fact that none of the women of the Dickens’ family held any occupation, money appears not to have been short. Curiously, Alfred Dickens’ will did not go to probate until 1913, some 53 years after his death, and it lists effects only to the value of £80 13s 8d., the equivalent in relative terms of just over £3000. This was left to his widow who died herself 2 years later in 1915.

In 1908, Maud, who hitherto had always lived with her family, married Harry Colls, a marine and landscape artist. She was 53 years old at the time and he appears to be her junior by one year.

“His work Carbis Bay, Cornwall was shown at the Institute of Painters in Oil Colours (ROI) in 1884-5, and Off Penzance was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, London in 1885. In 1888 he showed A grey day – Penzance (RA No 910) and in the following year Mounts Bay, Cornwall (RA No 944) both at the RA. In 1902, he continued to exhibit from London, but as late as 1908 was exhibiting Fishing Boats at Penzance at the RA. By 1910 he was no longer listed in The Year’s Art.” .

He probably also had a studio in London and was living at 9 Castlenau Villas, Barnes until at least 1905 with his mother. His address on marriage was 117 Castelnau, presumably the same area if not the same house. Maud’s address was given as 38 Palace Street, now given as Westminster. It is unclear whether this is where her mother and sister[s] lived, although the closeness of family is shown in that Florence acts as witness to the marriage. Did the family move from Ealing to Westminster and then back to Ealing again or is the address given for Maud in 1908 a temporary arrangement? The geographical distance between them implies that Maud and Harry met before she moved to Westminster or that the latter address was not her usual abode.

Castelnau, Google Street view Aug 2014
Castelnau, Google Street view Aug 2014
Palace St fro Google street view 2014
Palace St from Google street view 2014

Families clearly moved far more frequently than we tend to believe but, as house ownership was limited to a small section of people, moving to and from rented accommodation as household size or disposable income changed was perhaps less fraught than it is in our modern lifestyles. In his biography of the girls’ uncle, Peter Ackroyd describes the frequent removals of the Dickens’ family “each one in turn seeming to be a way to escape the attentions of the creditors.” Earlier he had compared them to “a family of travelling actors who have no secure place in the world.” Clearly that is a different time and a different, albeit connected, group of people and extrapolation from one to the other is laden with difficulties. Nevertheless, this (and countless other anonymous examples of family removals of this period) does suggest that semi-regular changes of address do not have the same import as in modern life.

In 1911, the next available census return, we find Augusta Maud and Harry Colls at The Talbot Hotel, Ripley, Surrey, presumably taking a holiday. All the other information about the couple is accurate but Maud’s age is a work of fiction. (Her uncle would have been proud …) Here she claims to be ten years her husband’s junior.

Byfeld Gardens, Street view 2014
Byfeld Gardens, Street view 2014

Harry Colls died in 1923 leaving Maud a widow for the remaining eighteen years of her life. On 30 January 1941, she died at 10 Byfeld Gardens, Barnes, Surrey. Her will was administered by Herbert Alfred Dickens, mechanical engineer, and her effects range between approximately £1600 and £1900. It is unclear how, or if, Herbert Dickens fits into the family. Born in 1900, he was the son of Henry and Eliza Dickens but there does not seem any obvious link with author’s family. Herbert became a rigger on airships in WWI.

Neither Katherine nor Maud had children and so their lines stop with their deaths – just two of the many girls in blue who, as Dickens attested in 1866, attended “the Freemasons’ Girls’ School. It clothes, educates, and thoroughly provides for, one hundred and three girls, who must be daughters of Freemasons, between eight and sixteen years of age, and who are elected by the votes of its subscribers.” (All the Year Round)


Ackroyd, Peter: Dickens, Sinclair-Stevenson, London, 1990.

google maps logoGoogle maps (all street views and maps from Google maps)


2 thoughts on “The Misses Dickens or Two Dear Little Girls Grow Up

  1. Herbert Alfred Dickens was the son of Katherine, Maud, and Florence’s older brother Edmund Henry Dickens (and his wife Frances Eleanor Thornton Dickens). Edmund had another son, Edmund Charles Hutton Dickens. Florence was living with Maud the last decades of their lives. just FYI.


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