By Alan Major
The recent television production and film of Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations reminded me of the occasions in the 1980s when, with a friend, we took part as characters in the Dickens Festival, Rochester.
My friend was the late Tony Blair of Chestfield, remembered now for his cine film shows in Whitstable and Canterbury of past life and events in Kent, but my acquaintance with him began in the late 1970s when every Saturday he had an ephemera stall selling various old magazines and paper collectibles at the Antiques and Collectors Market in Canterbury’s Westgate Hall.
At one of our Saturday meetings, I said I had been thinking of taking part in the Festival, as a relevant character from one of Dickens’s novels or as a Victorian workman or tradesman of the period, prior to this going to London by train and returning on the special Dickens Festival train from Victoria to Rochester. However, I didn’t want to do so on my own not knowing anyone else taking part. Would he be interested in joining me? He was immediately enthusiastic.
Alan Major as a Victoran farm labourer, Dickens Festival, Rochester, 1980s
So I obtained the special souvenir rail tickets from the festival office and hired the clothes for a Victorian farm worker from a fancy dress shop in Canterbury. Tony decided to be a Magwitch and to make the required outfit himself.
On the Saturday morning of the Festival he had walked, dressed as Magwitch, from his home to Chestfield station and fortunately, being early, had not met anyone he knew. Similarly, I walked to Canterbury East station and caught the train to meet at Faversham.
Tony was nowhere to be seen. I wondered if he had changed his mind or missed his train, but as a train came in to take us to Victoria, Tony emerged from the entrance to the gentlemen’s toilets. He said he had thought it wise to lurk in the toilets until the train arrived because while on the platform he had noticed some very strange looks from other travellers, indicating that they thought he was some sort of vagrant. Not surprising as he had used parts of an old suit, with patches and tears, to fit himself as a version ofArriving at FavershamArriving at Faversham
Magwitch, although I doubt if Dickens had this garb in mind when he invented the character.
On the train, we sat each side of the window by the door to the platform, and it was noticeable that the travelling public tended to approach our carriage door, but on seeing Magwitch Tony looking out the window, they quickly moved along the platform and entered further up the train.
Arriving at crowded Victoria, we made our way to the platform where stood the Dickens Festival Special Train and its immaculately polished engine. On the platform were many Dickensian ladies, gentlemen and children, and some of the famous characters – Fagin, Miss Havisham, Joe Gargery, Mr Pickwick and others. So we did not now feel so out of place among them and took our seats prior to the fully-booked train setting off for Rochester.
It was somewhere near Bromley when two Victorian uniformed peelers (policemen), complete with whistles and truncheons, entered the far end of the carriage. One announced in a loud voice that it had been reported to them that there was an escaped convict on the train.
Hearing this, Tony immediately jumped up and ran off in the opposite direction along the carriage and into the adjoining carriage. The peelers shouted ‘There he is’ and with drawn truncheons gave chase the full length of the train to the guard’s apartment.
Some time later, there was a noisy commotion as Tony ran into out carriage crying ‘Save me, save me Alan. They want to lock me up again’, and carrying on out of sight into the next carriage pursued by the two peelers, who therein succeeded in ‘arresting’ a tiring Magwitch. Then they all returned laughing amicably, the capture of Magwitch being enjoyed by all on the train. An obscure reason was tendered as to why the peelers had decided to let him off prison for the rest of the day, which was agreed by all present.
At Rochester station, everyone disembarked and formed up outside in the forecourt,
bottom of Star Hill to join the awaiting main procession and proceeded through the High Street beflagged with bunting for the occasion past the deep crowds obviously enjoying the spectacle. In the Castle grounds, then walked to the then walked to the where the Dickensians-for-the-day promenaded around to be photographed, there were various stalls and entertainments, including a tent where a commercial photographer was taking studio portraits for those in the Festival. On the spur of the moment, Tony suggested ours was taken as a record of the occasion, so we did.
Fortunately, although there were other peelers present and even several 20th century policemen, Magwitch Tony was not apprehended again. However, a difficult situation did arise because we came face to face with another Magwitch, shaved head, unshaven chin, stocky and more like everyone’s imagination of an escaped convict. The shaking of hands, discussion on who and where from, laughter and friendliness, dismissed any rivalry and both Magwitches parted on the best of terms.
At the conclusion of the afternoon but still dressed disreputedly, we walked to Rochester station and caught our train home, this luckily being almost empty and we were ignored by the few other passengers.
The following year, as we had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves previously, we decided to take part again, but not to ride on the train fromVictoria. On this occasion, I hired the clothes of a gentleman character in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Tony decided to make his own clothes again, this time being a Victorian shepherd, wearing one of his mother’s old hats, ‘smoking’ a clay pipe, holding a real shepherd’s crook in one hand and with a toy lamb he had borrowed under the other arm.
We had to again catch the train from Faversham to Rochester but now no-one overmuch took any notice of us thus dressed, as if it was daily commonplace to see an 18th century ‘gentleman’ and a Victorian shepherd waiting to catch a train.
The same procession took place, which also included a team of horses hauling a beautifully maintained coach carrying sundry Dickensians, from Star Hill through the cheering crowds lining the High Street to the Castle Gardens.
Again a good time was enjoyed by us, as no doubt it was by everyone of the public there … and still is today by those visiting or taking part.