Jan 17

Literary Herne Bay

During Herne Bay’s years as a popular Victorian seaside destination, a number of authors visited the town and included their memories of Herne Bay in their published work. Some stayed longer than others.

George W.M. Reynolds (1814-1879)

George Reynolds was a prolific writer of sensational fiction and as well as a journalist. His first novel, The Youthful Imposter, was published in 1835. Although almost forgotten now, in his lifetime his books were more popular than Dickens and Thackeray. In his obituary The Bookseller described Reynolds as ‘the most popular writer of our times’.

Reynolds was born in Sandwich and educated in Ashford. His parents died in 1829 and he came into an inheritance which he used to travel around Europe and spend time living in Paris, where he started a daily English newspaper. The paper failed and Reynolds returned to England where The Youthful Inspector was published the following year. His best known work was The Mysteries of London, published in 1844, which sold 40,000 copies a week in penny installments and was translated into French, German, Italian and Spanish.

The Mysteries of London is one of the best examples of the genre of Victorian ‘urban mysteries’, a style of sensational fiction which adapted elements of the Gothic novel to produce stories which focused on the shocks of life after the Industrial Revolution – poverty, crime and city violence. In common with most of these works, it was first published as a ‘penny dreadful’ with lurid engravings and was widely circulated amongst a less educated and poorer readership.

George Reynolds was a leading member of the Chartist movement of 1848 and he founded two magazines to promote and support their ideas. These were Reynolds Miscellany and The London Journal.

Reynolds and his family moved to Herne Bay in 1854 and appropriately their first home was Gothic House. He remained a resident of the town, and one of its Improvement Commissioners, until his wife’s death in 1858. She is buried in the churchyard at Herne with the couple’s eldest son.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)


In August 1877, the poet and artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti spent some weeks staying just outside Herne Bay in a cottage at Hunter’s Forstal. Rossetti was suffering from depression and from the effects of an operation, and his doctors insisted he needed a change of air. The cottage, which was secluded and private, was later renamed Ivy Cottage and was demolished in the 1960s.

Rossetti’s mother and his sister, Christina, were desperately concerned for his health – both physical and mental. The operation had left him with a shake in his hand and he feared that he might never be able to hold a pen properly again, or continue to paint. Christina Rossetti stayed with her brother in Hunter’s Forstal for six weeks and with her mother, nursed Rossetti back to health. During her stay she wrote her poem, An October Garden.

In my Autumn garden I was fain
To mourn among my scattered roses;
Alas for that last rosebud which uncloses
To Autumn’s languid sun and rain
When all the world is on the wane!
Which has not felt the sweet constraint of June,
Nor heard the nightingale in tune.

Broad-faced asters by my garden walk,
You are but coarse compared with roses:
More choice, more dear that rosebud which uncloses
Faint-scented, pinched, upon its stalk
That least and last which cold winds balk;
A rose it is tho’ least and last of all,
A rose to me tho’ at the fall.

Whilst at Hunter’s Forstal, the Rossettis were visited by the artist Ford Madox Brown and other close friends. Christina visited the lending library in Herne Bay to bring back new reading material to keep her brother entertained. Dante Gabriel responded to the good weather and the peace of the place and eventually he was well enough to return to London. But Rossetti’s recovery was not a permanent one. He died less than five years later on Easter Sunday 1882, whilst visiting friends at Birchington. He is buried in the churchyard there.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)


Charles Dickens knew the Kent coast well and was a regular visitor to his house in Broadstairs. He was a close friend of the playwright and journalist Douglas Jerrold and they acted together and were frequent correspondents. Jerrold wrote to Dickens from his holiday home near Herne Bay and one reply he received in June 1843 suggests that Dickens had visited the town himself at least once.

Douglas William Jerrold (1803-1857)


Jerrold was the son of an actor-manager and spent part of his youth as a sailor. His early plays often had a nautical theme, a popular genre at the time. Black-Eyed Swan (1829) and The Mutiny on the Nore (1830) were extremely successful melodramas.

Jerrold was also a journalist and joined the staff of the newly launched Punch in 1841. He wrote for the magazine regularly until his death and his articles helped to give Punch its distinctive satirical character. Jerrold had a holiday home at Herne and there are many references to Herne Bay in his contributions to Punch.

William de Morgan (1839-1917)


An associate of William Morris in the Arts and Crafts Movement, de Morgan was initially known for his stained glass and decorative tiles. Shortly before his retirement in 1906, he wrote his first novel, Joseph Vance, which surprised even its author with its popularity. It was followed by eight more, all equally successful.

Joseph Vance is an epic tale of a drunken builder’s son who becomes the protégé of a middle-class family. In the early chapters, de Morgan describes a holiday taken by the family in Herne Bay, highlighting the difficulties of travelling by the packet steamer from London to the North Kent Coast and the discomfort of the ladies during the trip.

“We had to get up at six to be in time for the Packet… But I really was frightened we shouldn’t get the Boat. For when we got to London Bridge Wharf there was a stoppage and all our luggage had to be carried by separate men, and of course any one of them might have got away in the crowd, and we should never have seen our Box again…However in the end the party got off safely in a boat called the Red Rover….
Aunty was very uncomfortable at such a lot of heavy iron, and asked a Mariner whether the boat didn’t sometimes go down, and he said not this line. But he gave the boats on the other line a very bad character and hinted that they very seldom arrived at their journey’s end.
But we weren’t very bad, any of us, and its always great fun going along the Pier, which is two miles long, in a truck with a sail, only of course Aunty, who has never been, thought it wasn’t very safe and asked a very stout man in blue with an oilskin hat whether it would blow over the pier. And he thought she wanted to know how soon it started and said presently Marm. And Pa said it usually blew over about halfway. Wasn’t it a shame to make game of poor Aunty?”

W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)

Somerset Maugham was orphaned at the age of ten and was sent to live with an uncle and aunt in Whitstable. Until now he had been brought up in high Parisian society and his first language was French. It was a great shock to find himself living in the vicarage with his Uncle Henry and his German-born wife, Sophie.

Maugham was unhappy and much later he wrote unkindly about the small town snobbery of Whitstable in his novel Cakes and Ale. He changed the town’s name in the novel to Blackstable. Published in 1930, Cakes and Ale also has a reference to Herne Bay, and once again the town’s name is very thinly disguised.

“Another time when we were going through Ferne Bay on our way back from a long excursion, it being a hot day, and all of us thirsty, she suggested that we should go to the Dolphin and have a glass of beer.”

This information and more about the literary greats associated with this area can be found in SHORELINES, by Monica North and Magali Roberts, published by Yorick Books.