Dickens went on alone to the Parthenon Club where he met someone else instead [of Forster] and sat drinking gin and water till three in the morning. A few days later, on 8 February, his second son, Walter, was born; in the census return for this year [1841] Dickens described himself in the usual Victorian manner as "Gentleman"; and declared that his household at Devonshire Terrace now consisted of one wife, four children, four maid-servants and one man-servant. He had come a long way from the Marshalsea. [Ackroyd, Dickens, 323]

Walter Savage Landor Dickens, or "Young Skull" (8 February 1841 — 31 December 1863)

Walter Savage Landor Dickens. Source: Wikipedia (public domain).

Walter Savage Landor Dickens, two years younger than his closest sibling, Katey, was the fourth child and second son of Charles and Catherine Dickens. Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864) was another of those eminent Victorians whom Dickens attempted to absorb into his family's orbit by naming one of his children after him. A fervid supporter of liberal causes such as Giuseppe Garibaldi's campaigns for the reunification of Italy, Landor was imbued with the young Dickens's passion for liberal and progressive causes, and he highly regarded the next generation of literary radicals, especially Robert Browning and Dickens himself. Dickens had originally considered naming his fourth child "Edgar" — "a good honest Saxon name, I think." Within days, however, he had called upon radical poet Landor to serve as the infant's godfather.

Walter Dickens was christened at St. Marylebone parish church on 4 December 1841, after which his father held a celebratory party. The guests included such scientific, literary, and artistic notables as John Elliotson, the editor of the Journal of Mental Science; the poet Landor; artist and illustrator Daniel Maclise; the great actor-manager William Macready, the painter and illustrator Clarkson Stanfield, and the judge and author, Thomas Noon Talfourd.

In Genoa, when the older children took dancing lessons, three-year-old Walter went along, but was not singled out for praise as his siblings were. Although Dickens thought that, as a child, Walter showed some promise of becoming a writer, his tutor indicated that the boy would not be happy in that vocation. "The less he is encouraged to write the better, and the happier, he will be." Thereafter, Dickens often pronounced the boy "a little slow," but as having "a good sense of duty and responsibility": "no doubt he saw in him something of his wife, and there is in the extant photographs of the boy a hint of Catherine's 'sleepy' expression" (Ackroyd, 785; for example, see his photograph in Hawksley 33, taken before he left England in 1857).

By 1855, when Charley returned from his language and business training in Germany, Walter went to school at Wimbledon, where for the next three years he would receive the training appropriate to his becoming an East India Company cadet. Subsequently, through the good offices of banking heiress, major share-holder in the company, and long-time Dickens family friend Angela Burdett-Coutts, he obtained the cadetship, and became an officer candidate at the age of sixteen in the East India Company's Presidency armies just before the outbreak of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny in India. The upshot of the insurrection by the native troops was that Britain took direct administrative control of the subcontinent, and the East India Company's private armies were absorbed into the regular British army, in which Walter Dickens assumed the rank of Lieutenant.

On 19 July 1857, immediately after the second triumphant public performance of the arctic naval melodrama The Frozen Deep, Dickens accompanied his oldest son, Charley, to see sixteen-year-old Walter off at Southampton on his voyage to India aboard the Indus. Dickens described the parting to Edmund Yates as if he were the one leaving: "seeing Charley and he [sic] going aboard the Ship before me just now, I suddenly came into possession of a photograph of my own back at 16 and 20, and also into a suspicion that I had doubled the last age" (qtd. in Slater, 430). What he reports seeing, then, is not the pathetic figure of an underperforming son who had been preparing for three years for this parting, but an image of himself as a youth and a middle-aged man departing; as always, the moment is about Dickens himself rather than his sons. Dickens reported that Walter was

"cut up for a minute or so when I bade him good bye, but recovered directly, and conducted himself like a Man"'. It was quite usual for boys of sixteen and younger to be sent off to serve in the Army and Navy, and after years of boarding school [including in Boulogne, France] it may have seemed not much worse, but for the fact that India was half the world away. [Tomalin 282]

No glorious military career, however, ensued for the adolescent. He amassed considerable debts, and became so ill that arrangements were made to send him home. Dickens later learned that on 31 December 1863 Walter "was talking with other patients in the hospital and became rather excited about the arrangements he proposed for his homeward passage, when a violent fit of coughing came on and the Aneurism burst into the left bronchial tube and life became extinct in a few seconds by the rush of blood which poured from his mouth." He was buried in the Bhowanipore Cemetery, Calcutta; however, in April 1987 students from Jadavpur University collected funds to restore and move Walter Dickens's headstone to the South Park Street Cemetery as a fitting tribute to Dickens's Indian connection as it situated Walter's grave among memorials for literary, cultural, and historical European figures who died in India in the colonial period. Receiving the news of his son's sudden death on 12 February 1864, Dickens's own birthday, Dickens wrote to Angela Burdett Coutts: "I could have wished it had pleased God to let him see his home again, but I think he would have died at the door." Charles Dickens did not receive his son's body from abroad, just his debts, totalling £100, not including back wages of £39 for Walter's Indian servants.

Among his possessions Walter had left nothing of value: only a small trunk, changes of linen, some prayer books, and a coloured photograph of a woman believed to be a member of the family. (It may have been his Aunt Georgy's recently taken portrait. There would have been time for it to reach him before his death.) According to his captain, everything else had been turned into cash in preparation for the return to England. What could Walter have done with his money! The officers' mess, the regimental store, the billiard table, the native servants, a merchant or two — all remained to be paid. [Adrian]

In London's Highgate Cemetary, West, in the London Borough of Camden, is a last vestige of the pathetic, under-achieving Walter on English soil: a memorial to a son of Empire rather than a grave-marker, bearing the inscription: "Lieutenant Walter Landor, second son of Charles and Catherine Dickens. Born 8th. February 1841, died at Calcutta 31st. December 1863."

Related Materials


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

Adrian, Arthur A. Georgina Hogarth and the Dickens Circle. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1957.

Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1999.

Hawksley, Lucinda Dickens. Charles Dickens. Dickens' Bicentenary 1812-2012. San Rafael, California: Insight, in association with the Charles Dickens Museum, London, 2012.

Nayder, Lillian. The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth. Ithaca, New York: Cornell U. P., 2011.

Schlicke, Paul (ed.). The Oxford Readers's Companion to Dickens. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1999.

Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.

Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2011.

Witt, Emily. "Daddy Issues: On the Worthless Brood of Charles Dickens. Review of Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens (FSG, 256 pp., $25) by Robert Gottlieb". Online version available from The Observer. Web. 12/04/12.

Created 1 September 2019