In 1858 Dickens began his series of lucrative public reading tours, which for the past five years had been given privately or for charity. They increased even more his already enormous popularity. However, they also expressed his gift for, and enjoyment of performance, and created the intimate connection with his audience which he relished in readers’ reaction to his novels. But on 22 November 1861, in a letter written from Newcastle to William Wills, assistant editor and part owner of Household Words and All the Year Round, Dickens refers to a problem that was to threaten this latest venture.

He says that he is ‘horribly afraid that Headland has broken down’. Thomas Headland, his tour manager, had blamed the printer, Johnson, for ‘losing’ advertising posters and shop-bills. Wills is instructed to go to see Johnson to find out what has happened and how the advertisements had wrongly stated that he would read Dombey and Son and not David Copperfield, despite specific orders to Headland. There was ‘dismal news’ from Edinburgh, too, where he was soon due: again, bills, tickets and other items had gone astray.

Headland’s predecessor, Arthur Smith had died in October and at the end of October, the novelist had excused ‘some mismanagement’ of the Norwich reading to Wills by saying ‘perhaps poor Arthur’s illness may have to do with that’. But three weeks later he was telling Wills that he had no more intention of reading Dombey and Son as wrongly advertised, than ‘I had of reading an account of the Moon’. Headland’s ‘most incomprehensible mistake’, he said, ‘annoys me beyond comprehension’.

Thomas Hughes Headland had been Dickens’ manager only since October, having been Smith’s assistant from 1858. Smith’s death was an irretrievable loss to Dickens. The success of the readings was, in part, due to Smith but his illness and death could not stop the tours. Headland was, as Dickens said, ‘the best man I could lay my hand on’. Smith himself had blessed the appointment. ‘We couldn’t do better’, he told his employer.

On 26 November, he wrote from Newcastle to his beloved sister-in-law and housekeeper, Georgina Hogarth: ‘Headland made an awful mistake. I cannot conceive how – in putting up Little Dombey [sic] (which I read here last time) for Saturday, instead of Copperfield!! And as Copperfield always makes itself, I suspect he has irretrievably damaged Saturday.’

In that 22 November letter to Wills, Dickens despaired of what could be done but by now had realised his mistake in appointing Headland. ‘It is too plain that the business is most awfully mismanaged, and I cannot see my way of putting it right. I am so perfectly helpless in the matter: having my own hard work to do, and having of course supposed all these things to be done already’. He has sent one of his staff, Berry, to Edinburgh to try and sort things out, and then to Glasgow: ‘I have scarcely a doubt that everything is wrong.’ The previous evening’s reading of David Copperfield had had ‘a most enthusiastic audience’ but the numbers were half of what they should have been. ‘But the mischief is, I must go on.’

In another letter, also on the 22 November, Dickens retailed all the details again to ‘my Dearest Georgy’, saying that ‘the unlucky Headland has broken down most awfully!’ Edinburgh, he tells her, is ‘irretrievably damaged’ but he hoped to rescue the readings in Glasgow ‘by the expenditure of no end of spirits and force.’

In the event, Newcastle just succeeded; he told his daughter Mary that there had been ‘a most tremendous hall here last night; something terrible in the cram.’ There were far too many people, a panic set in, but Dickens appealed for calm and the evening was saved. However, by the time he got to Edinburgh he was writing to Mary: ‘I have very little notion of the state of affairs here, as Headland brought me no more decisive information from the agents (he never can get decisive information from any agents) than “the teeckets air joost moving reecht and left”. I hope all this may be taken as satisfactory.’

But while Berry had got the posters put up all around Edinburgh, as Georgina learnt in a letter of 3 December, like Newcastle, there was ‘a pouring of hundreds into a place already full to the throat, such indescribable confusion’. And while Dickens laid blame for the confusion mainly on the local agents, Headland did not escape criticism: ‘I think it may have been a little heightened by Headland’s way of sending them the tickets to sell in the first instance’.

However, there must have been something about Headland that his employer could not help but like him. ‘Headland is so anxious and so good-tempered’, he had told Georgina on 22 November, ‘that I cannot be very stormy with him; but it is the simple fact that he has no notion of the requirements of such work as this. Without him and with a larger salary to Berry (though there are objections to the latter as first man), I could have done a hundred times better.’ In Berwick-upon-Tweed, Dickens made a jug of whisky-punch, and drowned the ‘unlucky Headland’s remembrance of his failures’.

Dickens may have recognised aspects of Headland in the characters of his novels. He was born in 1806 in Uxbridge and baptised in a nonconformist chapel, the oldest child of the seven children of Thomas and Christiana Headland. He seems to have started life as a silversmith (he had registered his trademark in 1834) and was described as such when, in November 1838, he and another silversmith, Charles Hayward, gave character references for Richard Varley, aged thirty-one, accused of theft. It did him no good: he was transported for seven years.

Ironically, three years later, Headland himself ended up in a debtors’ prison (perhaps Dickens thought of the fate of his own father). But by 1851 Headland’s fortunes had recovered as he was a silver polisher at the address in Clerkenwell where he had previously practised, employing one man and an apprentice – Henry William Headland, his brother and Henry William’s son, twenty-six years his junior. The uncle and nephew then went into business, but in August 1859 their partnership was dissolved, with the older man having to pay all debts and the younger to continue the business at the same address.

Headland married Juliana Harrison in 1828 in London and after her death he married Emily Wallis, eighteen years his junior, in 1852. Three years later their daughter Florence Hullah Headland was born. By 1858 Headland working at St Martin’s Hall, London, built in 1847 for Dickens’ friend and

associate, John Hullah. In April that year Dickens first appeared there to give a public lecture on behalf of the Hospital for Sick Children and a week or two later on his own account. If this is when the two first met, the novelist must to have taken to Headland because in July he sent him a set of his books, presumably as a gift.

In 1861 Headland succeeded Smith but he was also secretary to a singing school. Living near King’s Cross with his wife, daughter and mother-in- law, and employing an American-born female servant, he needed another wage to support the household.

Dickens told Georgina on 19 September 1861 that he had engaged Headland as a temporary stand-in for Smith, saying: ‘Animal magnetism – or something else – sent Headland here [to the offices of All The Year Round] on Tuesday evening (when I spoke to him), and he repeated his visit yesterday at noon.’ But work could not start again on the tours until they had possession of ‘poor Arthur’s papers’. A few days later Headland was informed that Dickens had been to see ‘poor Arthur Smith’ and his condition was not favourable, but he had approved of Headland getting the job – he had ‘expressly handed over’ the work to him. Then Dickens discussed how they could go about the Norwich reading without the papers which did have had the heart to ask Smith for.

As well as undertaking the reading tour, Dickens was also overseeing to the publication of Great Expectations in November and working on the Christmas issue of All The Year Round. Despite this, he took an active interest in the details. He specified both how many printed lists he wanted for the tour and also what Headland should do about travel insurance (three months cover would cost one-thousand pounds each of them and two-hundred pounds for three men who were helpers).It was only a week or so after giving Headland the permanent position that Dickens told Georgina on 1 November: ‘Headland does what he can, and is trusting and careful; but he would be at a loss without Berry; and the look of him is very different from the poor fellow [Smith] in his evening dress. Besides which, Headland and all the rest of them are always somewhere and he was always everywhere.’ Twenty one days later he confided again: ‘It is a singular fact that he has no notion of the requirements of work such as this.’

On Boxing Day that year, Augustus Tracey, governor of the Westminster House of Correction, was told: ‘My present man of business is a very honest fellow, but what we shipmates call a dull sailor.’ Matters never recovered. At the beginning of January 1862, in Cheltenham, Dickens had to cut short his letter to Georgina ‘by having to go and look after Headland’. He added: ‘I have no idea what we are doing here: no notion of whether things are right or wrong: no conception where the room is: no hold of the business at all.’ He cannot rest ‘without going and looking after the worthy man with a genius for making mistakes’.

Five days later, from Torquay, he informed Georgina: ‘Headland I can only describe as damned aggravating. Yet I cannot blow him up, though I found, this day, on the cards for this place, exactly the same mistakes as I corrected at Norwich.’ He went on about ‘Frightful intelligence concerning the small size of the [reading] room. I have terrified Block [Headland] by sending him to look at it, and swearing that if it’s too small, I will go away to Exeter.’ But he was able later to report that there was ‘Immense success with the Quality at Torquay’. Yet in September 1862 Dickens was not only asking Headland to meet him at Gad’s Hill, his home in Kent, to discuss the feasibility of readings in Paris, but reminding him that dinner was served at six and that he was welcome to stay the night.

The following February Dickens told Wills of Paris, ‘such a hit was never made here’, even among those were not able to understand English. He could see ‘nothing against taking advantage of the general notoriety of this unusual success’ by reading again in London. He asked Wills if he would ‘write for me to Blockheadland (Sussex Hotel, Eastbourne) telling him that I shall be back for good, within a fortnight, and that I want him to be prepared with six or nine evenings for choice, about once a week, or two within eight days and holding on to the Thursdays, if possible? Beginning about the end of the month.’ (In fact, he gave thirteen readings at St James’s Hall from 2 March to 13 June.) This indicates that Headland was living at the hotel that he was later to run and may even then have been doing so to supplement his earnings.

In April, though, Dickens’ patience had evaporated. He wrote to his friend and travelling companion, the novelist Wilkie Collins: ‘The management of Block is so mortal bad, that I am going in all good humour to get rid of him at the end of the series [of readings]. But I rather hope he may be murdered before it is over. I saw so many doubled fists flourished in his perspiring face last night that I trust his life may be considered in danger.’ In fact, Headland survived until 1866.

Dickens destroyed all letters sent to him and so it is not known what Headland had written to him in 1865 that caused Dickens to reply from Gad’s Hill on 12 June to ‘My Dear Headland’ to say that he was ‘very much obliged to you for your letter, and I beg cordially to assure you that I have been touched by its kind feeling and its affectionate good sense’.

Dickens told him that that he had been to France but, on return, was involved in the Staplehurst railway accident. ‘I was in the Carriage that did not go over into the stream, but was caught on the turn, just as it was dropping over, by the broken girders and brick work of the bridge. I am shaken;- not by the dragging of the carriage itself, but by the work afterwards in getting out the dying and dead, which was horrible.’ He did not mention that that his first action had been to spirit away his putative lover Nelly Ternan and her mother, with whom he had been travelling, or that his last had been to go back, as the carriage tottered, to salvage the manuscript of the current instalment of Our Mutual Friend. But then, he told no one about the Ternans’ involvement in the crash nor made any references to Nelly anywhere in his letters. He sent Headland a cheque for £26.14s.6d, for what, it is not known. The letter is signed: ‘Faithfully Your Friend’.

In February 1866 Dickens wrote to Headland to ask if he can remember the agents they had used in Liverpool, Cheltenham and Glasgow and gives news of two of his sons, Alfred and Frank. He signed off hoping that Headland was doing well, which may suggest that while still in Dickens’ employment, Headland had not seen him of late because he had not done much work for him.

But in April that year George Dolby succeeded Headland as manager, a job he held until the last reading in 1870, when Dickens died. In his book, Charles Dickens As I Knew Him, Dolby said of Headland that ‘though he proved himself an admirable adjutant, [he] was entirely unfitted to his new duties’. That Headland may have made a last pitch for work is implied by Dickens’ letter to him in early August 1866: ‘I could not read anywhere on this side of Christmas’, he wrote, ‘and even now it is likely that there may be an understanding between the Chappells [agents] and myself which would make the business arrangements wholly theirs.’

Even a year later Dickens was remembering how he had acted against ‘that luminary’s entreaty’ about what he should read and how there had been poor houses in Liverpool under Headland. And more than two years after Headland’s services had been dispensed with Dickens, he wrote to Georgina from Edinburgh remembering when he was there with ‘that worthy Jackass Headland’.

Headland kept the Sussex Hotel until 1872. In 1881 he was seventy-five, still living in Eastbourne and not working. He died in the resort on 2 January, 1888, leaving an estate of seventy-six pounds (about six thousand six hundred in today’s money).

Dickens’ biographers have overlooked Headland. Of the more recent, Claire Tomalin ignores him entirely, as does Malcolm Andrews even in a book about Dickens’ readings, while Simon Callow mentions him once. Peter Ackroyd gives him one mention but calls him ‘Arthur’ and Michael Slater is more generous with references, but, unsurprisingly, calls him ‘hapless’. J. W. T. Ley, in The Dickens Circle: A Narrative of the Novelist’s Friendships (1919) says that though Headland had been a good deputy to Smith, when in charge, ‘Dickens had anxieties and worries that he had never known under Smith’s management, and was not to know again’.

Headland was a secondary character in Dickens’ life, as he might have been in one of his novels. However, it was only luck and the intervention of others that prevented him from derailing what in many ways was to Dickens the most personally satisfying of all his activities. Headland’s agreeable self seems to have allowed him to last longer than he deserved. As a silversmith – and even that career was punctuated by debt, imprisonment and the dissolution of his business partnership – something valuable survives him. Small, elegant, engraved pieces have been offered in auction houses, notably Christie’s, in recent years. That would probably have given Headland the greatest satisfaction.

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