I have a personal interest in football history as my great-grandfather’’s cousin, Joe Smith (1889-1971), was one of the best professional footballers of his generation. He is second only to the legendary Nat Lofthouse as Bolton’’s top goalscorer, and his 38 goals in season 1920/21 remain a club record.

Emma Jolly, in the article The National Football Museum

Emma Jolly writer, historian, genealogist
  1. Dickens and London

    … the great heart of London throbs in its Giant breast. Wealth and beggary,


    vice and virtue, guilt and innocence, repletion and the direst hunger, all treading


    on each other and crowding together, are gathered round it. Draw but a little


    circle above the clustering house-tops, and you shall have within its space,

    everything with its opposite extreme and contradiction, close beside.

    Master Humphrey’s Clock, 1841

    Portrait of Charles Dickens 19th century © Museum of London

    Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth on 7 February 1812, but lived much of his life in London. Although he died in Kent, his remains lie in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey where he was buried on 14 June 1870. The city fed his imagination and Dickens spent decades reproducing London’s streets, sights, smells, sounds and people in his many written works.

    As part of the 2012 bicentennial celebrations mentioned in the previous blog, the Museum of London has created a stunning exhibition celebrating Dickens’ links with the capital. Exhibits are drawn not just from the Museum’s own extensive collections, but from museums and archives across Britain. There are also particularly notable items, such as Dickens’ writing desk, from private collections.

                  Copyright Museum of London

    From 1822, when the Dickens family settled in Camden, to 1860 when the author took permanent residence at his Kent home of Gad’s Hill Place, London was his home. He explored it by day and, often, by night. As he walked mile after mile he planned stories in his head. Visitors to the Museum can hear a reading of Night Works, Dickens’ description of London after dark, whilst watching William Raban’s 19 minute specially-commissioned film, The Houseless Shadow, made in October 2011.

    Throughout those four decades, Dickens’ life changed dramatically. He went from schoolboy and then impoverished son of a prison inmate to the greatest celebrity of his time. His peers changed from workhouse orphans working alongside him at the blacking factory by Hungerford Stairs to famous authors, millionaires and aristocrats from across Europe and the United States.

    Hungerford Stairs 1830 by John Harley. Copyright Museum of London

    Hungerford Market, 1830 by John Thomas Smith © Museum of London

    It is thus remarkable that the Dickens and London exhibition captures so much of his own varied life along with the lives of his characters. We see blacking pots, for example, like those Dickens’ worked with in his childhood employment, sitting not far from the author’s bank ledger – a reminder of his later riches. There are displays on the theatre, which Dickens adored, including a footlight from Wilton’s Music Hall. Also featured are themes of childhood, death, transport, wealth and poverty.

    Dickens London Map © Museum of London

    Copyright Museum of London

    The full geographical area of the capital is covered: there is ‘A copy of Verses from the Year 1835, humbly presented to all the worthy inhabitants of the Parish of St Pancras’ in the north to household items excavated in 1996 from Jacob’s Island in Rotherhithe in the south east. St Pancras parish included Camden where Dickens lived and which inspired scenes from David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities. Jacob’s Island is probably most associated with scenes from Oliver Twist, particularly that of the dramatic death of villainous Bill Sykes.

    Unlike in the British Library exhibition, the displays here are concerned with Dickens’ world – what many refer to as ‘Dickensian London’ – rather than a detailed focus on what he wrote. However, this does not detract from its success. And those who are interested in how Dickens wrote will delight in the presence of three original manuscripts: Dombey & Son (1847) and Bleak House (Nov 1851) from the Victoria & Albert Museum,

    Dickens's Manuscript for Bleak House © V&A images/Victroia and A

    Bleak House manuscript. Copyright V&A Images

    and Great Expectations (1861) lent by the Wisbech and Fenland Museum. Visitors can also experience Dickens’ work like its first readers by flicking through a replica copy of an instalment of Little Dorrit (Copyright V&A Images).

    Little Dorrit partwork © Museum of London

    I once researched a family who lived around the corner from Charles Dickens in Holborn. One of my first thoughts was did he ever know them or see them? Did they inspire any of the characters in his novels or short stories? Although it is almost impossible to find out, this reminded me that many of those who inspired Dickens are the ancestors of people living today. That specific family would have recognized a watchman’s box in the centre of the exhibition, that stood outside Dickens’ old home at Furnival’s Inn – the home that neighboured theirs.

    For family historians who have at least one ancestor who lived in London between 1820 and 1870, therefore, Dickens’ writing is a unparalleled source of relevant social and domestic detail. This exhibition provides an extension of that. The exhibits bring Dickensian London alive.

    Overall, for anyone with even a passing interest in either Dickens or the social history of Victorian London, this exhibition is not to be missed.

    Useful Links

    Dickens and London tickets

    Adult £8 (£7 advance booking);Child/concession £6 (£5 advance booking);Under 5s FREE; Friends of the Museum FREE; Flexible family tickets are also available

  2. The Obituary of Miss Lily Knight: 29 May 1952


    Lily Florence Knight 1893-1952, seen here in 1940, around the time war forced her departure from the Palladium.

    A number of Twitter users expressed interest when I tweeted recently about finding an obituary for my great grandmother, Lily Knight, in The Stage Archive (

    Although my great grandmother was not on the stage, our family knew that she had always worked in the theatre world. Her daughter, my grandmother, grew up around the theatre, and Lily’s grandchildren were treated to notable performances at the London Palladium. The tradition continued when my cousins and I were taken for our annual trip to West End theatres during summer holiday visits to Grandma in London.

    Lily adored her work: she became privy to all manner of backstage secrets and met the toast of the London stage. Her life in the theatre covered the music hall period from Marie Lloyd through the years of variety and the emergence of cinema, into the dance craze, the light comedies of Noel Coward, Repertory theatre, and the dominance of classical actors such as John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Redgrave and Alec Guinness.

    The discovery of the obituary filled the gaps in my knowledge of Lily’s career, pinpointing the exact theatres in which she worked and identifying some of her colleagues and employers.

    Lily Florence Knight began life in 1893, in a laundry in Stoke Newington. By the time of the 1911 census, Lily was working as a clerk in the establishment of a ‘Musical Agent’. Although Lily was just 17 years old, she had used all the intelligence, charm and looks at her disposal to make a career for herself away from the laundry. Her ambition was spurred by the contrast between the laundry she called home and the glamour of the early twentieth century stage.

    The obituary revealed that Lily had begun her career even earlier than 1911, when she ‘in her early teens’, working in the office of a ‘William Henshall’ – the aforementioned musical agent. Around this time, Lily married Sydney Spencer and gave birth to two children. In order to keep working Lily retained her maiden name and was always known professionally as ‘Miss’. According to the obituary, Henshall gave up the agency in the 1920s and it was then that Lily began working as a secretary at the Alexandra Theatre in Stoke Newington. During the twenties, the Alexandra housed pantomimes, films (it had been an early cinema for a short period) and circus performances.

    More details about this theatre can be found at the Music Hall and Theatre History Website: Some of its posters and programmes 1897-1935 are held at Hackney Archives (currently being moved to a new location)

    A few years later, possibly after the closure of the Alexandra in 1935, Lily transferred to the London Palladium – then one of the most celebrated theatres in the world, and in the heart of the West End. The Palladium was celebrated for its variety acts, and from 1935-39 saw a number of performances from the group later known as The Crazy Gang, which featured the composers Flanagan and Allen, as well as Jimmy Nervo, Teddy Knox, Charlie Naughton and Jimmy Gold. Here Lily worked as a secretary for the managers George Rhodes Parry and (later) Charles Hutchinson. Other acts of the 1930s who played the Palladium were the comedian Jack Benny, singer Paul Robeson, the musicians, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway, the actress Ethel Barrymore, the dancer and singer Josephine Baker, and the singer and entertainer Fats Waller ( ).

    During this period that Lily worked closely with the man in charge of bookings and, from 1945, the Managing Director of the Palladium, Val Parnell.

    Valentine Parnell (1892-1972), had begun his career as an office-boy, and later became a famous theatrical impresario and television producer. Val had been born in Hackney, and married firstly Dorothy O’Connell in 1913. In 1911 he was living with his ventriloquist father at 7 Wiltshire Road, Brixton. A biography and photographs of Val Parnell, can be seen at

    When war intervened, leading to the temporary closure of the Palladium in 1940, Lily took a position at the BBC. A few years later, in September 1943, she moved to the head office of the theatre owners, Moss Empires, working for Charles Henry, the head of the Press department and the chief of production. From 1946, Moss Empires owned the London Palladium, enabling Lily to keep in touch with old friends. More detail on how Moss Empires was run by a small staff at Cranbourne Mansions in Leicester Square can be read at

    Jack Sullivan, who had had been away serving in war, returned to Moss Empires and separated the Press department, taking Lily as his secretary. After he moved on, she continued to work for his successor John Carlsen.

    However, this happy period was soon to end. In 1952, Lily was struck down by cancer of the oesophagus. Her obituary stated that, ‘After a short illness, during most of which she felt it her duty to carry on until it was impossible for her to continue, she was admitted to the Wanstead Hospital, where, after an operation, she died last Friday, May 23.’ Although it was known she was ill, she had been expected to return home after the operation. Lily’s death in hospital at the age of only 58 shocked her husband, children and grandchildren. And, as the obituary shows, Lily was to be mourned deeply by her beloved theatre world:

    Her great knowledge of the business and unfailing helpful attitude to the many inquirers day to day were invaluable, and her loss is grievously felt. . . . Val Parnell said: ‘I knew Lily Knight personally for a great number of years. She was a most likeable person, and we shall all miss her very much indeed.’

    The Stage, May 29, 1952, p4

    Further Reading: Christopher Woodward, The London Palladium: The Story of the Theatre and Its Stars (Jeremy Mills Publishing, 2009)

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Member of The Association of Genealogists and Researchers in ArchivesGraduate of the Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies CanterburyMember of the Society of Genealogists