The Porter's Garden

News | Plants | Pictures | Be a gardener | Annual reports | Links | Archive

Home > Charles Dickens and the Language of Flowers

Charles Dickens and the Language of Flowers

Source: A leaflet published in February 2012 for the opening of the Dickens border on Wednesday 8 February 2012 at 12 noon by Professor Tony Pointon to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens' birth

Charles Dickens in 1858 Author: George Herbert Watkins Source: Wikipedia

The great English novelist Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsmouth on 7 February 1812 and lived at 393 Old Commercial Road (now the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum) for the first five months of his life. His father, John Dickens (1785-1851), helped manage the Naval Pay Office which you can still see at the end of College Road in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. At this time the Napoleonic Wars were being waged and Portsmouth was the largest naval dockyard in the world.

John Dickens's own father had been butler to Lord Crewe of Crewe Hall, Cheshire, but he had died in 1785 when John was born. Mrs Dickens was then appointed housekeeper to Lord Crewe and John Dickens, the housekeeperís son, was raised in this genteel environment. Through the patronage of Lord Crewe he secured a position in the Navy Pay Office at Somerset House in London.

During the Napoleonic wars, in 1807, John was transferred to Portsmouth Dockyard and there continued his quest of  ecoming a gentleman. With Portsmouth on a war footing, and prices and wages rising, he settled with his new wife Elizabeth at 1 Mile End Terrace, now 393 Old Commercial Road, in June 1809. Daily he would walk down Queen Street to work in the dockyard pay office, yards from the Porterís Garden. Charles Dickens was born on 7 February 1812 and five months later the growing family moved to 16 Hawke Street, a stoneís throw from the dockyard gates. They later moved to a villa in Wish Street (site of present Elm Grove) and at the end of the war, when Charles was three, John was transferred to Chatham Dockyard.

Many of Charles Dickensís family served in the navy including his son, Sidney, who attended the Naval Academy in Portsmouth, his grandson Admiral Sir Gerald Dickens, who was knighted on the Royal Yacht at Spithead in the Solent for organising the Coronation Fleet Review for King George VI, and his great-great-grandson Captain Mark Dickens, now President of the Dickens Fellowship.

In Charles Dickensís Victorian England the language of flowers was well-known and many an amorous suitor shyly declared his love for a lady by presenting a bouquet of red roses symbolising passionate, romantic affection, or a more humble posy of violets pledging faithfulness.

Primula vulgaris

Primula vulgaris Author: Pokrajac (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic)

Dickens wrote of honeysuckle and roses in Oliver Twist and of woodbine and jasmine in Bleak House. In the Mystery of Edwin Drood he mentioned scarlet runners (possibly a type of trailing geranium) and in an article entitled Tramps, written under the pseudonym of the Uncommercial Traveller, he referred to primroses, violets, bluebells and wild roses. The meanings of some of these flowers are listed on the back page.

Dickensís own garden at Gadís Hill Place was laid out with geraniums, chrysanthemums, azaleas, primulas and burning-bush plants, but it seems his favourite was the geranium, which symbolised gentility a most appropriate flower for a man who inherited the ambitions of his father John Dickens. Whenever he gave one of his series of readings he would always have a fresh scarlet geranium in his button-hole organised for him by a society lady, Mary Boyle, even when he went to America. Perhaps in return she received the occasional bouquet of jasmine or yellow roses. The Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum also commemorates this with red geraniums planted in the front garden.

Picture of red geranium flower. David Beaulieu

Dickens favourite - Red Geranium Source: David Beaulieu

Honeysuckle Devotion
Rose (red) Passionate, romantic affection
Rose (white) Virtue, chastity
Rose (yellow) Friendship
Jasmine Amiability
Geranium Gentility
Primrose Eternal love
Violet Faithfulness


Professor A J Pointon, Portsmouth University
Mrs Margaret Judd, Friends of the Porterís Garden
Geoff Coats, ex-site manager, Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum

Copyright © The Friends of the Porter's Garden in
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard 2012

top of page

The Friends of the Porter's Garden
Page last updated: 5 February 2012
Copyright © The Friends of the Porter's Garden 2005-2012