DSCN2451 Draw SMIt was on Christmas Eve 1864 when Charles Fechter announced that he had a Christmas present for Dickens that was far too big for him to carry, and was now waiting for him at Higham Railway Station, fortunately transport was not a problem, as Dickens kept a four-wheel spring van in the van house behind the servant’s hall at Gad’s Hill. When the gift was finally collected, which took some considerable time, as the gift was contained in fifty-eight packing cases, which meant that a number of trips to and fro from the station were necessary; the packing cases which had travelled from Paris, were opened to reveal all the pieces required to build a genuine Swiss chalet.

The principal entertainment over the Christmas holiday was soon to become assembling the ninety-four pieces which were supposed to fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. But this unfortunately this was not the case, so the Lyceum’s French carpenter M. Godin had to be sent for, when he arrived the puzzle was no problem to him and the chalet was quickly assembled on a part of the grounds known as the wilderness, an area on the opposite side of the road to the house, which contained two ancient cedar trees and shrubbery.

The chalet turned out to be much larger than anyone except Charles Fechter had imagined, it had two floors, with a ground floor room and a first floor room which had six windows. Dickens was later to write “It will really be a very pretty thing, and in the summer (supposing it not to be blown away in the spring), the upper room will make a charming study. It is much higher than we supposed.”

Dickens was to furnish the chalet, in the upstairs room he bought a couch and chairs, a small table on which he placed a writing- slope, Dickens always preferred to write on a sloped surface. He also placed large mirrors on the walls around the room, both to reflect the light and the trees, as well as for a very practical purpose, as he had a habit of acting out parts of his stories in front of a mirror before writing then down. Dickens also bought a telescope so that he could see the cornfields behind him and watch the ships on the river, as well as watching the sky at night
The chalet was adorned by Dickens unofficial crest, the Lion Couchant holding in its Dexter paw a Maltese cross, which was displayed on his crockery as well as engraved on his cutlery; it was also printed on his book covers. The use of this crest was nothing new to the Dickens family, as John Dickens, father of the great author, had also used the crest after the family had moved into No 2 Ordnance Terrace, Chatham.
Dickens was to use the his chalet while writing much of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, ‘The uncommercial Traveller’, ‘Our Mutual Friend’, and many of the sketches from ‘All the Year Round’. It was while he was writing chapter 22 of ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ that Dickens was to suffer what proved to be a fatal attack, there are many claims that this happened in the chalet, this is untrue.

It was Dickens normal habit to work in the mornings only, which while he was at Gad’s Hill meant that in the summer months he would do his writing in his Swiss Chalet. But on the 8th of June 1870, he unusually returned to the chalet after lunch, as he was anxious to finish the instalment of ‘Edwin Drood’ that was due at the publishers. He then went into the house where he wrote several letters, it was then that his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth noticed that he looked unwell, she asked him if he was ill, to which he replied that he was, and had been for the last hour, Georgina wanted to send for a doctor, but he refused to let her, his talking then became rambling and incoherent, he then announced that he must set out for London immediately, staggering to his feet, Georgina rushed to help him and get him onto the sofa, Dickens said “On the ground” and those were the last words he ever spoke.

Although a local doctor was called and medical specialists had arrived from to attend to him, he lay unconscious all that night and most of the next day. At 6-10pm of the evening of the 9th of June 1870, he sadly passed away; he was 58 years old and had lived at Gad’s Hill Place for 13 years.

After Dickens death, Gad’s Hill Place was bought by the author’s eldest son Charlie, who was to live there for the next nine years, until he had to give it up due to ill health. The Swiss Chalet however was sent to Crystal Palace, London, where for the next year it became a popular tourist attraction. The chalet then returned to Kent, where it was in 1871 re-erected with great difficulty at the northern end of the Terraced Garden of the Cobham Hall, by Dickens friend John Stuart, the 6th Lord Darnley, the chalet was to stay in the grounds of Cobham Hall until the early 1960’s. In 1929 the chalet was offered for sale, but there was nobody interested in buying it, so the wooden structure now unwanted, was to suffer badly from neglect and became in desperate need of restoration.

In 1961 Peter Bligh, the 10th Lord Darnley, a keen member of the Rochester Branch of the Dickens Fellowship, gave the chalet to the Branch, as it was no longer required at Cobham Hall, which was then being turned into a school, which opened the following year. Incidentally the Branch was then called the Rochester Branch; it didn’t become the Rochester & Chatham Dickens Fellowship until much later.

The Rochester branch then set about the mammoth task of fundraising, by organizing such events as garden parties and whist drives, so that together with the financial help from many branches of

the Dickens Fellowship worldwide, that they were able to restore the chalet and presented it to the Rochester City Council, to mark the 150th anniversary of Dickens birth.

The council had the chalet erected in the gardens of the Eastgate House which was then the City’s museum, it was later became the Charles Dickens Centre and is now to become a study centre.

Medway Council, who took over from Rochester City Council, when all the Medway Towns merged, were to spend £35,000 on a twelve week restoration project, which was undertaken by the firm of E.C. Gransden in 2000, the work being completed on the 8th of November of that year. But the chalet is once again in need of urgent restoration which will cost well in access of £100,00, so the Rochester & Chatham Branch of the Dickens Fellowship, have joined together with Medway Council, to launch an urgent appeal to restore this magnificent building, which will ensure that this great memorial to Dickens will never be lost. It is planned that the restoration of the chalet will coincide with the bicentenary of Dickens birth in 2012, which will be fifty years after the chalet was presented to the Rochester City Council.
There is one strange fact surrounding the chalet, and that is that although it has always been known as ‘The Swiss Chalet’ it was actually made near Innsbruck, which is in Austria, although close to the Swiss border.

As part of the Rochester & Chatham Branch fundraising, we are selling illustrated booklets on the history of the Chalet, writen by our Chairman John Knott, ‘I’m helping save Dickens Chalet’ badges, Dickens Fellowship ties and scarf’s, as well as organizing a Dickensian Garden Party in the Eastgate House Gardens on the 3rd of July. Other events are being arranged