Christopher Huffam was the godfather of Charles John Huffam Dickens. Was Dickens' godfather a model for Dombey and Son?
By Gilian West, published in The Dickensian and reproduced with permission
It was at Portsmouth presumably, and in the course of his duties as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office that John Dickens first met Christopher Huffam, Rigger to His Majesty's Navy. In asking him to act as sponsor at Charles's baptism, he no doubt hoped that Huffam, who was a gentleman and the head of a well-known firm, might prove a valuable friend to Charles in later life. He may even have heard that Huffam had some slight influence with the Royal Family.
Dickens, however, has little to say about his relationship with his godfather. Forster's biography dismisses the subject in two brief passages:
"his godfather... a rigger, and mast, oar and block maker, lived at Limehouse in a substantial, handsome sort of way, and was kind to his godchild. It was always a great treat to him to go to Mr Huffham's; and the London night-sights as he returned were a perpetual joy and marvel. Here, too, the comic-singing accomplishment was brought into play so greatly to the admiration of one of the godfather's guests, an honest boat-builder, that he pronounced the little lad to be a "progidy".
"His father's resources were so low... that trial was to be made whether his mother might not come to the rescue... The godfather down at Limehouse was reported to have an Indian connection. People in the East Indies always sent their children home to be educated She would set up a school. They would all grow rich by it."
Dickens adds to this only that when at the age of eight or nine he was lost in London, he bought food with the change from half-a-crown given to him on his birthday by his godfather - 'a man who knew his duty and did it'.
Dickens's failure to acknowledge any real debt suggests that Huffam may have been as unconscious of the sacred duties of the role as is Mr Dombey:
"Godfathers, of course," continued Mrs Chick, "are important in point of connexion and influence."
"...The kind of foreign help which people usually seek for their children, I can afford to despise; being above it, I hope."
...It might have been well for Mr Dombey, if he had thought of his own dignity a little less; and had thought of the great origin and purpose of the ceremony in which he took so formal and so stiff a part, a little more. His, arrogance contrasted strangely with its history.
Christopher Huffam died at the age of 67; he was buried on 6 May 1839. Dickens makes no mention of his death in any of his existing letters, yet it would be surprising, and very sad, if he had not been invited to the funeral. My purpose here is to argue that seven years later Dickens was still deeply concerned with his godfather;" that the tragedy of Dombey is founded on the history of Christopher Huffam
THE HUFFAM FAMILY AND THEIR FIRM
In the early eighteenth century, Solomon Huffam, a tallow-chandler, (Solomon I), set up business in Limehouse. In the later years of the century his son, Solomon II, born in 1736, established himself in Narrow Street us a ship's rigger. When Solomon II made his will in 1802, his wife, Rachel, and six of his children - Christopher, William Henry, and Seymour; Rachel, Loretta and Carolina - were living. His eldest son, Solomon III, had died at the age of 26, and another son had died as a baby. In this sixteen-page will, Solomon mentions properties in several locations in Limehouse, including his own house, his warehouse, at least one wharf, and buildings rented out to other tradespeople. He owned, however, only a third share in the family business; the other two thirds being owned by Christopher and William Henry.
Solomon II had taken his now-eldest son, Christopher, as a partner in about 1794, and, in the trade directories, advertised as HUFFAM & SON. Even after Solomon's next son, William Henry, became a third-share partner in the firm, and even after Solomon's death, the directories frequently retained the old name, and to the family's twentieth-century descendants the firm was still HUFFAM & SON.
Christopher clearly re-created the business during the 1790s, and it was his determination that allowed them, at a time when England's survival depended on the efficiency of her fighting ships, to boast themselves 'Riggers to His Majesty's Navy'. The Huffam family must have felt they had played an important role in England's naval victories over the French. Solomon II, however, did not live to learn of Trafalgar, nor to watch the funeral barge as it passed by Limehouse. Nor did Christopher's wife long enjoy the firm's success; she died in 1806.
After their father's death, Christopher and William Henry continued as partners. The firm, however, began to fail. In 1811 both brothers were declared bankrupt and each spent some months in the King's Bench Prison, between them owing debts of several thousand pounds. After William Henry died in 1814, Christopher moved into new premises at 4 Garford Street, Limehouse Hole, but, perhaps because the firm could not recover from the disaster of 1811 or perhaps because their services were no longer in demand, in 1824 Christopher again suffered the humiliation of bankruptcy. He seems to have been spared imprisonment for a second time, however, and he managed to continue in trade for another 10 years.
LIMEHOUSE RECALLED IN DOMBEY AND SON
As a boy Dickens visited Huffam at 12 Church Row, a large house outside the gates of St Anne's, in the north of the parish where there were still green fields. It is said that he was given the run of Huffam's manufactory in Limehouse Hole and there he would certainly have improved the minute knowledge of nautical jargon which he displays in the creation of Captain Cuttle.
At this time, the parish of St Anne’s, edged to the south by the river wharves and bounded to the east by the great West India Docks, was inhabited by the families of mariners, of ship, boat and barge builders, sail, block, windlass and rope makers, watermen and lightermen, sawyers and caulkers, anchor smiths and biscuit bakers, twine spinners and flax dressers, coopers and ballastmen, cork cutters and sugar refiners, wharfingers and excisemen. In the novel Dickens makes fun of the community as maritime paraphernalia,
"Down among the mast, oar, and block makers, ship-biscuit bakers, coal-whippers, pitch-kettles, sailors, canals, ducks, swing-bridges, and other soothing objects"
and yet rejoices in its flamboyant eccentrics. He would have seen Limehouse Hole, where Mrs MacSlinger's lodging-house is located, in visiting Huffam's Manufactury or the home of his son nearby, and in describing it, he seems to recapture his childhood pleasure in the noise and work and smells of the place, and in the strange sights it afforded.
Captain Cuttle lived on the brink of a little canal near the India docks, where there was a swivel bridge which opened now and then to let some wandering monster of a ship come roaming up the street like a stranded leviathan.
Twice in the novel Dickens seems to make inadvertent reference to St Anne's itself. Since the church was built, its white stone steeple has been a famous beacon to shipping on the river. In describing the church where Mr Dombey is about to he married, which is supposed to be in the West end, Dickens uses the word "beacon"
The steeple-clock, perched up above the houses, emerging from beneath another of the countless ripples in the time and tide that regularly roll and break on the eternal shore, is greyly visible, like a stone beacon, recording how the sea flows on…
And when Captain Cuttle searches for his missing friend among the dead, including "poor little ship-boys who had fallen overboard," Dickens seems to remember having heard of ship-boys buried in St. Anne's. (Two or three in every hundred burials in the register are for people "unknown", "found drowned", many of them ship-boys).
HUFFAM AND HIS FAMILY RECALLED IN DOMBEY AND SON
Huffam's family were involved in East India trade; Mr Dombey also has dealings with the company and invites a director to dinner. Through his India contacts Huffam was to provide Mrs Dickens with pupils for the school she planned to open, and they would "all grow rich by it". In the novel Dombey sends Paul to Mrs Pipchin's "infantine boarding-house of a very select description, exclusion itself", where one of her two young boarders, at a charge of £80 a year, is Master Blitherstone, 'born beneath some Bengal star of ill-omen' and making furtive preparation for an overland return, He later joins the victims of Mr Blimber's academy and is heard to say:
that he wishes he could catch "old Blimber" in India. He'd precious soon find himself carried up the country by a few of his (Blitherstone's) coolies, and handed over to the thugs'.
Happily, at the end of the story, this ghost of the pupils who never came to Mrs Dickens's school is suiting back to his parents in Bengal.
If he visited the house in Church Row as a small child, Charles would have found there no young friends to explore Limehouse with: he was eight years younger than Caroline, Huffam’s youngest child. If he went there only after his family's return from Chatham to London in 1822, he would have found that two of Huffam's children, Solomon and Harriet, were about to be married. But he may have enjoyed himself among the grown-ups nonetheless in listening to the stories they had to tell.
Huffam himself, it is said, had been honoured for some noble endeavour during the war with France. Aunt Loretta Foord's husband and son were both ships’ officers in the East India Company; young Edward Foord rose through the ranks to become a captain; both father and son sailed yearly to exotic destinations in the Far East. Aunt Caroline Brown's husband and Uncle William Henry's son, John, were both officers in the Royal Navy."
Dickens of course must have heard sailors' yarns all through his childhood, but when he visited Limehouse, he may have met real heroes. In the novel, then, the tales of drama on the roaring main that Walter Gay knows by heart, the history of his escape from shipwreck on the way to Barbados, and his voyages on a China trader, may have been inspired by Limehouse memories. Listening to this family's talk, young Charles would very probably have dreamed, as Walter does, of going to sea and coming back 'an Admiral of all the colours of the dolphin', or at least ‘a Post-Captain with epaulettes of insupportable brightness'.
Christopher Huffam did not trade like Mr Dombey in the shadow of the Bank, but Dickens may possibly have known of other members of the family who did. Christopher's brothers, William Henry and Seymour, were both members of Lloyd's, and Seymour was well known as a stockbroker in the 1820s.
It seems possible also that Dickens, when he describes Mr Dombey wandering his empty house at night after the furniture has been auctioned, and contemplating suicide, is remembering a tragic Hougham death, which he may have learnt of from the Limehouse family or read about in a newspaper when it occurred in 1837:
“Mr Hougham, a surgeon, living at Brookland, terminated his existence on Monday last, by taking poison. It appears that on the morning his goods had been sold by auction under an execution; and this circumstance so affected his mind, that, in a fit of temporary insanity, he destroyed himself."
Some other cousins of Christopher's, however, seem to have been better known to Dickens: the Houghams of Aldersgate Street in the City. Towards the end of the eighteenth century Solomon Hougham and his brother Charles were master goldsmiths at 137-8, Aldersgate Street. The brothers were rich and respected: they had a double shop and an adjacent court of three small houses used as workrooms, and employed several journeymen and apprentices; they were stalwarts of the neighbouring church, St Botolph's, where they had a family vault; Solomon was elected to the livery of his company; their deaths were announced in The Times and The Gentleman Magazine.
Solomon, however, having survived his brother for 25 years, had no son to leave his fortune to. In his will of 1818, after making generous bequests amounting to thousands of pounds, he left his premises, his two homes, and the residue of his estate to his nephew, Solomon Royes, who, fatherless from childhood, had been his apprentice and later his partner, and who had married his daughter, Mary. Solomon Royes pursued his calling at 138 Aldersgate Street Without until about 1824, when the business came to an abrupt end.
The novel's shop has much in common with the goldsmith's. Walter's Uncle Solomon trades near Bishopsgate Street Without; he too sells precision goods (though they are not made of gold), and he has connections both with ship's chandlers and with Limehouse, and Walter, describing his bond with his uncle:
“his great affection for me, before which every other consideration of his life became nothing, as no one ought to know so well as I who had the best of fathers in him.”
might well be speaking for the goldsmith's nephew.
Solomon Hougham and his brother, his nephew Solomon Royes and two of Royes's cousins, father and son, all as young men went through the required ten year apprenticeship of the Goldsmiths, became owners of a firm, and, some of them at least made their fortunes. Royes, like Whittington, married his master's daughter. Solomon Gill also reveres the Lord Mayor and the City's institutions, and his nephew is constantly teased about his Whittingtonian prospects.
Royes's son, however, like Walter Gay, could not, apparently, be satisfied by City tradition nor seduced by the Whittington legend; he too craved the adventure of the sea. Since it is Mr Dombey who, heedless of his uncle's grief, sends Walter to the West Indies on the Firm's business, perhaps Christopher Huffam was, through his East India connections, in some measure responsible for sending Young Solomon to sea. In 1828 Solomon Hougham Royes became an Assistant Surgeon with the East India Company. For many years his father must have lived, like Uncle Sol, anxiously scouring 'the list' for news. In 1837 his son died at the Company's establishment at Madras. Royes was granted administration of his estate, which was valued at £20. Dickens has saved Uncle Sol from such grief as the goldsmith suffered by allowing Walter to escape miraculously from the wreck of the 'Son and Heir'.
HUFFAM AND DOMBEY
Dombey is 'a handsome well-made man', though 'too stern and pompous in appearance, to be pre possessing', and he has a portrait of himself in his home; which of course is not surprising for a City merchant. Huffam's son used to tell his own grandson with pride that Huffam, said to be one of the handsomest men in London, had had his portrait painted by Lawrence at a cost of £100; which is very surprising for a Limehouse merchant. The sitter can hardly have escaped such personal satire as Dombey is subjected to:
“Slightly turning his head in his cravat, as if it were a socket another bow, which cracked the starch in his cravat”
“a slightly condescending bend of his chin that rustled and crackled his stiff cravat”
Was it perhaps the memory of the Lawrence portrait, which he may have seen again if he attended Huffam's funeral, that encouraged Dickens to make Dombey literally as well as metaphorically 'stiff-necked'
Dombey's wife, who dies in giving birth to Paul leaves him with two young children to bring up. His sister, 'an experienced and bustling matron', lends advice. For some years he remains a widower, in mourning first for his wife and then for his son. Huffam's wife, Mary, also died at a tragically young age, and one of their daughters had died as a baby. Huffam was left with five young children: Solomon IV was 8, Rachel 10, Loretta 5, Harriet 4 and Caroline 2, and no doubt his married sisters, also, tried to help with their upbringing. Unlike Dombey, however, he remained a widower for the rest of his life.
When the broker comes to take possession of Solomon Gills's property - the debt is really, of course, Waller's father's. Waller runs through the streets from the City to Limehouse Hole to get help from Captain Cuttle, It is possible that in 1824 when Solomon Royes seems to have been forced to close the goldsmith's shop, his eldest son may have been sent on a similar errand to Limehouse. But Dickens himself may also have sought help from Huffam when in the same year the sheriff's men came for John Dickens. Thus poor Waller's humiliation when he begs Dombey to help his uncle pay the debt:
“without the least impeachment of his gratitude to Mr Dombey, it must be confessed that Waller was humbled and cast down.”
may well be founded on an incident of 1824.
lt is ironic that Dombey, who in the security of his immense wealth, has had no sympathy for Solomon Gills, should himself suffer financial ruin. Perhaps it was also ironic to Dickens that Huffam, who might have saved his own father from an 'execution' with a paltry sum, should have been bankrupt himself (for a second time) before the year was out.
The Huffams had dynastic ambition: it is plain to see in their tradition of using ancestral names in every succeeding generation, and in Solomon II's prodigious will attempting to secure the future of every member of the family. Christopher chose to spend his entire life within the sound of St Anne's bells, for much of it the patriarch of a large family, dutifully attending relatives to the church for baptisms, weddings and funerals, and carrying on the work of his grandfather and his father, or 'extending... the dignity and credit of the Firm'. In 1798 when his son was born, Huffam could not have failed to enjoy 'visions of their united consequence and grandeur', and of the 'future glories' of the House, but, sadly, Solomon IV was never to "accomplish a destiny", never to replace him as 'SON'. In 1824 when Christopher was again declared bankrupt, and for a few years more, the directories list a new business at or next door to his own premises: Solomon Huffam, Mast and Blockmaker. His son, with his wife and children, remained in Limehouse and provided support, but within a few years he too was bankrupt."
Christopher died insolvent. His will, in which only the two unmarried daughters who survived him are mentioned, is fifteen lines long, a poignant contrast to his father's. Solomon II even left sums of money to his four grandsons for their apprenticeships; Christopher has nothing to leave either to his son or to his grandchildren, including a boy named after him.
THE COMING OF THE RAILWAY
The new steam railway mocks Dombey's attempt to hurry his son's growing up. He has forgotten that time, like steam's speed, is hurtling us all towards death. The railway seems to him "a type of the triumphant monster. Death:
“Louder and louder yet, it shrieks and cries as it comes tearing on resistless to the goal: and now its way, still like the way of death, is strewn with ashes thickly. Everything around is blackened... “
Rather than blame himself for the suffering he has caused through his own impatience to advance into the future, he blames the railway for the squalor and destruction all around it. Dickens explains that his hatred is unreasoned:
“As Mr Dombey looks out of his carriage window, it is never in his thoughts that the monster who has brought him there has let the light of day in on these things: not made or caused them.”
“There was a remorseless triumph going on about him, and it galled and stung him in his pride and jealousy, whatever form it took...”
To Christopher Huffam, too, the steam engine must have been a triumphant monster. In the late 1830s rival schemes for building a line which would cut through Limehouse to link the City with the India Docks provoked a furious debate. The proponents insisted that such a line was a philanthropic venture designed to end the congestion of traffic on the river that had cost many lives and to reduce travelling time to the Docks dramatically. The protesters, however, such as the eloquent 'Citizen' whose denunciation was published in 1837, saw the railway companies as either a front for or the dupes of the inordinately powerful India Companies, whose real object was the transportation not of people but of their own heavy merchandise, and at the cost of the destruction of communities and the ruin of thousands of lives:
“Indeed, the necessary effect of it must be irretrievable blasting of all in its vicinity, so that at the one end will be a grove of shipping, at the other a mass of warehouses, and one uniform scene of desolation between them,
“If piers and arches some thirty feet in height stretching across these places, if the suffocating vapour and filthy stench of steam-carriages, and the reiterated and never-ceasing jarring of their trains will not be enough to drive all men of business away and leave the houses to fall to ruin, it will be somewhat difficult to conjecture what will."
Christopher Huffam must have derived some comfort from the Citizen's polemic, for he was certainly a victim of the enterprise; the railway was to cut through the precincts of St Anne's. Protests, however, proved to he in vain. No doubt Huffam was appalled to see his childhood home reduced to the kind of devastation caused, according to the novel, in Camden Town:
“Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking propped by great beams of wood….”
By 1839 Huffam had moved into a house in the recently-built Warkworth Terrace on the north side of Commercial Road and he did not live to see the official opening of the line in 1840, Dickens, however, may have seen and heard trains 'shrieking, roaring and rattling past the Hawksmoor church and across Church Row and bisecting the terrace which was Huffam's last home.
SAIL AND STEAM
The house of Huffam and the house of Dombey were created by sailing ships; the failure of both coincided with the coming of steam. In the last year of Huffam's life, the enormous steam ship, The British Queen was launched at Limehouse amid tumultuous celebrations and The Temeraire was tugged to her last berth to be broken up'. Solomon Gills' explanation of why his shop is 'no inheritance' for his nephew, might have been written as an elegy for Huffam and Son:
"You see, Walter," he said, "in truth this business is merely a habit with me. I am so accustomed to the habit that I could hardly live if I relinquished it: but there's nothing doing, nothing doing. When that uniform was worn," pointing out towards the little Midshipman, "then indeed, fortunes were to be made, and were made. But competition, competition - new invention, new invention - alteration, alteration - the world's gone past me. I hardly know where I am myself; much less where my customers are."
"... As I said just now, the world has gone past me. I don't blame it; but I no longer understand it. Tradesmen are not the same as they used to be, apprentices are not the same, business is not the same, business commodities are not the same. Seven-eighths of my stock is old-fashioned. I am an old-fashioned man in an old-fashioned shop, in a street that is not the same as I remember it. I have fallen behind the time, and am too old to catch it again. Even the noise it makes a long way ahead, confuses me."
"I am only the ghost of this business - its substance vanished long ago; and when I die, its ghost will be laid."
Images of shipwreck pervade the novel, presaging the time to come when Dombey will not listen to a word of warning 'that the ship he strained so hard against the storm, was weak, and could not bear it' . After a century of making ships strong against storm, the House of Huffam also foundered. Huffam, too, learned what the waves were always saying.