Staying at Toxteth Mansion in the late 1890s was Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, Charles Dickens’ tenth and last child, who had settled in Australia some 30 years earlier. The 1898-1900 Glebe electoral rolls listed his occupation as ‘gentleman’, a job description which implied either inherited wealth or unemployment. In Edward’s case it was the latter. Following his political defeat in the 1894 election – he had served two parliamentary terms as MLA for Wilcannia – he spent years looking for work, supported by his wife, a ‘typewriter’ in Martin Chambers, Moore Street (now Martin Place).
Edward’s fellow lodgers included Isaac Drummond Smith, a draper, and William Wiley, a land valuer. Camillo Marina, an experienced hotelier, managed the property and James Taylor did the gardening. Edward may have used the new-fangled telephone to book his accommodation. Toxteth Mansion was an early subscriber: number 60 through the Glebe Exchange.
Each Twelfth Night Charles Dickens wrote and directed little plays in which his children performed. In one of these he heralded ‘the first appearance on any stage of Mr Plornishmaroonigoonter, not yet 3’. The contraction of the name stuck. His favourite son was, according to Charles, ‘a docile, amiable boy of fair abilities but sensitive and shy… a queer wayward fellow with an unformed character’. When Plorn embarked on his long journey to Australia his father gave him words of advice: ‘Never take a mean advantage of anyone in any transaction and never be hard upon people who are in your power’. The separation was painful. ‘He went away, poor dear fellow, as well as could possibly be expected. He was pale and had been crying. Just before the train started he cried a great deal, but not painfully. These are hard, hard things … God bless him.’
What motivated a sensitive16-year-old to leave a comfortable home for an uncertain future in a country which took two months to reach? His strong-willed father probably hoped it would be the making of him. He himself had earned a living at a much earlier age, and thought that the ‘freedom and wildness’ of Australia would suit Plorn’s temperament. The boy was unhappy at school; keen on the outdoors, especially riding; other brothers had joined the navy, the East India Company, Bengal Mounted Police and Canadian Mounties. Charles himself travelled widely and had planned a lecture tour of Australia. Most importantly, Plorn had a brother, seven years older, already there to meet him.
In 1865 Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens left England and a number of unpaid bills, arriving as an assisted immigrant on the London, with letters of introduction. In December 1868 Plorn landed in Melbourne on board the Sussex. He had sailed on his own and unassisted.
A job was already lined up for him. Still three months short of his 17th birthday, he took off for Eli Elwah near Hay but was back in Melbourne 10 days later, claiming the station manager was ‘no gentleman’. His second placement, at Momba station near Wilcannia, was more successful. After the death of his father in 1870 Plorn’s maternal aunt left nothing to his wife from whom he had separated after 22 years of marriage sent a regular allowance. By 1874 he was a JP, a part-owner of Yanda station, and manager of Mount Murchison station on the Darling River. He captained a cricket team, and raced his stud horses Greytail, Tam O’Shanter, Dusky Morn and Snowdrop. Women were in short supply on the Darling and Plorn contemplated going back to England to look for a bride, but he met and married Constance Desailly whose father owned Netallie station. They had no children.
Charles had worried about his son (‘he always writes as if his present life were the be all and end all’) and by the time of his marriage in 1880 things were beginning to unravel. Plorn sold his share in Yanda, mismanaged during a period of bad seasons, and resigned from Mount Murchison which was taken over by Elder Smith and merged with Momba. After temporary employment as a sheep inspector, he went to Collins Street, Melbourne, where he established E B L Dickens & Co., a stock and station agency. By 1883 he was back in Wilcannia, setting up a branch office there and leaving the city business to his brother Alfred. (Alfred ended up in the USA where he died in 1912.)
Despite continued drought, Plorn made some sales and became friendly with local squatters who were concerned about the 1884 Land Act which threatened to break up their holdings. He was elected honorary secretary of the Land Bill Opposition Society and in 1886 was appointed government inspector of runs in the Bourke district. He was also a member of the municipal council, the Licensing Board and the Moorabin Masonic Lodge. Nevertheless, he had money problems. Appeals to his aunt for more funds were usually denied; in 1884 his brother Henry sent him £800, a debt which was never repaid.
Financial relief came in March 1889 when he first represented Wilcannia in the NSW Legislative Assembly which had just voted an annual salary of £300 for its members. A Protectionist, Plorn in his maiden speech outlined his concerns.
Like it or not, he said, every man, woman and child in his ‘shamefully neglected’ electorate was dependent on the squatting interest, the only industry in the area. The Land Act should be amended, especially taking into account bad seasons, the rabbit pest, and everincreasing rents. Urban MLAs could not comprehend the hardship brought about by drought. In 1888, he noted, Wilcannia had some three inches of rain, less than Sydney averaged in a month. He also pushed for the extension of the railway line. Wilcannia was a port subject to the vagaries of the Darling and steamers were often stranded in the dried-up riverbed for weeks on end. Land transport from Broken Hill was expensive.
Before he reached the substance of his speech, Plorn touched on concerns of a more personal nature, a newspaper claim that he was elected ‘on account of the great name I bear, and which I am proud of … You cannot get two Charles Dickenses in one generation. The article was a nasty attack on me – a young man without any trial, and the inference was that I was a fool. Well, whether I am a fool or not, I am only at the beginning of my political career, and I trust that I will prove to this House that I am not a fool.’ Naively perhaps, he deplored the standard of debate in the chamber: ‘I was rather surprised and disgusted to hear so many personalities indulged in. Hon. members on both sides raked up what had occurred four, or five, or six years ago…Let the past go.’
During parliamentary sessions Plorn stayed at a hotel in Gresham Street, going home during recesses. There was little he could do for his electorate. His entry into politics coincided with the second biggest economic depression in Australia’s history compounded by drought. Unemployment was high as was industrial unrest, life savings were lost in bank crashes, and bankruptcies were rampant. From the 1892 miners’ strike at Broken Hill a figure emerged who was to spell the end of Plorn’s political career.
Jailed as a strikeleader and hailed as a working man’s martyr, Richard Sleath stood for and won Wilcannia in 1894, a seat he then held for ten years. A quarryman, powerful in both physique and voice, Sleath dominated his opponent who argued for moderation and arbitration. Plorn was not helped either by a long letter by ‘X’ published in the Barrier Miner which again attacked him for his famous connection: ‘the most interesting thing about you is that you are the son of Charles Dickens … some folks have been led to exclaim ‘That Charles Dickens’s son!’… though your father was only 40 years old at the time of your birth, he had almost worn himself out. He spoke of himself as a ‘dull blade’ from which it was hard ‘to grind out sparks’’.
The next few years were restless ones for Constance and Plorn who spent time with her sister near Broken Hill and in Tasmania before moving to Glebe. In 1896 news came that both his sister Mary and Charles junior had died (other siblings Walter, Francis, Sydney and Dora were already dead). Plorn invested in shares and applied for positions as far afield as Western Australia. Letters of support failed to secure the post of Secretary to the Department for the Protection of Aborigines in that State.
In June 1900 he was appointed a conditional purchase inspector, visiting country properties from his home base at the Criterion Hotel, Moree, checking for such things as ringbarking and prickly pear. It was in the Criterion during a week when the daytime temperature range was 80 – 105 degrees that he died of consumption on 23 January 1902, leaving debts four times the value of his assets. He was 49. Constance, who had nursed him through his long illness, died in Melbourne in 1914. She was 54.
By 1852, the year of Plorn’s birth and the publication of his masterpiece Bleak House, Charles Dickens was at the height of his powers. While he amassed a fortune, his children Plorn, Charley, Walter, Alfred and Sydney could have all been models for Mr Micawber. Nearly all the children were saddled with names acknowledging Charles’ many literary friends. Plorn’s godfather was Edward George Earle Bulwer Lytton, at one time secretary of state for the colonies but better known in Victorian times as a novelist and playwright. He became friendly with Dickens through amateur theatricals in which Dickens acted. Lytton, like Dickens , separated from his wife. Although Alfred stated that the children always loved their parents equally there is no doubt that the bitter break-up of Charles and Catherine Dickens affected their offspring, not least of all Plorn, then aged six.