What the Dickens? Discovering Sir John Bennett's Famous Customer
Many people are familiar with the numerous literary connections at Greenfield Village: poet Robert Frost, lexicographer Noah Webster, and textbook author William Holmes McGuffey. But a little known literary relationship is that between Sir John Bennett, a clock and watchmaker and jeweler--whose storefront was moved from London, England to Greenfield Village in 1931--and one of his most prestigious customers, author Charles Dickens.
When I announced my retirement as a research librarian at a Detroit-area library last year, the inevitable question I received was “What are you going to do?” My reply was “Read every word Charles Dickens ever wrote.” Unlike many novelists today who “write” (with the aid of someone whose name appears in extremely small print) two or three formulaic books per year, Dickens wrote novels, articles, speeches, and plays--millions of words, all with a quill pen and with obsessive dedication to his craft. After I read through a 20-volume set of his collected works, I moved on to biographies of his wife, his ten children, and his friends, followed by histories of his reading tours, houses, and his London. In so doing, I discovered that there exists a scholarly 12-volume collection of his letters. In that revealing set of books, I found the name “John Bennett.” Having worked at Greenfield Village when I was in my early 20s, I was surprised to see a connection between Charles Dickens and Sir John Bennett of which I had no knowledge.
The ascendancy of Dickens was unprecedented and spectacular. A Parliamentary reporter and contributor of sketches to periodicals, at age 24 Dickens was hired to write some amusing adventures to accompany a series of sporting prints. The result was The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which propelled the author to international fame when it was published in serial form in 1836 and 1837. Within months, Dickens became one of the most widely read novelists in the English language, a position he enjoyed for the remainder of his life.
A prolific letter writer--and letter burner--Charles Dickens is survived by over 14,000 pieces of correspondence. Several of these are to Mr. John Bennett (Bennett did not acquire the title Sir until 1872, two years after Dickens’ death) concerning timepieces being purchased, repaired, or requiring attention. Most are written in the buoyant, humorous style characteristic of Dickens--although they hint at the frustration of a consumer dealing with a retailer and insisting upon satisfaction. A person of unceasing energy himself, Dickens was the first to admit that when he wanted something, he wanted it done expeditiously.
The first mention of John Bennett in a letter from Dickens is in one to Bennett's brother William dated February 18, 1851, stating that Dickens will make tickets available to Bennett for a public banquet, as requested. As far as is known they had not yet met, but John Bennett was soon to find a regular customer in Charles Dickens.
The first extant letter from Dickens to John Bennett is dated December 17, 1857. Already, a tone of slight frustration is evident. Dickens liked his life to be ordered, unruffled, and under his control at all times. Given the large amount of the cheque, this undoubtedly pertains to a purchase rather than a repair:
I have the pleasure to enclose you a cheque (payable to Order) for £21. The clock goes reasonably well, but always loses something.
On March 31, 1859, Dickens writes concerning the purchase of a watch, as well as touching upon his common complaint, the inaccuracy of a clock:
Guided by your advice, I have chosen Watch No. 1 - a very neat and pretty one.
The clock shall certainly be put up here for a week or two, if you still desire it. Let me add, that I set it myself all through last summer by the correctest London time, and it was always wrong.
By September 14, 1863, the relationship between John Bennett and one of his most famous clients appears to have settled into an invariable pattern--a polite, genial, but slightly impatient request:
My Dear Sir,
Since my hall clock was sent to your establishment to be cleaned it has gone (as indeed it always had) perfectly well, but has struck the hours with great reluctance, and after enduring internal agonies of a most distressing nature, it has now ceased striking altogether. Though a happy release for the clock, this is not convenient for the household. If you can send down any confidential person with whom the clock can confer, I think it may have something on its works that it would like to make a clean breast of.
This particular clock, inscribed "Bennett, Cheapside, London" is now in Charles Dickens Museum in London, shown here.
The final surviving letter from Charles Dickens to John Bennett is dated three years before the author's death, October 16, 1867. It is, predictably, slightly impatient:
Dear Mr. Bennett
Is my clock done? The substitute has taken to going wrong, and we are in the forlornest condition here.
Faithfully Yours always
While all this correspondence from Dickens to Bennett could be construed as mildly strained, it should be noted that over the years the salutations grew in cordiality, from "Dear Sir" to "Dear Mr. Bennett." Likewise, the closing warms over time from Dickens' usual "Faithfully yours" to "Faithfully Yours always." Dickens couldn’t have been too seriously annoyed with Bennett, for he continued to patronize Bennett's establishment for purchases and repairs for at least ten years, and probably until his death in 1870.
Did Charles Dickens ever set foot in John Bennett's shop in Cheapside? There is no documented evidence. But he always knew what he wanted in furnishings and decorations, and often went shopping for them himself. It is pleasant to think that perhaps Dickens may have on occasion stopped to watch the striking of the hour by Gog and Magog, the clock figures which adorn the façade of Bennett’s jewelry store, as have so many others in Greenfield Village.
James Moffet is a Guest Blogger to The Henry Ford.
1860s, 1850s, Europe, 19th century, Sir John Bennett, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, by James Moffet, books