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"Staircase in The Kings Arms, Lancaster"
From John Weedy's collection
An account of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins stay at the Kings Arms Hotel, Lancaster researched by John Weedy and taken from “Dickensian Inns and Taverns” by B.W. Matz
In the late autumn of 1857. Dickens and Wilkie Collins started " on a ten or twelve days' expedition to out-of-the-way places, to do (in inns and coast corners) a little tour in search of an article and in avoidance of railroads."
Their selection was the Lake District, but the outcome of their expedition was not one article merely but a series of five under the title of The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices, written in collaboration. The two idle apprentices were Francis Goodchild and Thomas Idle, the first name being the pseudonym of Dickens.
These misguided young men, they inform us in the narrative, " were actuated by the low idea of making a perfectly idle trip in any direction. They had no intention of going anywhere in particular; they wanted to see nothing ; they wanted to know nothing ; they wanted to learn nothing ; they wanted to do nothing. They wanted only to be idle . . . and they were both idle in the last degree." In that spirit they set forth on their journey.
Carrock Fell, Wigton, Allonby, Carlisle, Maryport, Hesket Newmarket, were all visited in turn, and the adventures of the twain in these spots duly set forth in the pages of the book. In due course they came to Lancaster, and, the inn at that town being the most important of the tour, we deal with it first.
The travellers were meditating flight at the station on account of Thomas Idle being suddenly filled with " the dreadful sensation of having something to do." However, they decided to stay because they had heard there was a good inn at Lancaster, established in a fine old house; an inn where they give you bride-cake every day after dinner. " Let us eat bride-cake," they said " without the trouble of being married, or of knowing anybody in that ridiculous dilemma." And so they departed from the station and were duly delivered at the fine old house at Lancaster on the same night.
This was the King's Arms in the Market Street, the exterior of which was dismal, quite uninviting, and lacked any sort of picturesqueness such as one associates with old inns ; but the interior soon compensated for the unattractiveness of the exterior by its atmosphere, fittings and customs. Being then over two centuries old, it had allurement calculated to make the lover of things old happy and contented. " The house was a genuine old house,' the story tells us, " of a very quaint description, teeming with old carvings, and beams, and panels, and having an excellent staircase, with a gallery or upper staircase cut off from it by a curious fence-work of old oak, or of old Honduras mahogany wood. It was, and is, and will be, for many a long year to come, a remarkably picturesque house; and a certain grave mystery lurking in the depth of the old mahogany panels, as if they were so many deep pools of dark water, such, indeed, as they had been much among when they were trees—gave it a very mysterious character after nightfall.
" A terrible ghost story was attached to the house concerning a bride who was poisoned there, and the room in which the process of slow death, took place was pointed out to visitors. The perpetrator of the crime, the story relates, was duly hanged and in memory of the weird incident bride-cake was served each day after dinner.
The complete story of this melodramatic legend e is narrated to Goodchild by a spectre in the haunted chamber where he and his companion had been writing.
Dickens wove into the story much fancy and not a little eerieness, and it is said that the publicity given to it in Household Words, in which it first appeared, created so much interest that the hotel was sought out by eager visitors who love a haunted chamber. As this was situated in an ancient inn with its antique bedstead all complete, to say nothing of the curious custom of providing bride-cake at dinner in memory of the unfortunate bride, the King's Arms, Lancaster, discovered its fame becoming world-wide instead of remaining local.
At the time of the visit of Dickens and Collins to this rare old inn, the proprietor was one Joseph Sly, and Dickens occupied what he termed the, state bedroom, " with two enormous red four-posters in it, each as big as Charley's room at Gads Hill." He described the inn as "a very remarkable old house . . . with genuine rooms and an uncommonly quaint staircase." A certain portion of the " lazy notes " for the book were, we are told, written at the King's Arms Hotel.
On their arrival Dickens and Collins sat down to a good hearty meal. The landlord himself presided over the serving of it, which, Dickens writes in a letter, comprised " two little salmon trout ; a sirloin steak ; a brace of partridges ; seven dishes of sweets ; five dishes of dessert, led off by a bowl of peaches ; and in the centre an enormous bride-cake. ' We always have it here, sir,' said the landlord, ‘custom of the house.' Collins turned pale, and estimated the dinner at half a guinea each."
Mr. Sly became quite good friends with the two distinguished novelists, and cherished with great pride the signed portrait of Dickens which the author of Pickwick presented him with. He left the old place in 1879 and it was soon afterwards pulled down and replaced by an ordinary commercial hotel. Although the bride-cake custom was abandoned, and the haunted chamber with its fantastic story swept away, it is interesting to know that the famous oak bed-stead, in which Dickens himself slept, was acquired by the Duke of Norfolk.
Mr. Sly, who died in 1895, never tired of recalling the visit of the two famous authors. He took the greatest pride in his wonderful old inn, and found real delight in conducting visitors over the building and telling amusing stories about Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Indeed he was so proud of the association that he obtained Dickens permission to reprint those passages of The Lazy Tour el Two Idle Apprentices relating to the hostelry in pamphlet form, with an introductory note saying, "The reader is perhaps aware that Mr Charles Dickens and his friend Wilkie Collins, in the year 1857, visited Lancaster, and during their sojourn stayed at Mr. Sly's King's Arms Hotel."
There is a further association with the inn and Dickens to be found in " Doctor Marigold's Prescriptions." We find it recorded there that Doctor Marigold and his Library Cart, as he called his caravan, " were down at Lancaster, and I had done two nights' more than the fair average business (though I cannot in honour recommend them as a quick audience) in the open square there, near the end of the street where Mr. Sly's King's Arms and Royal Hotel stands."
" Doctor Marigold " was published in 1865, seven years after Dickens's visit. But he not only remembered the King's Arms, but also Mr. Sly, the proprietor, who thus became immortalised in a Dickens story. Mr. Sly evidently was a popular man in the town, and his energy and good nature were much appreciated. That this was so, the following paragraph bears witness : It is recorded as an historical fact that, on the marriage of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, the demonstration made in Lancaster exceeded any held out of the Metropolis. The credit of this success is mainly due to Mr. Sly, who proposed the programme, which included the roasting of two oxen whole, and a grotesque torchlight procession. The manner in which the whole arrangements were carried out was so satisfactory to the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood that, at a meeting held a short time after the event, it was unanimously resolved to present Mr. and Mrs. Sly with a piece of plate, of a design suitable to commemorate the event. The sum required was subscribed in a few days, the piece of plate procured, and the presentation was made in the Assembly Rooms on the 9th of November by the High Sheriff, W. A. F. Saunders, Esq., of Wennington Hall, in the presence of a numerous company.
In its palmy days the King's Arms was a prominent landmark for travellers en route to Morecambe Bay, Windermere, the Lakes, and Scotland. It was erected in 1625, and in the coaching era was the head hotel in the town for general posting purposes, and was the most suitable place for tourists to break their journey going North, or in returning. Consequently, it was one of the most important in the North.