Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Secret Broadstairs by Andy Bull

The untold story of the lady who inspired David Copperfield’s aunt, Betsy Trotwood.

Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical story of David Copperfield has proved a timeless classic, and is gaining new admirers through Armando Iannucci’s 2019 film version.

Aunt Betsy chasing donkeys off the green in an illustration for the American edition of David Copperfield. (Secret Broadstairs, Amberley Publishing)

A central character in the story is David’s eccentric aunt, Betsy Trotwood. A key comic scene in both book and film is that in which she chases donkeys off the green in front of her home.

Aunt Betsy was based on a formidable lady Dickens came to know during his annual summer stays at Broadstairs. That lady was Mary Pearson Strong and, while her connection with the character is well known in the town and where her former home houses the Dickens Museum, I discovered a fascinating untold story about Miss Strong while researching my new book, Secret Broadstairs.

It involves a long-forgotten legacy which means that Mary, who was a hugely public-spirited character and did a great deal to help the people of Broadstairs, is still benefiting the town’s children and elderly today, 165 years after her death.

Here is the story I uncovered.

Mary Pearson Strong’s home, now the Dickens Museum. (Secret Broadstairs, Amberley Publishing)

Mary Pearson Strong was a member of the wealthy Strong’s brewing family from Hampshire. She had a sister, Ann, and while Mary remained single – like her fictional counterpart – Ann married Stephen Nuckell in 1799.

Stephen owned the cottage in which Miss Strong lived, and several adjoining buildings in what was then called Nuckell’s Place. He also owned the land running down to the cliff edge, which is now an enclosed garden. It was from this spot that Betsy (and Miss Strong) tried to ban donkeys.

Stephen Nuckell was a prominent figure in Broadstairs, running Nuckell’s Library and the town’s Assembly Rooms, which stood at the western end of Nuckell’s Place (now Victoria Parade) where the Charles Dickens Inn is today. Mary, Ann and Stephen share a tomb in St Peter’s churchyard.

The green from which Mary Pearson Strong chased donkeys. (Secret Broadstairs, Amberley Publishing)

Stephen Nuckell’s death, in 1834, coincided with a change in the law regarding provision for the poor. The occupants of the town’s workhouse, in the High Street in the St Peter’s area of town, were moved to another facility at nearby Minster-in-Thanet, and the building put up for sale. It was bought by Stephen’s widow and named Nuckell’s Almshouse in his memory. In 1838 she paid £700 for the building and a further £100 converting it from what had been a grim and forbidding place into pleasant homes for ten poor, elderly widows.

This pattern of charitable giving continued in the wills of Mary Pearson Strong and Ann, in which they both endowed charitable institutions that still exist in Broadstairs to this day.

Delving into documents including a Board of Education report on endowments for the years 1853 to 1894, I discovered the details.

Nuckell’s Almshouse, which still benefits from a bequest by Mary Pearson Strong. (Secret Broadstairs, Amberley Publishing)

When Ann died, in 1843, her will left instructions that, upon her sister Mary Pearson Strong’s death, the sum of £5,000 should be invested and the income used to support or establish three schools in Broadstairs: an infants’, a girls’ and a boys’ school. The money was expressly to be used ‘for the purpose of educating the children of the poor in religious and useful knowledge ... and towards the clothing [of] such children of the said schools’, and to help them become ‘good and profitable servants and labourers’.

Ann left it up to the vicar of St Peter’s, John Hodgson, to decide exactly where and how the money should be spent. He divided the income in equal proportions among the six schools built during his incumbency in the parish of St. Peter.

When Mary Pearson Strong died, in 1855, her will left money for the improvement of St Peter’s Church and ‘for the benefit of the Girls’ School at St. Peter’s ... and of the inmates or any of them in Nuckell’s Almshouse’. Shortly afterwards, in 1858, Nuckell’s Almshouse was radically rebuilt, creating the grand Palladian-style Grade II-listed building to be seen today, with its niche holding a sculpture of a mother and children, representing Charity.

The inscription on Mary Pearson Strong’s grave, urging charity. (Secret Broadstairs, Amberley Publishing)

John Wood, clerk to the trustees of Nuckell’s Almshouse, confirms: ‘Together with a few others, Nuckell’s Almshouse benefits from a small charity of Mary Pearson Strong. I understand that Miss Strong also paid for a girls’ school to be added to St. Peter’s Infants school in the village ... Nuckell’s Almshouse still houses “poor” people. The building is now arranged in six self-contained flats – one two-bedroomed and five with one bedroom. The residents help towards the upkeep of the premises by paying a weekly maintenance contribution.’

Charities in the names of Mary Pearson Strong and Nuckell’s Almshouse still exist. The charitable object of the Mary Pearson Strong endowment, as the current Charity Commission listing makes clear, is little changed. It is to provide: ‘Almshouses for poor persons of good character who are members of the Church of England and who have resided in the Isle of Thanet for not less than seven years ... with preference to persons who have so resided in the ancient parish of St Peter.’ It is linked with the Nuckell’s Almshouse charity.

Mary’s inscription on the family tomb in St Peter’s churchyard reads: ‘Give alms of such things as ye have’. Ann’s inscription records that she died ‘bequeathing large sums to pious and charitable uses in this parish. Founder of Nuckell’s Almshouse’. Inflation has eaten away at Mary Pearson Strong’s endowment and, says Mr Wood, the charity now receives just £19 per year from this source.

Andy Bull's book Secret Broadstairs is available for purchase now.