The Swiss Chalet
THE SWISS CHALET
The two storey Swiss Chalet, where Dickens wrote some of his greatest works, is now sited in the gardens of Eastgate House in Rochester High Street. It was given to Dickens by the French actor Charles Fechter, arriving in ninety four pieces on Christmas Eve 1864. In the precursor to many 'DIY' jokes, Dickens attempted to construct the Chalet with the help of his friends but failed disastrously. Eventually he went to the stage carpenter of the Lyceum Theatre in London for help. The Chalet was erected on land Dickens owned across the road from his house on Gads Hill. Access was by an underpass which he had built under the road in 1859 because he was unhappy with the traffic and the mud. The Chalet was oriented to allow views of the river Thames in the distance, and he set up a telescope so that he could see passing boats. His biographer Forster describes the interior of the Chalet in great detail, and describes five mirrors and several bronze ornaments representing toads in comical situations. It is clear that Dickens loved the Chalet as a retreat as well as a calm place to work.
On the day of his death, 9 June 1870, Dickens was working on 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' in the chalet. Late in the afternoon he was on his way back to the house when he collapsed and died from a stroke.
After Dickens' death the chalet passed to his eldest son, then to Dickens's sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth, and later to the then Lord Darnley, who erected it in the grounds of Cobham Park. We understand that the Chalet deteriorated over time, and at one stage was sold to the Dickens Fellowship for a nominal amount.
The Swiss Chalet as it is now
The Chalet is a remarkable and fascinating reminder of Dickens' connection with the Rochester area. At the time of writing it is to be found is in the garden of Eastgate house. From the outside it looks in good condition, but in practice it is very fragile and not safe to enter. Preparatory work in restoring it to its rightful condition has revealed structural weakness which dates back to an earlier restoration.
The Dickens Chalet Appeal
The Rochester and Chatham branch of the Dickens Fellowship has set up an appeal to raise the £100,00 needed to restore the Swiss Cottage. The Fellowship does not underestimate the immensity of the task it has set itself.
John Knott, Vice President of the Rochester and Chatham branch of the Dickens Fellowship, writes:
'Now that the Branch is getting over the shock of having to restore the Chalet, we have had experts in to establish the extent of damage, who have informed us that the Chalet must be carefully dismantled, every single piece minutely examined and any rotting wood skilfully removed, leaving as much of the original wood as possible. New wood must be inserted to replace that which has had to be removed, and then the entire structure must be treated against any further rot.
'As you may know, since it was first erected the Chalet has stood on stilts. We now find that many years ago, when the Chalet started to tilt and there was a fear that it might topple, brickwork was put round the base of the structure to stop it from falling. This is now the only thing that is holding the Chalet up, so we have had to bring in a firm of specialists to prop the building up and stop it from collapsing completely. When the Chalet is restored, it will have to be re-sited on specially constructed foundations, which will have proper drainage and raise the Chalet to a safe height above the ground. We think that the only furniture and fittings that can be saved from the inside are the five mirrors, so this adds more to the expense. The original estimate of £100,000 appears to be spot on. This is a lot of money to find, so we would be most grateful of any help that anyone can give us.'
If you wish to read more about the appeal or contact the Fellowship by email please use the Dickens Fellowship website
References and further reading
John Forster 'The Life of Charles Dickens' available as a free download (seen Jan 2016)(large file!)
'The Victorian Web' website (seen Oct 2015) has a useful page about the chalet, which in turn refers to: