Charles Dickens, Belfast and the Ulster-Scots

Author: Philip Robinson

Date: 2004

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 9 and 10 Wunter 2004

Philip Robinson

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, the best known and probably the greatest Victorian novelist, was born in Portsmouth in 1812. He was brought up in southern England and was ignorant of even the north of England until his career as a journalist and novelist broadened his experiences. He first visited Belfast in 1858 for a public reading of A Christmas Carol in the Victoria Hall on Friday evening, 27th August 1858, and then on Saturday he gave a second performance from Little Dorrit. This visit began a close relationship with Belfast and some of its leading citizens.

On his first visit he described Belfast in a letter home to his daughter: “This is a fine place, surrounded by lofty hills. The streets are very wide and the place is very prosperous”. He found the countryside in the north ‘very picturesque’, and the ‘amazing thing is, that it is all particularly neat and orderly; and that the houses (outside at all events) are all brightly whitewashed and remarkably clean. I want to climb one of the neighbouring hills before the morning’s “Dombey”’.

Apparently he had planned to climb Cave Hill and go on a trip to the Giant’s Causeway, but contented himself with a ‘sea-shore’ walk from Belfast to Carrickfergus, and a sixteen-mile ride in an Irish jaunting car. He was so taken with the jaunting car that he ordered one for himself in Belfast, to astonish the Kentish people. After he had returned to Dublin by train, Charles Dickens described Belfast in these terms: ‘Tremendous houses, curious people. They seem all Scotch, but quite in a state of transition’.

Dickens visited Belfast again in 1867, and finally in 1869, but long before his first visit in 1858 he was intrigued by the periodic unrest in Ireland. He had planned to visit Scotland and Ireland in 1841, but shelved the Irish part when he decided to tour America. His more ambitious 1842 trip to America had a profound effect, including some encounters with Irish America.

In the 1840s Daniel O’Connell and the increasing unrest in Ireland absorbed him. He criticised O’Connell’s views, despite having some sympathy for the poor social conditions in Ireland, but he particularly disliked O’Connell’s ‘waspish’ and boastful style of addressing the crowds. Throughout Dickens’s journals, both Household Words and All the Year Round, there are a number of stories of Irish rebellions: the 1798 Rising, the 1803 Emmett Rebellion, and the Fenian Rebellion of 1867. On his 1867 visit to Belfast, Dickens stayed at the Imperial Hotel, from where he wrote to his daughter expressing great concern about a general Fenian uprising. But he had already observed the ‘Scotch’ character of the people of Belfast, and his concerns were mostly directed to the south of the country.

In 1858, when on his first visit to Belfast, Dickens established a lasting friendship with Frank Finlay who had just succeeded his father Francis D Finlay as proprietor and editor of the Northern Whig. It was Frank Finlay, as one of Belfast’s most prominent publishers, who welcomed the celebrated novelist to the city, and helped to make his readings such a success by providing lengthy accounts of the events in the Northern Whig. From that time until Dickens died in 1870, the friendship with Frank Finlay continued. They met when Dickens returned to Belfast, and corresponded regularly, but there were also frequent visits by Finlay to the Dickens home in Rochester. Dickens published several short stories and features written by Finlay in his journal Household Words.

Frank Finlay was, as his name suggests, an Ulster-Scot and his father even more so. Indeed, before Francis D Finlay (senior) established the Northern Whig in 1823, he had a printer’s shop in Joy’s Court, Belfast. Among the Ulster-Scots works published there was The Posthumous Works of James Orr, of Ballycarry (Belfast: Printed by Francis D Finlay, Joy’s Court 1817).

When Dickens returned to Belfast in 1867 he read from Pickwick Papers in the Ulster Hall. The Northern Whig described him as ‘one of the very few great authors who are also great actors’. The image of Charles Dickens appearing in these ‘reading’ performances helps us to understand better W G Lyttle’s performance as a county Down farmer doing his ‘Robins Readings’. Lyttle appeared on stage in a false beard and dressed as a Dickens ‘look-alike’ for his appearances as ‘Robin Gordon’, reading his Ulster-Scots writings from the Newtownards Chronicle during the 1870s and 1880s. Part of the comedy of these performances was his deliberate parody of the Dickens events in Belfast.

In 1842, Dickens had followed up his first visit to Scotland with one to America. His American experiences were published in American Notes, and on his return to England he wrote Martin Chuzzlewit, using these experiences to good effect. After 1850, Dickens’ novels became increasingly sombre, and his social criticism more radical. In 1854 he visited Preston, Lancashire, to record industrial unrest. Hard Times is seen as the direct product of this visit. This was not the first time Dickens had travelled ‘north’ to research his novels. In 1838 he visited a number of Yorkshire schools of the ‘Dotheboys Hall’ type before publishing Nicholas Nickleby.

Of course, Charles Dickens did not have to travel to a particular region in order to be inspired enough to write about it. His primary source for A Tale of Two Cities was Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, Another Scot, Sir Walter Scott, was the novelist whose early 19th century works had defined historical fiction for the Victorians, which also provided much source material for A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens was influenced enormously by Scott, not only in A Tale of Two Cities, but even in Dickens’ attempts to use ‘northern’ dialect for his characters in novels such as Hard Times.

Hard Times was published in 1854 and is set in ‘Cokestown’, a typical red-brick industrial city of north Britain. Cokestown is a fictitious place, but was partly based on Dickens’ experiences of Preston, Lancashire, where he visited in 1854. In the schools and factories of Cokestown, children and adults alike are enslaved by the exploitation of the Industrial Revolution until their spirit is broken. Stephen Blackpool, the principal character and working-class hero of the story, defies both employers and the embittered ‘Union’ leaders of the ‘United Aggregate Tribunal’, as well as his own drunken wife. He is an ‘honest, hard-working power-loom weaver’ in Mr. Bounderby’s factory.

Cokestown answers the description of Belfast as much as Preston. It was ‘a town of red-brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it. … It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys. … It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye and vast piles of buildings full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long. … If the members of a religious persuasion built a chapel there — as the members of eighteen religious persuasions had done — they made it a pious warehouse of red brick’.

Stephen Blackpool answers the description of an Ulster-Scot as much as a Lancastrian, of a Belfast man as much as a Prestonian. Not only was he a weaver, but his speech (as described by Dickens) was more Scots than Northern English.

Scots / Ulster-Scots dialogue in Hard Times

Stephen Blackpool’s tongue (alone among the other inhabitants of Cokestown), was clearly and deliberately Scots. It is hard to believe that Dickens was simply confirming what little he knew of ‘North British’ speech — or that he was copying from Sir Walter Scott’s dialogues without realising the differences between Scots and Northern English. In all probability Charles Dickens deliberately portrayed Stephen Blackpool as a ‘North Briton’ whose story should be interpreted as common to any people of any industrial city in the northern British Isles. In the ‘United Aggregate Tribunal’, we find the same sort of exploitation and corruption among the self-appointed ‘Union’ leaders as Dickens depicts among the ‘champions’ of the oppressed in the French Revolution, in A Tale of Two Cities. Another similarity between the ‘United Aggregate Tribunal’ and the leaders of the United Irishmen is reinforced by the characterisation of Stephen Blackpool as a Scots-speaking weaver. So, intriguingly, we find Dickens writing his dialogue for Stephen Blackpool in Scots/Ulster-Scots.

Some linguistic items may have been shared between Northern English and Scots in the 1850s like lad and lass, ay (‘yes’) and aw or a’ (‘all’) or awa’, wi’ and so on. Dickens uses all of these and a host of other shared Northern English and Scots features. But we also have features that are distinctly Scots and/or Ulster-Scots, as the following examples drawn from Stephen Blackpool’s dialogue in Hard Times demonstrate.

1. Vocabulary:

a’, aw — all (also in compound words such as a’toogether)

ado — to do (eg. ‘to ha’ nommore ado wi’ a man who is not wi’ yo in this matther’)

afore — before

ahint — behind

an’ — and

asunders — separately (eg. ‘they can live asunders’)

awa’ — away

ay — yes

bonny — pretty (eg. ‘as bonny as a rose’)

brigg — bridge

ca’ — call

canna — can’t (eg. ‘I canna coom in wi’ ’em’; ‘I simply canna coom in’)

dree — tedious

een — eyes (eg. ‘But I ha’ gotten een to see wi’’)

fair faw — good luck (to)

faut — fault

faw — fall (eg. ‘fair faw ’em aw’)

fok — folk, people

fra’ — from (eg.‘I ha’ paid her to keep awa’ fra’ me’)

fu’, fo’ — full (also in compounds such as fearfo’, dreadfo’, wishfo’)

houd — hold

ha’ — have

kep’ — kept

lad — boy

lass — girl

monny — many

mun — must (eg. ‘I mun be ridden o’ her’; ‘I mun go th’ way as lays afore me’; ‘I mun tak my leave o’ aw heer’)

nay — no

o’ — of

onny — any

owd — old

owre — over

prentice — apprentice

sin — since

sitch — such

sen’ — send

weel — well

wi’ — with

2. Grammar and idiom

Even more striking than the Scots vocabulary used by Dickens for Stephen Blackpool’s dialogue is his use of Scots / Ulster-Scots syntax and grammar:

a) Strong vs. weak verbs;

eg ‘a child he know’d’ (knew)

‘and throw’d hisself up behind’ (threw)

‘if he’d ever know’d me at aw’

b) Habitual “be” tense;

eg ‘I suppose she be.’ (is)

c) Past participle = Past tense forms;

eg ‘if you haven’t took your feed yet’ (taken)

d) ‘For to’ infinitive;

eg ‘resolve for to subscribe to the funds of the United Aggregate Tribunal’

‘Tis the Delegate’s trade for to speak.’

‘agreein’ for to mak one side’

‘bein’ heer for to weave’

e) Plural and 1st Person subject with ‘-s’ verb form;

eg ‘as I knows’ (know)

‘for that as I stands out’ (stand)

‘They has rooms o’ one kind an’ another.’ (have)

‘Look how the mills is awlus a-goin.’ (are)

f) Verbs with ‘a-prefixing’;

eg ‘I was a-lyin parish’t i’ the road.’ (lying perishing)

‘They can’t be always a-workin’, nor yet they can’t be always a-learnin.’

g) Plural nouns in singular form;

eg ‘I’ll tak two pound.’ (pounds)

‘These five year I ha’ paid her.’ (years)

h) Adverbs without ‘-ily’ endings;

eg ‘not easy heard’ (easily)

‘Tis near three.’ (nearly)

i) Plurals with ‘-n’ endings;

eg ‘but I ha’ gotten een to see wi” (eyes)

j) Scots negative auxiliary verb forms;

eg ‘If I canna get work wi’ yo, I canna get it elsewheer.’ (can’t)

As with the vocabulary listed above, some of the non-standard grammatical forms used by Dickens are found in English dialects as well as Scots, but some are distinctively Scots and/or Ulster-Scots. Of course, he also employed many features (not described here) that were English dialectal only.

One feature that is sometimes used to distinguish Ulster-Scots from Scots is the ‘inter-dental’ pronunciation of ‘t’ and ‘d’ when followed by an ‘r’. There is one instance of this, where ‘matther’ is used for ‘matter’. However, too much can be made of this as the same feature appears in the tongue of a Yorkshireman in Nicholas Nickleby. Indeed, the Yorkshire tongue characterised by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby includes some of the forms such as ha’, lass, weel, ony and wi’ which are shared with Scots and appear (as listed above) in Hard Times. A review of all of the linguistic features used to represent both Yorkshire and ‘Coketown’ speech would suggest that Dickens was attempting to represent a ‘pan-northern’ dialect in Hard Times that never actually existed in one place. Charles Dickens was a literary genius who was open to, and inspired by, a vast international range of cultures. Ulster-Scots was one of these influences.

In 1869 Charles Dickens published a short story by Frank Finlay called ‘A Deadly Mist’ in his journal All The Year Round. Earlier in the same year Dickens had given a final (‘farewell’) tour, with his last performance in Belfast on January 15. After the Ulster Hall reading Dickens had been unable to attend a City Hall Banquet organised in his honour by Frank Finlay and the Mayor, but Frank Finlay saw him off to the train for Dublin the next morning. He died on 9th June 1870 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

A Dickens Fellowship was founded in London in 1902 with the intention, not only of existing as a group of Dickens enthusiasts, but also of taking measures ‘to remedy those existing social evils, the amelioration of which would have appealed so strongly to the heart of Charles Dickens, and to help in every possible direction in the cause of the poor and oppressed’. The Belfast Branch was inaugurated in 1908 and its meetings continued until 1912 — the year of the Ulster Covenant and Home Rule Crisis. The last meeting of the Belfast Branch was a service in Belfast Cathedral to commemorate the centenary of Dickens’ birth. Rev. W S Kerr of St. Paul’s preached the sermon, emphasising the strong Christian convictions of Dickens. The proceeds from the collection went to the Ulster Hospital for Women and Children.



The Ulster-Scots Academy has been an integral part of the Ulster-Scots Language Society since 1993. The name "Ulster-Scots Academy" is registered to the USLS with the Intellectual Property Office.

Ulster Scots Academy


A new edition of Michael Montgomery’s From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English recounts the lasting impact that at least 150,000 settlers from Ulster in the 18th century made on the development of the English language of the United States. This new edition published by the Ulster-Scots Language Society documents over 500 ‘shared’ vocabulary items which are authenticated by quotations from both sides of the Atlantic. A searchable online version of this dictionary is now also available here.


The Ulster-Scots Academy is currently working on the digitisation of Dr Philip Robinson's seminal Ulster-Scots Grammar and the English/Ulster-Scots part (with circa 10,000 entries) of a two-way historical dictionary of Ulster-Scots. These projects are planned to be completed and available on the site in 2016.



This site is being developed on a purely voluntary basis by the Ulster-Scots Language Society at no cost to the taxpayer. USLS volunteers have been involved in preserving and promoting Ulster-Scots for more than 20 years. All donations, however small, will be most gratefully received and contribute towards the expansion of the project. Thank you!

This site is being developed by the Ulster-Scots Language Society (Charity No. XN89678) without external financial assistance. USLS volunteers have been involved in preserving and promoting Ulster-Scots for more than 20 years. All donations, however small, will be most gratefully received and contribute towards the expansion of the project. Thank you!

(Friends of the Ulster-Scots Academy group)