by Mave Kennedy)
If Eliza Wilkins was going to be helped, in 1852 the ever practical Charles Dickens decided she first needed clean underwear and a bath – preferably two baths.
In 1847 Dickens had founded a "home for homeless women" with his friend the wealthy philanthropist Baroness Burdett-Coutts. With typical energy he found the premises – Urania Cottage (it came with the unfortunate name, after a Greek goddess associated with astronomy and love) in London's Shepherd's Bush – and then flung himself into organising every detail of it, from the food to the flower garden, and the piano around which the women would gather for wholesome evening entertainment.
He distributed leaflets in the streets to publicise the home, interviewed prospective residents himself, and when he learned that London society was particularly shocked about the piano, spread a rumour that there would not just be one but many pianos, one for each woman.
In 1852, in a letter to be sold at a Christie's auction on 21 May, he wrote to the matron of the house, Georgiana Morson, from his home in Tavistock Square in London, making arrangements for Eliza to be admitted.
"Will you send underclothing to Eliza Wilkin … with money for her to get a wam bath – or two would be better – and instructions when to do so, that she may be perfectly clean and wholesome; and make an appointment to call for her.
"She has a gown that will do for her to come in – I suppose you have not one ready? Bonnet and so forth, you had better send her, I think. She is rather a short girl."
Dickens knew the condition of the urban poor better than most Victorian writers. He never forgot his time as a child working in a factory while his parents and siblings were imprisoned for debt, and he often spent whole nights walking the streets of London, talking to anyone he met.
Some of the women offered a home and the chance of escape from their old lives were freed prisoners, some destitute through unemployment, and many were former prostitutes. Wilkins was described in the letter as "living with her father at 18 Market Row, Oxford Market", so was almost certainly the latter.
Many of his contemporaries were shocked that, unlike the punitive atmosphere in other hostels or the brutal regime of the workhouses which Dickens had described so vividly in his books, he specified that the atmosphere at Urania should be "steady and firm … cheerful and hopeful".
The young women were to have good food, brightly coloured clothing, and they were not to be tormented by the staff about their past – though inevitably Dickens, a voracious collector of stories, learned of their past histories, and some Dickens scholars believe versions of the women's lives made their way into many of his books.
The women were to be trained in domestic skills, with the aim that one day they would be employable or get married. By 1853 Dickens was able to report in an article in his Household Words journal that of the first 56 residents, 30 were doing well in Canada or Australia – like Martha in David Copperfield – although three had "relapsed on the passage". Another 14 had decided to leave, and 10 had been thrown out for "misconduct in the home": one broke open the beer cellar lock with a kitchen knife, and he said of another that she would "corrupt a nunnery in a fortnight".
Dickens's own home life was increasingly unhappy, and when in 1858 he separated from his wife Catherine, the mother of his ten children, and Burdett Coutts took her side, their friendship was at an end. The home closed in 1862.
Georgiana Morson, the matron, was a widow when she worked at the home, but gave up the job to marry again, leaving the girls in tears. She kept many letters by Dickens, and this one remained in her family for generations. Now owned by a private collector, it will be sold at the Christie's on 21 May.