A Blue Plaque has been unveiled at a property in Broadstairs after former journalist and local history buff Ken Nickoll solved a mystery around Victorian author Wilkie Collins.
Ken was researching author Charles Dickens’ associations with Broadstairs for a book he is writing, when he stumbled across Church Hill Cottage, the ‘lost’ house in Broadstairs where Wilkie Collins wrote the opening chapters of his favourite novel, The Woman in White.
For six weeks in August and September 1859 Collins had rented the cottage but its whereabouts has been a mystery for generations.
Ken said: “I began my quest for the house whilst researching the 19 known visits Charles Dickens paid to the resort between 1837 and 1862. During his penultimate five-day stay in the summer of 1859, Dickens was hard at work on A Tale of Two Cities. Whilst in Broadstairs Dickens met up with Collins on at least two occasions – dining with him at Church Hill Cottage and then inviting Collins to eat with him at the Albion Hotel where he was staying.
“We know the name of the house Collins was lodging in because six of his letters from the Thanet resort bear that address. I am Broadstairs born and bred, with a keen interest in local history, yet I had never heard of a Church Hill, with or without a cottage. And a search for the building in Victorian maps and trade directories also proved fruitless.”
However, Ken was determined to find the property, starting with clues in letters that Collins had written saying
the cottage was situated on the Broadstairs to Ramsgate Road and backed onto fields and gardens. Collins described it as remote from other houses and on the outskirts of Broadstairs.
The Broadstairs omnibus from Ramsgate Town railway station passed the cottage and it had a minimum of three bedrooms – for Wilkie and his mistress Caroline Graves, her daughter Harriet and any guests.
And there was another clue in a letter written before his visit to the town – Collins had instructed all mail after August 3 – the day he was due to begin his holiday – should be sent to him at Mr Wayhall’s, Church Hill Cottage, Broadstairs.
Ken used the landlord’s surname to track down the location of the cottage.
He said: “First, I searched through the Broadstairs census returns to see if a Mr Wayhall was living in
the village in the mid 1800s. The 1841 survey had no Wayhall but there was a mariner called James Wales and his wife Mary. Despite the different spelling of the surname, this had to be Collins’ landlord because the census gives their address as Church Hill Cottage. They were still residing there in 1851 but had disappeared from the 1861 survey.”
Ken then bought a CD containing the 1842 Broadstairs Tithe Map and the Tithe Award Schedule with all the numbered plots of land and names of the properties, their owners and/or tenants and a description of how the land was being used and finally found Church Hill Cottage at plot 75.
The plot is a quarter-of-an-acre site today bounded by The Vale, Ramsgate Road, Granville Road, Wrotham Road and King Edward Avenue.
After discovering the cottage stood beside an old flint wall overlooking King Edward Avenue Ken realised he knew where the property was.
He said: “My uncle and aunt had lived in that road in the 1960s and I was a regular visitor. The rear of their house, The Lindens, had access to The Vale by way of a track beside which stood an old cottage which I now knew to be Church Hill Cottage. Not only had I known the family who owned the house but since my discovery a former resident of The Vale told me she and her neighbours had referred to the building as Wilkie Collins’ cottage.”
The property is now called Woodside Cottage. Ken met the current owner Pauline Landen and gained permission to make the discovery public. He was also allowed to examine a bundle of old deeds, maps and
other legal documents that contained proof that today’s Woodside Cottage is Church Hill Cottage.
With backing from the Wilkie Collins Society, Ken asked Broadstairs & St Peter’s Town Council to consider awarding the house a blue plaque and last October permission was granted. The Broadstairs Society, The Wilkie Collins Society and the Dickens Fellowship contributed to the cost of purchasing the plaque.
On May 16 there was a ceremony where the Blue Plaque was unveiled.