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You are in: Wear > Coast > Point 7 - The Carroll connection

Whitburn's sandy beach

Lewis Carroll visited Whitburn's sands

Point 7 - The Carroll connection

Did Whitburn's beaches inspire the nonsense verses made famous by Lewis Carroll in his books Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass?

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, famous Victorian author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, has a great many connections with the North East and Whitburn in particular.

Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll was a regular visitor

He made a number of visits to his cousin Margaret Wilcox, who was the wife of the Collector of Customs in Sunderland and lived in Highcroft, in Whitburn. Sadly, the house at Highcroft no longer exists.

Parlour games

According to The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, by Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, whilst Lewis Carroll was staying with his cousins, the Misses Wilcox in 1855,  they entertained themselves one evening with a game which involved making up verses. Carroll’s contribution was a Stanza of Anglo-Saxon Poetry which begins:

"'Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe."

Those lines are now familiar as the opening to Jabberwocky, which was first published in Through the Looking Glass in 1872.

During his time in Whitburn, Carroll would have visited Whitburn Hall, home of Lady Hedworth Williamson. She was second cousin to Alice Liddell, to whom Caroll’s most famous books are dedicated. Here he met Frederika Liddell, another of Alice’s cousins whom he described as “one of the nicest children I have ever seen”.

Walrus sculture in Mowbray Park

The bronze walrus in Mowbray Park

Of Walruses and Carpenters

But the work most associated Carroll’s Whitburn connections is perhaps The Walrus and the Carpenter. In the poem, the two characters walking along a beach,
“…wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand.”

Could this be a reference to the vast expanse of sand visible at low tide at Whitburn?

Even today, the character of the beach can change between tides. Sometimes the waves wash up huge quantities of pebbles or seaweed. At other times, the golden sands are swept clean, as though they’ve been cleared up by Carroll's “seven maids with seven mops”.

However, it’s a popular myth that the Walrus of this poem was inspired by a stuffed walrus which was on display for many years at Sunderland‘s museum. In fact, this famous exhibit only went on display after the publication of Carroll’s poem.

Of the museum’s walrus, sadly only the head now remains, but a magnificent bronze statue in Mowbray Park still maintains the link.

But before you dismiss the North East’s claim to the Walrus altogether, consider for a moment another local Carroll connection. In April 1869, Carroll’s sister, Mary, married the Rev Charles Collingwood. Their home, the rectory at Southwick, now Holy Trinity, on Church Bank, has recently been recognised with a historic blue plaque and there is some evidence that it too once housed a stuffed walrus.

Statue of Lewis Carroll

Carroll's statue in Whitburn library

The story teller remembered

Today, you can see a statue of Lewis Carroll in Whitburn library. It was moved from its original home in Cornthwaite Park after it was damaged. He originally also had a young companion - not Alice, as many presume, but her cousin Frederika.

Whatever you choose to believe, Lewis Carroll did visit this area and no doubt walked along its beaches and cliff tops. He may even have stopped to jot down a note or two in the very spot where you have stood. And his magpie mind mixed and mingled all sorts of images and influences to produce his unique poems and stories.

Now you've got your imagination going, why not stroll a little further back to the coast and we'll tell you a tale of ships and shipwrecks.

last updated: 19/02/2008 at 12:16
created: 05/07/2005

You are in: Wear > Coast > Point 7 - The Carroll connection

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