Lewis Carroll: Guildford’s Links to Wonderland

August 11, 2021| Current Issue

By Alex Rose

As Alice embarked on her journey through the looking glass, Carroll began his life in Guildford, the place that may have partially inspired ‘Looking-Glass House’, the fictional parallel of ‘Wonderland’ from the famous sequel, ‘Through The Looking Glass’. So, how was the children’s author of ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’ impacted by Guildford?

Behind the picturesque Guildford castle, and its beautiful grounds, Castle Hill boasts the famous grade two listed building, The Chestnuts, acquired in 1868 by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (more famously known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll) for his six sisters. By then, he had already written his first successful book, ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’, and that same year he would begin writing its sequel, ‘Through The Looking Glass’.

Born on January 27, 1832, in Daresbury, Cheshire, he and his ten siblings grew up in isolated villages in the English countryside with their father, Reverand Charles Dodgson, and mother, Frances Jane Lutwidge. As the eldest boy of the family, he was skilled at entertaining himself and his brothers and sisters, making up a number of games and telling imaginative stories. He attended Christ Church, Oxford and graduated in 1854 with degrees in mathematics and classics. He was also a keen photographer, notably shooting pictures of actress Ellen Terry and poet Alfred Tennyson. After graduating, he stayed at Christ Church, and became a lecturer, teaching mathematics – a position he had sought. Although taking deacon’s orders in 1861, Dodgson was never ordained a priest, as his stammer made preaching difficult.

If you take a walk through the castle grounds today, you might notice the locally famous statue of Alice in the moment she enters through the looking glass, reaching out towards the ruins of Guildford Castle.

Due to this stammer – which he referred to as his ‘hesitation’ – and his position in the family, with eight younger siblings, he found it easier to talk to children, three of which were the children of Henry George Liddell, Christ Church’s dean. The Liddell children – Lorina, Edith and Alice – held an important place in his affections. They were the only children at Christ Church whilst he tutored there. On July 4, 1862, he and his friend, Robinson Duckworth, took a boat from Oxford to Godstow along the Thames and picnicked on the bank. This is where Dodgson first recounted the story of ‘Alice’s adventures underground’, revealing the story of a little girl called Alice who fell down a rabbit hole and travelled into a fantasy world.

One of Lewis Carroll’s own illustrations of Alice from ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.

The story was partially based on a picnic taken by the same party around two weeks earlier, when they all got caught in the rain. Both Alice and Duckworth remarked on how improved this story was from his others, and Alice went as far as to plead with Dodgson to write it out. Not only did he handwrite it, he also illustrated it and presented it to her for Christmas in 1864. Within a year he had published it under the title of ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’.

Other marks of his links to Guildford are the March Hare pub near Guildford Castle, and The Mad Hatter hat shop.

While Dodgson lived in Oxford, he often visited his family in Guildford. Where he not only enjoyed holidaying, but also fully took part in local life. In many ways, Guildford was his perfect second home, even allowing a quick journey to parts of London he frequented. He became good friends with the headmaster of the local royal grammar school, and the banker who lived next door. He was often called upon to preach at St Mary’s
Church on Quarry street, which was, and still is, the oldest building in the town.

A photograph of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) later in life.

Another of Dodgson’s pastimes was to take leisurely walks around the castle grounds, where it is thought that he was inspired to write ‘The Hunting Of The Snark’.

If you take a similar walk through the castle grounds today, you might notice the locally famous statue of Alice in the moment she enters through the looking glass, reaching out towards the ruins of Guildford Castle. The statue, ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass’ sits in the Alice Garden, just behind The Chestnuts. It was sculpted in 1990 by Jeanne Argent to memorialise Lewis Carroll and his famous sequel, ‘Through The Looking Glass’, which he wrote in Guilford within the year of procuring the family home. At the start of the book, Alice travels through the looking glass on the fireplace mantel, and finds a very different world, similar to how Dodgson and his family must have experienced a large change when moving to Guildford.

Statue of Alice in the moment she enters through the looking glass. Sculpted in 1990 by Jeanne Argent.

Any visitor to Guildford would notice Carrolll’s impact woven through the town, including two statues, one previously mentioned, and one on the bank of the river Wey. This second statue was sculpted by local artist Edwin Russell in 1984 and depicts the two sisters from the book – Alice watching as the white rabbit leaps towards the rabbit hole. Other marks of his links to Guildford are the March Hare pub near Guildford Castle, and The Mad Hatter hat shop.

Lewis Carroll is buried in The Mount cemetery, Guildford, where you can still find his grave today, under a pine tree to the left of the chapel.

Sadly, on January 14, 1898, Dodgson died of Pneumonia after a bout of influenza. He passed away at The Chestnuts, two weeks away from turning 66 years old, and was buried in The Mount cemetery, where you can still find his grave today, under a pine tree to the left of the chapel.

Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) is buried in The Mount cemetery, Guildford, where you can still find his grave today.

Carroll’s remarkable imagination and nonsensical style has entertained generations of readers and influenced pop culture in countless ways, and Alice’s stories continue to shape the world from their spiritual home in the town of Guildford.