Connie Humphrey, center, who portrays Queen Victoria for Cambridge’s annual Dickens Victorian Village, which is set up within the town from November to December every year. (WOUB/Emily Votaw)

A Trip Back in Time with Cambridge’s Dickens Victorian Village

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Charles Dickens is widely considered the greatest writer of the Victorian period. From A Tale of Two Cities to Great Expectations to David Copperfield, the works have far outlived the author. Although he came from humble beginnings – having to work as a child while his father was incarcerated in debtor’s prison – Dickens certainly made a name for himself, everlasting in high school classrooms across the nation and in the hearts and minds of many academics who continue to study his works.

Every year since 2006, the streets of Cambridge have been coming to life with characters plucked from the streets of the Victorian London that Dickens chronicled in his writings. Under every lamppost on Wheeling Avenue from 6th to 11th street sits a couple of handmade mannequins, all depicting scenes from London circa the mid-1800s. The yearly undertaking is entitled “Dickens Victorian Village,” and it kicks off in November and runs through the tail end of the holidays in December.

One of the handmade mannequins of Dickens Victorian Village outside the Welcome Center in Cambridge. (WOUB/Emily Votaw)

It’s a tradition that was started by longtime Cambridge residents Bob and Sue Ley as a way to draw in holiday tourism into the small Ohio town. The plan certainly worked – as the city has experienced a boom in business around the holiday season thanks to the tradition, with many local businesses adding extra hours to accommodate the business drawn into the town by the quirky happening.

“Every town needs a little revitalization, you know?” said Beverly Kerr, who has been a part of the city’s Dicken Victorian Village for quite a number of years – at first simply working at the welcome center and then taking on guided bus tours. It’s a unseasonably balmy afternoon in late November, and WOUB is speaking with Kerr, alongside others who are involved in the annual undertaking, in the warm and informative atmosphere of the welcome center. “When Bob and Sue started to think about (Dickens Victorian Village,) they were thinking of it relating to scenes specifically from A Christmas Carol – and right there you already have some great ones.”

One of the many scenes from Victorian London recreated on the streets of Cambridge, OH during the annual Dickens Victorian Village event. (WOUB/Emily Votaw)

Kerr said that Sue encouraged her husband to do more than just sketch out a few potential life-size mannequins, but to try and make them. His very first work was of Charles Dickens himself, which sits in the welcome center.

“Sue said that Bob used to go down into the basement and work on the mannequin of Charles Dickens for hours at a time,” said Kerr, who explained that all of the mannequins have inner bones made of 1’ by 4’s, and are filled out with donated carpet or bubble wrap. “After he made that first mannequin, he approached the Chamber of Commerce with his idea, and they gave him $2,000 for the first year he wanted to try it.”

Father Christmas gazes outside Cambridge’s city hall, where a dazzling light show is put on every night starting around 5:30 p.m. (WOUB/Emily Votaw)

Kerr said Ley used the money to purchase the bones of lots of mannequins, and then sent the skeletons to the local vocational school, where the students there worked on the figures to completion. Every year the mannequins are tirelessly worked on by the organization’s creative committee – repairing them from any damage that may have occurred throughout the preceding season and getting them prepared for another set of weeks on the streets.

“We still have the original ones – and for many years we had a ‘name your face’ competition, where people could enter into a competition to have their likeness rendered on one of the mannequins,” said Kerr, who said that every year the winners of that competition always make a point to come out and check out how their mannequins are doing.

Connie Humphrey portraying Queen Victoria with the Dickens Victorian Village’s first mannequin, Charles Dickens himself. (WOUB/Emily Votaw)

Another notable event for the Dickens Victorian Village is the dazzling courthouse light show, which takes place every evening at nightfall, projected onto the city of Cambridge’s courthouse. The pulsating light show takes hours upon hours to create, and all occurs to the familiar sound of various classic holiday songs.

Earlier this year, the Dickens Victorian Village was treated to an appearance by none other than Gerald Dickens, the great-great grandson of Charles Dickens. Gerald Dickens stages one-man shows based on his great-great grandfather’s works, and he makes yearly appearances in Cambridge to take part in the celebration of Dickens Victorian Village. His appearance was announced by Connie Humphrey, a local who has extensive theatrical experience, and who plays the part of Queen Victoria for Cambridge’s Dicken Victorian Village.

A close-up of some of the educational materials utilized by the Dickens Victorian Village’s Welcome Center, which welcomes elementary to high school students into it’s interiors for holiday learning experiences all season long. (WOUB/Emily Votaw)

“To me, the village is more about the Victorian era than Charles Dickens’ works in particular,” said Humphrey. “It’s about taking people back to a place in history when people first started many of our holiday traditions, putting up Christmas trees, sending holiday cards.”

A big part of what Humphrey does is educational, visiting various elementary schools and retirement communities in the region with stories of what it was like to be Victorian royalty.

“The real benefit, more than anything, about having this Victorian Village, is that it brings the community together in a way that we wouldn’t have had the occasion to otherwise,” said Humphrey. “We have those who are very creative working with carpenters and people who are all muscle, we have bookworms working with people who probably haven’t picked up a book since it was required. Everyone has a job to do that they are good at, and no matter what age someone is, they are able to be involved.”

Queen Victoria’s mannequin looks out from a storefront in Cambridge, OH. (WOUB/Emily Votaw)