Sydney Smith Haldimand Dickens, the son of Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth Dickens, was born on 18th April, 1847. It was an exceptionally painful labour and was probably a breech delivery. Between 1844 and 1847 she gave birth to three sons, none of them desired by Dickens, although he warmed to each of them during their baby years. According to one brother: "He was given the name of the Ocean Spectre, from a strange little weird, yet most attractive, look in his large wondering eyes." Lucinda Hawksley has argued: "A slight, seemingly fragile boy... he had always been a strange-looking child, with his too-slender frame made even more striking by disproportionately large eyes."
In 1855 Sydney was sent to a boarding school for English boys in Boulogne, run by two English clergymen, one of whom had been a teacher at Eton College. His brothers, Frank Jeffrey , Alfred D'Orsay Tennyson and Henry Fielding Dickens , also attended the school. Henry did not enjoy the experience: "It was confined to English boys who were sent there, presumably, with a view to their becoming proficient in the French language. I was very young then, and although two of my brothers were at the school, I felt rather sad and forlorn. I cannot say I look back on my days there with any degree of pleasure. I did not quite like dining off tin plates, nor was the food altogether appetizing. Very pale veal with very, very watery gravy and the usual stick-jaw pudding were most often the delicacies put before us." The boys were given two months vacation in summer, and none at Christmas unless the parents wished to see them then. It meant that they could be away from home for nearly ten months of the year.
Sydney left the school at thirteen he joined Eastman's Naval Academy in Southsea, intending to train as a naval officer. Arthur A. Adrian has pointed out: "As a child he had always been a great favourite with his father and Aunt Georgy. Later, as he prepared for a naval career, he gave them cause for pride.... He was pint size - only three feet tall when he began his cadetship at age thirteen-and, Dickens told Georgina, could easily have lived in his sea chest."
On 11th September 1860, aged 14, he joined the Royal Navy as a cadet on the training ship HMS Britannia. After his initial training he was posted to HMS Orlando on 6th December 1861 and was promoted midshipman the following year. On 19 May 1864 his career suffered a setback when he was docked a year's seniority "for misconduct". He was promoted to acting sub-lieutenant in 1867.
Arthur A. Adrian has commented that " there were ominous signs that Sydney could not resist the family tendency toward extravagance". Sydney wrote to his father: "I must apply to you I am sorry to say and if you won't assist me I'm ruined". Dickens did pay off his debts but it was not long before he was asking for money again. "You can't understand how ashamed I am to appeal to you again... If any promises for future amends can be relied on you have mine most cordially, but for God's sake assist me now, it is a lesson I'm not likely to forget if you do and if you do not I can never forget. The result of your refusal is terrible to think of." Dickens wrote to Henry Fielding Dickens on 20th May, 1870: "I fear Sydney is much too far gone for recovery, and I begin to wish he were honestly dead." Dickens told his son that he was no longer welcome at Gad's Hill Place .
Whilst serving on Topaze Sydney was invalided out of the Navy due to ill health on 22nd April 1872. He remained aboard the ship for the passage home from India to England, and died at sea a few days later. He was buried at sea in the Indian Ocean.
Sydney went into the Navy, and died on his way home on sick leave in May, 1872, and was buried in the Indian Ocean. He was the boy who, in his childhood days, went by the name of "the Ocean Spectre," from a strange little weird, yet most attractive, look in his large wondering eyes.
For Sydney, the one following Alfred, there had been high hopes. As a child he had always been a great favourite with his father and Aunt Georgy. Later, as he prepared for a naval career, he gave them cause for pride. Known in training at Portsmouth as "Young Dickens - who can do everything", he passed his cadet examination and came home "all eyes and gold buttons". Henceforth he was referred to in his family as "the Admiral". He was pint size-only three feet tall when he began his cadetship at age thirteen-and, Dickens told Georgina, could easily have lived in his sea chest. On his training ship, where his enormous popularity impressed his father, he was hoisted into his hammock by his mates the first night, but promptly leaped out again and insisted on getting in by himself. In 1861 he got a coveted appointment on the H.M.S. Orlando. The next year his father, writing to Cerjat, called the young midshipman "a born little sailor" who would "make his way anywhere". But soon there were ominous signs that Sydney could not resist the family tendency toward extravagance. Rumour had it that while his ship was harboured at Bermuda he made "prodigious purchases of luxuries" -guava jelly, rahat-lakoum, bananas, boot-laces - much to the delight, of course, of the coloured bumboat woman, Mrs. Dinah Browne, who invited him to have tea with her on shore, where, in her primitive native cabin, she entertained him with "charming coon-songs in a rich ... contralto voice".
He soon set sail again, this time for West Africa on board the Antelope. A slight, seemingly fragile boy, the 'Ocean Spectre' had always been a strange-looking child, with his too-slender frame made even more striking by disproportionately large eyes. A picture still owned by the family, painted by Frank Stone, shows Sydney as a young boy, dressed in ghost-like white, standing beside a garden trellis. He appears nervous, ready to bolt, as if the viewer has come upon him unexpectedly. He clings to a part of the trellis, holding on to a child-size spade, his eyes peering out worriedly, as if trying to lose himself among the greenery. It is a world away from the brave young man of just a few years later who, having overcome all the physical hurdles of military training, at the age of nineteen set sail for three long years away. The family was deeply saddened to see him go. For those children left at home, it must have seemed that their father was determined to send them all away. Quite why Charles was so keen to scatter his much-loved sons around the globe is a question that has never been satisfactorily answered. His letters show that every departure hurt him dreadfully, but he persisted in doing so. This was not an age when a child in Australia could be easily visited; he knew perfectly well that every time one of his sons left he might never see him again. For many decades, quite astonishing rumours were spread about Catherine Dickens, in order to exonerate Charles's decision to separate from her. As well as the whispers that she was an alcoholic or was illiterate, there were even claims that it was she who insisted her sons be sent abroad and that Charles could only obey. These claims are frustrating not only for their in¬accuracy but for their stupidity. What they fail to explain is how Catherine, already denied the right even to visit her own children in London, could possibly have wielded enough power to insist her estranged husband send their sons abroad.
If only all economic affairs could have been handled as satisfactorily! But so far all attempts to curb Sydney's extravagance and clear up his mounting debts had failed.... Sydney's good intentions went no further than empty promises. No sooner had his father straightened out one set of arrears than there were others. Time and again there arrived embarrassing reminders from the boy's agents: "We beg to inform you that a bill drawn by your son." Finally Dickens set himself sternly against the spendthrift. Georgina, her heart heavy, felt more poignantly than ever his disappointment in the boys. This last experience she saw as his hardest to lose faith in the son who had so fascinated him as a baby, the"`Ocean Spectre" who had looked so fixedly out over the sea in childhood, the "Little Admiral" who had come home from training, all eyes and buttons. And now Sydney had to be told that he would not be received at Gad's Hill on his return to England. It was the last letter his father ever sent him.
Even while Sydney's bills were pouring in, Dickens was writing to Australia about Plorn's poor judgment in leaving the situation provided for him. Admitting himself "quite prepared" for the failure of this youngest son to settle down "without a lurch or two", he tried to defend the boy as having "more, au fond, than his brothers'. Plorn deserved a`reasonable trial', for lie had "the makings of a character restlessly within him".
In April, Charley formally took over from Wills at All the Year Round. Then, on 2 June, Dickens added a codicil to his will giving Charley the whole of his own share and interest in the magazine, with all its stock and effects. In this way he did the best he could to look after the future of his beloved first-born son, in whom he had once placed such hopes: he would not - could not - now give up on him, in spite of his failures and bankruptcy. Henry continued to do well at Cambridge and could be relied on to make his own way. In May he wrote to his fourth son, Alfred, expressing his "unbounded faith" in his future in Australia, but doubting whether Plorn was taking to life there, and mentioning Sydney's debts: "I fear Sydney is much too far gone for recovery, and I begin to wish that he were honestly dead." Words so chill they are hard to believe, with which Sydney was cast off as Walter had been when he got into debt, and brother Fred when he became too troublesome, and Catherine when she opposed his will. Once Dickens had drawn a line he was pitiless.
The conflicting elements in his character produced many puzzles and surprises. Why was Charley forgiven for failure and restored to favour, Walter and Sydney not? Because Charley was the child of his youth and first success, perhaps. But all his sons baffled him, and their incapacity frightened him: he saw them as a long line of versions of himself that had come out badly. He resented the fact that they had grown up in comfort and with no conception of the poverty lie had worked his way out of, and so he cast them off; yet he was a man whose tenderness of heart showed itself time and time again in his dealings with the poor, the dispossessed, the needy, other people's children.