In Dickens' Footsteps; Charles Dickens Was the Master Storyteller. but There Are Also Tales Behind His Visits to the North East, as TONY HENDERSON Explains

The Journal (Newcastle, England), January 17, 2013 | Go to article overview

In Dickens' Footsteps; Charles Dickens Was the Master Storyteller. but There Are Also Tales Behind His Visits to the North East, as TONY HENDERSON Explains


Byline: TONY HENDERSON

IT was 175 years ago this month that Charles Dickens set out on an arduous journey north which would produce his novel Nicholas Nickleby.

The book portrays the brutality of Dotheboys Hall school and its tyrannical head, Wackford Squeers. Accompanied by his illustrator, Hablot Browne, Dickens stayed in Barnard Castle in County Durham and also nearby Great Bridge. He also visited a school in nearby Bowes village run by William Shaw, who has the same initials as Wackford Squeers. The author's trip will be part of a talk on Saturday by Durham-based Rev Ruth Crofton, titled Dickens in the North. The talk, presented by Durham County Local History Society, coincidentally ties in with the winding down of a year-long exhibition at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle to mark the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth. One of the displays on show which has fascinated visitors are letters from the museum's archive which echo the events in Nicholas Nickleby. The letters, written in 1822, relate to the fate of two brothers at Cotherstone Academy, near Barnard Castle. "The letters are like touching history", says Sheila Dixon of the Bowes Museum. The Rev Crofton, now retired as a minister with the United Reformed Church, is a founder member of the North East branch of the international Dickens Fellowship, which meets monthly in Low Fell library in Gateshead. Her free talk at 2pm on Saturday at St Giles Parish Hall, Gilesgate, Durham, is open to non-members of the society. She has researched the January visit of Dickens to Barnard Castle, made after he had read a court report about one of the schools in the area. Continued The coach which carried and Browne took 29 hours from London to the Tees at an average speed of eight and a half miles an hour, with an overnight stop at Grantham. He had Nicholas Nickleby. take the same route. Dickens described their arrival at Greta Bridge in a letter to his wife: "As we came further north, the snow grew deepe r. "At about eight o'clock, it began to fall heavily and as we crossed the wild heath hereabout, there was no vestige of a track. "At 11, we reached a bare place with a house standing alone in the midst of a dreary moor, which the guard informed us was Greta Bridge." The stop was a regular one - coaches turned off the Great North Road at Scotch Corner to travel west - and the inn was one of many alongside the trunk roads to provide overnight accommodation, as well as being stopping places for a change of horses and an opportunity for passengers to stretch their legs and take refreshments. The inn is mentioned in Nicholas Nickleby. , when Nicholas and Squeers and the little boys are "all put down together at the George and New Inn, Greta Bridge." After a night at Greta Bridge, Dickens Continued to Barnard Castle by post chaise, staying at the Kings Head, commemorated by a plaque on the wall of the former inn. This establishment also appears in Nicholas Nickleby. when Newman Noggs says in his note to Nicholas: "P.S. If you should go near Barnard Castle. , there is a good ale at the Kings Head." In Barnard Castle, Dickens enquired about schools, claiming to be acting on behalf of a widowed friend who was looking for a school for her two young sons. The next day he went to Bowes village to a school - Bowes Academy, but generally known as Shaw's Academy - for himself, and this became the basis of the novel's

Dotheboys Hall. The Rev Crofton believes that although there were grim schools in the area, as the Cotherstone letters attest, William Shaw and his establishment perhaps did not deserve the Nicholas Nickleby. treatment. She says: "

There were a lot of schools in the area and some were dire. "The letters in the Bowes Museum exhibition are immensely moving. "Dickens later denied that Squeers was based on Shaw. But it was too late ... the school was ruined." The building survives in the village and is now converted into flats. Another North link is that Dickens' brother, Fred, is buried in Darlington. …

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