The power of a mighty pen

The young Charles Dickens found inspiration for his novel Nicholas Nickleby in North Yorkshire (Photo:  Philip Mould & Co.)
Dickens stayed at Greta Bridge  (Photo from

In his column from 16th January 1981, my dad talks about the links that Charles Dickens had with North Yorkshire, and how much he enjoyed travelling in this region to find inspiration for his famous stories.

Dad was a fan, and at home we still have his full collection of Dickens’ works. He talks about the writer arriving in the North Riding on 31st January 1838 during a particularly harsh winter when he was only 26. Although he was still in the early stages of his writing career, he was already famous after The Pickwick Papers had become a publishing sensation. Dickens popularised the idea of serialising stories in monthly periodicals, and devised the technique of cliffhanger endings to keep his readers keen. The first few instalments were not popular, and it wasn’t until the introduction of the streetwise Cockney shoeshiner Sam Weller that sales took off, leaping from 1,000 a month to 40,000.

By January 1838, Dickens was already publishing instalments of Oliver Twist, which was issued monthly between February 1837 until April 1839. He would often write chapters of his stories on his travels, sometimes changing plots on the hoof in response to the reactions of his readers to previously published instalments.

By the time he landed in North Yorkshire on that January night, he had travelled 255 miles by stagecoach in terrible weather, and described his arrival in a letter to his wife Catherine: “There was no vestige of a track. The mail kept on well, however, and at eleven 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. It was fearfully cold and there were no outward signs of anyone being up in the house.”

This inauspicious start was soon overtaken by the warm welcome indoors. “To our great joy we discovered a comfortable room with drawn curtains and a blazing fire. In half an hour, they gave us a smoking supper and a bottle of mulled port, and then we retired to a couple of capital bedrooms, in each of which there was a rousing fire half way up the chimney.

“We have had for breakfast, toast, cakes, a Yorkshire pie, a piece of beef about the size and much the shape of my portmanteau, tea, coffee, ham and eggs.”

From Greta Bridge, Dickens went to explore nearby Barnard Castle before moving on to the village of Bowes (at the time these places were still within North Yorkshire, although now fall inside the County Durham boundary). The area around Bowes was known for Yorkshire Schools, austere boarding institutions where boys were sent for a cut-price education. They had a brutal reputation and, pretending that he was looking on behalf of a boy whose father had died, Dickens persuaded a friend to write a letter of introduction to William Shaw, who had run Bowes Hall for 20 years. This school was to become the main inspiration for the infamous Dotheboys Hall which lay at the heart of his latest novel, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

Dickens had seen an advert for Bowes Hall in The Times newspaper, and was aware that Mr Shaw had already faced two civil actions in 1823 brought by the parents of children who had suffered sight impairment while at the school. They testified to sharing one single bed per five children, sharing two towels between more than 250 pupils after bathing, and to sharing overflowing and stinking waste troughs in the middle of the dormitories. The maggot-ridden food rations were pitiful, and they were ordered to fill quills with fleas from their bed mattresses. The boys’ evidence was shocking, and it is likely that Dickens used their accounts, rather than what he saw on his own visit, to flesh out his portrayal of the institution.

Despite being convicted of gross negligence and fined a whopping £600, Shaw went back to running his profitable school exactly as before. Dickens’ depiction of Dotheboys Hall came 15 years later, and it was a barely disguised satire of Bowes Hall and William Shaw (the odious schoolmaster Wackford Squeers has the same initials). It was only once the book was published that the idea of reform finally began to be taken seriously and business for the schools dried up. Bowes Hall finally shut its doors to pupils in 1840.

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 14th and the Gazette & Herald on 12th  January 2022

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