Myers Literary Guide:
The North-East

CHARLES DICKENS (1812 - 1870)

Mr Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby is modelled on William Shaw, the former headmaster of Bowes academy, which Dickens visited in the winter of 1837-38, though it seems an odd time of year to undertake journeys by stage-coach. Shaw's school (now flats) was the last building in the main street west of the village. A pump of the kind described by Dickens at Dotheboys Hall can still be seen through the courtyard. When Nicholas arrives at his new school, he 'gazed upon the wild country round, covered with snow.'

Dickens and his illustrator Hablot Browne ('Phiz') stayed at the Morritt Arms, Greta Bridge (the latter mentioned by name in the novel) before arriving at the King's Head, Barnard Castle (now the Dickens Coffee Shoppe). Barnard Castle is the 'market town' of the novel, and is also mentioned by name. An incident in the clockmaker's shop then opposite the hotel seems to have prompted Dickens to choose the title Master Humphrey's Clock (1840) for his new weekly in which The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge appeared. Dickens caught the York coach in Darlington after his visit.

According to Claire Tomalin's fine book The Invisible Woman, Dickens had been in Newcastle in December 1836 for the first performance of The Village Coquettes. Tomalin's title refers to Dickens' mistress Nelly Ternan, whom he met in Manchester in 1857. He was to make her the model for Estella in Great Expectations. As a baby she lived with her parents and sister at 53 Westgate Street in Newcastle from the autumn of 1839, and then at 113 Pilgrim Street in 1841. The Ternan family were great favourites in Newcastle and were closely connected with theatrical life in the city for many years.

The splendid late 17th century Alderman Fenwick's house at 98 Pilgrim Street, which became the Queen's Head in 1780, was where Dickens stayed (as did Jenny Lind, the 'Swedish Nightingale'). Still later, in 1884, the house became the Liberal Club - and had its windows smashed in 1909 by the redoubtable suffragettes.

Dickens acted in a bill of three plays at the assembly Rooms in Newcastle on 27 August 1852. Wilkie Collins (q.v.) also took part. The plays included Lytton's Not So Bad as We Seem and Mr Nightingale's Diary. On the following day, the bill was repeated at the Lyceum (large hall) in Lambton Street, Sunderland. The Lyceum was where the great Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905) made his very first professional appearance on 29 September 1856. In Nelson street, Newcastle, stands the Gaiety Theatre where Dickens performed in 1861 during his reading tour of that year, when the premises were the Lecture Room of the Music Hall (in the classical sense) built by Richard Grainger for cultured Novocastrians. Dickens' celebrated reading tours were not without their perils. On one occasion, during a gripping recital from Oliver Twist, the gas apparatus he used fell over. The author himself quelled an incipient panic. According to Dickens, 'Little Darlington' had earlier covered itself with glory - unlike the disgraceful occasion in 1841, when a drunk had offered the celebrated Franz Liszt a sovereign to play 'God save the Queen'. Durham too had provided a 'capital audience'. He also read in Sunderland at the Music Hall in Wilson Street, and found time to take the waters at Shotley Spa.

Of Newcastle's citizens, Dickens remarked: 'Although the people are individually rough, they are an unusually tender and sympathetic audience, while their comic perception is quite up to the high London average.' On another occasion he said: 'A finer audience there is not in England, and I suppose them to be a specially earnest people; for while they can laugh till they shake the roof, they have a very unusual sympathy with what is pathetic or passionate.'

Dickens also visited Tynemouth and wrote in a letter from Newcastle, dated 4 March 1867:

'We escaped to Tynemouth for a two hours' sea walk. There was a high wind blowing, and a magnificent sea running. Large vessels were being towed in and out over the stormy bar with prodigious waves breaking on it; and, spanning the restless uproar of the waters, was a quiet rainbow of transcendent beauty. the scene was quite wonderful. We were in the full enjoyment of it when a heavy sea caught us, knocked us over, and in a moment drenched us and filled even our pockets.'
Another curious Dickens echo is found in Northumberland. At seventeen, he had become infatuated with Maria Sarah Beadnell, the daughter of a London banker, and remained besotted with her for two years. In 1845, she married Henry Louis Winter, a Finsbury sawmill manager. After Winter went bankrupt in 1859, he became vicar of Alnmouth. The young Maria is the model for Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield. Dickens met Maria again some twenty years after his first fascination, and this later Maria is the model for Flora Finching in Little Dorrit (1855-57). As William Amos points out, though the portrait is not unaffectionate, one senses that Dickens felt he had had a lucky escape. In late 1861, he gave a reading at Berwick-on-Tweed, commemorated by a plaque on the King's Arms.

Dickens' much-loved scapegrace younger brother Frederick William attached himself to a Darlington man for the last period of his life. He lodged in Elton Parade while working as a journalist and is buried in the West Cemetery.

In 1988, Barnard Castle celebrated the 150th anniversary of Dickens' visit. The novelist's great-great-grandson, Mr Christopher Dickens repeated in a stage-coach his ancestor's journey from Greta Bridge to Barnard Castle and later to Bowes, where outside 'Dotheboys Hall' , he met Mr Edwin Shaw, the great-great-grandson of William Shaw the schoolmaster whom Charles Dickens had met there in 1838.

In 1844 Dickens visited Loftus, Redcar and Marske, noting the remarkable turrets of Marske Hall (1625). He stayed overnight at the Dundas Arms. He was actually in search of the graves of Captain Cook’s parents, buried at St Germaine’s on the headland. The site is now marked by an early 20th century memorial some 20 yards west of the church tower.

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