Wearside Echoes: Dickens had twisted view of school head

copy pic'Nicholas Nickleby
copy pic'Nicholas Nickleby
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WILLIAM Shaw had great expectations when he became head of a Victorian boarding school – until writer Charles Dickens ruined his business. Today we take a look at a Dickens of tale – with a surprising twist.

THE great-great-grandson of a headmaster whose reputation was ruined by Charles Dickens is campaigning to clear his name – almost 180 years on.

Generations of literary experts have claimed William Shaw was the inspiration behind evil teacher Wackford Squeers in the novel Nicholas Nickleby.

But Sunderland-born Ted Shaw, a retired engineer, believes his ancestor was a victim of Dickens’ “sensationalist and inaccurate reporting”.

“I want to dispel this myth once and for all. My great-great-grandfather was actually a kindly man, nothing at all like Wackford Squeers,” he said.

Historical records reveal Shaw moved from London to Yorkshire in 1810, to take up the post of assistant schoolmaster at a Greta Bridge school.

Within four years he had married into an affluent local family and was the head of Bowes Academy, charging 20 guineas a year for each young scholar.

The reputation of the school was somewhat tarnished, however, when Shaw was sued for gross negligence after several pupils went blind in 1823.

“Two civil cases were held in London, when it was said the blindness was caused by bad diet. William had to pay damages,” said 78-year-old Ted.

“But I have since found records that he employed a top ophthalmologist to try to cure the students. Not something an uncaring man would have done.

“Medicine has moved on since then, and I believe the cause was probably trachoma – a water-born bacteria brought back from the Napoleonic wars.

“The same bacteria affected my great-great-grandfather. It left him with a scale over one of his eyes and he had to wear a patch.”

Despite the court cases, Bowes Academy continued to flourish until 1838 – when Dickens made a fact-finding trip to Yorkshire for his new novel.

“He stayed at the King’s Head in Barnard Castle, walking around the area and getting all the gossip,” said Ted, who was born in Waterworks Road.

“But I think the bush telegraph must have been faster than his stagecoach, for when Dickens arrived at Bowes Academy, William gave him short-shrift.

“Apparently Dickens tried to pretend that he was looking for a school for his nephew, but great-great-grandfather just showed him the door.”

Shaw’s refusal to help the writer may, in hindsight, have been his downfall.

“When Dickens went on to write Nicholas Nickleby, he took a lot of the evidence from the trial and adapted it to suit his own interests,” said Ted.

“He ignored court testimonies paying tribute to the school, as well as letters from past pupils indicating they were fairly treated by William.”

The brutal headmaster created by Dickens certainly shared several characteristics with William Shaw – including his eye patch and initials.

But, while the fictional Squeers starved and whipped his young charges, court evidence reveals Shaw was a much fairer, and kinder, man.

“Former pupils described my great-great-grandfather as a perfect gentleman,” said Ted, a retired engineer who now lives in Bishop Auckland.

“Their evidence shows he ran a good school, was very fair to the students and treated them well. Not at all like Wackford Squeers.”

When Nicholas Nickleby was serialised later in 1838, however, so William Shaw’s reputation and business started to suffer.

“Many of those who read the book couldn’t separate fact from fiction, and parents started to withdraw their children from the school,” said Ted.

“Charles Dickens basically ruined the family business. Within a couple of years, the school had been forced to close down.”

This tale of two teachers has a surprising twist, however, as Ted is president of the Yorkshire and North East branches of the Dickens Fellowship.

“I was asked to take on the roles after all my research into Dickens. Great-great-grandfather would be turning in his grave!” said Ted.

* Follow Sarah Stoner on Twitter at: @WearsideEchoes