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Full text of "Charles Dickens and the Yorkshire schools : with his letter to Mrs. Hall"

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CHARLES DICKENS 

AND THE 

YORKSHIRE SCHOOLS 



2^ 



CHARLES DICKENS 

AND THE 

YORKSHIRE SCHOOLS 

V/ITH HIS LETTER TO 
MRS. HALL 



BY 

CUMBERLAND CLARK 



LONDON: PRIVATELY PRINTED AT THE 

CHISWICK PRESS 

1918 




CHARLES DICKENS AND THE 
YORKSHIRE SCHOOLS 

A FEW NOTES ON AN AUTOGRAPH LETTER, 

AND THE IDENTITY OF WACKFORD 

SOUEERS OF DOTHEBOYS HALL 

WITH WILLIAM SHAW OF 

BOWES ACADEMY 

HARLES DICKENS, the most popu- 
lar and perhaps the greatest of English 
Novelists, was also somewhat of a 
Reformer, and if his fame as a writer 
of fiction did not obscure to some extent his work 
in other directions, he would rank worthily with 
Wilberforce, Howard, and other great philan- 
thropists for his splendid efforts towards the social 
amelioration of the people, and especially the 
younger generation. Many of his books were 

5 




8G6iS3 



" novels with a purpose," and one of his grandest 
crusades was that one against the iniquitous 
Yorkshire Schools which is found in the earlier 
chapters of "Nicholas Nickleby"; few of his 
characters are better remembered than the villain- 
ous Wackford Squeers, and few more powerful 
chapters can be found than those dealing with the 
miseries and atrocities of " Dotheboys Hall"; 
chapters which did more to put an end to the 
wicked system than a score of Acts of Parliament 
could have done. 

It has always been a subject of keen discussion 
as to whether Dickens drew the character of 
Wackford Squeers from a real individual or not, 
and the question has been ably argued from either 
side ever since the book first appeared ; the balance 
of opinion inclined to the belief that while, in the 
words of Dickens' own preface, "Mr. Squeers is the 
representative of a class, and not of an individual," 
and therefore is a composite creation, he must 
have had some foundation in fact, and a likely 
enough prototype was discovered in the person of 
a Mr. William Shaw, who was brought into un- 
enviable notoriety through several actions for 
cruelty to his helpless charges, a few years before 
"Nicholas Nickleby" was written; but the con- 

6 



troversy did not appear likely to be settled satis- 
factorily either way. 

Now, however, a remarkably interesting letter 
from Dickens, written whilst " Nickleby " was 
publishing, has come to light, which conclusively 
settles the question, and proves beyond a doubt that 
Wackford Squeers was drawn from William 
Shaw. Probably Dickens exercised the usual 
author's licence, and adapted, altered, or touched 
up the portrait here and there, and he may have 
incorporated some characteristics of other school- 
masters he had met or heard of, but this important 
letter leaves us certain that the character of Squeers 
is largely and principally founded upon the actual 
personage Shaw, and the " Mystery of Wackford 
Squeers " is a mystery no longer. 

The letter is addressed to Mrs. S. C. Hall, the 
well-known Irish novelist and writer, who is still 
remembered by her " Sketches of Irish Character," 
and other works from her own pen, besides for her 
collaboration with her husband in "Ireland, its 
Scenery, Character, etc.," and her work in the 
"Art Journal," which Samuel Carter Hall edited 
for a number of years. As a sidelight on Dickens, 
it is amusing to recall that this same S. C. Hall is 
popularly supposed to be the original of that not 

7 



very savoury creation, Pecksniff, who was a pro- 
minent character in the author's next novel, '' Mar- 
tin Chuzzlewit," and a cynic might make some 
caustic reflections when comparing this very cordial 
letter with another letter of Dickens' of 1853, in 
which, besides other uncomplimentary remarks on 
the Halls, he says: '* I denounce that amiable 
couple as the most terrific humbugs known on 
earth at any period of history " ! 

But to return to our letter. It is written from 
Doughty Street (No. 48, his first London house, 
where he moved with his wife and child early in 
1837, while "Pickwick" was in the height of its 
success), and is dated 29 December 1838 (just about 
half-way through the publication of " Nickleby "). 
The "interesting anecdote" referred to is unfor- 
tunately lost to us, but it seems highly probable 
that it referred to Squeers — or we should say Shaw 
— and it is not a very rash guess to opine that 
Mrs. Hall had sent Dickens some account of the 
devilments practised by this typical specimen of 
the Yorkshire schoolmasters ; for he goes on to 
say that their rascalities ^^ cannot be easily exag- 
gerated, and I have kept down the strong truth 
and thrown as much comicality on it as I could, 
rather than disgust and weary the reader with its 

8 



fouler aspects. The identical scoundrel you speak 
of I saw — curiously enough. His name is Shaw; the 
action was tried (I believe) eight or ten years since, 
and if I am not much mistaken another action was 
brought against him by the parents of a miserable 
child, a cancer in whose head he opened with an 
inky penknife, and so caused his death." It may 
be noted here that the first action against Shaw 
was brought in October 1823, a little earlier than 
Dickens' ** eight or ten years since"; there is an 
interesting entry in Dickens' diary (now preserved 
in the Forster Collection at the Victoria and Albert 
Museum) dated 2 February 1838, during his jour- 
ney to Yorkshire to collect material for the novel 
(which we must refer to more fully presently) where 
he notes, after having that day seen Shaw, that his 
case *' must have been between 1823 and 26. Look 
this out in the newspapers." And as regards the 
*' inky penknife " episode, another version (told by 
the Novelist himself) runs that Dickens, when a 
lad at school at Rochester, met this very boy, who 
had come from a Yorkshire school with a *' sup- 
purated abscess " which his master had treated in 
this horrible manner ; so that perhaps the victim 
of this savage surgery did not die, or at any rate 
not at the moment. Such slight divergences in the 

9 B 



details of a story are only likely, however, after the 
lapse of a few years, especially when those years 
were so busy as our young* novelist's. 

Dickens goes on to tell of the snow-covered 
churchyard he wandered into, with the grave of an 
eighteen-year-old boy who had died "at that 
wretched place," and whose "ghost put Smike 
into my head upon the spot " (we will identify both 
the place and the boy presently) ; and then he ex- 
plains in a most interesting passage how he went 
down into Yorkshire in an assumed name to make 
his enquiries, "taking a plausible letter to an old 
Yorkshire attorney from another attorney in town, 
telling him how a friend had been left a widow and 
wanted to place her boys at a Yorkshire School, in 
hope of thawing the frozen compassion of her re- 
lations." The description Dickens gives Mrs. Hall 
of his interview with the Yorkshire attorney and 
the latter's earnestwarning against his own county's 
schools, is practically identical with the author's 
account of this same incident as he related it ten 
years later in one of his Prefaces to "Nickleby," 
where, as we shall presently see, he tells the story 
with more detail but to the same effect; the incident 
evidently made a great impression on him, which 
lasted for many years. 

lO 



It will now be interesting to turn to Dickens' 
previously-published accounts of the Yorkshire 
Schools and their masters, which are contained in 
two Prefaces to " Nicholas Nickleby," one the 
original preface to the work, which appeared on its 
completion in October 1839, and the other written 
for the First Cheap Edition in May 1848; we need 
only concern ourselves with the passages dealing 
with the Squeers question, and will take first the 
** Preface to the First Edition." 

It has afforded the Author great amusement and satis- 
faction, during the progress of this work, to learn from 
country friends and from a variety of ludicrous statements 
concerning himself in provincial newspapers, that more 
than one Yorkshire schoolmaster lays claim to being the 
original of Mr. Squeers. One worthy, he has reason to 
believe, has actually consulted authorities learned in the 
law, as to his having good grounds on which to rest an 
action for libel ; another has meditated a journey to 
London, for the express purpose of committing an assault 
and battery upon his traducer; a third perfectly remem- 
bers being waited on last January twelvemonth by two 
gentlemen, one of whom held him in conversation while 
the other took his likeness; and, although Mr. Squeers 
has but one eye, and he has two, and the published 
sketch does not resemble him (whoever he may be) in 
any other respect, still he and all his friends and neigh- 
bours know at once for whom it is meant, because — the 
character is so like him. 

1 1 



While the Author cannot but feel the full force of the 
compliment thus conveyed to him, he ventures to sug- 
gest that these contentions may arise from the fact, that 
Mr. Squeers is the representative of a class, and not of 
an individual. Where imposture, ignorance, and brutal 
cupidity, are the stock in trade of a small body of men, 
and one is described by these characteristics, all his 
fellows will recognize something belonging to them- 
selves, and each will have a misgiving that the portrait 
is his own. 

To this general description, as to most others, there 
may be some exceptions; and although the Author 
neither saw nor heard of any in the course of an excur- 
sion which he made into Yorkshire, before he com- 
menced these adventures, or before or since, it affords 
him much more pleasure to assume their existence than 
to doubt it. He has dwelt thus long upon this point, 
because his object in calling public attention to the 
system would be very imperfectly fulfilled, if he did not 
state now in his own person, emphatically and earnestly, 
that Mr. Squeers and his school are faint and feeble 
pictures of an existing reality, purposely subdued and 
kept down lest they should be deemed impossible — that 
there are upon record trials at law in which damages 
have been sought as a poor recompense for lasting 
agonies and disfigurements inflicted upon children by 
the treatment of the master in these places, involving 
such offensive and foul details of neglect, cruelty, and 
disease, as no writer of fiction would have the boldness 
to imagine — and that, since he has been engaged upon 
these Adventures, he has received from private quarters 
far beyond the reach of suspicion or distrust, accounts of 
atrocities, in the perpetration of which upon neglected 

12 



or repudiated children these schools have been the main 
instruments, very far exceeding any that appear in these 
pages. 

It will be seen from the above that the Author 
practically denies that there was any particular 
prototype of Squeers; the explanation of this may 
perhaps be found in the fact that when Dickens 
wrote, the keeping of these "Academies" was 
quite a flourishing trade in certain parts of York- 
shire, and the young Author was fighting '* vested 
interests" of some power and importance; he tells 
us himself of contemplated actions for libel and of 
threats of personal violence made against him, and 
though we do not imagine that the latter threat 
would weigh much with a high-spirited youth filled 
with the knowledge of the righteousness of his 
cause, it may well be that a young and none too 
wealthy Author would hesitate about bringing 
himself within the reach of the law of libel; for 
Dickens knew the Law very well indeed, and his 
opinion of it is crystallized in Mr. Bumble's famous 
dictum that "the law is an Ass"; no one knew 
better than " Boz " how easily a man's career and 
fortune might be ruined by getting into the Law's 
entangling meshes, and he probably thought it 
wisest to disclaim any intention of placing any 



particular person in the pillory. Dickens had had 
plenty of time to consider the criticisms showered 
upon him, and to weigh up the consequences of his 
attacks upon Squeers, Shaw and Co., for it must 
be remembered that " Nickleby " was published in 
monthly parts, and the Preface was issued with the 
concluding number, eighteen months after the 
Squeers chapters had seen the light. The Author's 
disclaimer has always been an awkward point for 
students of Dickens who felt convinced from various 
accumulated evidence that there was an actual 
original of Squeers, and we find an eminent Dick- 
ensian writing as late as 1895 that '' Squeers is 
wholly imaginative," and that *' Dickens did not 
sketch Squeers from Shaw" (Percy Fitzgerald in 
" Bozland "), but we venture to think that the 
evidence is now overwhelmingly in favour of an 
opposite verdict. 

Ten years after the publication of " Nickleby " 
Dickens wrote a new preface, containing so much 
interesting information concerning the " Yorkshire 
Schools" that we must give in full the first two 
pages of the *' Preface to the First Cheap Edition " 
(dated May 1848). 

This story was begun within a few months after the 
publication of the completed Pickwick Papers. There 



were, then, a good many cheap Yorkshire schools in 
existence. There are very few now. 

Of the monstrous neglect of education in England, and 
the disregard of it by the State as a means of forming 
good or bad citizens, and miserable or happy men, this 
class of schools long afforded a notable example. Al- 
though any man who had proved his unfitness for any 
other occupation in life, was free, without examination 
or qualification, to open a school anywhere; although 
preparation for the functions he undertook, was required 
in a surgeon who assisted to bring a boy into the world, 
or might one day assist, perhaps, to send him out of it, 
— in the chemist, the attorney, the butcher, the baker, 
the candle-stick maker, — the whole round of crafts and 
trades, the schoolmaster excepted ; and although school- 
masters, as a race, were the blockheads and imposters 
that might naturally be expected to arise from such a 
state of things, and to flourish in it; these Yorkshire 
schoolmasters were the lowest and most rotten round in 
the whole ladder. Traders in the avarice, indifference, 
or imbecility of parents, and the helplessness of children; 
ignorant, sordid, brutal men, to whom few considerate 
persons would have entrusted the board and lodging of 
a horse or a dog; they formed the worthy corner-stone 
of a structure, which, for absurdity and a magnificent 
high-handed laissez-aller neglect, has rarely been ex- 
ceeded in the world. 

We hear sometimes of an action for damages against 
the unqualified medical practitioner, who has deformed 
a broken limb in pretending to heal it. But, what about 
the hundreds of thousands of minds that have been de- 
formed for ever by the incapable pettifoggers who have 
pretended to form them ! 



I make mention of the race, as of the Yorkshire school- 
masters, in the past tense. Though it has not yet finally 
disappeared, it is dwindling daily. A long day's work 
remains to be done about us in the way of education, 
Heaven knows! but great improvements and facilities 
towards the attainment of a good one, have been fur- 
nished, of late years, to those who can afford to pay for it. 

I cannot call to mind, now, how I came to hear about 
Yorkshire schools when I was a not very robust child, 
sitting in bye-places, near Rochester Castle, with ahead 
full of Partridge, Strap, Tom Pipes, and Sancho Panza; 
but I know that my first impressions of them were picked 
up at that time, and that they were, somehow or other, 
connected with a suppurated abscess that some boy had 
come home with, in consequence of his Yorkshire guide, 
philosopher, and friend, having ripped it open with an 
inky pen-knife. The impression made upon me, how- 
ever made, never left me. I was always curious about 
them — fell, long afterwards, and at sundry times, into 
the way of hearing more about them — at last, having an 
audience resolved to write about them. 

With that intent I went down into Yorkshire before I 
began this book, in very severe winter-time which is 
pretty faithfully described herein. As I wanted to see a 
schoolmaster or two, and was forewarned that those 
gentlemen might, in their modesty, be shy of receiving 
a visit from the author of the Pickwick Papers, I con- 
sulted with a professional friend here, who had a York- 
shire connection, and with whom I concerted a pious 
fraud. He gave me some letters of introduction, in the 
name, I think, of my travelling companion; they bore 
reference to a supposititious little boy who had been 
left with a widowed mother who didn't know what to do 

l6 



with him ; the poor lady had thought, as a means of 
thawing the tardy compassion of her relations in his 
behalf, of sending him to a Yorkshire school; I was the 
poor lady's friend, travelling that way; and if the re- 
cipient of the letter could inform me of a school in his 
neighbourhood, the writer would be very much obliged. 

I went to several places in that part of the country 
where I understood these schools to be most plentifully 
sprinkled, and had no occasion to deliver a letter until 
I came to a certain town which shall be nameless. The 
person to whom it was addressed, was not at home; but 
he came down at night, through the snow, to the inn 
where I was staying. It was after dinner; and he needed 
little persuasion to sit down by the fire in a warm corner, 
and take his share of the wine that was on the table. 

I am afraid he is dead now. I recollect he was a jovial, 
ruddy, broad-faced man ; that we got acquainted directly ; 
and that we talked on all kinds of subjects, except the 
school, which he showed a great anxiety to avoid. 
"Was there any large school near?" I asked him, in 
reference to the letter. "Oh yes, " he said ; ' ' there was a 
prattybig'un." " Was it a good one?" I asked. "Ey!" 
he said, "it was as good as anoother; that was a' a 
matther of opinion;" and fell to looking at the fire, 
staring round the room, and whistling a little. On my 
reverting to some other topic that we had been discussing 
he recovered immediately; but, though I tried him again 
and again, I never approached the question of the school, 
even if he were in the middle of a laugh, without observ- 
ing that his countenance fell,, and that he became un- 
comfortable. At last, when we had passed a couple of 
hours or so, very agreeably, he suddenly took up his hat, 
and leaning- over the table and looking me full in the 



ace, said, in a low voice: " Weel, Misther, we've been 
vary pleasant toogather, and ar'll spak' my moind tiv'ee. 
Dinnot let the weedur send her lattle boy to yan o' our 
school-measthers, while there 's a harse to hoold in a' 
Lunnun, or a gootther to lie asleep in. Ar wouldn't 
mak' ill words amang my neeburs, and ar speak tiv'ee 
quiet loike. But I'm dom'd if ar can gang to bed and 
not tellee, for weedur's sak', to keep the lattle boy from 
a' sike scoondrels while there 's a harse to hoold in a' 
Lunnun, or a gootther to lie asleep in ! " Repeating these 
words with great heartiness, and with a solemnity on his 
jolly face that made it look twice as large as before, he 
shook hands and went away. I never saw him afterwards, 
but I sometimes imagine that I descry a faint reflection 
of him in John Browdie. 

Dickens followed this with a reprint of most of 
the first Preface which we have just been reading. 
It will be noticed how he amplifies the story of the 
Yorkshire attorney which he briefly related to 
Mrs. Hall in 1838, and we may point out here that 
the London "professional friend" was Thomas 
Mitton, the friend of Dickens' boyhood, his com- 
panion during- the Novelist's brief apprenticeship 
to the law, and later his confidential adviser and 
solicitor; while the Yorkshire lawyer is said to 
have been Thomas Todd of Frosterly ; so here is 
another prototype discovered, that of John Browdie, 
while we are also given the pathetic original of (or 

18 



rather, suggestion for) the unhappy Smike. We 
consider that Dickens was a great Realist in one 
sense of the word, and his "'fiction " is founded on 
"fact" to a remarkable extent. He was gifted 
with wonderful powers of observation, and a mag- 
nificent memory in which he stored for future 
reference all the thousand and one characters, 
scenes, and places which came into his very busy 
and varied life, more particularly his earlier jour- 
nalistic years; as a result he seldom had to fall 
back upon sheer invention for a character, but 
could usually take down from its mental pigeon- 
hole some real-life character and mould it to his 
requirements, for it is true that he frequently 
altered them a little to suit his purpose, and very 
often would blend several actual persons into one 
character; but we venture to say that there is 
hardly one amongst the multitude of his " dramatis 
personae" that was not derived, at least in part, 
from someone whom Dickens had met, marked, 
and mentally "filed for reference." It would be 
an interesting task for a Dickensian student some 
day to compile a complete " Key to the Characters 
Represented in the Novels of Charles Dickens"; 
but it ought to have been commenced while the 
great writer was alive and available for reference. 

19 



However, a vast number of prototypes have already 
been Identified, and every year seems to see a few- 
more discovered; undoubtedly this "actuality" 
which Dickens infused into his stories contributed 
largely to his wonderful popularity both then and 
now. 

The visit to Yorkshire mentioned in the second 
preface (and previously referred to in this article) 
deserves a little further notice, as it is replete with 
interest, especially when we compare the details 
found in the biographies and letters of Dickens 
with the imaginary journey performed by Squeers 
and Nicholas in the novel. 

This historic journey was made in January 1838 
in company with- his artist friend, Hablot K. 
Browne ("Phiz"), the illustrator of so many of 
Dickens' works, for the express purpose of gather- 
ing authentic material for " Nicholas Nickleby," 
for which he had just signed the agreement with 
Chapman and Hall, his publishers. The friends 
set off by the Glasgow mail-coach, travelling by 
way of Grantham, Newark, Retford, Doncaster, 
Wetherby, Boroughbridge, and Catterick, to Greta 
Bridge, where they stayed a night before proceed- 
ing to Barnard Castle (just over the Yorkshire 
border), the centre from which they intended to 

20 



pursue their investigations. In an amusing letter 
to his wife dated i February, Dickens described 
the journey to Greta, and it is curious to note how 
he worked into his novel any incidents which had 
struck him on the way; for instance, he wrote his 
wife that at Grantham he found '* the very best inn 
I have ever put up at," and in the book we read 
how two passengers, "wisely availing themselves 
of their arrival at one of the best inns in England, 
turned in for the night at the George at Grantham. " 
The *'very fastidious lady" who pretended to be 
expecting her carriage and "made the guard so- 
lemnly promise to stop every green chariot he saw 
coming" was founded on " a most delicious lady's 
maid " described in Dickens' letter to his wife, 
"who implored us to keep a sharp look out at the 
coach window as she expected the carriage was 
coming to meet her," instead of which only a very 
dirty girl appeared; and the incident of a school- 
mistress who showed Dickens a letter she was 
taking to one of her boys, wherein his father gave 
him a severe lecture, enforced with many texts of 
Scripture, on his refusal to eat boiled meat, was 
metamorphosed by the Author into the amusing 
story of Mobb's mother-in-law who "took to her 
bed on hearing that he would not eat fat." The 

21 



mention in the novel that Squeers and his party 
"were all put down together at the George and 
New Inn, Greta Bridge," is an instance of Dickens' 
trick of combining two localities or persons into 
one, for there are two distinct inns at Greta, *' The 
George Inn," and "The New Inn"; he often 
did this intentionally, particularly in his London 
scenes, where he delighted to mislead his readers 
by transposing and mixing up his localities, thus 
giving the modern Dickens student an enjoyable 
task in identifying and running to earth the various 
old inns and houses described. 

Dickens and Browne probably stayed at the 
King's Head Inn at Barnard Castle — an inn praised 
by Newman Noggs in the story for its "good ale"; 
tradition has it that he stayed some weeks there, 
writing part of "Nickleby," and the room he 
worked in and the very inkstand he used could be 
seen by the curious visitor; but as a matter of fact 
the travellers can have only remained there for a 
couple of nights at the most, as the whole journey 
was finished and Dickens back at work in London 
by 6 February. Barnard Castle was the centre of 
the nefarious profession which Dickens was about 
to expose; " all the schools are round about that 
place," as he wrote to Mrs. Dickens; and near by 

22 



is the little village of Bowes, once a Roman station, 
still boasting" Roman remains and the ruins of an 
old castle, famous to some extent through being 
the subject of one of Turner's beautiful pictures, 
but now celebrated to all time as containing the 
original of " Dotheboys Hall," the infamous 
"Academy" of Mr. Wackford Squeers. The re- 
mains of the particular building are still existing, 
and agree perfectly with the details described in 
the novel, and in the churchyard of Bowes Church 
("the old church near the school" described in 
the letter) is the gravestone of "George Ashton 
Taylor, son of John Taylor, of Trowbridge, Wilt- 
shire, who died suddenly at Mr. William Shaw's 
Academy, of this place, April 13th, 1822, aged 19 
years " — the unhappy lad whose "ghost put Smike 
into my head, upon the spot." 

Not a link now seems missing in the chain of 
evidence connecting Squeers with Shaw. By some 
happy freak of fate one of the actual Yorkshire 
Schoolmaster's business cards has been preserved 
to us, which reads as follows: "Education — by 
Mr. Shaw and Able Assistants, at Bowes Academy, 
near Greta Bridge, Yorkshire. Youth are carefully 
instructed in the English, Latin, and Greek Lan- 
guages ; Writing, Common and Decimal Arith- 

2?. 



metic; Book-keeping, Mensuration, Surveying, 
Geometry, Geography, and Navigation, with the 
most useful branches of the Mathematics; and 
are provided with Board, Clothes, and every neces- 
sary, at Twenty Guineas per annum each. No 
extra charges whatever. Doctor's bills excepted. 
No vacations, except by the Parents' desire. N.B. 
The French Language Two Guineas per Annum 
Extra." Then follows a list of addresses where 
further particulars and "most respectable Refer- 
ences " may be obtained, while on the reverse of 
the card is a list of the clothes each boy is required 
to bring, and a footnote. " Mr. Shaw attends at 
the George and Blue Boar, High Holborn the 
three first weeks in the months of January and 
July"; this precious copy, however, has written 
across it, presumably in Shaw's own hand, "Mr. 
Shaw leaves Saracen's Head, Snow Hill, |- past 6 
o'clock, Thursday morning, 28 July " — the Sara- 
cen's Head, mark you, the very inn where we are 
introduced to Mr. Wackford Squeers ! Shaw's card 
reads almost word for word with Squeers' advertise- 
ment, except for a few touches of travesty which 
Dickens inserted, such as "singlestick," "fortifi- 
cation and every other branch of classical litera- 
ture," and the suggestive "razor" in the list of 

24 



the boys' outfit; both the advertisements include 

the ominous words *' no vacations," it will be noted. 

The reminiscences that have been preserved of 

Shaw's school at Bowes fit in only too well with 

Dickens' description of Dotheboys Hall, and the 

disgusting details revealed in the action, ''Jones 

versus Shaw," Court of Common Pleas, 30 October 

1823, show that Dickens was well within the mark 

when he told Mrs. Hall that "the rascalities of 

those Yorkshire Schoolmasters cannot easily be 

exaggerated," and that he had truly "kept down 

the strong truth " and thrown as much comicality 

over it as he could. To quote from a contemporary 

newspaper, the above "was an action to recover 

damages of a Schoolmaster in Yorkshire on account 

of the injury done to the health of two sons of the 

plaintiff, one of whom was alleged to have lost his 

sight from the neglig-ence of the defendant." It was 

tried before Judge Park, Mr. Sergeant Vaughan 

appearing for the father oi the boys, Richard and 

William Jones; William, the blind one, gave the 

following evidence : 

Witness will be twelve years old in January; could see 
as well as any person when he went to Mr. Shaw's 
school; he had small pox a year before, but it did not 
affect his eyes. The first week he was treated very well 

25 D 



he got toast and tea for breakfast, but they then turned 
him among the rest of the boys and gave him hasty 
pudding for breakfast ; for dinner the boys had meat and 
potatoes on Sunday, and on other days bread and cheese ; 
when any gentlemen came to see their children, Mr. 
Shaw used to come down and tell the boys who had not 
their jackets and trousers on to get under the table and 
hide themselves; the boys were frequently without a 
jacket or trousers; they washed in a large trough; there 
were only two towels for all the boys, which the big boys 
used to pre-occupy; their supper consisted of warm milk 
and water and bread, which was called tea; five boys 
generally slept in a bed; his brother and three boys 
slept with him ; there were thirty beds in the room ; in 
some beds there were only three or four boys; every 
morning the boys used to flea the beds for which purpose 
they were provided with quills by the ushers, and if they 
did not catch all the fleas they were beaten. On Sunday 
they had pot skimmings for tea, in which there was 
vermin ; the ushers offered a penny for every maggot, 
but on their being found, the ushers would not pay them. 
About nine months after he had been to the school his 
sight was affected ; he could not see to write his copy, 
and Mr. Shaw threatened to beat him; the next day he 
could not see at all, and Mr. Shaw sent him to the wash- 
house, as he had no doctor, and he would not have him 
in his room; there were eighteen boys there besides him- 
self, of whom two were totally blind. In November, he 
was quite blind, and was then sent to a private room 
where there were nine other boys blind, a doctor was 
sent for, but he had no medical aid in the wash-house; 
the doctor (Benning) then discharged him, saying, " that 
he was blind of one eye, but could see with the other," 

26 



this was what the doctor said, but he could not see through 
the other. Dr. Benningused to come to the school when 
the boys had nearly lost their sight. He merely looked 
at the boys' eyes and turned them off; he gave them no 
physic or eye-water or anything else. There was no 
difference in his fare during his illness, or his health. 
Mr. Shaw occasionally saw him, but gave him no assist- 
ance. The same number of boys slept in his bed during 
his illness as before. 

Richard Jones corroborated the statement of his brother, 
adding, that he had the itch all the time he was there; 
twenty other boys laboured under the same disorder. 

Two boys who had each lost one eye, and one quite 
blind were also examined. Benjamin Clatton described 
the mode of flea-hunting; there was a quill to each bed, 
which the several bed-fellows filled and emptied into the 
fire. 

Mr. Tyrrell and Mr. Lawrence, two medical gentlemen, 
deposed that the cause of these boys' blindness was gross 
neglect. 



Poor, miserable, little boys ! how it makes one's 
blood boil to read even these bald outlines of their 
suflPerings! And yet the defence "was prepared to 
show that Mr. and Mrs. Shaw evinced the most 
tender regard for the pupils of the school " ! Hap- 
pily the Judge did not agree with Mr. Sergeant 
Pell, for the defence — note the name! for surely 
here is the absolutely undeniable prototype of that 
oily old rascal, Solomon Pell of Pickwick fame; 

27 



one can just imagine Solomon undertaking the 
defence of a case like this. 

The verdict was for the plaintiff, with damages 
;^300, and another action brought against Shaw 
on 31 October by the father of a boy named 
Ocherby, who also lost his sight at the school, 
resulted in a similar verdict with the same amount 
of damages. As Shaw was said to have paid the 
eminent oculist. Sir W. Adams, a fee of 300 guineas 
to investigate the disease (though apparently this 
was only done after the poor little victims had been 
ruined for life), and would be liable to very heavy 
costs on these two actions, besides the ;^6oo 
damages, it will be seen that the total cost would 
be considerable, but as Shaw obtained time to pay 
the damages, did pay them, and continued his 
school, it is evident that the punishment was not a 
sufficient deterrent either to him or to other prac- 
titioners of this infamous trade, and there was still 
a crying need for reform when Charles Dickens 
commenced his crusade against the evil. It is a 
curious thing that a few chapters in a work of 
fiction should be able to accomplish a reform that 
all the pomp and majesty of law was powerless to 
effect, but it really looks as though the Yorkshire 
Schools system might have lasted to this day,, de- 

28 



spite actions such as the one just described, if 
Dickens had not awakened the public conscience 
with his "Nicholas Nickleby"; this is, of course, 
a great tribute to the wonderful power Dickens 
wielded in his pen, and probably no other author 
of the period could have gained the ear of the 
public like he did. One by one the hateful York- 
shire Schools closed their doors, and their owners 
slunk away into obscurity; they may not all have 
been as bad as Shaw or Squeers, but the system 
was a rotten one and not fit to be tolerated in a 
so-called Christian country. 

Shaw was brought into public notice again under 
suspicion of being aimed at in Dickens' portrayal 
of Squeers, and we are told that he became an 
object of ridicule to most of his neighbours (though 
some of them would have it that he was rather an 
amiable and humane man in private life !), and 
this and the ruin that soon overtook his business 
through loss of pupils, broke his spirit and hastened 
his death; we can feel but little pity for him, 
though perhaps he is entitled to some, for from 
now to the end of time he is doubly damned, and 
must bear the sins not only of William Shaw, but 
also of Wackford Squeers of Dotheboys Hall. 

CUMBERLAND CLARK. 
29 



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Doughty Street 

Deceviher i^th. 1838 

My Dear Mrs. Hall. 

I am exceedingly obligfed to you for your kind 
note, and the interesting- anecdote which you tell 
so well. I have laid it by in the MS. of the first 
number of Nickleby, & shall keep it there in con- 
firmation of the truth of my little picture. 

Depend upon it that the rascalities of those York- 
shire Schoolmasters cannot easily be exag-gerated, 
and that I have kept down the strong truth and 
thrown as much comicality over it as I could, 
rather than disgust and weary the reader with its 
fouler aspects. The identical scoundrel you speak 
of, I saw — curiously enough. His name is Shaw; 
the action was tried (I believe) eight or ten years 
since, and if I am not much mistaken another 
action was brought against him by the parents of a 
miserable child, a cancer in whose head he opened 
with an inky penknife, and so caused his death. 
The country for miles round was covered, when 
I was there, with deep snow. There is an old 

31 



church near the school, and the first gravestone I 
stumbled on that dreary winter afternoon was 
placed above the grave of a boy, eighteen long 
years old, who had died suddenly, the inscription 
said; I suppose his heart broke — the Camel falls 
down '* suddenly" when they heap the last load 
upon his back — died at that wretched place. I 
think his ghost put Smike into my head, upon the 
spot. 

I went down in an assumed name, taking a plaus- 
ible letter to an old Yorkshire attorney from an- 
other attorney in town, telling him how a friend 
had been left a widow and wanted to place her boys 
at a Yorkshire School, in hopes of thawing the 
frozen compassion of her relations. The man of 
business gave me an introduction to one or two 
schools, but at night he came down to the Inn 
where I was stopping, and after much hesitation 
and confusion — he was a large-headed flat-nosed 
red-faced old fellow — said with a degree of feeling 
one would not have given him credit for, that the 
matter had been upon his mind all day — that they 
were sad places for mothers to send their orphan 
boys too — that he hoped I would not give up him 
as my adviser — but that she had better do anything 
with them — let them hold horses, run errands — 



fling them in any way upon the mercy of the World 
— rather than trust them there. This was an 
attorney, a well-fed man of business, and a rough 
Yorkshireman ! 

Mrs. Dickens and myself will be delighted to 
see the friend you speak of — we write in regards to 
yourself and Mr. Hall — and I throw myself single- 
handed upon your good nature, and beseech you 
to forgive me this long story — which you ought to 
do, as you have been the means of drawing it 
from me. 

Believe me. Dear Mrs. Hall, 

Very faithfully Yours, 

CHARLES DICKENS. 



33 




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