David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page Home Page Go to the Home Page Search this site Site Map
Back to the Home Page

Yorkshire Field Trip
Cheap boarding schools in Yorkshire were advertised in the London papers with an emphasis on 'no holiday' and were a convenient place to dispose of unwanted or illegitimate children. Dickens and his illustrator Hablot Browne (phiz) traveled incognito to Yorkshire on a fact-finding mission in January 1838. There they encountered William Shaw, headmaster of Bowes Academy, in whose school several boys had died or went blind from mistreatment and neglect.

Visiting a cemetery in the area Dickens found the graves of many of the students of these schools and one in particular Dickens said "put Smike into my head". Smike was the abused inmate of Dotheboys Hall, the fictional school he based on Shaw's Bowes Academy in Nicholas Nickleby. The fictional headmaster of Dotheboys Hall, Wackford Squeers, was based on William Shaw.

The ignorance of the schoolmaster Squeers is more than a comic exaggeration. Edgar Johnson, in his biography of Dickens, notes that as late as 1851, 2.5 per cent of the schoolmasters and mistresses in private schools signed their census returns with a mark.

English Locations

Dickens and the Theatre - Moskovitz
Three Actors
Herb Moskovitz examines Dickens' love of the theatre.

Buy Dickens at Huckleberry and Hodge formatting graphic
William Macready

The theater is central to the plot of Nicholas Nickleby and Dickens dedicated the novel to his friend, distinguished actor and theater manager William Macready.

Dickens' life during the serialization of Nicholas Nickleby
Mar 1838 - Sep 1839

Dickens' age: 26-27

March 1838

Daughter Mary (Mamie) Dickens born

November 1838

Oliver Twist published in 3 volumes. Dickens revised the monthly parts for the publication which was the first published under Charles Dickens instead of Boz. Monthly serialization of Oliver Twist in Bentley's Miscellany continues.

Visiting Manchester with Hablot Browne, Dickens meets Daniel and William Grant, originals for the Cheeryble brothers in Nickleby.

February 1839

Resigns as editor of Bentley's Miscellany

April 1839

Oliver Twist Serialization concluded in Bentley's Miscellany.

Rents a cottage in Petersham for four months

June 1839

Goes to the races at Hampton, scene of the quarrel between Mulberry Hawk and Lord Frederick in Nickleby.

Dickens' publishers, Chapman and Hall, commission artist Daniel Maclise to paint a portrait of Dickens. Maclise goes to Petersham where Dickens sits for the portrait known as the Nickleby Portrait, an engraving of the portrait used as the frontispiece for the novel.

September 1839

Nicholas Nickleby
Nicholas Nickleby (2002)

Excellent retelling of one of Dickens' best. Starring Charlie Hunnam, Nathan Lane and Christopher Plummer.

Buy Dickens at Huckleberry and Hodge
formatting graphic
Nicholas Nickleby

Nicholas Nickleby - Published in monthly parts Mar 1838 - Sep 1839
Read it online | Shop for the Book | Shop for the Video | Illustrations | Locations

Wackford Squeers by Harold Copping Dickens third novel was illustrated by Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz). Dickens and Browne, traveling under assumed names, visited the notorious boarding schools in Yorkshire to do background research for the novel, which deals with the mistreatment of children sent to these schools. Although the central theme takes on this serious subject, Dickens mixes in some of his best comic writing.

Dickens biographers George Gissing and G.K. Chesterton praised the comic characterization of the novel and Peter Ackroyd, in his biography Dickens, says that Nicholas Nickleby is "perhaps the funniest novel in the English language."

Plot (contains spoilers)

Hoping to provide support for his mother and sister after the death of his father Nicholas turns to his uncle Ralph for assistance. Ralph wants nothing to do with his late brother's family and feigns to help Nicholas by securing a position as assistant master at the Dotheboys Hall school in Yorkshire run by unscrupulous Wackford Squeers. Nicholas soon becomes disgusted with Squeer's treatment of his pupils and leaves, giving Squeers a sound thrashing and liberating Smike, Nicholas thrashes Squeers at Dotheboys Hall - Phizwhom Squeers has mistreated for years.

Nicholas and Smike move in with Newman Noggs in London and then travel to Portsmouth where they take up acting in Crummles stage company. On hearing of the mistreatment of his sister at the hands of his uncle, Nicholas and Smike return to London. Nicholas secures employment with the philanthropic Cheeryble brothers and later marries Madeline Bray whom he has helped rescue from the evil designs of Ralph and Arthur Gride.

Principal Characters:
Character descriptions contain spoilers
Nicholas Nickleby
Ralph Nickleby
Kate Nickleby
Mrs. Nickleby
Wackford Squeers
Mrs Squeers
Wackford Squeers Jr
Fanny Squeers
Matilda Price
John Browdie
Newman Noggs
The Kenwigs
Mr Lillyvick
Henrietta Petowker
Miss La Creevy
Madame Mantalini
Mr Mantalini
Vincent Crummles
Mrs Crummles
Miss Ninetta Crummles
Tommy Folair
Thomas Lenville
The Wititterlys
Cheeryble Brothers
Frank Cheeryble
Madeline Bray
Walter Bray
Tim Linkinwater
Lord Frederick Verisopht
Sir Mulberry Hawk
Mr Snawley
Arthur Gride
Peg Sliderskew
Nicholas Nickleby Links:
The Dickens Page
Robert Giddings review of the 2002 film version
Wikipedia - Nicholas Nickleby

The Cheeryble Brothers

The Cheeryble Brothers The story of the benevolent brothers who aid Nicholas and his family resulted in Dickens getting hundreds upon hundreds of applications for loans, gifts, and other requests for aid to be forwarded to the originals of the Cheeryble brothers. In the preface to the Cheap Edition of Nicholas Nickleby in 1848 Dickens claimed that the brothers were based on real persons "with whom I never interchanged any communication in my life". Paul Davis in The Penguin Dickens Companion says that the brothers were based on William and Daniel Grant, Manchester calico merchants whom Dickens met in 1838.

Squeers' Advertisement in the London Papers

"EDUCATION. -- At Mr Wackford Squeers's Academy, Dotheboys Hall, at the delightful village of Dotheboys, near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire, Youth are boarded, clothed, booked, furnished with pocket-money, provided with all necessaries, instructed in all languages living and dead, mathematics, orthography, geometry, astronomy, trigonometry, the use of the globes, algebra, single stick (if required), writing, arithmetic, fortification, and every other branch of classical literature. Terms, twenty guineas per annum. No extras, no vacations, and diet unparalleled. Mr Squeers is in town, and attends daily, from one till four, at the Saracen's Head, Snow Hill. N.B. An able assistant wanted. Annual salary 5 pounds. A Master of Arts would be preferred."

Dickens Describes the Boys at Dotheboys Hall

The boys at Dotheboys Hall receiving brimstone and treacle from Mrs Squeers Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot, and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect.

There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen, dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining.


There once lived, in a sequestered part of the county of Devonshire, one Mr Godfrey Nickleby: a worthy gentleman, who, taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who in her turn had taken him for the same reason. Thus two people who cannot afford to play cards for money, sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.

Back to Top
Sketches by Boz | Pickwick | Oliver Twist | Nickleby | Old Curiosity Shop | Barnaby Rudge
Chuzzlewit | Christmas Carol | Christmas Books | Dombey and Son | Copperfield | Bleak House
Hard Times | Little Dorrit | Tale of Two Cities | Great Expectations | Our Mutual Friend
Edwin Drood | Minor Works | The Uncommercial Traveller