Dickens in Teesdale

Charles Dickens came to Teesdale in February 1838, to research the notorious Yorkshire Schools for The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

He travelled by stage-coach with his illustrator Hablot Browne, who called himself ‘Phiz’ to chime with Dickens’ ‘Boz’. Reaching ‘the farther borders of Yorkshire’ and crossing the River Tees into County Durham, they stayed at coaching inns in Greta Bridge and Barnard Castle and visited the Ancient Unicorn at Bowes, described in the novel as ‘the delightful village of Dotheboys’ by the rascally schoolmaster Wackford Squeers. After a short but productive time in the North Pennines – now recognised as England’s wildest, most remote and most unspoilt Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty -- they returned to London by way of Darlington and York.


On 31st January 1838, the young novelist Charles Dickens stepped off the London coach at Greta Bridge. This was the start of a momentous two-day visit which led to his creation of the villainous schoolmaster Wackford Squeers and a ruthless exposé of the notorious ‘Yorkshire schools’. Once the public had been alerted to the abuses perpetrated in some of these establishments, many of them were forced to close. The novel was Nicholas Nickleby, and the Yorkshire chapters vividly evoke the places and characters Dickens encountered on his trip.

After a night’s sleep and a huge breakfast, Dickens and his friend and illustrator Hablot K. Browne (‘Phiz’) set off for Barnard Castle, where they booked in for two nights at The King’s Head. The next day they travelled to Bowes, where they met William Shaw, master of one of the schools, and saw the grave of ‘Smike’. Later that day they made their way to Darlington and boarded the York coach to return to London.

Travel by stagecoach in 1838, in the depths of winter, was not for the faint-hearted. The journey from London up the Great North Road took two days. The two travellers were on the road for 29 hours at an average speed of 8.5 miles per hour, in atrocious weather. Dickens wrote to his wife the day after they arrived:

As we came further north, the snow grew deeper. At about eight o’clock it began to fall heavily, and as we crossed the wild heaths hereabout, there was no vestige of a track…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.


The Three Inns at Greta Bridge.


Where the Dickens is George?


Much has been written over the years about the history of the three Inns at Greta Bridge. Most notably is the fact that Charles Dickens stayed at the hamlet on the night of January 31st. 1838. on his way to Dotheboys Hall where he compiled notes for his writing of Nicholas Nickelby.


Much confusion has occurred in the historic recording, as the Inns varied their names several times and the facts have been muddled by these changes. As we shall see the cause of these changes lay in the former landlord of the George and Dragon, one George Martin.


The oldest building, in the hamlet existed in the 16th Century and is now incorporated into the present Morritt Hotel on the West of the River Greta. This was a small inn and known by the earliest suggested name of The George and Dragon and managed by a Mr. George Martin.


In 1814, George Martin left the George and Dragon and moved over the bridge to The Morritt’s Arms a new Coaching Inn. This inn on the East side of the River was built during the 1750’s by J. S. Morritt of Rokeby Park and George Martin was appointed licensee and post master from 1814 until 1826. These two Inns worked alongside each other until sometime in the 1820’s the smaller Inn closed.


The last of the three inns was converted from a farm house called Thorpe Grange by a Col. S. Craddock, of Hartforth. Upon seeing one of the two inns closing he decided on his commercial venture. He called his new Coaching Inn “The New Inn” and subsequently enticed George Martin in 1826 from the Morritt’s Arms to run the Inn and become Post Master. George Martin stamped his name on the inn by renaming it “The George and New Inn Posting-House.”


Some time later The Morritt’s Arms licence was transferred back to the inn on the West side of the river and the old inn opened up again under the name it has been known ever since vis.“The Morritt Arms."


So where in Greta Bridge was the famous “George”, the subject of many records, paintings and stories? Having researched these matters in some depth the closest theory I can think of is that wherever George Martin was, that inn was referred to as “The George” at the time. He had built up such a reputation as a fine landlord that wherever he went the name George meant quality service and he traded on his good name.


Charles Dickens wrote his letter from Greta Bridge to his wife, Kate, and posted it from the post office at The George and New Inn on February 1st 1838. and referred to “The George” as “the very best inn I have ever been put up in”. But this was not the George referred to in the Parish Records 1823 as being on the North side of the River. Was it perhaps “The George”, the one where, it has been thought for many years, Charles Dickens and his illustrator and travelling companion might have spent the night. Or was it the Martin’s establishment just quarter of a mile away across The

Street? There is no doubt it was the latter and Dickens’ in his book Nicholas Nickelby lightly disguises George Martin’s name as Swallow!


“The Morritt Arms has again changed its name, to “The Morritt” and thrives to this day and The Coach House, in The Square, offers bed and breakfasts to many travellers from the South of England journeying to Scotland and home again.


By George, nothing changes!

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