A FAMILY’S desire to discover more about their County Durham ancestors has revealed an unexpected connection to one of Charles Dickens’ most celebrated novels.

Robert Richardson decided to investigate his Teesdale ancestors as a Christmas surprise for his mother Janet Richardson (nee Simpson), who was brought up in Barnard Castle.

Keen to find out more, Mr Richardson, 40, of Farley, in Salisbury, joined forces with his father John and genealogist Michael Rochford, from Heir-line.co.uk

Their findings were truly amazing.

Not only did they discover a Simpson was a Royal Huntsmen to Charles II but their research revealed Mr Richardson’s five-time great grandfather, Edward Simpson, could be the inspiration behind Wackford Squeers – the villainous schoolmaster in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby.

Dickens visited Teesdale in 1839 to research the novel and, although Mr Simpson died 14 years earlier, Mr Rochford believes there is firm evidence to suggest he inspired the character.

Simpson ran Wodencroft Lodge Academy School for Boys in Teesdale in the late 1700s up until his death in 1824, when the school was taken over by his sons.

During this time, he advertised the school in the press, including The Times. Mr Rochford discovered the adverts were almost identically worded to the fictional adverts placed by Squeers in the novel, even down to the location of the school.

An extract from the advert reads: “Education. – At Mr Simpson’s Academy, Wodencroft Lodge, near Greta Bridge, Yorkshire, young gentlemen are boarded, and accurately instructed in the English, Latin, and Greek Languages, writing, arithmetic, merchants’ accounts and the most useful branches of the mathematics...”

It was an intriguing discovery, especially as many believe the Bowes schoolmaster William Shaw to be the sole inspiration for Squeers.

Like Squeers, Shaw wore an eye-patch, had the initials W.S. and had been brought before the courts for child neglect.

However, Mr Rochford is not convinced and Dickens himself stated that “more than one Yorkshire schoolmaster lay claims to being the original of Squeers”.

“It seems to me that Dickens did not base Squeers on anybody, but he must certainly have seen Edward Simpson’s adverts,” said Mr Rochford.

“Simpson died 14 years before Dickens wrote the story but perhaps his reputation lived on in the area and Dickens learned of Simpson when he came to visit.”

An article in The Times on July 24, 1897 draws similar comparisons.

Before reproducing Simpson’s advert, of Jan 3, 1801, the author states: “The Times has unearthed from its own columns, if not the prototype of the immortal Mr Squeers, at least the origin of his advertisement.”

Mr Richardson said he and his parents were delighted with Mr Rochford’s discoveries.

“It is fascinating to think our ancestors could be the inspiration behind such a notorious Dickens character,” he said.

“I has has inspired us to continue our research. This is not the end of the story.”