A MAN who has lived with continually hearing his great-great-grandfather pilloried as the cruel schoolmaster in a Charles Dickens novel is setting the record straight after years of research.

Since the 19th century, the popular myth has grown in Teesdale and beyond that Wackford Squeers, the detestable schoolmaster of Dotheboys Hall in Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, was a parody of Mr William Shaw, who met Dickens during his tour of the Yorkshire Schools in 1838.

But Shaw's great-great-grandson, Mr Ted Shaw, of High Etherley near Bishop Auckland, who has long had an interest in tracing his ancestry, has discovered that William was the popular head teacher of Bowes Academy, four miles from Barnard Castle, for nearly 30 years.

Mr Shaw's interest was fired by a piece of his grandparents' furniture - a bureau - which he was told came from the academy, which is now officially named Dotheboys Hall. His grandparents did not know much about William, but Mr Shaw became keen to learn more.

Born in Sunderland, he cycled up to Barnard Castle at the age of 15 to stay at the youth hostel in Galgate.

"On my trip to Teesdale, the vicar pulled out the parish records and I discovered there were quite a lot more members of the Shaw family that we did not know about," he said. "I then became hooked on genealogy."

He discovered that his great-grandfather, Jonathan, was William Shaw's second son. Jonathan had become a surgeon with a practice in Sunderland, hence the Wearside connection.

As his research unearthed all kinds of hitherto unknown information, he found written evidence of former pupils that vouched that William Shaw was a good and kind man.

But various articles written at the time of Dickens' visit set him down in local folklore as the villainous Wackford Squeers.

"The people of Bowes were very supportive of William," said Mr Shaw. "But even so, Bowes Academy closed soon after Nicholas Nickleby was published."

Although his relative owned a tremendous amount of property in Bowes at one point, Mr Shaw believes the effect of the academy's closure on the rest of the local economy to be tremendous.

As well as produce being bought locally, the academy employed 12 woman servants, along with a shoemaker and a tailor to cater for upwards of 200 boys.

William Shaw was first in partnership with the local vicar, the Rev Richard Wilson, from about 1810, when the school was known as Shaw and Wilson's Academy. But when the vicar dropped out in 1814 it became known as Bowes Academy, where William Shaw flourished in sole ownership until 1840.

Mr Shaw has visited the Dickens museum at Doughty Street in London, where there are letters by one of the pupils, writing that he was treated fairly by William. This is borne out in school books belonging to two other pupils.

The true story was given further credence by S J Rust - a great Dickensian and member of the Dickens Fellowship - who reviewed the letters and books in 1938, to mark the 100th anniversary of the author's visit to Bowes. He drew the conclusion that the pupils had been treated well and the school was not deserving of the castigation it received in Nicholas Nickleby.

Also, in his biography of 1886, actor H F Lloyd devoted a chapter or so to the time he had spent at the academy. He stated that the boys were well fed and never ill treated.

But the fact that Charles Dickens, following his visit to the Yorkshire Schools, had written in his diary: "Saw William Shaw today," began the utterly groundless myth that he and Wackford Squeers were one and the same. Mr Shaw believes this to be partly to do with Dickens giving Squeers the same initials as his great-great-grandfather.

Other similarities marked Shaw down as Squeers: Squeers had a patch over one eye, while Shaw had a scale over his eye due to disease.

Also adding fuel to the fire was the fact that in 1823, Shaw had been involved in a case where some of the boys in his care had gone blind, due, it was alleged, to gross neglect.

"Dickens took a lot of evidence from that trial and did the usual reporter's job of fitting it to suit his own interests," said his great-great-grandson, somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

But Shaw and the boys had, in fact, been suffering from trachoma, a disease that causes ulceration of the eyelids. "But they did not know what it was in those days," said Mr Shaw. The disease was waterborne and contagious, which spread with the boys using the same washing bowls and towels.

It was not common in England, and was later thought to have been brought back by soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars. But, far from being grossly neglected, the boys were attended weekly for almost a year by Dr Benning of Barnard Castle, who followed the advice of the top oculist of the day.

Another myth is that the character of Smike was a caricature of pupil George Ashton Taylor. Taylor was, in fact, a former pupil of the academy, who died aged 19 before Dickens had ever visited the school.

Dickens had seen his grave in Bowes churchyard and got the idea of Smike from there.

One thing that puzzled Mr Shaw was how his ancestor came to live at Bowes, after being born in London in 1782. He thinks William Shaw's father was born on a farm called Bleath Gill, just over the border near Kirkby Stephen, in what was then Westmoreland.

A box of documents later found at Dotheboys Hall contained the will of a man called Henry Sayer. "The first thing that hit me was the name William Shaw," said Mr Shaw. That particular William Shaw had married Sayer's daughter Mary. They had two children before Mary died and William remarried.

"He had a further three children, one of those being my great-great grandfather," said Mr Shaw. "If the will had not been connected with the family, why was it at the hall?"

"That answers the question of why he came to Bowes. He was coming back to his roots. But why he was born in London I don't know," he added.

Shaw was to marry a local Bowes girl, Bridget Laidman, and together they had nine children. When his wife died he moved a mile along the road to Rove Gill, where he lived with two of his daughters until his death in 1850.

One of his great-great-grandson's regrets is that William Shaw did not live for another year, when he would have been included in the census, making more information available.

But as he delves deeper into his family tree, he has discovered relatives in New Zealand, who have since visited Dotheboys Hall.

He also has a son, Adam, and grandson, Alex, who will ensure the continuity of the Shaw name.