In the early 19th century many Yorkshire schools were notorious for providing cheap, squalid places for parents to dump their unwanted sons and daughters. In 1838, to carry out research for Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens went to Yorkshire to meet William Shaw, the headmaster of the infamous school, Bowes Academy. Shaw had been prosecuted when two of his pupils went blind, allegedly due to the appalling conditions at the school.
This newspaper article describes the legal trial in which the school was investigated for negligence. It includes shockingly gory details, including infestations of maggots and fleas, and beatings given to boys who failed writing exercises. It was Dickens’s intention to expose the horrors of these schools to the public: thus Shaw became the inspiration for the monstrous Wackford Squeers, headmaster of Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby.