THREE weeks ago we told how exactly 150 years a 200-seat Unitarian chapel had been opened in Barnard Castle, dedicated to the memory of George Brown, the founder of the D&S Times who had died a few months earlier.

Now we learn that Mr Brown once tried to sue Charles Dickens on behalf of the people of Barney who felt the great author had much maligned them in his novel, Nicholas Nickleby.

Mr Brown, originally from Staindrop, was orphaned at the age of 13 but rose to become a barrister and all round big player in Barney. He was connected with the railway and the board of health, and started this newspaper in 1847.

It was not unusual, says David Warhurst, of Ingleby Arncliffe, for Unitarians to be press pioneers – the Manchester Guardian, for instance, was founded in 1821 by a Unitarian.

Dickens, who himself had Unitarian sympathies, stayed in the King’s Head in Barney on February 2, 1838, while researching the “Yorkshire schools” which are the backdrop of Nicholas Nickleby. “Yorkshire schools” were large and draughty mansions where rich London residents sent their nuisance sons to board, out of sight, out of mind.

The novel’s Dotheboys Hall was apparently based on Shaw’s academy in Bowes where the inspiration for the character Smike is said to be found lying in the churchyard (a second inspiration for Smike is said to be lying in Lynesack churchyard near Cockfield).

Darlington and Stockton Times:

Charles Dickens

Anyway, one or more of Mr Brown’s clients is said to have instructed the barrister to take on the author on behalf of Teesdale, although whether anything became of it, we don’t know.

David continues: “Unitarians are still active in the North-East with causes in Stockton, Newcastle, Whitby, York, Scarborough, Leeds and Bradford.

“In Stockton we can trace our foundation back to 1688 and we believe that we are the oldest nonconformist church in the area. In 2006/7, we replaced our large 1873 Victorian building with a new smaller meeting house designed to the best low energy standards and incorporating solar roof tiles – which we believe to be the first place of worship in the area to generate its own renewable electricity.”

In Barnard Castle, the George Brown Unitarian church in Newgate was demolished in 1957 and now the St Mary’s parish centre is on its site.

Mr Brown’s wife died in 1840 when their son, also George, was just five. Mr Brown remarried, and young George so disliked his new stepmother that he became a Methodist missionary on Papua New Guinea to escape her.

In 1886, George returned to preach in the church dedicated to his father – but he didn’t remain. He died in 1917 in Sydney, Australia, and a memorial to him can be seen in the Methodist church in Galgate, in Barnard Castle.