How a chance encounter secured Amen Corner's place in town history
Earlier this year, retired Barnard Castle teacher Margaret Watson raised concerns about the state of the Amen Corner town garden at the junction of Newgate and The Bank.
While volunteers set about restoring the garden to its former glory, Ms Watson delved deeper into the history of the area.
HAD it not been for a chance meeting in 1838, it is unlikely Amen Corner would have secured its place in Barnard Castle’s history.
At the time, two semi-detached shops occupied what has become a popular town garden and when author Charles Dickens visited Barney that year, his attention was drawn to the lower of the units.
The old fashioned shop displayed the sign of a local craftsman – Humphreys Clockmaster.
It was run by Thomas Humphreys. He had served his apprenticeship with Robert Thwaites, another clockmaker in the town, before joining up with John Bolton in Chester-le-Street.
Returning to Barney in 1815, Mr Humphreys established his business in the shop at Amen Corner.
Dickens, who had travelled north to carry out research for his forthcoming novel Nicholas Nickleby, was particularly interested to see a long case clock standing in a recess just within the shop’s entrance.
Having made himself known to Thomas Humphreys, Dickens mentioned the clock and was introduced to his son William, the maker of the clock.
Thomas Humphreys explained he had installed the clock in the shop doorway so people knew what time it was.
Dissenters had refused to pay rates to the nearby church which included the cost of upkeep and repair of the tower clock, so the curate in charge had stopped it.
Ms Watson describes Humphreys’ decision to display the clock as a “public spirited gesture which would have been appreciated by many who lived on The Bank and close to the river”.
She adds: “In spite of employment in the mills, there was serious poverty and hardship, including sub-standard housing.
“Very few people in that location would have a watch or clock.”
Dickens and Humphreys continued their long conversation about clocks before the subject of schools – the reason for Dickens’ trip to the area – was broached.
“Humphreys told Dickens what he knew about the way pupils were treated in such establishments,” writes Ms Watson.
“It is believed Thomas Humphreys actually accompanied Dickens and his illustrator when they set off to visit the Bowes Academy.”
Thomas Humphreys was naturally proud of his association with Dickens and Nicholas Nickleby, the book which followed his visit to Barnard Castle. Dickens enthusiasts were also attracted to the town to catch a glimpse of Humphreys and his famous Dutch long case clock.
However, all was not as it appeared.
The clock, of course, had been made by William Humphreys who, coincidentally, was born in the same year as Dickens. William learned the trade from his father and became a skilled horologist.
Ms Watson writes: “In the summer of 1838 following Dickens’ meeting with his father, William moved to Old Hartlepool.
“He set up shop in Middlegate, having taken with him the original clock from the recess in his father’s shop doorway.
“It was this clock, made by William, which had attracted the attention of Charles Dickens.”
Having moved from Amen Corner to bigger premises in Market Place, father Thomas then made a large round-faced clock with his name prominently displayed on the face.
For many years, this clock was viewed and photographed by Dickens enthusiasts – the presumption was that it was the original clock their acclaimed author had seen.
The clock which had attracted Charles Dickens’ attention in the Amen Corner shop doorway remained with William throughout his life.
He also took delivery of his father’s replacement clock which had been mounted above the Market Place shop from 1840 to 1857 – the clock which had fooled many Dickens admirers.
All trace of Humphreys’ original shop at Amen Corner was removed in the 1930s when Barnard Castle Urban District Council secured a compulsory purchase order to acquire and then demolish the two shops.
Work to knock them down began in 1932 as part of a scheme to widen the Newgate junction with The Bank and the Market Cross.
The demolition also had the effect of opening up the cobbled access to and view of St Mary’s Parish Church as well as creating the small town garden.
White roses, which had been bought by the Mercury, were planted at Amen Corner at the turn of the millennium to mark the town’s connection with Richard III.
The roses were later removed as part of a wider scheme to revamp the area undertaken by the Heart of Teesdale Landscape Partnership and replaced with mainly mixed shrubs.
Since the demise of the landscape partnership, the shrubs were simply left to grow – until Ms Watson’s intervention and the efforts of a team of volunteers led by former town councillor Roger Peat. The garden was cleared and replanted and once again features the striking white roses.
In and Around Barnard Castle with Charles Dickens and the History of Master Humphreys’ Clock was compiled by Margaret Watson and her brother John.