A LONG-AGO tragedy on the River Ouse may have given Charles Dickens the name for one of his most unforgettable characters - Uriah Heep.

On the evening of May 8, 1849, watermen found a body floating in the river near Marygate. It turned out to be that of 56-year-old Richard Nicholson, a wealthy railway investor and brother-in-law to ‘Railway King’ George Hudson.

A month earlier, an explosive report had exposed details of Hudson’s alleged ‘wrongdoings’ in connection with the value of his shares in the York & North Midland Railway company.

Nicholson was an auditor for the company. An inquest heard that in the days before his death he had been behaving strangely. “’The general opinion is that the present position of railway affairs has had a depressing effect on his mind,” a report in the York Herald said.

But it was the newspaper’s report of the inquest into Mr Nicholson’s death that may have caught Dickens’ eye - and given him the name Uriah Heep.

The Nicholson tragedy, combined with the downfall of his brother-in-law George Hudson, was causing a sensation in the city. Dickens was known to have visited York to see his younger brother Alfred, a railway engineer and may well have seen the report.

One of the witnesses at the inquest was 15-year-old James Catling. He and his friends saw Mr Nicholson behaving strangely on the riverbank shortly before his death. James gave the name of his friends in his testimony. One was called Uriah Hesp - but because of a smudge in the print, it looks like Uriah Heap - or Heep.

Local historian John Shaw of the Yorkshire Architectural & York Archaeological Society believes Dickens may have seen that name in the newspaper - and seized upon it for his character.

It isn’t so far-fetched. Another character in David Copperfield, Mr Micawber, is widely believed to have been based on York railway clerk Richard Chicken. And David Copperfield began to be serialised in a magazine in May 1849 - the month the Herald report was printed. It fits, John says, “the timing is spot on!”