This month in ‘The HistWriter Newsletter’: my ‘Neighbours from the Bronze Age’ and ‘The Irish Bookshop Show’ produced by writers and readers in Wexford. I also feature the first in a series of historical novels by the Irish-Italian writer Katie Hutton.
When I wrote Peace Walls in 2012 I did not foresee peace in Northern Ireland unravelling and hoped that time would bring healing.
Free to read on my website (link), it’s a time shift short story set in Northern Ireland about a fictional sectarian murder and the long term consequences for the people who knew the victim.
The research for this was painful at times, in particular reading ‘Bear in Mind These Dead’ by Susan McKay (link), which is a factual account of some of the victims of the Troubles. The Historical Enquiries Team video on YouTube (link) was also an inspiration, as was Alan M Wilson’s ‘Policing Ireland’s Twisted History’(link).
In 2021 we need more than ever to uphold the ideal of peace. Politicians must get to work. The current difficulties in implementing Brexit have to be solved by negotiation. Walls should not be needed. Let’s reconcile histories and old divisions and work on what we all have in common, for the sake of our young people and their future.
We shall remember them.
‘Hinky-Dinky Parlay-Voo’ is a free to read short story about the call-up, the media frenzy, and the popular songs of the day – and about the dark reality that lay beyond in the mud of Flanders.
‘Tree of Knowledge‘ is about the Eastern front – in Mesopotamia, or modern day Iraq.
These stories are included in my free eBook ‘In Other Times’, an anthology of 20 historical fiction short stories.
To download your copy and the free monthly newsletter ‘The HistWriter’, subscribe here:
I also highly recommend Susan Lanigan’s war novels, available via Amazon:
And short fiction:
#HeartOfCruelty #Histwriter #Birmingham
Wherever I had a job in the NHS – in London or the West Midlands – there was almost always an old workhouse, often still in use as a part of the hospital. I was employed for years in Sandwell and West Birmingham: at City Hospital the office was in a converted workhouse school, while at Sandwell the office was in a former workhouse’s venereal diseases ward. Now I work in Wexford, Ireland, where, just down the hill from the modern district hospital, is… a former workhouse.
Peter Higginbotham’s amazing website workhouses.org.uk provides a complete catalogue and history of these darkly gothic buildings.
My debut novel ‘Heart of Cruelty’ is set in the old Birmingham workhouse, which was on Steelhouse Lane, near the city centre. I have no evidence of any wrongdoings occurring in that workhouse and the events in my novel have been rehashed from other places and times. But in 1840 it would have been a harsh experience: the ‘Workhouse Test’ meant that life inside had to be harder than for the lowest paid worker on the outside. Paupers fared worse than convicted criminals, with less food and longer hours of forced labour.
Attempting to starve the poor into work caused huge suffering in the Victorian age, and failed to create the healthy and educated workforce which the labour movement achieved in the 20th century. In the 21st century, that hard-won advantage has been forgotten. Welfare cuts have caused severe hardship. For Anna Burns to acknowledge her local food bank in her prize-winning novel ’Milkman’ shows how far down we have sunk.
As I watch the Covid-19 pandemic rage around the world I become convinced that it cannot be eradicated unless poverty is eradicated. If people are homeless, or in overcrowded accommodation, how can they self-isolate?
For more about my debut novel ‘Heart of Cruelty’: (Link)
To subscribe to my free newsletter ‘The HistWriter’ and receive a free eBook of 20 historical short stories: (Link)
The heroine of my Victorian novel set in Birmingham has been out job-hunting recently. I have been her guide, with the help of an 1839 map, an 1839 Directory of Birmingham and Sheffield, a favourite blog: Mapping Birmingham, a couple of back numbers of Aris’s Birmingham Gazette from the British Newspaper Archive, Edmond Chadwick’s Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Britain and Carl Chinn’s wonderful book ‘Birmingham: The Great Working City’.
My heroine is encumbered by having been involved in a scandal, and by a lack of useful experience other than as a domestic servant. She heads down from Newhall Street, past St Martin’s in the Bullring and the Court of Requests debtors’ prison, along the High Street towards Bordesley. All of this street is lined with shops and small businesses: tea dealers, basket makers, bookmakers, cheese factors, bottle merchants, hardware men, woollen drapers, printers, chemists, brewers hop merchants, seed and corn factors, hatters, confectioners, auctioneers, wine and spirit merchants, glovers, hosiers, lace manufacturers, jewellers, engravers, tobacconists. In a courtyard near Smithfield is a slaughterman’s shed with a crowd of urchins trying to peek through chinks in the wall as a bull is butchered. The 1839 Directory bears evidence to thousands of small businesses jostling for space in the streets of the town – this is the High Street:
My heroine applies for work in a fruiterer’s, a tailor’s and a pin and needle manufactory (relocated for the purposes of my chapter from Bordesley Street) and is turned away. With a sinking heart she finds her way through a slum area to a dairy, an urban cowshed where the TB – ridden cows are fed on brewer’s grains, the atmosphere is rancid with the animals’ excrement and open milk pans are left on the dirty floor (thanks, Mr Chadwick!). It’s not her day.
Carl Chinn’s book was handy for details of factory life in Birmingham and along the way I discovered some nuggets of information that I can’t use in my novel as they happened too late:
Elkington’s – the first industrial electroplaters in the world – had a factory on Newhall Street, Birmingham, which later became the Museum of Science and Industry. One of their early employees was one Joseph Lucas (1834-1902). After leaving Elkington’s, he sold paraffin for lamps from a handcart. He then decided to manufacture oil-lamps and persuaded some of his former colleagues from Elkington’s to join him. Branching out into bicycle lamps and accessories made him successful. His company has become Lucas Aerospace.
Joseph Chamberlain (1836 -1914), MP and mayor of Birmingham, made his money in the screw-making firm of Nettlefold and Chamberlain on Broad Street which turned out 130,000 gross of screws a week. Nettlefold and Chamberlain became part of GKN (Guest, Keen and Nettlefold).
Sam Goldwyn (1879 – 1974) of MGM began life as Samuel Goldfisch, a penniless Polish-Jewish migrant who at an early age travelled from Warsaw to Birmingham. He too had a handcart, in the employment of Charles Henry Whittingham, a manufacturer of safes. He went to America and made his fortune in the Hollywood film industry. Mr Whittingham meanwhile perfected ‘steel fire proof Cinematograph Storage Film Boxes.’
If we understand attitudes to the poor in 19th century England it sheds light on our attitudes to the poor today. Being richer has not made us kinder. History still has much to teach us. To quote Donna Taylor: “PLEASE SUPPORT OUR ARCHIVES, CURRENTLY UNDER THREAT AS A RESULT OF CUTS TO THE LOCAL FINANCES – ONCE THEY’RE GONE, THEY’RE GONE FOREVER.”