Thursday, 31 March 2011

Music and Murder in Newcastle

The latest in Roz Southey's Charles Patterson series is now out. The books, set in and around Newcastle upon Tyne in the 1730s, are historical crime fiction with a supernatural twist. Roz says she didn’t set out to write a paranormal crime series - the idea just came to her as she was writing the first one. Now with each book Roz has to think of a mystery that will challenge her hero, and the reader, within the rules of the universe she has created.

Charles Patterson is an impoverished musician who also has a talent for investigating murder. The character is based on Charles Avison, a Newcastle man who was one of England’s most important composers in the eighteenth century. The flourishing music scene scene of north east England in that period plays a major role in the books, as does Newcastle itself, with its quayside, narrow alleys and elegant squares.

Newcastle was a fast growing town in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Its prosperity was based first on the coal mining in the region, and the export of coal to London and elsewhere. A hundred years after Charles Patterson’s time, around a million and a half tons of coal a year were being shipped out of Newcastle.

As the Industrial Revolution gathered pace, a wide range of goods was manufactured in and around Newcastle. ‘Every description of goods in cast and wrought iron, and brass; steel goods; sheet and pipe lead; patent-shot; white, orange, and red lead; paint; crown, flint, and bottle glass; earthenware and pottery; alkali and other chemical preparations; copperas, soap, salt, and various other articles…. There are other foundries and forges for the manufacture of steam-engines, machinery of all descriptions, and agricultural implements; and extensive works for building railway and other carriages.’ Shipbuilding too was a major industry on the Tyne.

In 1827, the author of a history of Newcastle declared ‘The richer classes in Newcastle consist of the descendants of ancient and distinguished mercantile families, or of those who have accumulated a fortune by a long exercise of superior knowledge and industry. They are therefore well-informed, polite, and unostentatious; and to the influence of their manners may the respectful demeanour of the other classes be mainly attributed…. The insolent, vulgar, purse-proud upstarts, that swarm in some places, are almost unknown here.'

Charles Patterson would probably have disagreed.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

A brief history of time

The clocks went forward for British Summer Time last night.

The idea of Daylight Saving was first proposed by William Willett. On his early morning rides in summer he noticed how many hours of daylight were being wasted when the sun rose at four or five in the morning.

William Willett published a pamphlet advocating the idea in 1907, but although Daylight Saving attracted the support of MPs and bills were placed before Parliament, it was not taken up by the government until 1916. Then it was introduced as a means of saving resources during the War.

Less than a hundred years before 1916, different parts of England still had their own local time. People measured time by the sun, and sunrise and sunset in the West of England were twenty minutes or so later than in London.

It was only when the railways arrived that it became essential for the whole country to have a uniform measurement of time. In 1840 the Great Western Railway decided that all its timetables and stations should operate according to London time. Other railway companies gradually followed.

From 1852, the installation of telegraph lines alongside railway tracks enabled an electric time signal to be sent throughout the country from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, so that clocks could be properly synchronised.

Mariners also needed to know the time accurately for navigation purposes. Time ball towers, the ball dropping at a fixed time each day, were established at Greenwich, visible to shipping in the Thames, and elsewhere around the coast.

At a conference in Washington DC in 1884, Greenwich was adopted as the  prime meridian of the world. Greenwich Mean Time was established as the standard by which time all over the world would be calculated.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Give us our eleven days -

- was supposedly the slogan of people protesting against calendar reform in 1752.

In the past, the New Year had begun on 25 March, the Feast of the Annunciation, or Lady Day.

During the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, more people began to use 1 January as the New Year. The two dates were referred to respectively as Old Style (O.S.) and New Style (N.S.).

For dates in January, February and most of March the year was often written as (for example) 1738/9, to avoid confusion.

By the eighteenth century, because of adjustments that had been made on the Continent but not on this side of the Channel, the English or British calendar had fallen eleven days behind Europe.

In 1751 Parliament passed legislation stating that henceforward the year would begin on 1 January, and the calendar would skip eleven days in September 1752 in order to bring it into line with Europe. Wednesday 2 September was followed by Thursday 14 September.

It was once believed that many people thought that they had been deprived of eleven days of their lives, and that riots and demonstrations took place demanding the restoration of those days.

However it is now thought that these riots never actually happened. A painting by William Hogarth, 'An Election Entertainment', is believed to be partly responsible for starting the story. ‘Give us our eleven days’ is written on the placard on the floor at the front of the picture.

Many events, such as Christmas, continued to be celebrated on their traditional dates. Others had to be moved. It was found that when fairs and markets dealing with agricultural produce were held on the same calendar date, but in fact eleven days earlier than previously, the goods were not ready for sale.

Financial transactions still required a full year of 365 days. In 1753 therefore the financial year, which had previously begun on 25 March, started on 6 April - and has done ever since.

Monday, 21 March 2011

God for Harry?

Today, 21 March, is the anniversary of the accession of Henry V in 1413.

Henry is best known for leading the English armies to victory at Harfleur and Agincourt, largely thanks to Shakespeare, who put some stirring speeches into his mouth:

And you, good yeomen,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

The reality is less dramatic. Henry V was the son of a usurper. In the early part of his reign he had to contend with religious difficulties and rebellion in England.
Shakespeare compressed the events of several years into his play. The victory at Agincourt was followed by protracted negotiations; it was not until 1420 that the treaty of Troyes secured for Henry Catherine de Valois as his wife and the promise of the French crown after the death of the then king, Charles VI.

Henry’s military success proved ephemeral; he had to spend the remainder of his reign fighting to hold onto his conquests. He died of dysentery in 1422 while on campaign in France.

Henry’s death when his son was an infant of nine months led to a long period of unstable government and ultimately to the Wars of the Roses. Henry might have served his country better if he had stayed at home, where he might have lived until his son reached his majority.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Real people in fiction - again

When, if ever, is it acceptable to change known facts about the lives of real people for the purposes of fiction?

Some people’s lives are so well documented that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a novelist to change aspects of them.

What about the less well known?

I recently read a historical novel in which the central character was fictional but many of the background, secondary characters were real people. Some were prominent - members of the royal family, members of the government of the time. As far as I could tell, the roles they played in the novel didn’t conflict with any known facts about their actions or beliefs.

One was obscure. Probably few people would know that he really existed. I only know because I happen to have come across him when reading the history of my own county. It was clear that the author was indeed referring to this man and hadn’t just happened to pick the same name for her fictional character.

The author changed the date, place and manner of his death. In fact, she made him the victim of the murder that the central character had to solve.

Does it matter? Does it matter more or less because this man was relatively unknown? The author did retain the man’s quite extreme political and religious opinions, which is perhaps more important than the bare facts about his death.

However, I don’t see why the author could not simply have invented a character with similar beliefs and history to the man she used, whom she could have killed in any way she pleased.

It’s not always possible to replace a real person with a fictional character. Some people’s contribution to history is unique - one could not invent a character to fill the role of Drake, or Cromwell (either of them!) or Wellington or Churchill.

But where lesser people are concerned I think it would be preferable to create a fictional captain and ship to play a part in the Armada campaign rather than trying to make a real captain and ship fit the purposes of the plot. Better to have a fictional Member of Parliament, or a fictional army officer.

The author is then free to develop character and plot as he or she pleases, rather than having to fit the plot to the known facts about the person's life and personality. Or, as in the case above, ignore the known facts.

Development of character and plot is what fiction writing is about, after all.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Times Past

The Times has been published since 1785 (with a break of nearly a year in 1978-79 due to industrial action). It was originally called The Daily Universal Register; the name was changed in 1788.

The Times was the place to announce births, marriages and deaths, to publish legal notices, and to advertise all manner of things. Most newspapers carried advertisements on their front pages in the nineteenth century. The Times famously continued to do so until 1966.

A hundred years ago The Times cost 3d - three old, predecimalisation, pennies.

On 10 March 1911 the front page carried a notice from Messrs Blaymire and Shepherd, solicitors of Penrith, seeking the heir of Anne James, spinster of Carlisle, who had died in 1877. If he contacted them, the heir might ‘hear something to his advantage.’

The National Anti-Gambling League offered packets of its new free leaflet, Save the Young.

The Port of London Authority  published proposed bye-laws for the purpose of preventing an outbreak of plague amongst rats at the docks.

Wm. Pierrepoint, enquiry agent to the Nobility and Gentry, advertised that he was ‘entrusted with confidential enquiries and delicate negotiations in all parts of the world.’ He could be contacted at 27 Chancery Lane, London W.C.

University College Hospital sought donations, subscriptions and endowments for the maintenance of its 305 beds, only 33 of which were currently endowed.

Dancing lessons, elocution lessons, sales, exhibitions, concerts, variety shows and other entertainments were advertised.

Sahary Djeli, ’la danseuse mysterieuse,’ was the headline act at the Hippodrome in London, performing her sensational ‘arm dance’. The Morning Advertiser’s review was quoted:

'All that is wonderful and beautiful is embodied in her matchless act, and never once … does her abbreviated costume shock the susceptibilities of the most particular person…. The astonishing flexibility of the undulating, writhing, snakelike arms, no less than the world of meaning conveyed by each turn of the delicate wrist and the rounded elbow, formed a fitting accompaniment to the pretty fluttering of her twinkling henna heeled little bare feet.’

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Blogger Issues

Apparently Blogger has a problem whereby posts that look perfectly OK in editing and preview are scrambled on posting. I've fixed one of mine (I hope) and have checked other more recent posts, but haven't yet been able to go back and check all. Apologies to anyone who has read something that didn't make sense.

People are also reporting comments not posting and notifications of comments not reaching blog owners. If anyone has tried to post a comment and been unable to, or has left a comment that has not been replied to, please do e-mail me at

Samuel Pepys would have enjoyed blogging.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Totally subversive of the last remains of English liberty

Householders are receiving the forms to be filled in for this year’s census.

The census has been held every ten years since 1801, except in 1941. Before the first census, there was no attempt to count the population of England or the United Kingdom - although Gregory King attempted to estimate it in the late seventeenth century.

The first census was prompted by rapid population growth in the late eighteenth century and a succession of bad harvests and consequent high food prices in the 1790s. The nation was at war with France and there was concern about its ability to feed itself.

The 1801 census was prepared by John Rickman. It was intended to establish, among other things, how many people lived in towns and worked in manufacturing, and were therefore not producing food.

The 1801 Census revealed that the population of England was 8.3 million. Subsequent censuses asked a greater variety of questions, and more detailed records were preserved, for the benefit of future researchers.

William Cobbett did not believe the evidence of the Census. He wrote in the 1820s, after three censuses had demonstrated that the population was increasing,

‘At this Old Romney there is a church (two miles only from the last, mind!) fit to contain one thousand five hundred people, and there are for the people of the parish to live in twenty-two or twenty-three houses! And yet the vagabonds have the impudence to tell us, that the population of England has vastly increased!’

And of the River Itchen in Hampshire he said ‘this river has, on its two banks, in the distance of nine miles … thirteen parish churches. There must have been some people to erect these churches… there can be no doubt in the mind of any rational man that in the time of the Plantagenets England was more populous than it is now.’

Census returns are much used by family historians. They are also of great use to social and economic historians, in giving a snapshot of a place at one point in time, and showing change over a period. The population of Manchester, for example, grew from 75,000 in 1801 to 645,000 in 1901. Poplar in the East End of London grew from 8,278 in 1801 to 168,882 in 1901.

Not everywhere grew as rapidly, however. The population of Bath was 33,000 in 1801, 50,000 in 1901. Some very small rural places grew even more slowly, or even declined in population.

In any town or village, the census can show how many labourers and domestic servants there were, how many shoemakers and dressmakers, how many butchers and bakers, how many publicans and blacksmiths, and how the numbers changed over time. It can show how many people were born in the place where they lived, and how many had migrated from elsewhere.

A historian will then ask why these things happened. Why did the number of boot and shoemakers decline and the number of market gardeners and fruit growers rise? Why was there a fall in the number of mariners and an increase in domestic servants?

And the writer might find in the answers to those questions an idea which might provide a plot for a historical novel.

So for the sake of future historians and writers, we should fill in our census forms accurately and completely!

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

No man but a blockhead ever wrote...

... except for money, said Samuel Johnson.

When reading some writers' descriptions of the writing process, one does have to wonder why anyone would do it for pleasure.

'He that condemns himself to compose on a stated day will often bring to his task attention dissipated, a memory embarrassed, an imagination overwhelmed, a mind distracted with anxieties, a body languishing with disease.

'Composition is, for the most part, an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment starting to more delightful amusements.' Johnson again.

Winston Churchill, among all his other achievements, found time to be a prolific writer. Not being a blockhead, and having expensive tastes, he  certainly did it for money.

'Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public.'

Agatha Christie, through her alter ego, Mrs Ariadne Oliver, said 'first you've got to think of something, and then, when you've thought of it, you've got to force yourself to sit down and write it.'

Harriet Vane explains it, on behalf of Dorothy L. Sayers  and all other writers everywhere.

'When you get the thing dead right and know it's dead right, there's no excitement like it. It's marvellous. It makes you feel like God on the Seventh Day - for a bit, anyhow.'

And Samuel Johnson reminds the writer who is staring despondently at the blank page or computer screen 'what is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.'