Wednesday, 30 November 2011



I've suggested in the course of this series of SNIPPETS OF THE PAST how such material can be used in the creation of scenes and character in historical novels.I'm taking the liberty here of showing how I've tried to build up a scene in my e-novel WINTER HUNT set in the early years of the 19th century and  written uder my pen-name Allen Makepeace.

As well as being a banker, Mr Prout is a magistrate, a sometimes irksome responsibilty. Here he is called upon to visit the prison to interview a criminal. I've tried to indicate the role of the magistrate, the dreadful conditions in the prison and what may called a typically unsympathetic prisoner as well as the magistarte's immediate sense that the man is 'hanging material'. Everything in this extract is suggested in a variety of original documents.

Text begins:

And then Mr Barrowby arrives quite unexpectedly with the request that he go at once to the prison.

‘It’s magisterial business, sir,’ Mr Prout is told. ‘Robbery with violence apparently. Somebody was shot as I hear.’

‘Magisterial.’ The word echoes in his head. ‘Magisterial.’ One day, he will give it up, being a magistrate. He has suggested it before. He had been a magistrate for twenty-seven years and it is all so time-consuming. It takes up time from his own bank work. But they insisted that he stay on last time he put it to them, the possibility of his resignation, just as they had done on the two previous occasions.. ‘No, no, Mr Prout,’ they had said to him. ‘Can’t think of it. Too valuable. Your experience.’ And so it will go on in the future. His Lordship will not hear of it; Hartley Wills, the second biggest landowner in this part of the county, will slap him on the back and smile and shake his head when Mr Prout even hints that he wishes to give up; and the three or four substantial farmers and the retired tea-merchant and the fierce Colonel Priddy and the rest of them, who really enjoy a day out at the court, will insist that Mr Prout remain a magistrate.

And so on this miserable morning, at no later than eight-fifteen, Mr Prout finds himself knocking at the huge gate of Mainton prison.

‘Mr Prout, sir,’ says the man who opens the door to him. ‘Good to see you, sir.’

Such a greeting does nothing to assuage the banker’s irritation. Mr Prout has never cared for Turnkey Royle with his leery eye and his unshaven chin.

‘Up here?’ he asks pointing at the stone stairway on the outside of the main building.

‘Up there, sir,’ he is told. ‘In the old pantry. As usual, Mr Prout, eh?’

Oh yes, the old pantry. As usual. Mr Prout knows that room well enough. He has interviewed hundreds of men and women in there in one or other of his capacities, either as magistrate or as banker. It has not been a pantry in all of Mr Prout’s time coming to the prison. It has probably not served that function for the past hundred years but the name has stuck.

Royle leads him up the slope to the main door. As soon as it is opened Mr Prout is assailed by the stench to which after all these years of regular visiting he has never quite become accustomed. A sour, pungent, all-searching stink of people, of drains, of the ‘offices,’ which seem to him to somehow soak into his flesh, his hair, his very bones. And for hours after leaving, the reek of the place will linger on him and his clothes. He will never become used to it.

Nor will he ever accustom himself to the shouts, the curses, the screams in that great echoing place. At whatever time, the earliest hour of the day or the latest of the night, he has been called to the prison he has to steel himself against the unceasing clamour.

‘Here we are then, sir,’ the turnkey says, ushering him into the old pantry with its sweating walls, stained and encrusted with years of grime. And here behind an ancient table sits a man, his wrists manacled, his ankles shackled. His arm has been bandaged. ‘He had a graze last night but the doctor says it’s nothing,’ Royle explains.

‘And he is…?’ Mr Prout asks of another turnkey, Hull, standing in the shadowy corner on the other side of the room.

Hull produces a sheet of paper, stares at it, clears his throat and begins.

‘This is Dennis Aylott, age forty-two, taken in charge earlier this morning with breaking and entering a house in this town while furnished with a pistol.’ He clears his throat again. ‘As Mr Royle says, he was grazed by a shot in the arm last night but it ain’t nothing serious.’

Mr Prout studies Aylott briefly. Long, greasy hair; threadbare, greasy jacket cuffs; fingers dirty, greasy. Hanging material, he tells himself. Guilty as charged. This will not take long, he tells himself.

‘So, Aylott,’ says Mr Prout settling himself on a creaky chair opposite the prisoner. ‘Now, you understand, don’t you, that this is your chance to make a clean breast of things so that the court may consider any mitigating circumstances?’ As if there are likely to be such mitigating circumstances in this case. Some hope. The banker looks sternly over his spectacles. ‘So have you anything to say? Perhaps you can tell me what exactly happened last night?’

Friday, 25 November 2011


Sorry that this piece is so long but I'm having trouble getting a signal here in the Philippine backwoods. I'm trying to blog twice a week but it's not always easy.


What is the purpose of prison? This question continues to agitate the minds our politicians? Punishment? Retribution? Reformation? Or is it simply to move anti-social characters from our streets either temporarily or permanently for the public benefit? Prison works, some say. But even the harshest regimes have not managed to cut rising crime rates. Look how they've tried.

In 1824 the treadmill at Maidstone prison was completed under the superintendence of William Cubitt, the inventor of this form of prison discipline. Newspaper reports suggest that the machine at Maidstone was ‘the most perfect building of its kind in the country.’ Perhaps similar approval was given to gas chambers.

The machine cost £3,000, equivalent to £200,000 today. There were eight distinct shafts, all connected to the great central wheel. Standing side by side men had 18 inches of elbow room as they ceaselessly climbed, step by step. This mill was capable of holding about 100 persons at the same time. It was built to dress corn and ground 12 bushels an hour.

What a bestial invention. Men fell off the endless ladder or became entangled in the revolving machinery. And there is no evidence that even these nightmare contraptions acted as a deterrent even though those employed, the frail and unfit as well as the robust and sturdy, are estimated to have walked up the equivalent of 12,000 feet each day in winter. In summer, with longer hours for this work, they climbed as much as 18,000 feet. The treadmills were eventually abandoned but whether for humanitarian reasons or for the fact that they produced no positive benefits is uncertain.

In 1867, as part of a national survey, the Court of General Session heard reports from the governors and surgeons of Maidstone and Canterbury gaols on the effects of the Government dietary which had been in force for nine months.

Mr Joy, the Maidstone surgeon, said that the new diet was insufficient to keep prisoners healthy enough to be able to work the scheduled nine hours on the treadmill. There had been, he reported, an unusual amount of sickness and diarrhoea and in consequence he had had to increase the diet of many prisoners. The governor, Major Bannister, claimed that weakness and hunger were visible on the faces of the convicts within a week of their arrival. He had difficulty in preventing them from picking up raw potatoes and potato peelings.

While the Canterbury surgeon, Mr Reed, had observed no serious deterioration in the health of prisoners, he, like Mr Joy, felt that the diet was not compatible with continuous hard labour at the treadmill. He was also of the opinion that released prisoners could not go out into the world and straightaway earn a living after three months on the machine. The treadmill was producing physically broken men.

There were alternative sanctions. In 1867 punishment at Maidstone gaol was inflicted 2,406 times on males and 83 times on females.

Males Females
Whipping 11 -
Irons or handcuffs 1 -
Solitary or dark cells 820 83
Stoppage of diet 1,574 -
In several gaols male prisoners were given shot drill as a punishment. In this form of hard labour, groups of up to 32 men responded to warders’ orders. They had to stoop down and without bending the knees, pick up a cannon ball. The ball was raised up to the chest and when the order was given, the men took three steps sideways and then replaced the ball on the ground. They were then ordered to take three steps backwards and the procedure commenced all over again.

Stone breaking, beating rope, picking oakum and pumping water were other mind-numbing and body-breaking tasks to be performed. Work continued throughout daylight hours in winter and in summer from 6.30am until 6pm.

Oakum picking was carriedout by women as well as men. The purpose of this hateful job was to separate strands of old, tarred rope into thin thread. Constant working at this task, day after day, made the fingers painful, raw and bloody. The reconstituted threads were sold on to make string or mattress stuffing – ‘money for old rope.’

The Report on the Prisons of Great Britain indicates that on the day of the Inspectors’ visit to Canterbury in 1867 the male prisoners were employed as follows:

Treadmill 50
Beating rope and oakum 2
Oakum picking (3lb daily) 17
Shoemaking 1
Cleaning 2
In punishment 1

These days we learn that prisoners can elect not to work during their sentences – a complete turn-about. How do we sort this out? The purpose of prison in a democratic society remains unanswered.

Don't forget these Snippets of the Past are intended not simply for mild historical interest. I do hope that writers of historical fiction may gain some useful background.

Saturday, 19 November 2011



In the midst of all the high-falutin' language, among all the majesty of wigs and scarlet gowns, and the lawyers' addresses to m'lud and gentlemen of the jury, there are still the ordinary folk in the background on whom the effective carrying out of the sentence depends. Obviously, we need policemen and prison warders but we need others, ordinary tradesmen, to do quite simple tasks as in this case. Bear with the turgid legalese which I confess I rather like and which outlines the indictment in 1776 against Ann Cruttenden. Then you'll see what I mean by the involvement of ordinary tradesmen in the business of carrying out the law's demands.

The indictment at Horsham Assizes stated:

The Jurors for our Lord and King upon their Oath Present That Ann the Wife of Joseph Cruttenden late of the Parish of Brightling in the County of Sussex Butcher not having the fear of God before her Eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil on the fifteenth day of June in the Sixteenth year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord George the third now King of Great Britain & with force and Arms at the Parish aforesaid in the County aforesaid in and upon the said Joseph Cruttenden her Husband in the peace of God and our said Lord the King then and there being feloniously Traitorously Wilfully and of her malice aforethought did make an Assault And that she the said Ann with a certain Knife of the Value of two pence which she the said Ann in her right hand then and there had and held in and upon the right side of the neck of him the said Joseph then and there feloniously Traitorously Wilfully and of her Malice aforethought did strike and thrust giving to him the said Joseph in and upon the right side of the neck of him the said Joseph one Mortal Wound of the breadth of two inches and of Depth of half an inch of which said Mortal Wound he the said Joseph then and there instantly Died.

Ann Cruttenden was found guilty of 'feloniously Traitorously Wilfully' murdering her husband. Note the word 'Traitorously.' If you commit an act of treachery against the State you commit High Treason. According to Common Law at this time, in killing her husband, Ann Cruttenden committed Petty Treason. As a wife she was considered in the eyes of the law as a subordinate who had therefore committed a vile offence which demanded special punishment. She was sentenced 'to be Drawn on a Hurdle and Burned with fire until she be dead on Thursday next.'

Poor Ann Cruttenden. The couple had been married for eight years. Joseph was 42 when he died. Ann was 80. Maybe there is a story here which has not been told.

But at last to the point I was making about the contribution of ordinary people in these matters. Well, a carpenter, Peter Potter, submitted a bill for 'putting up the post for the woman to be burnt on, making a slip board to stand Doing the slide and putting on hurdell for her to ride on and board and side for ditto: time, nails and board...£1.10 shillings. The gaoler charged fifteen shillings for 'wood and faggots.'

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


Just a reminder - the intention of this blog is interest historians and to offer ideas for plots, scenes, characters to writers of fiction.


      DECEMBER 1893

The Medical Officer of Health reported to the Maidstone Town Council on Bonny’s Yard, a group of houses opening out of the south side of King Street and occupying the slope between it and the river.

Bonny's Yard comprised two rows of back to back houses. In one row each house had three floors, with a room on each floor measuring 9 ft 9ins by 8 ft 9ins. The rooms had sash windows, only the lower half of which could be opened for ventilation. Each cottage had its own closet but no water laid on. In the yard there was a communal bin used by all the people. The common water hydrant was also located there.

The eight houses at the bottom of the yard had one room on each of two floors. These ground floor- and first-floor rooms were subdivided into two by partitions. The front partitions measured 10ft by 10ft and the rear 8ft by 8ft. They too had separate closets but no water laid on. They shared the communal dustbin and water hydrant.

‘They are all of a most miserable order of dwellings,’ says the report. In the twenty houses there were 88 people, an average of 4.4 occupants per house although in three dwellings there were eight people and in a fourth there were seven. ‘The occupation of the inhabitants is very various and includes besides general labourers, hawkers, mill hands, gas stokers, sale porters, rag sorters, etc … Viewed as a whole, these dwellings are relics of the past, such as nowadays would not be allowed to be constructed; from a moral and social point of view, without hesitation they must be condemned as not fit for human habitation.’

On the grounds of overcrowding and the effects of ill health from bad ventilation, the author thought they ought to be pulled down.
That reports of appalling housing conditions existed in the Victorian period and beyond ought not to be used a stick with which to be beat politicians and administrators. Put simply, the enormity of the task was quite beyond them. Great efforts were made throughout the period to improve the lot of the poor and though not all such efforts were well devised their intentions in general were sound and sincere.

If a country market town like Maidstone had such sores and blemishes, what could be expected in the great cities and the burgeoning industrial towns?


Five years later Mr Adams, the MOH,  had to return to the same theme.

Grove Court and Bonny's Yard were among the oldest buildings in the town. They were all greatly overcrowded and lacking through ventilation. Mr Adams made the following observations:
In Grove Court, ‘there are nine closets about 12 feet in front of the houses with very foul hopper pans, unprovided with any means for flushing. The service channelling and pavement are defective and water finds its way readily into the basements of the dwellings. The wall and ceiling plaster of the interior is broken away in places and the rooms are damp. In one instance, at No. 3, there are six inhabitants of whom four children aged 13, 11, nine and two years, sleep in an attic affording only 127 cubic feet of air space per head.

‘At Number 10 is a broken chimney that is dangerous, a leaky roof and the tenant complains of a bad smell from a drain which is said to be beneath the floor of his living room.
‘The interiors are in most cases dirty, having damp walls, with, in many places, broken and defective plaster; of the windows only the bottom sashes admit of being opened.’

Mr Adams goes on to describe conditions at No 40 in Ebenezer Place where the roof leaks and continues: ‘the rain water pipe is broken, the wall is green from constant wet; then again, as respect the sanitary accommodation, the closets are wooden structures, very dark, out of repair, ceilings broken, pans very foul and unflushed.

‘Socially,’ he goes on, ‘as one might naturally expect, they are occupied by the lowest class of the people, day labourers and costers for the most part. Sometimes bargemen and waterside loafers: such people as belong to a distinct class and who as a matter of choice gravitate to the most squalid slums they can find, they seldom have any ties of occupation that bind them to a given spot, if turned out from one place as a matter of course they emigrate to the next dirtiest and cheapest they can discover, with little regard to locality.’

Mr Adams then turns to mortality rates.
‘I find that during the 10 years from 1st July, 1888, to the last of June, 1898, there have been 52 deaths upon this area, constituting a death rate 25.2 per 1000 per annum, which is little short of double the rate for the town generally. The mean age at death I find to be 17 years, which is just about half of the average length of life in the town generally.’

39 of the 52 deaths were of people below the age of 20. In other words 75 per cent never reached adult life. ‘Without doubt the damp, dirt and squalor are accountable.’

Sunday, 13 November 2011



Isn't this graphic? Just shows the films don't always exaggerate.

APRIL 1832

A letter to the Times from F.M. refers to three men - Cornelius Fitzgerald, described as 'an Irishman of respectable appearance'; Robert Self, a one-legged, 35-year-old ex-soldier; and George Betts, a 'shabbily dressed man' – who appeared before the magistrates at Greenwich.

All three men had been arrested early the previous morning. At Deptford, two policemen, James Jefferies and Luke Kenney, had noticed a cart being driven very slowly and two men walking on each side of the horse. The constables recognised the men as notorious resurrectionists (body-snatchers). The policemen sent for help and then took the cart and the men to Greenwich police station.

When the cart was examined it was found to contain the bodies of two old men. Almost at once word was out that the two dead men had been 'burked' (murdered preparatory to sale to a medical school). A crowd of thousands assembled at the police station, demanding that the three 'Burkites' be let out so that they could attend to them. Eventually, late at night - it was still Friday - the three prisoners were escorted by 40 police and taken before the magistrates at Deptford. As they passed, the mob hurled stones and bricks and missiles of every kind at them. It was only with difficulty that the prisoners were brought into the room with the magistrates. The magistrates then remanded the prisoners until the corpses could be identified.

The next day (Saturday, 14 April), the bosun of the Justitia, a convict ship lying off Woolwich, identified both bodies. They were both of convicts, one aged 84, the other 65. They had died on board on the Thursday night. They had, he said, been speedily interred at Plumstead and just as speedily dug up by the three men who, later that morning, had been arrested. Now the magistrates ordered the bodies to be interred once more and the prisoners were again remanded.

On Monday morning (16 April), Jefferies and Kenney were again patrolling the area where they had been on the previous Thursday. Yet again a cart came past and yet again they stopped the driver. Looking inside, the policemen saw the same two corpses which had been disinterred a second time. This time a man named Hollis was charged.

The prisoners were removed to Maidstone gaol and appeared at the next Assizes.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011




Charlotte Latham’s work was published in the first edition of the Folklore Record as long ago as 1878. A vicar's wife, she had an insatiable desire to learn about the parishioners' lives and to record what she was told.. The Devil and babies figured frequently in local tales.

The baptismal ceremony was not regarded simply as a welcoming into the Christian community but it also contained an element of exorcism, the expulsion of the Devil from the newborn child. The north door of churches – the so-called Devil’s Door - was left open on these occasions for the Devil to make his exit though some churches blocked up the north door to prevent the Devil's entry.

One lady told Mrs Latham the following anecdote:
‘I was lately present at a christening when a lady of the party, who was a godmother of the child, whispered in a voice of anxiety. “The child never cried. Why did not the nurse rouse it up?” After we had left the church, she said to her, “Oh nurse, why did you not pinch baby?” and, when the baby's good behaviour was afterwards commented upon, she observed with a very serious air, “I wish that he had cried.”’

And why? Because with the crying the Devil would have been expelled from the child's body, original sin wiped out with one nip of the child's flesh.

Saturday, 5 November 2011



In 1842 the wife of a labourer who lived on New Pound Common at Wisborough Green in West Sussex had been ill for a considerable time and could not understand why her illness was so protracted.  She had talked matters over with her neighbours and they had concluded that she was bewitched. They suspected that the witch was another local woman, described as 'a very decent, inoffensive creature' but of course, appearances can deceive. The sick woman along with her neighbours tried a number of stratagems to destroy the witch's power but all of these failed. Finally they hit upon a scheme which they hoped might work.

The Sussex Agricultural Express reports: 'They procured pigeons and tied them in pairs back to back by their wings and lighted a large fire, and stopped up [sealed] the room as close as possible; some of the poor pigeons they opened at the breast in order that the fire might burn their hearts while alive. How many were burned, the writer cannot say, but he heard a neighbour state that he himself had burned four, and he thought they should have destroyed the witch if the house had been closer [more tightly sealed]. It is supposed by the neighbours that a dozen to sixteen pigeons were destroyed in this cruel manner.’

During the whole hideous operation, as tradition demanded when counter-spells were employed, not a word was spoken. Sadly, the report contains no mention of the outcome so we do not know if the woman was effectively treated or if the police were called to deal with the matter of the pigeons. And what about the woman who was accused of casting a bad spell? There’s no record of this either.

Thursday, 3 November 2011



Time for a new direction now.

I hope that my new series of blogs will be of some interest to writers of historical fiction – or indeed that today’s offering may attract writers of period romance.

In recent years I have become particularly interested in the darker, less publicised aspects of 18th/19th/20th century social history. Sometimes these are no more than footnotes but they are significant in helping us to understand people in the past. I shall therefore be offering glimpses of bygone days, snippets of the past – crime, punishment, social conditions, beliefs – which may offer writers a hint for a plot or a scene.

Though my examples come principally from southern English counties, the stories they tell might well have come from distant parts of the world.

So to work... and here’s something odd. It’s a belief, a superstition, once widely held throughout Great Britain and it most probably transferred to other countries. I’d be interested to hear of instances beyond these shores.

It’s called love divination.

Who am I going to marry? What is he going to be like? And when shall I marry? These were – and perhaps they still are - natural speculations for many a young girl. The answers to such questions came from observing specific rituals.  

In the 1870s, Charlotte Latham, wife of the vicar of Fittleworth in Sussex, questioned many local people about their beliefs and recorded several strange procedures. On the night of the first new moon after New Year's Day, girls would sit alone on a gate or stile and, looking at the moon, recite:

‘All hail to thee, moon! All hail to thee
I pray thee, good moon, reveal to me
This night who my husband must be.’

Now this is an entry into the occult, the words intended to conjure up a living person’s wraith (the ghost of a living person). Little wonder if girls shivered with fear: little wonder if they did not always wait to find out.

And there were other sinister rituals. Two of these involved graveyard visits. Girls took the leaves of a yarrow plant from a young man's grave and then repeated the following wish:

‘Yarrow, sweet Yarrow, the first that I have found,
In the name of Jesus Christ, I plucked it from the ground;
As Joseph loved sweet Mary, and took her for his dear,
So in a dream this night, I hope, my true love will appear.’

Other girls might go to the graveyard with a handful of hemp seed which they would  sprinkle on the ground, all the while saying:

‘Hemp seed, I sow thee,
Hempseed, I sow thee;
And he that is my true love
Come after me and mow thee.’

Once the seed was sown, she looked over her left shoulder, expecting to see the wraith of her future husband mowing the already sprouting seed behind her. This spell was said to work only on days appropriate for divining the future – Midsummer’s Eve and St John's Eve, the 23rd and 24th June.

Another St John’s Eve strategy: girls would hang their newly washed blouses in front of the kitchen fire. Then leaving the kitchen door open they would sit in silence, waiting for the arrival of the wraith to come in and turn the blouse.

Believe it?

The past is another country: they do things differently there.