Search This Blog


Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Regency Spies Now Available For Pre-Order!

I'm thrilled to announce that my forthcoming book Regency Spies is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK or from the publisher, Pen & Sword. Launch date is currently scheduled for 30 November 2015. 
Here's a preview of the blurb to whet your appetite:

                                                                          Regency Spies:  
                                            Secret Histories of Britain’s Rebels and Revolutionaries 

An Age of Revolutions
Sue Wilkes uncovers the hidden histories of Regency spies and the men they hunted. Eavesdrop on the secret meetings of Britain’s underground political societies of the 1790s and early 1800s. Discover the true stories behind the riots, rebellions, and treason trials in late Georgian Britain.
Regency Spies explores the plots, intrigues and perils of those thrilling times:      

  • Wolfe Tone’s ambitious plan to free Ireland from British rule      
  • Luddites incite arson and machine-breaking in Britain’s industrial heartlands
  • The doomed Pentrich uprising of 1817 
  • The race to stop the 1820 plot to murder cabinet ministers and seize control of the capital 

Inside Cover:
Sue Wilkes reveals the shadowy world of Britain’s spies, rebels and secret societies from the late 1780s until 1820. Drawing on contemporary literature and official records, Wilkes unmasks the real conspirators and tells the tragic stories of the unwitting victims sent to the gallows.
In this ‘age of Revolutions’, when the French fought for liberty, Britain’s upper classes feared revolution was imminent. Thomas Paine’s incendiary Rights of Man called men to overthrow governments which did not safeguard their rights. Were Jacobins and Radical reformers in England and Scotland secretly plotting rebellion? Ireland, too, was a seething cauldron of unrest, its impoverished people oppressed by their Protestant masters.
Britain’s governing elite could not rely on the armed services – even Royal Navy crews mutinied over brutal conditions. To keep the nation safe, a ‘war chest’ of secret service money funded a network of spies to uncover potential rebels amongst the underprivileged masses. It had some famous successes: dashing Colonel Despard, friend of Lord Nelson, was executed for treason. Sometimes, in the deadly game of cat-and-mouse between spies and their prey, suspicion fell on the wrong men, like poets Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Even peaceful reformers risked arrest for sedition. Political meetings like Manchester’s ‘Peterloo’ were ruthlessly suppressed, and innocent blood spilt. Repression bred resentment – and a diabolical plot was born. The stakes were incredibly high: rebels suffered the horrors of a traitor’s death when found guilty. Some conspirators’ secrets died with them on the scaffold...  

James Gillray, 'End of the Irish Invasion and Destruction of the French Armada'. Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-8768 

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

King Cotton's Timetable

I've often discussed workers and the types of machinery they tended on this blog, and the long hours they worked. But what was a typical timetable for a working day in the 1840s for a Lancashire mill family (including my ancestors)? 

Their day began at 5.30 a.m. with a rap at the window from the long stick of the knocker-upper – they paid him or her a small fee to act as their alarm clock. If the family lived a long way from the mill, they might have to get up even earlier to allow time to walk to work. Even if workers were only two or three minutes late for work, they were ‘quartered’ - fined 15 minutes’ wages - and if they were 15 minutes late, they lost a whole quarter of a day’s wages. Some mill masters locked the mill gates after ten minutes, which meant that workers were locked out till breakfast time.

On their way to work, our factory family bought hot coffee or cocoa from street vendors. The factory bell began ringing at five to six in the morning until 6 a.m., when the mill engine started up. The youngest child workers arrived at the factory gates, still half-asleep. Breakfast was from 8.30–9 am; perhaps some bread wrapped in a cloth, but not every mill stopped for breakfast, so workers ate while they worked.  The factory owner sometimes provided hot water for the operatives to make tea, but in some mills in the 1830s, the mill engineer’s wife sold hot water to the workers for 2d a week. (One witness estimated that the engineer’s wife made 30-40s every week just selling hot water). If they could afford it, workers took tea and coffee to the mill, and brewed up with jugs kept at the mill. If they couldn’t afford fresh tea, it was left at home: tea-leaves were dried out and re-used whenever possible.

After breakfast they worked until the dinner-hour at 1 pm, when our family met up by the factory gate; they might perhaps buy lunch from the corner shop.  If the mill was too far away for them to go home for lunch, some took bacon with them and paid 1d to the engineer’s wife for a dish of mashed potatoes, and 1d a week for cooking the bacon to go with it. If Grandma was minding her daughter’s children, she might cook lunch for her daughter and take it to the factory, so she didn’t have to rush home. Work started again at 2 pm, and finished at 5.30pm - so workers were at the factory for 11 and a half hours including meal breaks.

Saturday was payday - the highlight of the week, when the factory closed at 2.30. After work, the operatives hurried to the shops, which stayed open until midnight; they knew from experience if they left it too late only the worst food would be left - rancid cheese, rotten meat and vegetables. Tea, coffee and sugar were bought a ‘pennyworth’ at a time, as was pickle, which was used to relieve the monotony of their usual diet of potatoes. By the time they reached home, Mum was often too exhausted to cook much, but a typical supper might be oatmeal gruel or potatoes boiled in their jackets. Working children instantly fell asleep after supper. Next day, the whole routine began all over again (holidays were rare).

And that’s why mill workers were considered ‘old’ if they were lucky enough to reach the age of forty.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Manchester and Salford Ancestors

I'm very pleased to announce that I've just signed a contract with Pen and Sword for a new book: Tracing Your Manchester and Salford Ancestors!
My book will focus on the history and records of the cities of Manchester and Salford, including the current districts and townships: e.g. places like Ancoats, Cheetham and Newton Heath for Manchester, and for Salford, places like Eccles, Worsley, Irlam, Cadishead, Swinton and Pendlebury. I'll be covering sources for religious and ethnic minorities, too. 
I am very excited about my new project as I grew up in Salford, and I have ancestors from both cities. If all goes well, the book should appear early in 2017. 
Image: The interior of Manchester Collegiate Church. Gallery of Engravings, Vol. II, (Fisher, Son & Co., c.1845).

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Child Candlemakers

My latest feature for Who Do You Think You Are? magazine is on candlemaker ancestors.One of the most famous candlemaking firms was Price’s Patent Candles, founded by William Wilson (1830). The firm had a two acre site by the banks of the Thames at Vauxhall Bridge, and another large works at Battersea.
Price's candles were originally made from coconut oil and tallow; they were cheap, and burnt brightly and clearly. In the 1840s the firm expanded and took over Samuel Child’s night-light works at Brompton. The night-light manufacture was moved to Vauxhall; the factory was enormous. Another night-light factory (Albert’s) at Belmont was taken over by Price’s, and moved to new premises under the arches of the South Western Railway.
By the early 1850s, Price’s switched to making candles from palm oil, which were marketed as an ‘ethical’ product. Palm oil exports were more profitable for African producers than slavery, which still thrived even though it was banned in Britain and the colonies since 1834.
The palm oil ships unloading their freight at Vauxhall were known locally as the ‘African Blockading Squadron’. Every Price’s candle burnt was said to ‘put out a slave’ (Fraser’s Magazine, July 1852).
The candle factory would find it difficult to market itself as an ‘ethical’ concern nowadays because of its heavy reliance on child labour. The children often worked nights from six p.m. until six a.m. The ‘patent’ candles were made by huge machines which processed the fat into giant ‘cakes’. The cakes were melted in vats, and the liquid poured into moulds (unlike traditional candles made by repeated dipping a wick in tallow or wax). Boys helped move the cakes of fat to the vats ready for melting. Children packed the candles in boxes.
When the firm took over Child’s night-light factory it acquired more child workers (children’s nimble fingers were well-suited to making night-lights)  A writer who visited the factory thought the production line, with its ‘little army of boys in clean blouses and caps’ and ‘long rows of girls in pinafores’ looked like a school-room. 
Boys punched out cardboard and tin components to make ‘cups’ to hold the fat in the night-lights. Some fixed the wicks in the lights, and others filled the cups with the fat or ‘stearine.’ Girls plaited cotton wicks for the night-lights.
James P. Wilson, managing director of Price’s Patent Candle Factory, was deeply religious, and wanted to look after his young workers’ health and morals.  In 1848 Wilson set up schools at his own expense for his child factory workers. Wilson's factory schools became famous, and he was swamped by letters of congratulation from well-wishers including factory inspector Robert Baker and writers Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mrs Gaskell. 

Price’s Patent Candle factory. Record of the 1862 Exhibition, (William Mackenzie, c.1863).
Mrs Gaskell. Mrs Gaskell and Knutsford, 2nd edition, Clarkson & Griffiths, Manchester, 1905. 

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Waterloo Bicentenary

Wellington and Napoleon.
There's a quick round-up of Waterloo 200 commemorations here on my Jane Austen blog.

Austen-era Fabrics

This week fellow Pen & Sword author Catherine Curzon has kindly invited me to write for her wonderful Madam Gilflurt blog on Georgian history, and you can read my post on fashionable Austen-era fabrics here.
Image: A morning dress on display at Jane Austen's home: Chawton Cottage, Hampshire. © Sue Wilkes.

Monday, 1 June 2015

The Lion Salt Works Re-opens!

Restored Stove House 5, with salt pan in foreground.
Last week I was lucky enough to enjoy a sneak preview of the Lion Salt Works' fabulous new visitor site at Northwich. Over £10 million has been spent on this mammoth restoration project, and the result is an outstanding new heritage attraction - unique in the UK.
The Salt Works, founded by the Thompson family in 1894, made salt by boiling brine in large open pans.
Open pan salt making, 1850.
The brine for the pans was pumped up from underneath the site, and you can still see the remains of the 'nodding donkey' pump. The site was in a very poor state of preservation prior to its restoration, but now visitors can explore two restored pan houses and three stove houses.

The former Red Lion pub at the site entrance has displays relating to the salt workers, and local artefacts, including a pretty salt ship.
The Salt Works will open to the public on Friday 5 June. There are lots of fun interactive exhibits for children in the museum, and a playground, and butterfly garden to explore. Entrance is free to the cafe and play area.
Huge salt crushing mill, Lion Salt Works.

There's a special offer, too, if you are a Salt. f you can show photo ID proof that your name is Salt, you can visit the museum free of charge. (This offer runs until 31 May 2016).
All author photos © Sue Wilkes. Video courtesy of West Cheshire museums.