Search This Blog


Saturday, 3 October 2015

All Aboard The Shroppie Fly!

We took advantage of a nice sunny day recently to enjoy a visit to our unique local attraction, the Anderton Boat Lift.

Anderton Boat Lift.
 It is always a treat to see this amazing feat of engineering, but this time we had a special surprise - the historic Shropshire Union flyboat, Saturn, was moored on the Weaver at the bottom of the boat lift.

Saturn, which has recently been restored, has had a chequered history.

She originally carried cheese from Cheshire to Manchester. Flyboats usually had four-man crews - two on duty, two off.
They were the fastest vessels on the canals, and perfect for carrying perishable goods.
The volunteers who were looking after Saturn very kindly invited us on board to have a peek inside the cabin and cargo hold. As Saturn is used for education, the interior has been decorated to resemble a family narrow-boat cabin. We very much enjoyed looking around inside.
Cabin shelves and crockery.

After cooling off with an icecream from the visitor centre at the Boat Lift, we explored the museum downstairs, and I tried on a traditional boatwoman's bonnet. I don't think it's the most flattering headgear I've ever worn!
All photos © Sue Wilkes.
Cabin stove.

Cargo hold.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Jessie Stephen: Servant and Suffragette

Today I'd like to welcome fellow Pen and Sword author Michelle Higgs to my blog. Michelle's wonderful new book Servants' Stories is out now., and Jessie Stephen's career is just one of the many amazing true stories inside:

By her own admission, Jessie Stephen was no ordinary housemaid. Born in 1893, she was the daughter of a tailor who worked for the Co-operative Society in Glasgow. She wanted to be a schoolteacher and when she was 14, she won a scholarship to secondary school. Sadly, Jessie had to leave a year later when her father became temporarily unemployed. Duty to one’s parents and contributing to the family finances had to come first. 

When she was interviewed about her life in 1977, she recalled:
“trade was so bad that particular year [1908], I had to go out to work. I went to one or two jobs, factory jobs, but it was only half a crown a week and I wasn’t helping Mother. So I said I’ll find a job in service because at any rate the money will be completely free of any expense to Mother. Of course, you’d have your board and lodging… I am grateful to my Dad. He cried a bit when I was said I was going…he wanted something better for me but of course in later years, I justified his appreciation of what I’d learned.”
(From recorded interview in LSE Library’s collections, ref: 8SUF/B/157, 1 July 1977.)

Like so many working-class girls, Jessie Stephen went into domestic service as a ‘general’, working first in Glasgow. She quickly found she was better educated than many of the mistresses she served. Jessie described one of the homes in which she worked:

“There were four [servant] girls … [and] they had two bathrooms [in the house] but we weren’t allowed to use the bath. Oh, no! We had to go in the wash-house and have our bath in the copper, warm the water and get in the copper, one of the girls holding the door so any of the men who might pass couldn’t get in. It was humiliation that servants had to suffer back then, as if we were different creatures. We were often very much cleaner than they were because we were always taught to be clean. Every one of us had a bath every week, my Mother saw to that.”
Not content with her lot, Jessie became a labour activist at an early age; she was made vice-president of the Maryhill branch of the Independent Labour Party at the age of 16. She was also a militant suffragette and a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union; while wearing her maid’s uniform, she dropped acid into pillar boxes to destroy the contents.
Determined to improve the working lives of her fellow servants, Jessie was also involved in founding a domestic workers’ union in Glasgow in 1913. There were minor successes, but it was difficult to recruit members and the union eventually became affiliated to the Domestic Workers’ Union of Great Britain.

You can find out more about Jessie Stephen’s experiences as a domestic servant in Servants’ Stories: Life Below Stairs in their Own Words 1800-1950 by Michelle Higgs (Pen & Sword, 2015).

Michelle’s blog about servants is at and you can also follow her on Twitter: @michellehiggs11.
Jessie Stephen, 1930. (Source: Bundesarchiv Bild 102-09812, Jessie Stephen).
Members of the Women's Social and Political Union campaigning for women's suffrage in Kingsway, circa 1911. (Source: The Suffragette by Sylvia Pankhurst. New York: Source Book Press, 1970. First published by Sturgis & Walton Company, 1911. Facing p. 174)
Blue plaque for Jessie Stephen MBE (1893-1979) in Chessel Street, Bristol. (Source: Flickr: Jessie Stephen MBE. Author: Trevor Johnson)

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.