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Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Free Preview of Vignettes!

Jane Austen
You can enjoy a free preview of my new Amazon Kindle e-book Vignettes here!  Click on the link to read a free sample and discover the wonderful literary world of Jane Austen.

Vignettes is based on the many articles I’ve written over the years for Jane Austen’s Regency World, mostly mini-biographies of famous writers who either influenced Austen, or were contemporaries of hers. The authors chosen just happen to be my own personal favourites.


Vignettes begins with a brief introduction to Austen’s life and work.

The next chapter looks at women’s education at that date, with reference to how Austen’s contemporaries discussed it. Mary Wollstonecraft’s thoughts on daughters’ schooling, Priscilla Wakefield, Mrs Barbauld and others are included. I also discuss women’s magazines and how they helped to influence and educate young women at that time. The chapter concludes by looking at some contemporary critiques of the supposed pernicious effect of novel-reading.

The following chapter looks at the lives of Hogarth, Rudolph Ackermann, Johnson and Boswell. 
The chapter after that discusses Jane’s contemporary rivals like Ann Radcliffe, Mary Brunton, Fanny Burney and Mme de Stael.

After a chapter on social ‘influencers’ like Parson Malthus, Thomas Bernard and Robert Owen, we move on to discussing the lives of Cowper and Thomson, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, John Keats, Percy and Mary Shelley, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, etc. Wherever possible, I have set each author in the context of Jane’s life and works by including quotes from her letters and novels. 

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

My New E-Book: VIGNETTES

I'm very pleased to announce that I've just published a new book on Amazon Kindle: 'Vignettes: Literary Lives in the Age of Austen'.

Here's a copy of the blurb:

'Jane Austen lived in a ground-breaking era for English Literature. This was the age of William Wordsworth, Percy and Mary Shelley, John Keats, and others. Austen herself drew inspiration from the writers who came before her, like Doctor Johnson, Thomson, Cowper and Fanny Burney. She faced stiff competition from the rival novelists of her day like Ann Radcliffe, Mary Brunton, and Walter Scott.
Jane Austen's House Museum, Chawton. 
Away from the novelists’ world, writers like Mary Wollstonecraft argued passionately for women’s rights, and Parson Malthus, Robert Owen and Thomas Bernard discussed how best to deal with the poor.
Based on the author’s previously published articles in Jane Austen's Regency World magazine, this lively exploration of Austen’s times also looks at popular literature. How did our tradition of Christmas ‘annuals’ begin? Were female novel-readers really the ‘slaves of vice’? Find out more in 'Vignettes'. '

Robert Burns. 
The book also discusses the career of poet Robert Burns, writer Robert Southey, and publisher Rudolph Ackermann.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I've enjoyed researching the stories of all these wonderful writers over the years!

Friday, 22 March 2019

New Peterloo Exhibition!

Hugh Hornby Birley, copyright People's History Museum. 
On Tuesday we were very privileged to have a sneak preview of the People's History Museum's new Peterloo exhibition, Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest, which opens tomorrow and runs until 23rd February 2020.


The Museum has acquired some wonderful new Peterloo artefacts for the exhibition, including a portrait of mill-owner Hugh Hornby Birley. Birley was the captain of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, and long infamous in the city for his role in the massacre.

Mrs's Mabbott's gown, copyright Manchester Art Gallery/Bridgeman Images. 






The 'middling classes' are represented by Mrs Mabbott's silk gown. The Mabbott family had a confectioner's and tea dealership on Bridge Street, and it's said that Mrs Mabbott was accidentally caught up in the day's violence. The gown is made from fawn corded silk, and has a white linen-lined bodice.


Peterloo Glass, copyright People's History Museum. 

Another very rare and fragile artefact is the 'Peterloo glass', which shows the massacre taking place.











Skelmanthorp flag. Copyright Nigel Wilkes.
I was very intrigued by the Skelmanthorpe flag, on loan from the Tolson Museum. This poignant banner would have been a very dangerous object to its owners. They would have kept it well hidden from the authorities in case they were arrested for sedition.

The exhibition also has a 'Protest Lab' space, where activists and campaigners can display their own items or souvenirs of protests or marches they have been involved in.

Do please visit the exhibition if you can. There are also more galleries upstairs with displays on the history of the fight for our democracy, including pioneers like Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the Chartists.

A big thank you to Clare Short, Sam Jenkins, Kloe Rumsey, and everyone who made us welcome!


Photo: The author with collections officer Sam Jenkins, and conservator officer Kloe Rumsey. Copyright Nigel Wilkes. 

Finally, you can also visit the new Peterloo 1819 website for updates on more upcoming bicentenary events in Manchester. For example, the John Rylands Library, Manchester Art Gallery, the Manchester Histories Festival, and the Working Class Movement Library are all taking part in the Peterloo commemorations.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Saving Lives At Sea - Ancestors

Marryat's lifeboat, 1820. 
My latest feature for Discover Your Ancestors online magazine is on the history of the lifeboat service.

The RNLI’s orange-and-blue lifeboats are a familiar sight on our coastline – and on TV. Its brave crews have saved lives at sea for almost two centuries.


Often several generations of the same family have served on lifeboat crews, and my article includes tips for researching your lifeboat ancestors. You can also find out more about lifeboat history here on the RNLI website. The RNLI even has its own archive and library, and you can also visit one of its six museums.

Image from author's collection: 'Captain Marryat’s design for a new lifeboat', Gentleman’s Magazine, May 1820.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Manchester Jacobites

Manchester Jacobites
My latest feature for Highlander magazine is on the story of the Manchester Jacobites. Bonnie Prince Charlie caused uproar when he swept through the city twice in 1745. The ‘Young Pretender’ hoped to reclaim the throne for his father, the self-styled King James III of England and James VIII of Scotland. 

Charles Edward Stuart
Earlier in the century, a Jacobite mob almost destroyed the Presbyterian Chapel in Manchester, and several local worthies supported the abortive 1715 rebellion. In February 1716, peruke-maker Thomas Syddall and four other men were executed at Lancaster scaffold for following the ‘Old Pretender’. 

During the '45, the city's defence was completely bungled. On the afternoon of Thursday 28 November 1745, to its eternal shame, ‘Manchester was taken by a Serjeant, a Drum, and a Woman’. The main Jacobite army arrived the following morning; they marched into St Ann’s Square.  

On 1 December, the Bonnie Prince left Manchester, heading south towards London, along with the newly formed 'Manchester Regiment' composed of enthusiastic local recruits, commanded by Colonel Francis Towneley. Little did the Manchester rebels realize that they would later pay a terrible price for their loyalty to the Prince...


Temple Bar in the 1750s

Images from the author's collection:
Top left: Manchester Jacobites.  Manchester Old and New Vol. 1, Cassell & Co., c.1894. 
Above, right: Bonnie Prince Charlie, the ‘Young Chevalier’. 
Left: The heads of executed Mancunian Colonel Towneley and Salford man George Fletcher on Temple Bar, London, in the 1750s. Old and New London Vol.I, Cassell, Petter & Galpin, c.1873

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Peterloo Movie: A Review

I have been fascinated by the tragedy of Peterloo - and its consequences - for as long as I can remember. Next year is the bicentenary of this landmark event for our democracy, which has seemingly never been covered by the movie industry before, so Mike Leigh's new film is very timely. I was not disappointed. 

The action begins four years earlier on the bloody field of Waterloo. Joseph, a young soldier, survives the battle, and begins the long journey home to his family in Manchester. His mum is Nellie (Maxine Peake), who is fighting to keep her loved ones fed during a time of great hardship for the town's workers.

Some of the notable events in the years preceding Peterloo are telescoped with the action in order to provide the necessary historical context. Discontent was growing in the town, which expressed itself in political meetings, and the ill-fated march of the Blanketeers in 1817. Even women had their own societies dedicated to campaigning for parliamentary reform. The speeches of Leigh's characters capture the authentic ring of Manchester's political meetings - and some of the real firebrands of the day - as reported by the authorities' many spies.

Oliver the Spy (Stephen Wight) makes an enjoyable cameo appearance, although actually his identity was compromised in the aftermath of the ill-fated Pentrich Rising two years earlier. 

The meeting at St Peter's Field on 16 August 1819 was organized to hear a speech by Henry 'Orator' Hunt. Rory Kinnear nicely captures Hunt's mixture of bombast and self-importance (and his dedication to reform). Samuel Bamford (played by Neil Bell), who was initially impressed by Hunt, gradually became extremely disenchanted by his attitude. (Surely Bamford is far too well-dressed in the movie? He looks very prosperous).

The main events leading up to the massacre, and the horrifying violence of the day itself, are meticulously covered - right down to the incidents when Hunt helps a fainting woman into his coach, and Hunt is hit on the head by one of Joseph Nadin's thugs after being arrested. A pity that the Cheshire Yeomanry's part in the day was omitted, but perhaps this would have over-complicated the action. 

One seeming inaccuracy which struck me afterwards was the section in the film where Nelly shares out some chunks of bread with another family. Now Nellie's family is depicted as being extremely poor, so they were most unlikely to have been able to afford bread. The Corn Laws (one of the issues which the Peterloo crowd were protesting about) had artificially inflated the price of bread to benefit farmers and landowners. Contemporary accounts of working-class families in this decade in Manchester usually mention that they lived primarily on oatmeal and potatoes. But as gruel and potatoes are not very easy to carry, perhaps the bread was a special treat for the family's 'grand day out'. 

Where this film really hits the nail on the head is Leigh's uncompromising depiction of the enormity of the class divide. The revolting gluttony of the Prince Regent (Tim McInnenry - who was clearly enjoying himself) and the Manchester magistrates' comfortable lifestyle is starkly contrasted with the bare, comfortless homes of the working classes.  

In our age of austerity, and a hopelessly divided Britain, the story of Peterloo has never been more topical. Do go and see the movie. 

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Thomas Harrison, Architect

Chester Castle and Shire Hall complex, 1820s. 
Please saunter over to All Things Georgian, the wonderful blog belonging to my fellow Pen & Sword authors Sarah Murden and Joanne Major. Today they've kindly hosted my guest post on Thomas Harrison, a stunning architect who gave Chester's buildings an air of classical elegance during Regency times