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Monday, 22 December 2008

Roman Chester

Christmas is coming! There’s still time to order my book Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives from Amazon if you choose ‘Express Delivery.’

It was the mildest day we’ve had for weeks here yesterday, so I did a spot of gardening. I met a confused bumblebee in the garden; he must’ve thought it was spring already!

It’s always difficult to find places to take the family which are open to visit during the Christmas holidays. The Grosvenor Museum in Chester is open in the winter months (phone or check online for Christmas opening times.) It’s got a fantastic collection of Roman tombstones (left), which give us a unique insight into how Roman people lived in Chester during the occupation. You can also peek into the past and explore daily life in Stuart, Georgian and Victorian times in the Period House (No. 20 Castle St.) Find out more in my Footsteps feature in the latest issue of BBC History magazine.

Christmas is a busy family time in the Wilkes household, so this may be my last blog post for a little while.
A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my readers!

Image: My photo of Webster Stone 21RT: The tombstone of Curatia Diomysia; this Roman lady can be seen enjoying a drink in the afterlife.
© Sue Wilkes.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

A Festive Ship

Recently, I was lucky enough to be present when the Lion Saltworks acquired a ‘salt ship’ for their collection. These are quite rare objects. At Christmas time and other festive occasions, the saltworkers would make wooden objects like ships, dip them in the concentrated brine in the saltworks, and put them to dry in the warm stove rooms (where lump salt was dried out.) As the brine evaporated out, a beautiful coating of salt crystals appeared, as on the ship (see image, left.) Sometimes the workers would dip tree boughs in the brine and dry them out to make Christmas decorations for their houses. A pretty effect, isn't it?
Image © Sue Wilkes.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

A Spooky Premonition

Some very intriguing news for literary fans last week. Novelist Mrs Gaskell (author of Mary Barton , North and South) had a premonition some time in the months before her death in 1865 that she would not survive much longer. Gaskell was a prolific letter writer, and the story of her spooky premonition was discovered in a new collection of her correspondence recently acquired by the John Rylands Library in Manchester. It will be very interesting to see how the 'new' letters shed light on Gaskell's life and work.

Image: Mill design changes in fifty years. Reports of Factory Inspectors, October 1873. (Author’s collection.) Gaskell's novels 'Mary Barton' and 'North and South' were set in Victorian Manchester, home of the cotton industry. You can find out more about the cotton workers' lives in my book Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Jane Austen vs. Top Gear

On tonight’s Top Gear on BBC2, Jeremy Clarkson compared driving a certain car to sitting in a bucket of wallpaper paste while reading a Jane Austen novel. The implication being that Jane Austen is boring. Well, I’m sorry to have to break it to you, Mr Clarkson, but Jane Austen’s novels will be read and enjoyed long after your puerile effusions have been pulped.
Then I got to thinking, what would happen if we transported the Top Gear team into the fictional setting of Jane Austen’s novels? Which characters would they be?
For my money, Jeremy Clarkson would be John Thorpe, the loudmouth buck in Northanger Abbey who drives too recklessly and is only interested in fast horses, carriages and women. Richard Hammond might be Mr Parker from Sanditon , the lovable enthusiast for all things new, who dashes about the countryside.
James May is more tricky. ‘Captain Slow’ has more wit and charm than Mr Clarkson. Perhaps a younger version of him could be Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey…

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Down the Pit

This lunchtime, BBC2 screened a repeat of Fred Dibnah's 'Made in Britain'. I was very interested to see it again as Fred paid a visit to Astley Green Colliery Museum , home to Lancashire's last surviving pit head colliery. I visited the museum for background research for my book 'Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives.' My grandfather and great-grandfather both worked in pits in Little Hulton and Agecroft; it was fascinating to see the terrible conditions the miners faced every day.
Astley Green Colliery pit head winding gear. The first shaft was sunk in 1908.
No.1 winding engine, Astley Green colliery. One of the largest ever used in Britain; it was built by Yates & Thom of Blackburn and installed 1910 -1912.
Photos © Nigel and Sue Wilkes.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Whizz for Atoms

I was sorry to hear the Large Hadron Collider looks likely to be out of action for some time. This exciting project is basically a kind of Alton Towers ride for sub-atomic particles; scientists are keenly interested in the by-products spewed out when two high velocity beams of protons are smashed together. The experiments will hopefully help to answer key questions about events shortly after the Big Bang occurred these events helped determine 'life, the universe and everything.' (To quote from the super computer Deep Thought's task in 'Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy.' ) Physicists are hoping to find a theoretical particle called the Higgs boson, which will revolutionise our understanding of matter. Let's hope the Collider repairs proceed more quickly than expected.
Image of the Andromeda Galaxy from Sir R.S. Ball's 'Story of the Heavens,' 1893.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Lest we forget

Today is Armistice Day , on which we honour those who have fallen in war. We should never forget, too, the contribution made by those who helped the war effort at home. During WWII, many young women worked in the ordnance factories, such as the one at Risley, Warrington, making ammunition and bombs. The explosive powder they used turned the girls’ hair and skin yellow; they were sometimes nicknamed the ‘Canary Girls.’ The women wore special safety gloves; their faces were protected by a reinforced glass screen. It was tiring work wearing the heavy gloves; if the girls removed them, the heat from their hands could set off the explosive, and many lost fingers as a result.
You can still see the remains of Risley Royal Ordnance Factory at Birchwood Forest Park, now a nature reserve, with birds, dragonflies and wildflowers. It’s hard to believe this site was once home to frantic activity as the unsung heroines of Risley ‘did their bit’ to help the boys at the front.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

A Classic Tale

Mary Barton caused a furore when first published in October 1848. Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Tale of Manchester Life,’ with its no-holds-barred depiction of the vast gulf between the cotton masters and their ‘clemmed’ (starving) mill workers, sparked a furious debate in Cottonopolis. Was Gaskell’s novel true to life? Did Mary Barton, as its detractors claimed, exacerbate tensions between the classes rather than promoting greater understanding?
You can find out more in my special feature on Mary Barton in the November issue of History Today.

My book Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives looks at the reality of everyday life for workers in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution in Lancashire. Remember to order early for Christmas!

Image: The Dinner Hour, Manchester. Engraving by R. Kent Thomas (1816-1884.) for Lancashire by Grindon, Leo H., (Seeley & Co., 1892.)

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Credit crunch

The financial news is so dire at the moment, one’s frightened to turn on the TV or radio in case there’s been another catastrophe. Banking crises are sadly nothing new. During my research for Regency Cheshire, I’ve been learning about the great bank crash of 1825. Many country banks went bust, and their banknotes were withdrawn. The Royal Mint coined 150,000 sovereigns per day to meet the unprecedented demand for hard currency. The country’s credit was only saved by the accidental discovery of hundreds of thousands of one pound notes lying forgotten somewhere in the Bank of England (presumably in someone’s underwear drawer.) (Knight’s History of England, 1868.) The financial crisis continued into the following year; thousands of firms went bankrupt. Industrial firms, who employed many workers in Lancashire and Cheshire, were especially hard hit.
One high profile literary victim of the financial crash was author Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832.) A disastrous partnership with his publishers meant he became liable for vast debts when the firm collapsed; his remaining years were spent battling ill-health and heroically trying to repay his creditors.
Image: Sir Walter Scott, Great Authors of English Literature, 1899.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Illustrious Iona

Returning to my whistle-stop tour of my best holiday destinations, I recently fulfilled a long-held ambition. For years, I’d longed to follow in the footsteps of my literary heroes Boswell and Johnson and visit the ‘illustrious Island’ of Icolmkill, or Iona. Their accounts of their 1773 tour, Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), and Boswell’s Journal of A Tour to the Hebrides, (1785), were bestsellers in their day.

A later visitor was John Keats, who enjoyed a walking tour of Scotland in 1818. The grandeur of the scenery, especially the islands of Iona and Staffa, was a huge inspiration for his poetry.

Iona’s beaches were dazzling white; the encircling sea far bluer than I’d ever imagined. Strangely, I’d always pictured Iona as empty and deserted; of course there were several shops. As we walked up to Iona Abbey, the path was busy with tourists and pilgrims. From here we had a splendid view of the Abbey, guarded by wonderfully carved stone crosses; the Sound of Iona, with the cheery-looking ferry zooming back and forth; and the wild, rough mountains of Mull, vividly delineated against the sky. It was a crystal-bright summer’s day, and I’ll never forget it.

Images © Sue and Nigel Wilkes.
Sràid nam Marbh, The Street of the Dead, the ancient burial pathway of the Scots kings. Iona Abbey.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

A Mighty Fortress

The Beeston Castle area is one of my favourite places in Cheshire; we’ve had many smashing walks along the Sandstone Trail there. The weather was so lovely today that we had an afternoon out and enjoyed a stomp along the Trail from the Castle to the Candle Workshops and back again. The hedgerows were full of blackberries; there were a few pheasants trundling about, and we saw a pair of buzzards mewing and circling high above us. The Castle was built in the C.13th by Ranulf, sixth Earl of Chester. The mighty fortress was ‘slighted’ during the Civil War, so it falls short of its former splendour, but it’s still an impressive landmark, towering high above the surrounding countryside. Beeston was believed to be impregnable, and when a raiding party sneaked inside the Castle during the Civil War (supposedly by treachery), its commander Capt. Steele surrendered; he was later executed for cowardice.
Image: Beeston Castle from the bridge over the moat. © Sue Wilkes

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Cheshire butterflies

The much-needed sunshine on Saturday brought out the butterflies in my garden. They're very fond of our buddleia bush, and I've never seen so many different varieties on one bush. We had three Red Admirals, a small tortoiseshell, cabbage whites, and a comma butterfly, which I've never seen before. A peacock butterfly was out and about last week, too. I was very excited to see the small tortoiseshell as I watched a recent BBC news report saying these once common butterflies are in decline.

Images of Red Admiral and Peacock butterflies © Sue and Gareth Wilkes.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Doom at Dundrennan

In this month's issue of Scottish Home and Country, I take another look at the history of the Galloway area, in particular St Ninian and the early abbeys; Dundrennan is just one abbey in the area with wonderfully romantic ruins. Glenluce and Sweetheart Abbey are also in beautiful settings; the holy monks knew how to choose a fruitful site for their labours.
Mary Queen of Scots’ final tragic hours in her homeland were spent at Dundrennan. On May 16th 1568, accompanied by a small group of friends, she set sail for England in a humble fishing boat. Mary must have been full of hope as her native Scotland receded into the distance. But it was a mistake which led inexorably to her doom...
Image: Mary Stuart's escape to England. A typically understated Victorian engraving from Miss Corner's History of Scotland, c.1845.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Lost in Austen II

I watched ‘Lost in Austen’ last night. I have to say this is one of the most gormless things I’ve seen on telly for a long time, which takes some doing in the ‘Big Brother’ era. ‘Lost in Austen’ was unrelentingly daft. I kept the remote control out of reach, hoping the programme would improve as time went on, but no!

It was as if writer Guy Andrews and the producers tried to do a pick ‘n’ mix of all the things they think us mere females like about Pride & Prejudice - elegant ladies in gorgeous frocks, Regency bucks clad in tight ‘inexpressibles,’ quadrilles etc - and stirred them up with a big stick in the hope we’d lap it up.
But someone forgot the sparkling dialogue! And who on earth is this aimed at? If Austen fans, then why did Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) spend an age justifying the fact that she loved the book?

There were a couple of things I liked about it. Mrs Bennet (Alex Kingston), who I thought was going to be an Alison Steadman clone at first, had a chilling air of menace as she protected her daughters from the interloper. Darcy (Elliot Cowan) was watch-able, with a manic gleam in his eye, and Mr Bennet (Hugh Bonneville) was great. But it was incredibly slow to get going. I can’t believe they are going to spin it out over four hours! This might have been better written as a one-hour special.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Lost in Austen I

There’s a treat in store for Austen fans – they can lose themselves in the pages of the ‘new look’ Jane Austen's Regency World. In this month’s issue, you can read my feature on three women caught up in the maelstrom of Revolutionary France. Madame Roland, Théroigne de Méricourt and Charlotte Corday were supporters of the Girondins or ‘moderate’ republicans in the National Assembly. They lived incredibly different lives to Austen. The sabre-wielding Théroigne de Méricourt met a tragic end; Charlotte Corday slew the merciless Marat, and Mme Roland, like Charlotte, bravely faced death by guillotine. Austen, of course, was no stranger to the Reign of Terror - her cousin Eliza Hancock’s first husband, the Comte de Feuillide, was guillotined in 1794.

The Austen bandwagon continues with ITV’s ‘Lost in Austen’, which I'm hoping to watch tonight. L’aimable Jane must be revolving at warp speed in her grave at the thought of all the TV and film royalties she’s missed out on. Regency romp or Regency rip-off? What do you think?

Image: Madame Roland, History Of England, Charles Knight, Volume VII. (London, 1868.)
As Madame Roland awaited execution, she cried: ‘O Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!’

Monday, 1 September 2008

Holiday Rock

During our stay in the Western Isles we visited the amazing Kilmartin Glen sites. There must have been a prehistoric stonemasons’ convention held here every year because the glen is awash with mysterious stone carvings and ritual circles. We also climbed up Dunadd hill fort, home of the ancient Scottish kings of Dal Riata. Today, the only things living there are a million warlike Scottish midges. On the summit there’s a carved footprint, thought to have been used during coronation ceremonies. The spooky thing is, I placed my foot in the stone footprint and it fitted exactly!

Images © Sue and Nigel Wilkes. Achnabreck rock carvings, Dunadd stone footprint.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Going South

Orcadians refer to travelling to mainland Britain as ‘Going South,’ and that’s where we’re heading next. A couple of years ago, we stayed at Craobh Haven on the Argyll coast. Our cottage looked out to sea; we had a fantastic view of the smoky blue hills of the Isle of Jura and other nearby islands. Argyll abounds with heritage and wildlife, but if the latter is shy you can see rescued seal pups and inquisitive otters at the Scottish Sealife Sanctuary near Oban.

I was very excited about this holiday as I hoped to follow in the footsteps of some of my all-time literary heroes – Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell.

Images: Sunset at Craobh Haven.
A friendly otter at the Sealife Sanctuary.
Photos © Sue and Nigel Wilkes.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Ancient and Modern

One of the great things about Orkney is the sheer breadth of history for you to explore, from prehistory right up to modern times. Vikings such as the legendary Kolbein Hruga left their mark on the islands. His stronghold on the peaceful island of Wyre passed into Orkney folklore as the castle of the mythical Orkney giant, ‘Cubbie Roo.’ As you stroll round the islands on a misty evening, it’s easy to imagine a Viking longboat bursting suddenly through the sea fret. Kolbein and his exploits on Wyre, a green jewel of an island, were recalled round the firesides of the ancient Norse saga-tellers in the Orkneyinga Saga.

Moving through the centuries, you can find out how ordinary Orcadians lived and worked at the Kirbuster Farm Museum. But some of the most poignant relics on the islands date from the World Wars. The tragedy of HMS Royal Oak is remembered, along with artefacts recovered from the scuttled German High Seas Fleet, at the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre on Hoy. One of the most inspiring reminders of the war years is the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm. This masterpiece was created by Italian POWs from scrap and whatever materials they could salvage. The interior is wonderfully decorated by Domenico Chiochetti. The sheer beauty and peace inside the chapel never fail to bring a lump to my throat.
Images © Sue and Nigel Wilkes: Cubbie Roo's castle, Wyre.
Italian Chapel and interior, Lamb Holm.


Saturday, 9 August 2008

Descent into the Past

One of the eeriest places on Orkney is Mine Howe at Tankerness, Orkney, which I visited a few years ago. It was first excavated in 1946, and thought to be an Iron Age Broch (which abound in Orkney.) It was covered over and forgotten until local farmer Douglas Paterson re-opened the mound in 1999. The discovery of 29 mysterious steps leading down into a unique three-chambered structure caused a sensation. Channel 4’s ‘Time Team’ excavated the site in the summer of 2000.
As you get ready to descend into the mysterious shaft entrance, there’s a smell of damp earth. The shaft leads right into the ancient heart of the Iron Age mound. I edged closer to the tunnel entrance, held tightly to my hard hat, and carefully climbed down the stone steps…
The steps are steep, and it’s a tight squeeze. Each step takes you further into the gloom, and further back in time.
As the daylight grows fainter, the only light comes from rope lighting fastened along the handrail. The tunnel shrinks, then turns sharply; I had to take care not to stumble on the awkwardly-shaped steps. But it really doesn’t take very long to reach the underground chamber at the bottom.
Then comes the surprise; above your head is a kind of vaulted ceiling, like the inside of a huge stone thimble. The air holds an unearthly chill. There’s only room for two or three people at the base of the chamber; it felt uncomfortably crowded. The atmosphere was hushed; were we in an Iron Age cathedral? The way back up to the modern world was signposted by the cheery glow of the rope lighting, snaking up the handrail like Christmas tree lights.
Down at the bottom of the Howe, it’s impossible to escape the conviction there are more discoveries waiting to be made behind the intricate stonework. Who built this unique structure? Why was it constructed in this unusual fashion? There are no answers, no written records; all we can do is guess and wonder. I was glad to climb up to the sunlight, and breathe fresh air again.

It helps to be reasonably agile to enter some of these unique monuments, such as the Tomb of the Eagles , another ‘must-see’ on mainland Orkney. Entrance to this tomb is lying down on a trolley! Another tight squeeze is the nine metre crawl through the narrow entrance of the Quoyness Chambered Cairn on Sanday. But it’s really worth the effort for an unforgettable experience.
Image: Quoyness Chambered Cairn, Sanday. © Nigel Wilkes.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Magical, mysterious Orkney

Orkney has a magic all of its own. The moment you leave the ferry, it feels as if you’re entering a different world, slipping back into a long-lost age. The ancient landscape still holds many undiscovered secrets. The mysterious monuments at Stenness, Brodgar and Maes Howe are among my favourites. The stone houses of Skara Brae even have ‘mod cons’ such as stone cupboards.
The islands teem with wildlife, and we never know what we’re going to see each day, whether it’s a hedgehog trundling across the grass, hares dancing in the fields, or a short-eared owl sitting on a fencepost. The people are wonderfully friendly, too.
Visiting some of the smaller islands is a ‘must’ if you have time and the budget allows it. So far we’ve been lucky enough to visit Hoy, Sanday, Rousay, Westray and Papay (Papa Westray), Wyre, and South Ronaldsay, (not all on the same holiday!) and one day we hope to see the seaweed-eating sheep on North Ronaldsay.
There’s much more information on Orkney heritage and history at Sigurd Towrie’s brilliant website.

Images © Sue and Nigel Wilkes:
Stones of Stenness, Orkney.
Knap of Howar, Papay.

Monday, 28 July 2008


The French Revolution of 1789 changed everything for ambitious young officer Napoleon Bonaparte. The ancien régime vanished and there were new opportunities for those prepared to risk everything. Although Corsican-born Bonaparte held the bloodthirsty Jacobin mob in contempt, he decided his best chance of achieving glory was in the service of the new French nation. You can read more about Europe’s bogeyman in Napoleon: Child of the Revolution, my feature for the July issue of Jane Austen's Regency World .

Would Napoleon ever have achieved such amazing power if the French Revolution hadn’t taken place? Just one of history’s many ‘What if?’ questions to which we’ll never know the answer.

The effects of the Napoleonic wars were felt all over Britain, even as far away as Orkney, where Martello Towers were built c.1814 to protect English shipping from French and American privateers. Attacks by French ships in the Channel meant English merchant ships were forced to take Northern routes around Scotland to reach trading centres. Only three towers were constructed in Scotland, such as this one on Hoy, but over 100 were built along the English South coast. The magical Orkney isles are next on my list of favourite holiday destinations.

Photo: Hackness Martello Tower, Hoy, Orkney. Image © Nigel Wilkes
‘Napoleon crossing the Alps’: History of England, Vol. VII, (London, c. 1868.)
‘Napoleon’ from an old engraving of a picture by Bouillon. Napoleon: Warrior and Ruler, (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893.)

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Landscape of Faith

I never tire of visiting Scotland. I love Scottish landscape and history. I first holidayed there well over twenty years ago with my husband Nigel. Since then I think we’ve stayed there every year but one, when we found we missed it terribly and couldn’t wait to go back again. From the Highlands to the Lowlands, we always find somewhere exciting and interesting to explore.
The Solway coast seems an appropriate place to begin my whistle-stop tour of our favourite holiday places. This beautiful landscape has witnessed political and religious strife through the ages. In the 1990s we visited the Whithorn Dig while the archaeological excavations were taking place; there’s now a museum dedicated to the finds of this historic site. Last year we visited St Ninian’s Cave nearby. St Ninian brought the light of religion to Whithorn some time late in the 4th century. He built a church here, and after his death Whithorn became a place of pilgrimage; even royal visitors such as Mary Queen of Scots endured long journeys to visit his shrine.

You can find out more about St Ninian’s story and how the footsteps of faith through the ages led to the Killing Times and the shocking tales of the Covenanters’ sufferings in ‘Scotland’s Landscape of Faith,’ the cover feature for this month’s Highlander magazine.
Images © Nigel and Sue Wilkes.
St. Ninian’s Cave, Whithorn.
Covenanter Martyrs’ Graves, Wigtown.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Grace Darling

Summer is here at last – at least according to the calendar, if not the weather itself! Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of my favourite holiday destinations with you.
Last year, I enjoyed a boat trip to Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland. As well as seeing the seal colony (featured recently on BBC’s ‘Autumnwatch,’) I visited the Longstone lighthouse, home of Grace Darling.
One stormy September night in 1838, the SS Forfarshire was wrecked on the rocks near the lighthouse. Twenty-two year old Grace and her father William, the lighthouse keeper, braved terrible conditions to rescue nine survivors who were clinging desperately to the rocks, lashed by the waves and wind. Grace’s gallantry was reported worldwide, and she became a worldwide celebrity; not all the attention she received was welcome. There’s a new museum dedicated to her, where you can see the ‘coble’ boat used in the rescue by the Darlings. The RNLI lifeboat based at Seahouses is also named after Grace. You can also find out more in my feature for the summer issue of children’s magazine Aquila.

Images: Engraving by unknown artist, World of Wonders, c.1870. Nigel Wilkes collection.
Longstone Lighthouse and Grace Darling lifeboat photos © Nigel Wilkes.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Spending a penny

There’s a news story today about workers having to clock off whenever they need a toilet break. Workers in Victorian Lancashire endured poor sanitation at home and at work. Although Manchester passed a bye-law in 1845 insisting all new houses that were built should have a separate privy, but there were still 38,000 privy middens in 1869. Around this time, Liverpool, too, had over 30,000 houses without a flush toilet.

Workers couldn’t even ‘spend a penny’ in comfort at work. As late as 1893, inspectors who visited the cotton mills found there was still much room for improvement – the toilets were filthy, with no ventilation – and in many mills, they were right next to the machinery. One Preston mill’s lavatories were so bad, the manager tried to stop the factory inspector from seeing them at all. In many mills, inspectors found that the toilets were rarely, if ever cleaned. Although some firms paid for the toilets to be cleaned, in other mills workers paid one penny (pre-decimal coinage) per month to have the toilets cleaned, plus one penny per week for hot water. In some factories, women workers were expected to take turns to clean the lavatories. Some mills used hot water from the steam engine to flush the toilets, but workers complained this made the smell from the privies even worse.

Image: Weaver, believed to be at York Mill, Rishton, early C.20th postcard. Author’s collection.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

A chequered past

Peover Hall and its gardens form a beautiful, tranquil oasis in the heart of Cheshire. The original hall dates back to 1585, and for centuries was home to the Mainwaring family. Harry Brooks, a wealthy Manchester entrepreneur, acquired the hall in the 1940s, but the Second World War meant his family did not get to enjoy their purchase for some time. General Patton of the U.S. Army used Peover as an HQ, and the building was returned to the Brooks family in 1950, rather the worse for wear. Sadly, the Georgian wing added in the 1760s has not survived, but the Carolean stables (Grade I listed) are very beautiful. The stables, built in 1654, still have the original Tuscan columns and arches, with a delicate strapwork ceiling; splendid housing for the family's steeds, who must have enjoyed looking at all the beautiful architecture while munching their hay. You can find out more in my Footsteps feature for the July edition of BBC History magazine.
Image of Peover Hall gardens © Sue Wilkes

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

A Grand Day Out

The summer holidays are almost here! Nowadays, families can enjoy holidays all over the world, limited only by their budgets or perhaps worries about their ‘carbon footprint.’ In Victorian times, the working classes got few opportunities for holidays. Whit Monday was the great workers' playtime, but workers were not necessarily all on holiday at once. Some mill-owners gave their workforce a week’s holiday each year, but others only had one or two days’ annual holiday. Workers scrimped and saved all year for their holidays – if they didn’t work, they didn’t get paid.
Traditionally, workers were limited to local fairs and races during Wakes week. But the advent of the railways meant some lucky workers could now travel much further afield.
One especially grand day out in the summer of 1851 was a visit to the Great Exhibition of Works of Industry of all Nations at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, opened by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on 1 May. At first, its five shilling entrance fee meant only visitors from the upper and middle classes could afford to attend, but on 26 May the fee was reduced to one shilling on Mondays to Thursdays. The lower classes could now join in the fun. The Exhibition was considered educational as well as recreational; railway outings were laid on from the great manufacturing districts such as Manchester and Liverpool.
Lancashire ingenuity was well represented inside. Workers marvelled at the very latest in cotton spinning machinery from firms such as Hibbert, Platt & Sons of Oldham, cotton goods from Manchester, and a scale model of Liverpool Docks.

Image: Nave of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Engraving from Old and New London, Vol. 5, (Edward Walford, c.1894.)

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Children of the Furnace

Furnace work in Victorian glass 'houses', where glass was manufactured, was the province of men and strong boys. Apart from ‘intemperate habits,’ no ill effects were found from working in the furnaces. However, some of the lads were treated quite roughly. The young apprentices began work before the men. Gaskell, a twelve year old apprentice, told the 1865 Children’s Employment Commission that the boys at Pilkingtons’ crown and sheet glass works: ‘always get called about three hours before we start with the men, for we have to sweep up and get ready for them before they come. We could do it all in an hour if we liked but we like to play in that time. We are called at all times night and day. The “teazer” or furnace man goes round the town and calls every boy in the house (glass house) when the furnace in that house has heated the metal in the pots enough to start working in about three hours. He comes to the door and knocks and calls “Gaskell,” and then, if it’s night, my father looks out of the house and says “Number – called,” that is the number of the house. So I get out of bed and go off.’
Like iron foundry workers, their lives revolved around the needs of the ever-hungry furnaces. Shift times depended on the type of glass being manufactured and the size of the crucibles used to melt the glass. Boys worked in the cutting and polishing departments, too, along with young girls and teenagers.

You can find out more in my feature on Victorian child glass workers in this month's issue of children's magazine Aquila and in my book Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives.

Glassblowing, engraving by G. P. Jacomb Hood, Grindon’s Lancashire.

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Liverpool: Gateway to a New Life

Many visitors will be flocking to enjoy Liverpool’s celebrations as Capital of Culture. During the 19th century, the port of Liverpool played a very different role – as a gateway to a new life. Poor Irish immigrants arrived looking for work, fleeing poverty and famine in their homeland. Some joined friends or relatives in Liverpool or Manchester, taking whatever work they could get; perhaps as railway labourers, on the docks, farm workers, or in the cotton industry. Living conditions in the burgeoning Victorian cities were filthy and unsanitary. Irish immigrants were often stuck with the poorest accommodation, such as the infamous cellar dwellings: the ‘black holes’ of the industrial age. In the 1840s, one Liverpool family slept in a bed over a well four feet deep in the bottom of their cellar dwelling; all the privies in the street above drained into their home. There were over 8,000 cellar dwellings in Liverpool alone, inhabited by approximately 38,000 people - so the cellars were crowded as well as damp. Many thousands more sailed onwards for a new life in America. Even if they could afford a place on a ship, the voyage was risky; diseases such as cholera lurked in the crowded conditions on board. But family after family braved the journey, searching for a new future…
You can find out more about living conditions for workers and their families in Victorian Lancashire in my book Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives.
Emigrants at Liverpool, engraving by G.P. Jacomb Hood, Lancashire by Grindon, Leo H., (Seeley & Co., 1892.)

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Coaching Days

Coach journeys in Jane Austen’s time were perilous because of the terrible state of the roads: deep in mud, or full of vast ruts. The weather, too, caused lots of problems; passengers and coachmen sometimes froze to death in the deep midwinter. Austen makes frequent references to coach travel in her novels and letters. In a letter to Cassandra (25 April 1811) Jane wrote: ‘Eliza caught her cold on Sunday on our way to the D’Entraigues; the Horses actually gibbed on this side of Hyde Park Gate – a load of fresh gravel made it a formidable hill to them, and they refused the collar; I believe there was a sore shoulder to irritate. Eliza was frightened, & we got out - & were detained in the Evening air several minutes…

Jane had a fun drive after visiting to a picture exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1813 (where she’d hoped to find a portrait of Mrs Darcy): ‘I had great amusement among the Pictures; & the Driving about, the Carriage being open, was very pleasant. I liked my solitary elegance very much, & was ready to laugh all the time, at my being where I was. I could not but feel that I had naturally small right to be parading about London in a Barouche.
You can find out more about the thrills and spills of coach travel in my latest feature for Jane Austen's Regency World.

Images: The old White Horse Cellar Inn, near Arlington St. The final stop for passengers from the west, it’s possible Jane Austen got off the coach here when visiting London. Engraving by I.R. and G. Cruikshank, Life in London, Pierce Egan, (John Camden Totten, 1869.)
‘In a Snowdrift,’ engraving by Hugh Thomson, Coaching Days and Coaching Ways, (Macmillan, 1910.)

Friday, 23 May 2008

The Queen's Visit to Liverpool

HM The Queen is said to have been much impressed by her visit to Liverpool this week. Of course, this isn’t the first time the city has been visited by royalty. Queen Victoria visited Liverpool on her tour of Lancashire in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition.
The event was covered by the Illustrated London News. It’s a tradition for the Queen to be greeted by schoolchildren, and 85,000 child workers assembled to see Queen Victoria. The only education these children had was at Sunday School, however. ‘How much of the manufacturing and commercial greatness of England is due to the labours of these babes, of these young attendants of that mighty worker, the steam engine?’ The reporter deplored the fact that despite reforming legislation, children were still wasting their strength and youth in the factories, and receiving insufficient education: ‘…no one can have looked on that vast assemblage of babes without the sorrowful conviction that an immense deal yet remains to be done by society before it can acquit itself of neglect of duty.’
Interestingly, the reporter indicated that the Queen wouldn’t have been as welcome if the Corn Laws (which kept the price of grain artificially high) hadn’t been repealed recently: ‘the Queen could not then have shown herself in Lancashire.

Image: Illustrated London News, 18 October 1851. Author’s Collection.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Cheshire Salt II

My lump salt has been drying out for a couple of weeks now, so I decided to try and decant it. As you can see, as the wet salt evaporated, it left a crust of salt all over the pot. Sadly, despite bashing my pot heroically with a wooden spoon, I couldn't get the 'lump' to come out all in one piece, so I've got a mound rather than a lump of Cheshire salt. It's possible I didn't compact it in firmly enough when I filled the pot, or perhaps it hasn't had long enough to dry out.
When the Lion Salt Works was in operation, Nigeria was one of the firm's prime markets. One particular grade of salt was exported there in such large quantities, it was known as 'Lagos Salt.'
The Lion Salt Works is hoping to begin restoration work on site later this year, so keep an eye on their website for news updates.
Images © Sue Wilkes.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Cheshire Salt I

The fortunes of Cheshire’s ‘wich’ towns were of course, built on salt. A couple of weekends ago, I went to a salt-making demonstration at the Lion Saltworks Trust, and it was very interesting indeed to watch the process in action. The basic technique of ‘walling’ - obtaining salt by boiling large, open pans of brine - changed very little over the centuries, from the Roman occupation right through to comparatively recent times.

I had a go at raking the salt to the sides of the pan on a replica Roman hearth. It’s surprisingly difficult just to move quite a smallish amount around the pan, so it must’ve been very hard work for the lumpmen raking the salt in the large-sized industrial pans.
The Romans used lead pans, and apparently it isn’t recommended nowadays to use salt made in this way, even though the amount of lead contamination would be incredibly tiny. There was also a stainless steel pan of Cheshire brine on the go, and I took a turn at scooping out the salt into a pot.
My pot of Cheshire salt has been drying out for a while now, and hopefully all will be revealed soon.

Images © Sue and Nigel Wilkes

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Full Steam Ahead

A big happy birthday to Crewe Heritage Centre as it is the Museum's 21st anniversary this year. Lots of special celebrations are planned, so do keep an eye on their website for upcoming events. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, 'Crewe' was the tiny village of Monks Coppenhall.
The coming of the railway and the Grand Junction workshops in 1843 brought employment, and a new town was born. You can find out more in my feature for BBC History magazine this month.

Photos: Visiting loco 'Union of South Africa' LNER class A4 4488 and permanent exhibit the Advanced Passenger Train (APT), currently undergoing restoration.

Images © Sue and Nigel Wilkes

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Review of Miss Austen Regrets

Miss Austen Regrets is a welcome addition to the burgeoning Jane Austen film/TV industry. The use of Austen’s letters gave an authentic ring to this biopic. A couple of scenes had me raising an eyebrow. I am doubtful Austen was quite as free and easy in company as Olivia Williams’ portrayal; I was also uncomfortable with the budding ‘affair’ with Charles Haden.
But writer Gwyneth Hughes can be forgiven some deviations from the strict historical record for her portrayal of the power dynamics in the Austen family, especially Jane’s tense relationship with her mother. Greta Scacchi gives us a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of Cassandra, and I was pleased with Adrian Edmondson as Henry.
Olivia Williams plays a fragile Jane with a hint of steel. However, although we know from the letters that Jane enjoyed a drink, was she really the boozy flirt portrayed here?
Imogen Poots gives a convincing portrait of that spoilt little madam, Fanny Austen Knight. Jane loved Fanny; one can only be thankful she never knew about Fanny’s disparaging comments about her Aunt Jane and family in later life.

Cassandra’s ruthless, loving destruction of the most intimate of Jane’s letters means we will never really know the ‘real’ Jane Austen. We’re left to pick over the bones; a forensic recreation of her innermost feelings from the remaining letters, the novels, and anecdotes from friends and relations. This is probably what Jane herself would have wanted.
To sum up, Miss Austen Regrets is beautifully presented and enjoyable to watch. Providing one remembers it's one writer’s personal 'take' on Jane, rather than a documentary, it’s a good introduction to her life for those new to Austen and her work.
I defy any Austen fan not to be moved as Jane faces death, knowing she will never be able to write down all the characters and stories still waiting for her to bring them to life.

A big 'Thank You' to Jane Odiwe for her lovely drawing of Jane Austen. You can also see more of her work at Jane Austen Sequels.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

The Weaver Valley

It's been brought to my attention that there is a new website about the Weaver Valley to help people explore its unique heritage. A number of local organisations are hoping to develop our area into a Regional Park; amongst many other projects, a new footpath called the Weaver Way is planned. If you click on Weaver Valley Fly Through you can enjoy a balloon ride through the Valley; a great opportunity for those of us who get vertigo just climbing the kitchen steps. You get a lovely overview of our area and its contrasting landscapes shaped by the industrial past and framed by the rolling Cheshire countryside.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Reviews of Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives

“Sue Wilkes' book …gives some staggering insights into how the workers lived in those dark satanic days… Far from being a depressing descent into that drabness, she enlivens it with poignant nuggets…It's a must for anyone studying the period, those who want to learn about their heritage or 21st century citizens who simply need convincing about how lucky they are to live in our pampered times.” Tim Gavell, Lancashire Evening Post.

“This book goes much further than the history books. It offers not just a social history of the time – a time of great upheaval in the general population – but also a valuable snapshot of life during the time. It has been extensively researched so that the reader can understand the hardships suffered by the ordinary worker…” Middleton and North Manchester Guardian.
Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives: “pays special attention to the human dimension of this period. It has condensed a great deal of evidence into its 147 pages, and commendably focuses on what all this meant for the workers…” Alan Crosby, BBC Who Do You Think You Are?

“I really enjoyed this wonderfully researched book, which provides a fascinating insight into the lives and conditions of working people from our not too distant past. I love the way Sue Wilkes describes and sets the scenes - I could almost smell the squalor! …I wished I'd had this book in my history teaching days for there is much that ties in with the curriculum and would make the subject come alive for pupils.” Mrs Jane Odiwe, England.

“It’s a great read – I really couldn’t put it down!” Mrs J. K. Scattergood, England.
"I found the book really interesting as it brought the past vividly to life. The description of life on the canals along with the beautiful photographs was of special interest to me, as my father was born on a narrow boat..." Mr D. Millward, England.

Update 19 Nov 2013: You can see a reader's feedback on Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives here on LeighLife.