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Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Prince of Prints

This is the time of year when we buy 'annuals', but did you know this custom began (in England) in the early nineteenth century? My latest feature for Jane Austen's Regency World is on Rudolph Ackermann (1764-1834). His Repository of Arts and many other beautifully illustrated works have left us with a peerless window into Regency life, fashion, science and literature. Ackermann also published 'annuals' or 'forget-me-nots', intended as stylish presents for loved ones. This genre was already well known on the Continent, particularly in France and Germany. Annuals were usually highly embellished, and contained poems and short stories. Ackermann’s Forget-Me-Not, or Annual Pocket Chronicle first appeared in the winter of 1822. The Times (19 November 1822) commented: ‘We think Mr Ackermann’s experiment, for taste and variety, quite equal to its foreign rivals.’

Image: Title page of the April 1809 issue of Ackermann’s Repository of Arts.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Merry Xmas!


I’ve just returned from a mini-cruise to Bruges. Travelling was rather problematic owing to the atrocious conditions on the roads, but we made it there and back safely, and had a lovely time. The historic town looked very pretty in the snow. The winter light made everything seem monochrome and almost ‘flat’ – rather like a Lowry painting.

Happy Christmas and New Year!

Friday, 18 December 2009

Making history come alive

As usual, I watched this week's episode of Neil Oliver's History of Scotland with huge interest, especially as this programme's subject was spookily prescient of a topic I will be covering in a future issue of Discover My Past Scotland - Sir Walter Scott and his influence on our perception of Scotland's culture and people. His novels made Scotland's history come alive for readers all over the world. It was great to see Scott's Conundrum Castle, his affectionate name for his home in the Scottish Borders. A large section of the programme was dedicated to the tragedy of the Highland clearances and the rapacity of the Scottish lairds.
Scott was staunchly Conservative in his politics and view of Scottish history. He regarded Radical politics with horror. Sir Walter visited the silk towns of Cheshire during the trade depression of 1826. He wrote in his diary that unemployment and hunger had rendered the lower classes 'desperately outrageous.'
Image: Sir Walter Scott, 1822. Engraving by William Darton. Author's collection.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Another review of Regency Cheshire

Jane Austen's World has just posted a lovely review of Regency Cheshire . Vic's blog is a really entertaining read, and comes highly recommended if you are an Austen fan.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Salt and Sensibility

In Georgian and Victorian Cheshire, salt was one of the county’s most important exports. In the early 1790s, over 80 Mersey flats were kept busy transporting 58,000 tons of salt yearly to Liverpool. In fact Cheshire had more salt than it knew what to do with, and the manufacturers tried to strictly control output in order to keep prices up.
By 1850, 525,000 tons of white salt and 86,238 tons of rock salt were transported along the Weaver Navigation from the Cheshire salt towns.

Droitwich, home of John Corbett, the ‘Salt King,’ was another important salt producing area. When the Victorians began to take an interest in working conditions in salt works, they were horrified not only by the long working hours, but also because women regularly worked just wearing their petticoats because of the heat. When factory inspector Mr Fitton visited the Droitwich salt works in March 1873, he commented primly that this mode of working was : ‘is in every way bad for women, and it is especially injurious to nursing mothers and their infants, who are brought into the steaming sheds to be suckled.’

Conditions in the rock salt mines, however, were warm and dry. They were considered by contemporaries to be much better workplaces than coal mines.

You can find out more about the story of Cheshire salt and its workers in Regency Cheshire . My latest feature for Ancestors also has tips on researching your saltworker ancestors.

Image: The shaft; descent of the bucket in the Marston rock salt mine, Northwich. Illustrated London News, 28 August 1850. Author’s collection.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Cheshire in the news again!

Northwich’s historic Anderton Boat Lift was featured on BBC1’s Country Tracks yesterday (6 December) – presenter Ben Fogle enjoyed a boat trip through the lift. He also visited the Winsford Rock Salt Mine and witnessed the giant salt mining machine at work, and talked to the salt mine workers. Do catch the repeat or watch it on i-Player if you missed the programme.

The repeal of salt duties in 1825 boosted Winsford’s fortunes as a salt producer, and after 1840, the town began to overtake Northwich in terms of salt production. Another reason why Winsford grew at Northwich’s expense was the ever-growing problem with subsidence in the latter town. You can find out more about the story of Cheshire salt-making and the salt workers in Regency Cheshire.

Images: Anderton Boat Lift photo © Sue Wilkes.
Marston rock salt pit, engraving from Illustrated London News, 24 August 1850.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Cold Comfort

The winter months were desperate times for poor families in Regency Cheshire. The wealthiest families raised subscriptions to aid the poor during particularly harsh winters, such as the one of 1819-20; nearly 5000 families in the Chester area needed help with food, fuel and bedding. If people were starving and had no jobs, they would pawn their furniture and bedding to buy food, but once those were gone, they faced real hardship. The same was true during trade depressions such as the one following the banking crash of 1825-6. Charity balls were held and soup kitchens set up to help relieve silk workers’ families in Macclesfield and Congleton.

If you were in dire need, there was the prospect of the poorhouse or workhouse. The quality of these varied hugely, but the Chester House of Industry was said by Hemingway, the historian, to be run kindly and humanely. After the new Poor Law of !834, workhouse regimes across Britain were purposely designed to be as forbidding as possible to deter applicants. Workhouse children, whose only crime was to be poor, might suffer greatly if they were ‘farmed out’ to contractors for a flat fee. The cheaper they were fed and housed, the greater the profit.

Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist told the story of a pauper orphan. You can find out more about Dickens and conditions for workhouse children in ‘Mudlarks and guttersnipes,’ my latest feature for children's magazine Aquila.


Images: Northwich Workhouse, built 1837 (now the Salt Museum). Many children under the age of 12 lived here in 1851; some were only babies. Image © Sue Wilkes.

Charles Dickens. (unknown artist) from Beeton’s Dictionary of Universal Biography (1870.) (Author’s collection.)

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Bedtime Reading

Last week my bedtime reading was Jane Odiwe's ’s lovely new novel ‘Willoughby’s Return,’ which I can thoroughly recommend if you want to lose yourself in the world of Jane Austen.

This week I’ve been reading the Chevalier de Johnstone's’s ‘Memoir of the ‘45’, so I was very interested to see Neil Oliver’s History of Scotland programme on the Jacobite rebellions last night, especially as we have visited Culloden Moor, Ruthven Barracks and some of the other places mentioned while on holiday. If you read Johnstone’s eyewitness account, it is amazing how many chances Bonnie Prince Charlie threw away, and how close we came to living under the Stuarts today.

It must be really difficult choosing images to illustrate some events, and I nearly laughed out loud at one point. Oliver talked about Queen Anne’s death and showed her gasping out her last breath, and I was somehow irresistibly reminded of Pan’s People’s 0ver-literal interpretation of song lyrics! Not very appropriate for a monarch’s death.

Once again Neil Oliver treated us to sublime Highland scenery, and related the tragedy of the ’15 and ’45 rebellions and their aftermath with gusto. But it was the story of the Act of Union – in which Scotland sold its independence for English gold – which seemed to touch Oliver most deeply.
Image: Memorial at Culloden. © Sue and Nigel Wilkes.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Borders Books Signing III

Here’s a photo of me at the Cheshire Oaks Borders bookstore on Saturday, signing copies of ‘Regency Cheshire.’ I would like to say a big ‘thank you’ to all the Borders staff, especially Stuart and Paul. They all made me feel really welcome on what must have been a very trying day for them – it was certainly a very busy one!
Thank you to everyone who bought a copy of my book – do get in touch if you can and let me know if you enjoyed reading it. It was lovely to meet everyone on the day.
Many people came up to me to say how shocked and sorry they were that Borders is closing, and we all hope that jobs can be saved somehow. There was no shortage of customers at the Cheshire Oaks store, and surely this must be a prime candidate for keeping open.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Borders book signing II

I was very sorry indeed to hear the sad news about Borders UK yesterday. This is obviously devastating news for hard-working staff and their families, especially just before Christmas. I would like to send my best wishes and sympathy to all the Borders staff; I sincerely hope that jobs can be saved wherever possible.

The stores are seemingly to remain open at present, so my book signing for Regency Cheshire at the Borders Cheshire Oaks store will be going ahead tomorrow (Saturday 28 November) from 11am until 4pm. I look forward to meeting everyone there.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Stirring times

I watched Neil Oliver's History of Scotland last night, and it was great to see some of the places I have been writing about recently although it is a shame he did not visit Wigtown or the Covenanters' memorial on Orkney. I love Oliver's wry sense of humour (and the flowing locks don't do him any harm) and think he did a brilliant job of summing up the pros and cons of the Covenanter movement, and explaining the differing religious sensitivities of the day.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Discover My Past England



Great news for family history fans with the launch of Discover My Past England! This is a 'must-see' if you are researching your ancestors. My first feature for this exciting new online magazine is 'Voices from the past,' which looks at how you can explore how your ancestors lived and worked using parliamentary papers. While I was researching Regency Cheshire and Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives I made some fascinating discoveries about the lives of Cheshire and Lancashire textile workers.


Image: Cotton weaving shed in Lancashire. Early 20th century postcard (Author’s collection.)
Photo: Macclesfield Heritage Centre, formerly the Sunday School which opened in 1813. © Sue and Nigel Wilkes.

History of Scotland

I am really looking forward to the new series of Neil Oliver's History of Scotland on BBC2 tonight, especially as he will be covering the story of the Covenanters' persecution which I covered recently for Discover My Past. The last series was beautifully presented, and I am hoping he will be visiting some of my favourite haunts in south west Scotland.

Monday, 23 November 2009

A Royal Love Affair


Queen Victoria first visited Scotland in 1842, in search of peace and quiet after surviving two attempts on her life that year. Victoria found her spiritual home in the tranquil, spectacular Highland scenery; it was the start of a love affair which lasted a lifetime.
The queen loved watching the local Highland games. In 1851, a writer for the Illustrated London News, reporting on the Braemar Gathering, commented on how times had changed: ‘From the time the Earl of Mar raised the standard of rebellion in 1715, almost within gunshot of where Victoria now has her Highland home, down to the fatal battle of Culloden, the Highland clans were mustered in strong force when the signal was passed through the glens…now…the signal to rally is the olive branch, and the clansmen muster to show off their Highland dress, and disport themselves in harmless Highland games’ (20 September 1851). You can find out more about Queen Victoria’s love for all things Scottish in my latest feature for Discover My Past Scotland.

Image: Highland ball in Braemar Castle – the clans’ reel. Illustrated London News, 20 September 1851.

Monday, 16 November 2009

The Real Regency

Are we in danger of losing sight of the ‘real’ Regency? In my latest feature for Jane Austen's Regency World, I argue it's time to paint a more realistic picture of the world in Jane Austen's day.
Far away from the glitzy world of clubs like Almack’s and White’s, social unrest in counties such as Cheshire embodied the real spirit of the age. While the Prince Regent and his chums enjoyed fantastic feasts at Brighton Pavilion, high food prices caused riots by hungry workers in 1812.

Those lovely frocks in La Belle AssemblĂ©e were made by cheap child labour. You can discover more about how textile workers in Cheshire towns such as Stockport, Macclesfield and Congleton lived in Regency Cheshire.

Image: Wesleyan Chapel (1825) at Tiviot Dale, Stockport. From Lancashire Illustrated (H. Fisher, Son, and Jackson, 1831.) Author’s collection. The ‘castle’ shaped building in the background on the right is the old Castle Mill built by Sir George Warren.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Conflict in Europe


Today is the day we remember the sacrifices and heroism of previous generations in two world wars, as well as more recent conflicts. During late Georgian times, it was Napoleon who plunged Europe into war. Millions of men died to feed his overweening ambition. This was a very anxious time for Cheshire families who had sons, fathers and brothers serving on land and sea. The postman’s knock was eagerly awaited, and newspapers scanned anxiously for tidings of loved ones. The nation went mad with joy when news came of Wellington’s masterly defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. The Royal Mail coach bringing the glad tidings to Chester was decked out with ribbons and flags. When Wellington visited Cheshire a few years later, he was given a hero’s welcome. You can find out more about Cheshire's story during those stirring times in Regency Cheshire .

Image: Wellington and Napoleon: Charles Knight’s History of England Vol. VII, (London, c. 1868.)

Friday, 6 November 2009

Book signing for Regency Cheshire!



I will be signing copies of Regency Cheshire at the Borders Cheshire Oaks bookstore on Saturday 28 November 2009. I'll be in the bookstore from 11am until 4pm, so look forward to meeting everyone then!

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Review of Regency Cheshire

The Lancashire Evening Post has just published a lovely review of Regency Cheshire! I am thrilled with it!

I thought I had woken up in a strange parallel universe this morning! I often listen to Planet Rock first thing to try and wake up for the school run. But today, instead of the usual Black Sabbath or Alice Cooper, someone was singing a traditional soul-cakers' song. It seems Sting has released it as a single. All Hallows' Eve was the time of year when Cheshire folk, boys and girls would knock on people's doors and sing a song in the hope of receiving treats or money. Cheshire also had a special soul-caking play, and there were different versions of the soulers' song (this is from John Brand's Popular Antiquities)

Soul Day, Soul Day, Saul!
One for Peter, one for Paul,
Three for him who made us all.
An apple or pear, a plum or a cherry,
Any good thing that will make us all merry…


You can find out more about traditional Cheshire customs in Regency Cheshire.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Hot Gossip

One of the biggest scandals of Regency England was the Prince Regent’s treatment of his wife Caroline of Brunswick . The royal marriage was a disaster – the Prince and Caroline were totally ill-suited. After producing an heir to the throne, Princess Charlotte, the royal couple separated. Princess Caroline liked to enjoy herself, hugely embarrassing the Prince by her party lifestyle and male admirers. When George III died in 1820, the new king was determined to rid himself of his troublesome wife. Her name was even omitted from the liturgy, a snub which greatly upset Earl Grosvenor of Eaton Hall. The Queen’s Trial of 1820, in which George IV tried to prove his wife’s adultery, was a sensation. For weeks, it was the main story in the Chester newspapers. But Regency Cheshire had plenty of its own scandals for the gossip-mongers to talk about. ..

Image: George IV, 1822. Engraving by William Darton. Author’s collection.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Covenanter Ancestors

Just a quick update: my feature ‘The Killing Times’ in the November issue of Discover My Past Scotland is available now. It tells the story of those terrible days in Scotland in the 17th century when ordinary Scots were persecuted and executed for their beliefs. The feature also has tips and hints for anyone tracing their Covenanter ancestors.

Regency Cheshire


The long wait is over! Regency Cheshire will be available from tomorrow (30 October)!
Over the next few weeks I’ll be giving you some tasters of what's in the book, which would make a smashing Christmas or birthday present for anyone interested in Cheshire history. Amongst other things I’ll be looking at workers’ lives, fashions, the transport network, and the gossip and scandals during late Georgian times in Cheshire.

Image: The Temple in Eaton Hall gardens. Engraving for Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, October 1823. Author’s collection. This image was used for the cover of Regency Cheshire.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Bustling about


I had a big treat last week – a trip to the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum in Lichfield. Readers of this blog will know I am a huge Dr Johnson fan and it was lovely to see the rare editions of Johnson’s works, and personal memorabilia such as his tea-set (Johnson was famously fond of drinking tea.) There was also a dressing up box upstairs, so I tried dressing up as an eighteenth century lady. I ditched the huge bustle provided after two seconds, as I immediately began to overheat, and just couldn’t keep the hat on! I think I will stick to jeans and T-shirt for comfort. Ladies must have heaved a huge sigh of relief when Empire line frocks came into fashion.

Images: Statue of Dr Johnson in Lichfield Market, and the author in 18th century costume. Image © Sue and Nigel Wilkes.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Review of Emma episode 4

The final part of Emma was screened last night, and I still have very mixed feelings about this adaptation. Once again there were too many opportunities missed to use Austen's original dialogue. Jane Fairfax (Laura Pyper) threatened to steal a show - she came across as a much more likeable character than Emma, which wasn't Austen's intention. Jonny Lee Miller's Mr Knightley did a lot to reconcile me to it, although I still feel an older actor would have been better suited to Austen's original conception. Tamsin Greig's Miss Bates still had too little to say but this must be the fault of the scriptwriter, and without the Bates monologues Emma's treatment of her does not make sense.
Some key parts of the story were either junked altogether or touched on so lightly that they only made sense if you already knew the book.
I felt Romola Garai worked hard on making Emma a more sympathetic character in this last episode. You could see her growing as a person. But still - and again my feeling this is more owing to the script rather than Ms Garai - she really does come across as a person, as Austen said, who 'no-one but herself would much like'. The male members of the Wilkes household in particular found her deeply irritating and unsympathetic. There was a cheer when Mr Knightley took Emma to a clifftop in the closing scenes - would Emma be pushed over the edge to her doom as soon as the camera cut away?

I have been watching the 1995 version of 'Pride and Prejudice' again recently and this classic adaptation still wears well. I fear I won't be able to say the same for this pale imitation of one of my favourite Austen novels, despite the sterling efforts of the cast.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Speed Kings!

Congratulations to Jenson Button on becoming F1 world champion! A well deserved achievement. Of course in Regency days, racing carriages called ‘highflyers’ (phaetons)) were the 'Formula One cars’ of their time. Young bucks regularly raced each other down the public highways to show off their skill with the reins or ‘ribbons’ and emulate their heroes, the mail coach drivers. Timetables on the mail runs were strict; passengers barely had time to eat when the coach stopped to change horses. Lives were endangered by the drivers trying to race each other; a man was killed when the Chester mail deliberately turned his coach in front of the Holyhead mail in April 1819. The Chester mail was involved in another fatal crash in 1822. You can find out more about the golden age of coaching in Regency Cheshire.

Image: ‘Stop, Coachman! I have lost my hat and wig!’ Engraving for The Chace, The Turf and the Road, John Murray, 1843.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

A golden moment

It’s less than two weeks to go now to the launch of Regency Cheshire, and the review copies have gone out; always an anxious time for any author. It was a lovely autumn day here, mild and sunny.
Two hundred years ago, Cheshire’s loyal citizens were getting ready to celebrate George III’s jubilee year on 25 October 1809. The king , who endured great sufferings not only from his illness but from his doctors’ attempts to cure him, was greatly loved by the ordinary people. By contrast, his son the Prince of Wales was hugely unpopular because of his spendthrift ways: gambling, womanising and boozing. He was mercilessly satirised and lampooned in scandal sheets. Meanwhile, the populace were determined to show their support for their ailing monarch. In Cheshire towns such as Chester, Knutsford and Macclesfield, bells rang, bonfires crackled and grand civic dinners were held. The following year, a tower designed by Thomas Harrison was erected on Moel Famau , although sadly it was never finished.

Image: The Prince of Wales. Charles Knight’s History of England, c.1868

Monday, 12 October 2009

Cheshire cotton


In Regency Cheshire, I explore the amazing growth of the Cheshire textile industry during late Georgian times. Although Cheshire was a predominantly rural county, cotton spinning and weaving became increasingly important in towns such as Stockport, Ashton-under-Lyne, Hyde and Dukinfield.
You can still visit Quarry Bank Mill at Styal, a cotton spinning mill built by the Bollin in 1783 by the Greg family. A large proportion of the workforce at Quarry Bank Mill was child labour – parish apprentices, some from as far away as London. Another famous mill-owner was Samuel Oldknow (1756-1828). His cotton spinning mill, built at Higher Hillgate, Stockport the following year, housed the first steam engine in Cheshire (c.1791) used in the cotton industry. The spun yarn was ‘put out’ to local weavers – Oldknow’s monthly wage bill was said to be £1000 for weaving alone. The Boulton & Watt engine at Higher Hillgate was such a novelty, the London mail-coaches slowed down as they passed the mill so they could tell their passengers about the great wonders inside.

Image: Stockport cotton mill, c.1860. Charles Knight’s Pictorial Gallery of Arts, (London, 1860.)

Friday, 9 October 2009

The slums of Angel Meadow

I was very interested by a local news story on the BBC this morning, as I researched the subject for Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives.There was a report on the ongoing excavations of workers’ housing in the infamous Angel Meadow area of Manchester. Friedrich Engels explored its mean streets; he gave a vivid description of the horrors of the slum housing there in his Condition of the Working Classes in England. Ace reporter Angus Reach also visited Angel Meadow while reporting for the Morning Chronicle. In the filthy, overcrowded cellar dwellings, he found one man snoozing contentedly next to a large calf. One old man slept in a living grave; a hole had been scooped out of the bottom of the earthen cellar wall. It gave him just enough room to sleep; his face was barely two inches below the soil. His landlady said it was preferable to him sleeping on the streets.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Regency fun


The nights are already drawing in, and the new season of TV programmes such as BBC1’s Emma has begun. The inhabitants of Regency Cheshire liked to while away the long winter evenings with visits to the theatre, balls and assemblies. The Royal Hotel at Chester (now the Grosvenor) and the George at Knutsford were favourite venues for assemblies; there was also a spanking new assembly room at Congleton, built c.1823. Some very famous actors visited Cheshire over the years, including Master Betty, the ‘Young Roscius.’ Dorothy Jordan, mistress of the Duke of Clarence, appeared at the Theatre Royal in Chester in 1813, the year Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice was published.

Image: Dorothy Jordan, Lady’s Monthly Museum, January 1805. Author’s collection.

Review of ‘Emma’

Jane Austen’s 'Emma' always sets me a problem, albeit a very nice one. I always think ‘Pride & Prejudice’ is my favourite Austen novel until I re-read ‘Emma’ – there are so many good things I discover in it which I have never noticed before.
Did BBC1's Emma come up to scratch? I thought the beginning was very dark – my jaw dropped when coffins appeared – do we really need the back-story of Emma’s childhood as an introduction? It might have been more imaginative to ‘flash back’ to it. As always, the costumes and settings looked stunning. At first I felt it was a rather lack-lustre ‘Emma’ – a pale imitation of the novel. Emma’s character was deeply annoying, but then she is supposed to be at the start of the book. Miss Bates (Tamsin Greig) was far too quiet – she is supposed to be a ‘great talker on small matters.’
As usual Austen’s dialogue stands out whenever used, so why not include more of it?
Mr Elton (Blake Ritson) was very good, just enough of a toady without turning into Mr Collins, but I had my doubts about Mr Knightley (Jonny Lee Miller) at first. Does he have enough gravitas for the part? However, I found myself warming to him by the end of the programme, especially when he tore a strip off Emma (Romola Garai) over Robert Martin’s romance. I will be watching part 2 at the weekend.
To the critics who ask whether we really need another Austen novel on screen, I would much rather watch an Austen adaptation than the likes of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ or ‘X Factor.’
Having said all that, a little imagination from the programme makers wouldn’t go amiss – how about an adaptation of Austen’s Lady Susan? Now that would be worth watching!

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Regency Cheshire countdown begins!

I had a letter from Robert Hale yesterday confirming the launch date for Regency Cheshire is 30 October, which is very exciting! Over the next few weeks I’ll be giving you a sneak preview of some of the topics covered in the book.

Although Cheshire was a long way from the capital, its inhabitants liked to keep abreast of the latest fashions. Shops advertised the London styles, and Cheshire’s gentry and nobility gave houses and mansions such as Eaton Hall a smart new look.

I acquired a lovely Regency fashion print (see image) from the Lady’s Magazine last week, but unfortunately it is undated. I think it is from about 1808-1810, but if there are any expert Regency fashionistas out there who can date it more accurately, or have got that issue of the Lady’s Magazine, please do get in touch.







Image: Fashionable walking and full dress, Lady’s Magazine. Author’s collection.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Scottish delights

BBC4 have been running a Scottish season over the past few days, which I’ve greatly enjoyed, although I’ve still got some on video to watch. It was lovely to see the comic take on Dr Johnson’s Tour to the Western Isles with Robbie Coltrane and John Sessions. But I was sorry I missed the 1964 drama-documentary on Culloden, so I hope it gets aired again sometime.
I’m a big fan of walking dictionary Jonathan Meades; I always learn some new words from him, and it's a great pity he was born too late to cross swords with Sam Johnson. A big thank you to Jonathan for his Off Kilter programme last night, which took away the tedium of waiting for my pear chutney to reduce down in the pan! Respect is due.
Image: Johnson giving alms to a poor family on the isle of Col: ‘There was but one bed for all the family, and the hut was very smoky.’ Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, (National Illustrated Library, circa 1852.)

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Lost Literary Gems


I had no end of problems with Microsoft Word crashing last week, so I hope it is better behaved this week. One might think that writers such as Jane Austen and Lord Byron would have found it much easier to preserve their work, as they wrote on good old pen and paper. But of course once they were gone, their work was at the mercy of their relatives. Cassandra Austen’s ruthless bonfire of her sister’s letters is notorious; we have virtually none of Jane’s letters left in which she really bares her soul. Lord Byron’s memoirs were burnt by his friends after his tragically early death at Missolonghi in Greece. I have always thought this was a bizarre decision considering that his alleged misdeeds were public knowledge anyway. My latest feature for the The New Writer looks at other lost literary gems, and discusses the importance of always keeping a copy of your work.

Image: Lord George Gordon Byron. Engraving from Beeton’s Dictionary of Universal Biography, (Ward, Lock & Son, 1870.)

Saturday, 12 September 2009

What an honour!



A big 'Thank You' to Jane GS, who nominated this blog for a Superior Scribbling Award!

Here are the rules for the award:

1. Each Superior Scribbler must in turn pass The Award on to 5 most-deserving Bloggy Friends

2. Each Superior Scribbler must link to the author & the name of the blog from whom he/she has received The Award.

3. Each Superior Scribbler must display The Award on his/her blog, and link to This Post which explains The Award.

4. Each Blogger who wins The Superior Scribbler Award must visit this post and add his/her name to the Mr. Linky List. That way, we’ll be able to keep up-to-date on everyone who receives This Prestigious Honor!

5. Each Superior Scribbler must post these rules on his/her blog.


Here are my nominations:

1. First of all, Jane GS herself - it's always great to meet a fellow Mrs Gaskell fan.
2. Jane Odiwe - there's always something new to read on her Jane Austen Sequels blog, which is just the thing for a rainy day.
3. Austenprose - a must for Jane Austen fans
4. The Duchess of Devonshire's Gossip Guide - always an interesting read
5. Jane Austen in Vermont -another indefatigable Austen blogger.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Jane Austen the blogger?


What would Jane Austen have thought of the internet? If she was alive today, would she be busy writing a blog, or perhaps have her own Facebook page? She could watch the ups and downs of the Amazon rankings for her books – surely she would have had some ironic comments to say on that heart-stopping author obsession.

Jane was a very private person, so it may be she wouldn’t have bared her soul online. But other Georgian writers, such as that inveterate scribbler James Boswell, would probably have embraced the internet. In ‘Would Jane Blog?’ my latest feature for Jane Austen's Regency World, I take a look at writers such as Boswell and Captain Gronow , whose Reminiscences and Recollections (1862-1866) are strikingly similar to blog posts.

Image: Regency Dandies. From left to right: Marquis of Londonderry, ‘Kangaroo’ Cooke, Captain Gronow, Lord Allen, Count D’Orsay. Colonel ‘Kangaroo’ Captain Gronow’s Recollections and Anecdotes, (Smith, Elder & Co., 1864.)

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

The rage for emigration

This month is the tercentenary of Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). Johnson, the son of a Lichfield bookseller, had an immense sympathy and understanding with the common man. He endured grinding poverty for many years, but his profound intellect and writing ability won him a lasting literary reputation. His masterly Dictionary of the English Language (1755) alone would have secured him an honourable place in literary history. But of course, Johnson’s meeting in 1763 with an impressionable young Scot, James Boswell, led to a lasting friendship and a ground-breaking literary biography: Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791).

During the late summer and autumn of 1773, this intrepid duo travelled to the Hebrides. Their journey took place when many Scottish folk were taking ship for the Americas in search of a new life. Johnson described how ordinary Scots lived and immortalised a now long-lost way of life in his Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland in 1775; Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides appeared ten years later.

Was one of your ancestors one of those who left their native land forever? You can discover more about their way of life, and tips for exploring your family history, in ‘The rage for emigration,’ my latest feature for Discover My Past magazine.

Images: ‘Johnson on a Highland Sheltie,’ and ‘Johnson and Highland children.' Boswell spotted one pretty girl, but commented the other villagers were ‘black and wild in their appearance.’ Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, (National Illustrated Library, circa 1852.)

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

A peek into Cheshire's salty past


What a wet, miserable day it's been! The rotten weather doesn't seem to be holding back the Lion Salt Works restoration, though. You can watch a time-lapse video of the scaffolding being erected on Youtube.
In August 1850, a reporter for the Illustrated London News visited the Northwich rock salt mines and open pan salt works. The effects of unregulated brine pumping were only too apparent in the town: '‘Some of the houses leaned fearfully to one side, as if from the effect of an earthquake. There was a general air… as of drunkenness about the place.’ I'll be discussing what life was like for Cheshire salt workers, and discussing the cut-throat world of the salt industry, in Regency Cheshire.
Image: Open pan salt making, Illustrated London News, 24 August 1850.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Peterloo Massacre


Today is the 190th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre at St Peter’s Field. On 16 August 1819, Manchester magistrates used cavalry to disperse a crowd of peaceful protestors. The people, waving banners inscribed with ‘Universal Suffrage’ and ‘Vote by Ballot’ and other dangerously inflammatory messages, were waiting to hear speeches on political reform by speaker Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, a noted radical. The tightly packed crowd (around 80,000 people – contemporary estimates vary hugely) included women and children (even babes in arms). They were crammed together and unable to get out of the way of the yeomanry’s horses.

Samuel Bamford witnessed the havoc as the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry charged the crowd: “…their sabres were plied to hew a way through naked held-up hands, and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs, and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.” Several people were killed and hundreds injured.

The Cheshire Yeomanry were also present on that fateful day. I will be discussing their controversial role at Peterloo, and sifting the contradictory witness evidence, in Regency Cheshire. You can also visit a very good museum in Chester where you can explore the Cheshire Yeomanry’s long and distinguished history.

Image: Peterloo Memorial Plaque on the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. Image © Sue Wilkes.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Restoration begins




Work has begun at last on the restoration of the Lion Salt Works, Cheshire's last remaining open pan salt works. As the site and vegetation is being cleared, some intriguing finds have already been unearthed. It will be very interesting to see what discoveries are made as work progresses. You can follow the restoration at this new website. I'll be looking at the history of Cheshire salt and its workers, and the surprisingly cut-throat world of the salt industry, in Regency Cheshire


Image: Lion Salt Works, copyright Sue Wilkes.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Redcoat Rampage!


I’ve just returned from a lovely holiday in Scotland. This year we had a week in the Dunbar area, followed by a week in Grantown on Spey, one of our favourite places. The time just flew by as my family and I explored Scotland’s fantastic scenery and history.
On our way home we passed the stark ruins of Ruthven Barracks. After Bonnie Prince Charlie’s defeat at Culloden in 1746, the shattered remnants of Jacobite force gathered here. But they waited in vain for their leader; the prince never came. You can find out more about the aftermath of Culloden and ‘Butcher’ Cumberland’s ruthless repression of Highland folk in ‘Redcoat Rampage,’ my latest feature for family history magazine Discover My Past Scotland.
Image: Ruthven Barracks. © Sue and Nigel Wilkes.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Was your ancestor a canal boatman?


The canals were once the lifeblood of Britain’s trade. Their success story began when the pioneering Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgwater (1736-1803) proved it was faster and more profitable to transport coal by canal than on land. The Bridgewater Canal, which opened in 1761, brought huge wealth to the ‘Canal Duke.’
Life on the canals during the Industrial Revolution was never as idyllic - it was hard work. Hours were long, sanitation primitive, and it was very difficult for canal boat people to obtain medical attention, or get an education.
You can find out more about the lives of canal boat people, and tips for finding your canal ancestors, in my latest feature for Ancestors magazine. As readers of this blog will know, I am really looking forward to doing the research for my forthcoming book on Tracing Your Canal Ancestors for Pen and Sword.
In the meantime you can explore how the Lancashire canal network evolved, and read the stories of the people living on the boats, in my book Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives.
And coming soon: Regency Cheshire, scheduled for publication in late October, will discuss 'canal mania' in the county during Georgian times, and what it was like to travel by packet boat on the canals and by sea.

Image: The young Duke of Bridgewater, with Barton Aqueduct behind him. From Lives of the Engineers: Brindley and the Early Engineers, Samuel Smiles, (John Murray, 1874.)

Update November 2011; Sadly, Ancestors magazine is now defunct, but my book Tracing Your Canal Ancestors has now been published, and you can buy a copy here.

Friday, 17 July 2009

The Assassin's Blade


If we want to get rid of an MP we're unhappy with, we usually have to wait for the next general election and cast our vote. But in the bloodthirsty days of the French Revolution, heads literally rolled under Mme Guillotine's glittering blade. Today is the anniversary of the execution of a young woman who loved her country and feared for her friends.
Charlotte Corday, born in 1768, was a supporter of the Girondin faction. The Girondins were under attack in the French Assembly by the implacable Robespierre and Marat. As the Revolution grew ever bloodier, the Girondins, alarmed by the monster they’d helped create, tried to halt its progress. But the Girondins quickly fell victim to the guillotine. Charlotte believed total civil war was imminent. She decided the only way to save France and stop the bloodshed was to assassinate the pitiless Marat; she tricked her way into his house, and slew him while he was bathing.
Charlotte was sentenced to death, but showed no fear: ‘I have killed one man to save a hundred thousand.’ She was guillotined on 17 July 1793. Despite her sacrifice, Marat’s death didn’t stop the deluge of victims; countless others were doomed.

Image: Charlotte Corday. Beeton’s Dictionary of Universal Biography, (Ward, Lock & Tyler, 1870.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Destination Moon


As we approach the 40th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 moon landings, it’s worth taking a look at what was known about our satellite less than two centuries ago. Its orbit and movements were pretty accurately known, and its surface reasonably well mapped.
A writer in the Penny Magazine (22 June 1833) humorously speculated whether imaginary inhabitants of the near side of the moon read Penny Magazines which described the appearance of the planet Earth, and if moon dwellers discussed what kind of creatures lived on a planet wreathed in vapours.

The writer, however, finished his discussion by explaining to his readers that ‘the existence of any animal like man is impossible’ on the moon, not just because of the length of the lunar day and night, but because of ‘the want of an atmosphere.’ So nineteenth century scientists had a pretty good idea about conditions on our companion in space.

A very exciting new website will go live this week, which will explore the story of Apollo 11’s astronauts in a ‘real-time’ recreation of this never-to-be-forgotten mission. I was just eleven years old that summer, and I vividly recall holding my breath as the astronauts piloted their fragile craft down to the moon's surface, and the relief when they arrived safely at their destination.

Image: Telescopic appearance of the Moon, Penny Magazine, 22 June 1833, Author’s collection.

Friday, 26 June 2009

City of Culture



This is Scotland’s Homecoming year, and there are lots of celebrations planned in Edinburgh for this summer. Robert Burns called Edinburgh ‘Scotia’s Darling’, and the city has long been renowned as a centre for literature and learning. Burns, James Boswell and Sir Walter Scott are just a few of Scotland’s literary stars who lived there. You can find out more about Edinburgh and its history in my new feature for Scottish family history magazine Discover My Past Scotland.

Image: Statue of Burns (by Flaxman) in the National Gallery. The statue was originally in the monument to Burns on Calton Hill. Black’s Picturesque Tourist of Scotland (24th edition), (A& C Black, 1882.)

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Even more exciting news!

I have just signed another book contract! 'Tracing Your Canal Ancestors' for Pen & Sword Books will be a guide for family historians. This will be an extremely interesting project, and I am really looking forward to doing the research.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein


Jane Austen’s work has recently been given a highly dubious zombie makeover. But it was a young lady still in her teens, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1853), who supercharged the Gothic novel to create a new literary genre:
I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs… the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.’ (Frankenstein, 1818.)
During the autumn of 1816, Mary worked on ‘Frankenstein’ while staying in lodgings near Bath Abbey (pictured left) with Shelley and Claire Clairmont. Mary and Shelley married later that year.
Mary's Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus was published anonymously in 1818. The story of hapless experimenter Frankenstein, his Creature’s sufferings - and fearful revenge - caused a sensation. The book struck a chord with the reading public, and horror stories are still big business in the film and print media. You can find out more about Mary Shelley and the birth of her ‘hideous progeny’ in the latest issue of Jane Austen's Regency World.

Image: West front of Bath Abbey, Penny Magazine, 13 July 1833. Author’s collection.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

An exciting new project

I have just signed a new contract with Robert Hale! My next project is 'Stolen Childhoods.' The book will tell the story of child workers' lives during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the battle to improve their working conditions. These children worked very long hours to help feed their families, some of them in very dangerous factories and workshops.
I am very excited about my new project, and thrilled to be working with Robert Hale again.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Coming Soon!


Here's a sneak preview of the provisional front cover for my forthcoming book, Regency Cheshire. The proofs have gone back to Robert Hale now, so fingers crossed that everything goes smoothly now. The illustration on the cover is from a lovely engraving from Ackermann's Repository, which shows the Gothic temple in the gardens at Eaton Hall, Cheshire. The temple was built to house a Roman altar discovered near Chester in 1821. I acquired the engraving from Richard Nicholson of Chester. If you are a keen map or print collector, I can thoroughly recommend Mr Nicholson's service.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Stop Press!

The proofs for my next book, 'Regency Cheshire,' arrived from Robert Hale this morning - very exciting! It's great to see all one's hard work taking shape into book form at last. I will be very busy for the next few days checking through the proofs, so I probably won't get time to update my blog for a little while. As soon as I get a provisional publication date, I'll post it on my blog.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Wakes Week


Whit Monday was the great working class holiday during the nineteenth century. Later it became the tradition for cotton mills to close down during the last week in May (Whit or Wakes Week.) Workers enjoyed a day out at the fair, or perhaps travelled by rail to the seaside. In general, workers were not necessarily all on holiday at the same time. Some millowners gave their workforce a week’s holiday each year, but others only had one or two days’ annual holiday. The workers had to scrimp and save up all year for their holidays, though – if they didn’t work, they didn’t get paid.

When I was a little girl, we would parade around the streets of Salford wearing our best clothes or dressed up in Brownie uniform for the annual Whit Walk. I carried the wooden Brown Owl once – it seemed very heavy after I’d been carrying it for a little while.


Image: Off to th’fair. Poems and Songs, (Edwin Waugh, 1889.) Author’s collection.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Busy Bees

We've been thinking of building a bee house in our garden to encourage our disappearing honeybees, but nature has already beaten us to it. There seems to be a little colony of bees living in one of the airbricks near our front door. They are small stripy yellow bees - they are too speedy for me to get a photo, but I think they might be white tailed bumble bees . I am very happy for them to live there so long as they don't start coming in the house!

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Salt Sunday update

Sadly, the sun didn't shine for Salt Sunday. Instead, the Cheshire skies did their best to recreate Noah's Flood. The bad weather didn't deter the visitors, however, who showed true British spirit and turned out in spite of the deluge. If you didn't get a chance to go on the day, there's a video on YouTube of Salt Sunday where you can see salt making demos as well as the thanksgiving service.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Salt Sunday


Today is the first ever Salt Sunday at the The Lion Salt Works. There will be salt making demonstrations, and the visitor centre will have displays on Cheshire’s unique industrial past. Local artist Carolyn Shepherd, who specialises in industrial landscapes, will be at work. You can even create your very own artwork with salt; children can enjoy making salt dough crosses. At 4pm there will be a short thanksgiving service, led by the Bishop of Birkenhead, The Rt Revd Keith Sinclair. Let’s hope the sun shines!
Image: Salt Waggon at the Lion Saltworks © Sue Wilkes.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

By Command of Her Majesty

MPs and their ‘expenses’ have come under unprecedented public scrutiny. Perhaps we should remind ourselves of the bad old days, when you couldn’t afford to be an MP unless you were a man (certainly not a woman) of considerable means. It wasn’t until 1911 that MPs received an allowance to help with their living costs. Now it seems the pendulum has swung too far the other way. The creativity and ingenuity exercised by some ‘black sheep’ in the House of Commons to maximise their expenses would have been put to far better use solving some of the nation’s dire problems.

Parliamentary papers are an often overlooked and underused resource for family historians; there’s a vast wealth of material available on how our ancestors lived. You can find out more in my latest feature for the May issue of Ancestors magazine.

Image: Interior of the House of Commons, 1834. Engraving from Old and New London, Vol. III, (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, c.1894.)

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Lady's Monthly Museum



What might Jane Austen have been reading to while away a dull moment? We know she enjoyed novel reading. Regency ladies also had magazines specially written for them.
The Lady’s Monthly Museum (LMM), first published in 1798, was written and edited by a ‘Society of Ladies.’ A ‘Polite Repository of Amusement and Instruction,’ it aimed to ‘please the Fancy, interest the Mind, or exalt the Character of the British Fair.’
The magazine contained moral essays and biographical pieces on famous women such as the actress Dorothy Jordan; it even had an agony aunt. And, of course, the LMM contained fashion plates with the latest modes. You can find out more about the LMM and its fair rivals in my latest feature for Jane Austen's Regency World.
Images: Dorothy Jordan, mistress of the Duke of Clarence (the future William IV) as featured in the Lady’s Monthly Museum for January 1805.

‘Cabinet of Fashion’ fashion plate for Lady’s Monthly Museum, June 1805: Morning dress of cambric muslin with spencer cloak of blue silk. Full dress of straw-coloured sarsenet (sic) with a tunic of rich embroidered white crape. Hair dressed with ‘Diamonds set on Velvet, with a profusion of White Ostrich Feathers.’ Author's Collection.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Steaming into History


My Footsteps feature for this month’s BBC History magazine is on the Manchester Museum of Science and History (MOSI.) The museum is crammed with relics from the steam age such as textile machinery and locomotives. This year MOSI is celebrating a British day to remember: it’s the centenary of the first ever all-British flight. An A V Roe triplane made history on 13 July 1909 when it flew for 30 metres.

Even the site of MOSI is hallowed ground for railway enthusiasts; it was once home to the Liverpool St station of the pioneering Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which first opened on Wednesday 15 September, 1830. On the railway’s opening day a cavalcade of locomotives, including the Northumbrian, North Star, and Stephenson’s Rocket, travelled along the tracks to mark this grand day for Lancashire. Don’t forget, you can find out more about the railway and the story of the navvies who built it in my book Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives.

Image: Stephenson’s Rocket. Engraving from Samuel Smiles’s Lives of the Engineers: George and Robert Stephenson (John Murray, 1879.)

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

New Horizons

It's great to hear our iconic Jodrell bank telescope/ is proving its worth once again as it forms part of the new e-Merlin super radio telescope. It's only a few months since the government tried to pull the plug on this workhorse of the skies. The Lovell dish can now combine its might with many other radio telescopes to enable astronomers to 'see' the night sky at a far higher resolution than previously possible.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Second Time Lucky?


The battle of Culloden on 15 March 1746 was a turning point in Britain’s history. Not only was Bonnie Prince Charlie defeated, but that day also marked the end of the Highlanders’ traditional way of life. Tonight, a team will attempt to recreate the Jacobites’ stealthy march across the moors. The canny Highlanders hoped to strike the Duke of Cumberland’s troops while they were still snoozing under their blankets. But the sneak attack was called off just hours before the battle. It will be very interesting to see how the archaeologists get on with their re-enactment. But even if the Highlanders had succeeded with their plan, would it really have changed the ultimate outcome? The Hanoverians had greatly superior weapons, and were much better trained than the Highlanders. It’s one of those fascinating ‘What ifs’ which we'll never really know the answer to.


Image: Charles Edward Stuart, James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, (National Illustrated Library, circa 1852.)

Monday, 6 April 2009

Ackermann's Repository

Two hundred years ago, Regency bucks and misses who wanted the latest news on fashion, literature and furnishings would turn to the pages of Ackermann’s Repository. The first issue, priced at four shillings, was published on 2 January 1809. Each number contained one or two fashion plates ‘executed by Artists of the first Eminence,’ views of furnishings and shops, a sporting picture (horse-racing etc) and a woodcut (see left) with samples of the newest fabrics.
The April 1809 issue had samples of scarlet and gold furniture calico, a striped ‘Scotia silk’, and a spotted muslin made by T. & J. Smith & Co. at Covent Garden. Amongst the featured articles that month were a ‘Method of Bleaching Straw’ and an essay on gas lighting.

Images: Allegorical woodcut and Prospectus, Ackermann’s Repository, April 1809. Author’s collection.