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Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Back Up Your Work!

I am in deepest mourning for my external hard drive which expired on Christmas Eve. Archived on it was over 100 GB of work, photos and scanned engravings which I use for my features and books. I try to make hard back-ups on CD and DVD fairly regularly but can't be positive that I have got copies of absolutely everything. In the new year we will see if it's possible to recover some of the files, but I am not very hopeful! So a reminder to all my students - back up all your work at least once a week, more often if possible!

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Tracing Your Canal Ancestors update

I have great pleasure in announcing that my book 'Tracing Your Canal Ancestors' for Pen & Sword books is now going through the production stages! Publication date is provisionally scheduled for the autumn of 2011, and I'll post updates on my blog as soon as I have more news.

Image: Worsley Basin and ‘starvationer' boats.  Lives of the Engineers: Brindley and the Early Engineers, Samuel Smiles, (John Murray, 1874.)

Monday, 20 December 2010

Austen meets celebrity chefs

I was very busy finishing the typescript for my book 'Tracing Your Canal Ancestors' last week, so missed a lot of the fun and frolics for Jane Austen's birthday. If you are fed up with the weather and want cheering up, the Jane Austen spoof 'Sophie' on the Impressions Show  is hilarious - great fun to watch.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

The Price of Coal

Coal has long been valued as a fuel source. The industrial revolution greatly increased demand for coal. It was used to smelt iron and generate steam, and coal production in Britain rocketed from six million tons p.a. in 1770 to twenty-three million tons in 1830. By the mid-1850s production was over sixty million tons p.a. Mines were sunk ever deeper to meet the demand.

But coal’s success story had a terrific human cost: thousands of men, women and children were killed down the mines and at the pit brow. You can find out more about working conditions in the mines in my books The Children History Forgot and Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives. There are also some tips on how to trace your coal-mining ancestors, in my feature for this month’s Discover My Past England (now on Genes Reunited) and in my forthcoming book Tracing Your Lancashire Ancestors.

Images from the author’s collection:
‘How are you off for coals?’ Satirical postcard from the miners’ strike of 1912.

The New Hartley Pit disaster in Northumberland on 16 January 1862 killed over two hundred men and boys. This Illustrated London News (8 February 1862) engraving shows the long, sad funeral procession at Earsdon.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

At home with the Georgians

I finally managed to catch up with Amanda Vickery's new series At Home with the Georgians, and this is a 'must-see' for all Austen fans. Vickery is one of my favourite authors on the period, and I thoroughly enjoyed the programme. When Vickery visited Chawton Cottage and sat at Jane Austen's writing desk, you could see the thrill she felt on being on such hallowed ground.  Vickery also explored the other side of the marriage question through the diaries of some Georgian men - how they longed to set up home and have a soul mate to keep them company. Surely food for thought for all budding Regency novelists!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010


I was very interested to see Ian Hislop's new TV series The Age of the Do-Gooders on BBC2 last night, especially as he covered Robert Owen and his mills at New Lanark which I will be discussing in my forthcoming book on child workers, 'The Children History Forgot' for Robert Hale. Next week's episode is on child labour, so I will be fascinated to see which aspects of the story of the fight to get Britain's working class children into school Hislop covers. Lord Shaftesbury will no doubt loom large, but will Hislop mention the factory inspectors such as Leonard Horner who fought so hard to encourage better education for factory and workshop children?  

Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Royal Engagement

A couple of days ago, the nation was treated to the exciting news of Prince William's engagement to Kate Middleton. Things were done very differently when Prince George, son of George III, got engaged to Princess Caroline of Brunswick. The Prince was pressured into the marriage. His father wanted him to provide an heir to the throne, and the young prince was deep in debt. Prince George did not meet his royal bride until three days before the wedding; he had only seen a flattering portrait of her.
Princess Caroline of Brunswick arrived at Gravesend to begin her new life in England on Saturday 4 April 1795 and disembarked on one of the royal yachts the next day.
The lady the prince sent to accompany his new bride was his mistress, Lady Jersey. She brought some new clothes for Princess Caroline: 'a white satin gown, and very elegant turban cap of satin, trimmed with crape, and ornamented with white feathers' (New Annual Register, 1795). The clothes did not flatter the princess's somewhat florid complexion. When the prince, resplendent in his hussar uniform, went to St James's Palace to meet his future wife, he 'appeared extremely agitated'. Things did not bode well for the royal nuptials...
Image: Fashionable full dress with turban adorned with white feathers, Lady's Monthly Museum, November 1798.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Great Expectations

Some interesting news that the Dickens Museum in London has been given lottery funding to help preserve the author's home in Doughty St. I would love to go and have a good rummage in Dicken's library!
Image: Charles Dickens, Beeton's Dictionary of Universal Biography, 1870.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Epic Journey

I visited The National Archives at Kew on Thursday to do some research for my book on canal ancestors. I had a very interesting visit; the staff were extremely helpful. The Archives are kept in an amazing building. The British transport system rather let me down, however. The train I was booked on for my journey down was cancelled, and some of those coming back were late or cancelled, too. I was on a total of nine trains that day travelling from Cheshire to Kew Gardens and back again, and was exhausted by the time I got home.

Thank you to my family and all the Londoners and fellow travellers who helped a baffled Northerner trying to cope with the complexities of London transport!

Photo: The National Archives, Kew, Richmond © Sue Wilkes

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Tom and Jerry

The original ‘Tom’ and ‘Jerry’ were a smash hit during the reign of George IV. These famous fictional characters were created by sports journalist Pierce Egan (1772-1849). Tom and Jerry’s colourful exploits were celebrated in books, songs and on the stage.

Egan, a Londoner of Irish origin, was a prolific author. Pierce’s first claim to fame was Boxiana (1812), a series on pugilism (prize-fighting). The first monthly instalment of Life in London, priced at one shilling and illustrated by George and Robert Cruikshank, was published by Sherwood, Neely & Jones on 15 July 1821.
You can find out more about Tom and Jerry’s rollicking adventures and the way they took society by storm in my latest feature for Jane Austen's Regency World.
Images: Engravings by George and Robert Cruikshank from author’s copy of the 1869 reprint of Life in London, Pierce Egan, (John Camden Hotten, Piccadilly, 1869.
1. Tom and Jerry pay a shilling to see the exhibition at the Royal Academy. Jane Austen went to picture exhibitions at Spring Gardens and Pall Mall in 1813.
2. Peep O’ Day Boys. A Street Row. The author losing his ‘reader’ (pocket-book), Tom and Jerry showing fight and Logic floored. Pierce Egan is the figure under attack on the left having his pocket picked.

Friday, 29 October 2010

The Children History Forgot

I am very pleased and excited to announce my book on child workers, 'The Children History Forgot', has been accepted by Robert Hale and is now going through the production stages!

The book was originally titled 'Stolen Childhoods', but we belatedly discovered there is another book with a very similar title by another author (with a different historical slant) due out next year.

'The Children History Forgot' will tell the stories of young workers (children and teenagers) during late Georgian and Victorian times in many different industries - from cotton manufacture to candle-making.
I will post an update on my blog as soon as publication date is confirmed.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

A new Victoriana site

If you are interested in Victoriana, there's a new website crammed with images and articles from the Victorian world, including features on working life, history and fashion. Do check it out - an image gallery is planned from which you can download images for greeting cards, etc.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

An unexpected treat!

I was in Oxford at the weekend, and wandered into the Bodleian library as they always have interesting exhibitions on. By sheer good fortune, there was a one-day Jane Austen Exhibition. The exhibition was to help launch the Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition. On show was the manuscript of her short stories and plays (Volume the First) written when Jane was a teenager, and Cassandra’s fair copy of ‘Sanditon’. There was also a set of Austen first editions owned by her brother Edward Knight. I was absolutely thrilled to see them - especially ‘Volume the First’ – somehow seeing Jane’s handwriting close up makes one feel closer to the author.

© Author’s photos of Jane Austen’s ‘Volume the First’ on display at the Bodleian, and the title page of Edward Knight’s copy of ‘Sense and Sensibility, also on display.

Friday, 22 October 2010

The Story of England

I have been greatly frustrated with my TV viewing recently as I kept missing Michael Wood's Story of England, but I caught up with episode 5 last night, which dealt with the industrial revolution. There was some very nice footage of Foxton Locks for canal fans.
I was fascinated by the item on hosiery trade in Leicester and the visit to the Framework Knitting museum, as this was the first time I have seen one of these machines in action. Wood used witness statements from the Framework Knitters Select Committee of 1844, when the trade was in an acute state of depression, to bring the workers' story to life. The select committee discovered children learned the trade from an early age; five and six year olds worked at stitching gloves or chevening (embroidering) stockings. They began learning how to use the stocking-frame when they were about nine or a little older. The story of Britain's child workers is the subject of my forthcoming book, and I hope to have some news for you soon.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

A Flash of Brilliance

The weather was beautiful here last Sunday, so we had a walk along the old Chester Canal at Beeston (now the Shropshire Union Canal). I have long wanted to explore this section of the canal, as I wrote about the locks at Beeston in my exploration of the county’s canal network in Regency Cheshire. The locks kept sinking because there was quicksand under their foundations, and famous engineer Thomas Telford was called in to solve this knotty problem. He rebuilt the locks in cast iron, so they were less affected by the vagaries of the weather.

This was a really memorable walk for me because I saw a kingfisher for the very first time – a flash of blue and gold swooping along the canal – I was thrilled!
I hope to have some exciting news about my next book soon, so watch this space!
Image: Beeston Iron Locks © Sue and Nigel Wilkes

Monday, 4 October 2010

Burns and Bruce

We’ve just returned from a lovely holiday in Galloway. We always enjoy exploring Dumfries, which is closely associated with two of the most iconic figures in Scottish history: Robert Burns and Robert the Bruce (the subject of my latest feature for Aquila children’s magazine).

It was here that Robert the Bruce slew the Red Comyn before the high altar of Greyfriars kirk in 1306, very close to the spot where Burns’s statue now gazes down on the town.

We were lucky enough to get a guided tour inside Dumfries’s Theatre Royal as part of a special ‘open doors’ day for historic sites in Galloway. Burns was a keen supporter of the theatre, and I believe the outside of the building is still pretty much as it was in his day.

Photos: Statue of Robert Burns, and the Theatre Royal, Dumfries. © Sue and Nigel Wilkes.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Canal Ancestors

A quick update to say my latest feature on tracing your canal ancestors is out in this month’s issue of Discover My Past England, so do check it out if you have boatmen or canal company workers in your family tree.
Image: Canal boat family, 1920s. Fellows, Morton & Clayton were a famous canal carrying firm. Work and Workers, Arthur O. Cooke, (T.C. and E.C. Jack Ltd., c.1920s.)

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Georgian Chester

A reminder that there are only a few days remaining if you would like to visit the Grosvenor Museum’s ‘Georgian Chester: the City in Art’ exhibition which closes on 12 September. Also, next weekend there’s a great opportunity for Cheshire history fans to explore some of the county’s hidden treasures. Free access to buildings of special historic interest and special guided tours are available as part of the Heritage Open Days festival.

Images: Park House, built in 1715, just one of the many spectacular buildings which sprang up in Georgian Chester. Park House was formerly the Albion Hotel. The Duke of Wellington stayed here when he visited the city in 1820. The Hotel had an assembly room. It was also the HQ of the Independent party, deadly foes of the Grosvenor family interest in the bloodthirsty political rivalries which split the city in Regency Cheshire. © Sue Wilkes.
An illustration from Regency Cheshire: Thomas Harrison’s Chester Castle works. The Propylea Gate is on the very far left. The county gaol, jury rooms and prothonotary’s office are in the building on the left. The Shire Hall with its massy Doric columns is to the right. The east wing (left) of the Hall was the military barracks; the west wing was the armoury. Stranger’s Companion in Chester, 4th edition, c. 1828.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Cheshire's Amazing History

It was a lovely afternoon today so we had a walk up to Eddisbury Iron Age hillfort, where there is an ongoing archaeological excavation as part of the Habitats and Hillforts Project. The archaeologists have done an incredible amount of work, and have uncovered what appears to be the entrance to the hill-fort; we were very surprised to see just how substantial the remains were.

Last night, we watched Secret Britain and I was very pleased to see Northwich and the Cheshire salt industry were featured. Matt Baker travelled on a canal boat along the Trent & Mersey canal past the old Lion Salt Works and had a ride through our local engineering wonder, the Anderton Boat Lift. The presenters also explored the beautiful wildlife and flora now thriving at Ashton's and Neumann's Flashes, the site of former salt mines which suffered catastrophic collapses in the 1870s and 1880s. Do try and catch the programme repeat or watch it on iPlayer if you can.

Photos: Eddisbury hill fort excavations: possible entrance, and section through rampart defences.  Anderton Boat Lift. © Sue Wilkes.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Mr Knightley's Bedtime Reading?

If Jane Austen’s hero Mr Knightley (Emma) wanted an entertaining bedtime companion, he might have chosen the latest issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine, which was founded by Edward Cave under the nom-de-plume 'Sylvanus Urban'.  The first issue, which appeared in January 1731, included a report on the ‘Melancholy Effects of Credulity in Witchcraft’ concerning recent witch trials in Somerset, and Pennsylvania in America.
Dr Samuel Johnson, then an unknown, starving hack writer, was an early contributor. Johnson had no regular income until Cave took him under his wing. The magazine published essays of antiquarian interest, reviewed the latest books such as Austen’s Emma, and included human interest stories like that of ninety year old William Crossman, a Somerset man who ‘kept his coffin by him for fifty years, and used it as a cupboard.’ (July 1824).
This immensely popular publication lasted right into the twentieth century. You can find out more about the Gentleman’s Magazine success story in the latest issue of Jane Austen's Regency World. There are also some early issues of the magazine at The Internet Library of Early Journals.
Images from the author’s collection:
Edward Cave. Boswell’s Life of Johnson, (Routledge, Warnes, & Routledge, 1859).
Portrait of Joseph Cradock (1741-1826), Senior Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, Gentleman’s Magazine Vol. XCVII, January 1827.
Frontispiece of Gentleman’s Magazine Vol. XCVIII (July-Dec 1828), depicting the newly built St Katharine’s Hospital, Regent’s Park London, the Master’s House and coats of arms.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Looking Back Through Time

I've just come back from a holiday in the beautiful Moselle Valley in Germany, a famous wine-growing area. It was much warmer than in cloudy Cheshire! I don't know where the summer has gone.

If you have a glass-making ancestor, there are tips and hints for tracing your family tree in 'Looking Back Through Time', my latest feature for Discover My Past England. Glass was needed for the many new factories of the Industrial Revolution; the growing armies of workers needed houses to live in, too, further boosting demand for glass. 

Tyneside glass-makers dominated the UK’s window glass production for over two hundred years. By the early nineteenth century, ‘two-fifths of the whole glass manufacture of the kingdom’ was made there. By the 1830s, there were over 120 glass houses in Britain. Glass-makers faced competition from the Continent. When customs duties on glass were axed, cheap foreign glass flooded the home market. Firms such as Pilkingtons at St Helens used new technology to cut costs and improve quality. Pilkingtons’ works produced 150 tons of glass weekly by 1854. Traditional crown window glass makers like those on Tyneside were left behind.

Images: The Herbert-Cowper memorial window in Westminster Abbey. Colour lithograph for Sunday at Home, 2 June 1877.
Glass seal of the British Plate Glass Manufactory, Pictorial History of the County of Lancashire, 1844.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

More bedtime reading

I promised I would update this blog with some of my bedtime reading. I recently read Ian Kelly's massive biography (the Ultimate Dandy) of Beau Brummell. I very much enjoyed some parts - especially his account of Brummell's schooldays - and his glory days as a fashion icon. The author clearly did an incredible amount of research for this work. Yet the book's ending left me very uneasy. Brummell's long decline into physical and mental illness is well documented, and Mr Kelly had access to Brummell's medical records: clearly a fantastic resource.  His forensic and clinical account of Brummell's physical symptoms as he approached death left me wondering just how far a biographer is justified in going in pursuit of a complete portrayal of his subject, however. Should a biographer portray his subject 'warts and all', or should a polite veil be drawn over some areas? A difficult one.

I can thoroughly recommend the other book I finished recently - Andrea di Robilant's fascinating study of his ancestor Lucia Mocenigo -  'Lucia in the Age of Napoleon'. Lucia was a friend of Empress Josephine, and was Lord Byron's landlady. Lucia witnessed the break-up of Venice in the tumult of the Napoleonic Wars. Her life was very different from that of Jane Austen - her father arranged a marriage for her while she was in her teens, and her married life went through many ups and downs. Robilant's book takes a novelistic approach to Lucia's life while ensuring the historical details are meticulously accurate.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Silk and Stewarts

It’s been so long since I’ve had time to update my blog that I’ve got lots of news!

First and most importantly, my son Gareth has just won a silver medal at the International Physics Olympiad in Croatia! Well done and congratulations to Gareth and all the other British team members for such as sterling effort, and a big thank you to his Croatian hosts for looking after him so well.

My book ‘Stolen Childhoods’ has gone in the post at last, so a big thank you is due to all my family for putting up with me while I’ve been glued to the PC for weeks.

The Highlander has just published my feature ‘Banned to Beloved’ which discusses the pacification of the Highlands and the impact on the clans’ traditional way of life, and tartan’s triumphant return thanks to Sir Walter Scott and others.

You can also read my hints and tips on tracing your silk ancestors in the July issue of  Discover My Past England, and on tracing your Stewart (Stuart) ancestors in this month’s Discover My Past Scotland.

Mary Queen of Scots. Scotland Picturesque and Traditional, Cassell & Co. Ltd, 1895. (Artist unknown, author George Eyre-Todd.)

A Highland Outpost. Engraving after the painting by John Pettie for Good Words, 1893.

December fashions, 1837. Morning visiting dress of fawn-coloured silk with pink satin hat. Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music and Romance, Vol. XII, 1837.

All images from the author’s collection.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

A fantastic review from Jane Austen’s Regency World!

I was thrilled to read Jocelyn Bury’s lovely review of Regency Cheshire in this month’s Jane Austen's Regency World!
Here is a very brief extract:

‘Sue Wilkes has produced a vivid and highly readable portrait of Jane Austen in the age of Jane Austen. …Massive social and industrial change took place in England during the Regency period, laying the foundations for the prosperity and growth of the Victorian age. Wilkes is an adept and engaging chronicler of this fascinating period in the history of Britain, mirrored in that of her home county’.
Thank you ever so much, Jocelyn!
Image: an illustration from Regency Cheshire.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Time Off?

It seems most of Britain is going to take time off to watch the England World Cup game this afternoon. What would the Georgians and Victorians have thought? If you worked in a mill, many factory owners only allowed one or two days’ holiday per year. Some mills and collieries closed down for Whit Monday or Wakes Week. Any time off was unpaid; workers saved up all year for their annual holiday. Under the factory acts, women and child workers were allowed two whole days and eight half days holiday per year. Women and children employed in workshops were not legally entitled to any holidays.
Time off to watch a football match? Not likely!

Image: An early nineteenth century cotton mill. Reports of the Inspectors of Factories, October 1873. (Author’s collection.)

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Working Hard!

I have only got a few weeks left to finish my new book 'Stolen Childhoods,' so I will only be able to do very brief blog updates until after the end of July. The beautiful sunshine doesn't help - it makes it very hard to concentrate when it looks so lovely outside! 

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Keep Those Plates Spinning!

As my students will know, I am a tutor for the Writers Bureau, and this week I am the 'guest blogger' for the Writers Bureau blog  - you can read my post on keeping your writing career on the move here.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Sold out!

I have just heard that the first print run of my book Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives has sold out! I am thrilled. I will update my blog if and when I get news it is going to be reprinted. There are just one or few copies left with sellers on Amazon, so hurry up if you want to buy a copy.

Michael Portillo's Great British Railway Journeys is being repeated at present, so try and catch it if you can.

Sunny and bright

It's a lovely sunny day here in Cheshire. We have got a goldfinch visiting the garden, so maybe he has got a nest nearby.  I am fighting a losing battle at present with snails who will not stop eating our runner beans before they have even had a chance to climb their canes. We have a garden full of blackbirds, but they are obviously not eating enough of the snails - or is it thrushes which eat them?

My book 'Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives' seems to be out of stock at the History Press - I am trying to find out when it will be back in stock.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Reader feedback and Reviews of Regency Cheshire

A quick update of some reader feedback and reviews of Regency Cheshire:

‘It really was a lovely read, full of interesting characters, the preacher Jabez Bunting (what a wonderful name) and ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton. It was sad in places, the plight of the poor chimney-sweeps, brutal in others, the bear-baiting and cock-fighting, the grisly murders… My favourite bit was the story of the Knutsford innkeeper who relegated his inn sign of the Duke of Wellington to the pigsty. The book gave me a lot of pleasure, thank you’. Mr Nigel Kimber, Great Milton.

‘My copy has just arrived yesterday courtesy of Amazon uk. I devoured it last night, having fond memories of Cheshire despite attending the College of Law there! Congratulations Sue on such a readable, informative and beautifully produced book.’ Austenonly.

There are also some more kind comments at Gill's Place and on this blog post here.
A big thank you to Vic at Jane Austen Today for her splendid review, too. Do check out Vic's blog as it is full of fascinating info for Jane Austen fans.
Image: The author at Waterstone’s in Chester. © Sue Wilkes

Friday, 28 May 2010

Douglas! Douglas!

I am really looking forward to my visit to Waterstone's in Chester tomorrow to sign copies of Regency Cheshire - I just hope the weather stays as sunny as it is today.
My feature on the story of the famous Douglas Clan has just been published in Discover My Past Scotland, so check it out if you need some tips on finding your Douglas ancestors.

Image: The legendary Catherine Douglas. She tried to bar the door against the ruthless assassins hunting James I. Catherine was one of Queen Joan’s maids of honour. The King died from many wounds, but Catherine survived, although her arm was broken. It’s said Catherine was afterwards known as Barlass (from ‘bar the door, lass’). Unknown artist, Pictorial Record of Remarkable Events, Frederick Warne & Co., 1896.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Silk ancestors

My latest feature on researching your ancestors in the silk industry has just been published in the July issue of Family History Monthly. When I was doing the research for Regency Cheshire, I was struck by the long hours children worked in the silk industry. All raw silk was imported into this country, so changes in import tariffs badly affected the silk towns of Macclesfield and Congleton; many workers suffered hardship in the late 1820s when new legislation opened the floodgates to cheap foreign silks.  Changes in fashion could also have a huge impact on silk workers' livelihoods.
Image: London Promenade Dress with a ‘robe of one of the new mourning silks’.Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music and Romance, Vol. XII, 1837.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Beautiful Blossom

Just a little update on what I've been up to recently. We had a walk around the Arboretum at Jodrell Bank on Saturday - I have visited it several times before, but this is the first time during springtime, and the trees were all in blossom: everything from deepest pink to foaming white flowers, absolutely gorgeous. A new visitor centre is planned at Jodrell, so it will be very interesting to see how the site develops.
I am not getting much time for 'fun' reading at the moment as I am deep in the research for Stolen Childhoods, but at bedtime I am wading through Ian Kelly's 'Beau Brummell', and if I get a moment will post a review later.
TV-wise, I am greatly enjoying BBC2's Story of Science - a well researched and well presented programme, and mercifully with no 'dumbing down'.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Brave Cheshire Soldiers

The Cheshire Yeomanry’s role in Peterloo was highly controversial, but they had a very difficult role to play as an unofficial police force in the county. They were used by the authorities against their fellow countrymen, breaking up riots and civil unrest, but when they joined as volunteers, it was to defend their country if Napoleon invaded.

Many yeomanry cavalry fought very bravely in the Napoleonic wars, including Captain Barra, who commanded the Stockport Troop. He served with the 16th Lancers in Spain and Portugal. Many members of the Cheshire Yeomanry were Waterloo veterans, such as William Tomkinson (1790-1872) of Dorfold Hall, a Lt. Colonel in the 16th Light Dragoons. Tomkinson was badly hurt in 1809 during Wellington’s crossing of the Douro. Major Clement Swetenham (1787-1852) of Somerford Booths saw action in the Peninsular Wars and Waterloo. Another war veteran was Richard Egerton (youngest brother of Sir John Grey Egerton of Oulton). Sir Stapleton Cotton served under Sir Arthur Wellesley (later the 1st Duke of Wellington) at the battle of Talavera (1809), and his equestrian statue guards the entrance to Chester Castle.

The 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment saw a great deal of action abroad at this time. (The 22nd Regiment was first raised at Chester in 1689. The regiment served in the American War of Independence (1775) and saw action at Bunkers Hill. It was renamed the ‘Cheshire’ by George III in 1782). The Regiment, after a tour in Ireland in 1790, served in the West Indies, South Africa, India, and Mauritius in 1810. One of the bravest of its brave soldiers was the legendary Lt. John Shipp (c.1784-1834). He led three ‘Forlorn Hopes’ at the siege of Bhurtpore in 1805. The siege failed, but two decades later, Sir Stapleton Cotton (now Lord Combermere) succeeded in breaching the walls of this stubborn fort.
Image: Lt John Shipp of the Cheshire Regiment. Engraving by unknown artist, Memoirs of the Military Career of John Shipp, (T. Fisher Unwin, 1890.) Author’s collection.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

They died for you.

Today is voting day for the general election and council seats. Please take a moment to go to the polling booths and cast your vote. I feel really strongly about this. Our ancestors laid down their lives so ordinary people could vote instead of a privileged few. My feature for Jane Austen's Regency World this month is on the Peterloo massacre. On that fateful day, innocent people demonstrating for parliamentary reform in Manchester died when the yeomanry cavalry charged the peaceful crowd. In Regency times, campaigners for parliamentary reform concentrated on winning universal male suffrage. Female suffrage was considered a downright outlandish idea, and women reformers (there was a group in Stockport) were often ridiculed in the press.  Women did not gain the vote in Britain until 1918, after years of protest, (some violent) and sacrifices by women campaigners. So please, please, go and vote - it won't take long!

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Knutsford ‘Royal’ May Day

On Saturday I finally got the chance to see the May Day festivities at Knutsford. There was a wonderful procession with all the local schoolchildren, morris men and ladies, horses and carriages, and a sedan chair. At one time Knutsford had three sedan chairs which the local ladies used to go to balls and assemblies. (Cranford fans will remember one makes an appearance in Mrs Gaskell’s novel, and was used for a very funny scene in the BBC TV series). The sedan chair which graces the Knutsford May Day procession was a present to the ladies of the town from Lady Jane Stanley of Brook House

A very pretty custom which (so far as I know – do tell me if you know of any other towns where this takes place) belongs to Knutsford alone, is that on special occasions such as weddings, the streets were cleaned and decorated with beautiful patterns of coloured sand.
The pavements were sanded when George III celebrated his Jubilee in October 1809. The yeomanry cavalry (‘a fine troop’) and infantry of the Knutsford Legion marched behind Sunday School children to the church, where they listened to an ‘excellent sermon’ followed by ‘God Save the King.’ After the service, the Legion was reviewed by its commander, Lt. Col. Sir John Fleming Leicester. A feast at local inns was followed by a ‘grand display of fireworks’ and bonfire on the Heath. The evening was rounded off with: ‘an elegant and well attended ball at the George Inn. A liberal subscription was made for the poorer inhabitants. To each man, woman and child, two pounds of prime beef were given, with a proportion of good ale.’ (John Corry.)
Photos © Sue Wilkes:
The Knutsford ‘Royal’ May Queen Saskia Pinnington, the sedan chair, an example of a coloured sand picture, and part of the procession with the Warrington Brass Band and ‘Jack in the Green’ or the ‘Green Man’.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Election Fever III

As the election race hots up, we should perhaps be grateful that electioneering has calmed down somewhat since Regency times. In Chester, the Exchange was often the focus of ‘disgraceful scenes’ in which ‘all the low ribaldry, coarse wit, and vulgarism’ of the populace was vented on respectable citizens. The hustings for the city elections were erected at the Exchange. Chester historian Joseph Hemingway commented that :‘many a broad and uncourteous joke has been played off, by our city wits of the lower grade, during those scenes of ardent conflict, when every tinker and cobler (sic) thinks himself of as high consequence and importance as any lord of the manor.’ Food and drink flowed freely at election time. The corporation and parliamentary elections were characterised by shameless bribery as rival candidates ‘treated’ the electorate to help win their votes. Edward ‘Teddy’ Hall, an ‘immoveable’ foe of the Grosvenor faction, was completely overcome by the excitement of the 1812 election, and became well known in Chester for his drunken antics.
Image: Plan of the city of Chester, c. 1828. Stranger’s Companion in Chester, 4th edition, c. 1828.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Election Fever II

In Regency Cheshire, I discuss the fight for parliamentary reform in northwest England and look forward in time to the Great Reform Bill crisis. Working class support for parliamentary reform received a great setback following the unsuccessful march of the Blanketeers and the Peterloo Massacre, but pressure for reform continued.
A Reform Committee was set up early in 1831. The extent of the planned reforms, kept top secret until their publication on 1 March, stunned even Whig supporters like the Grosvenors of Eaton. Sixty rotten boroughs were weeded out; over forty boroughs with few voters but several seats had their number of MPs curtailed. Unrepresented towns such as Manchester, Stockport, Macclesfield, Leeds and Stockport were enfranchised. The momentous 1832 elections went ahead with the usual allegations of bribery and vote-rigging. The Chester papers were up to all their old tricks. The Whig Chronicle rallied support for the Grosvenors and their friends; the Courant supported the Tories. Each editor used scurrilous invective against his rival, while supporting his favourite candidates with stomach-churning partiality. (The Chronicle, in a special election supplement, said Lord Richard Grosvenor was like ‘a lion roused from his lair that rises in his might’ while addressing the voters. (Supplement, 14 December 1832.) ) To their eternal credit, the Grosvenors supported reform, even though the demise of pocket boroughs greatly reduced their political influence. You can find out the result of the hard-fought Cheshire election campaigns in Regency Cheshire!

Image: Macclesfield, early 1900s. Etching by Roger Oldham (1871-1916) for Picturesque Cheshire (Sherratt & Hughes, 1903.)

Friday, 16 April 2010

Another book signing for Regency Cheshire!

I am very pleased to announce that I will be signing copies of Regency Cheshire at the Waterstone's store in Knutsford on Saturday 22 May from 11am until 1pm. Knutsford is a lovely historic town and I can't wait to visit it once more.  Look forward to seeing you all on the day!

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Book signing for Regency Cheshire!

I'm very pleased to say I will be doing another book signing for Regency Cheshire at Waterstone's on Eastgate Row in Chester on Saturday 29 May, from 2pm until 4pm. I look forward to meeting you all there and having a chat on the day!
Photo of the author © Nigel Wilkes

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Holiday Highlights

We enjoyed a trip to Somerset over the Easter weekend. On our way down we stopped at Ludlow, a beautiful historic town with an interesting castle. It also has many lovely Georgian buildings, including Dinham House, where Lucien Bonaparte stayed during the Napoleonic Wars. In Somerset, we enjoyed a breezy walk to Brean Down Fort, which was built in the 1860s following a French invasion scare.
Another highlight of our visit to the West Country was the Secret World wildlife centre open day, where we saw baby badgers (very noisy!) and some tiny baby squirrels enjoying a bottle feed.
It was nice to get away from the computer for a few days, as I am currently doing lots of work on Stolen Childhoods. Oh, and a reminder for family historians tracing their Liverpool forebears – my feature on Liverpool ancestors has just been published in Discover My Past England.

Images: Dinham House, Ludlow. A ruined searchlight post at Brean Down fort, Somerset. A baby squirrel at Secret World. Photos © Nigel and Sue Wilkes.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Chester Races

It’s almost time for Chester Races, one of the highlights of the city’s social scene. Sports-mad Regency gentlemen pursued the pleasures of the ‘fancy’ - cock-fighting, boxing, the turf, the chase and so on - with great relish. Horse-racing was immensely popular. The Prince Regent bred horses, and one of his successes was ‘The Smoker,’ a famous Cheshire racehorse run by Sir John Fleming Leicester of Tabley.

Races have been held at the Roodee since about 1539, except during the Civil War and Interregnum. The Stranger’s Companion described the scene at the Roodee in the 1820s: ‘The annual races…commence the first Monday in May, and continue five days, during which all is bustle and gaiety. The ground…is extremely well adapted for the diversion and convenience of the spectators …The races are kept up with true sportsmanlike respectability…when the sport is once begun, nothing can equal the interesting effect which it gives. The people …range themselves one above another on the bank, and give an appearance very like an immense theatre, whilst the wall is surmounted by a large assemblage of fashion and beauty, collected from all parts of the city and neighbourhood.'
One larger-than-life character often seen at Chester Races was 'Mad Jack' Mytton (1796-1834), who lived on seven bottles of port wine a day. Mytton also ran horses at Tarporley Hunt Races, over a new course near Cotebrook in the Delamere Forest. (Tarporley Hunt races, founded c.1776, were held at Crabtree Green until 1815, when Delamere Forest was enclosed). Horse races also took place at Macclesfield, Nantwich, Northwich, and Sandbach; Farndon held flat races until 1803. In Regency times, Knutsford races were ‘remarkable for being honoured with a more brilliant assemblage of nobility and gentry than any other in the county; not excepting even Chester.’ (Cowdroy’s Directory, 1796). You can find out more about the county’s racing scene and ‘Mad Jack’ and his amazing career in Regency Cheshire.
Image: Chester Grandstand (designed by Thomas Harrison) at the Roodee. Stranger’s Companion in Chester, 4th edition, c. 1828.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Election Fever!

The date of the general election has been fixed at last, and no doubt for the next few weeks we will be inundated with political analysis and comment on every TV and radio channel.

Election campaigns in Regency times were positively bloodthirsty affairs. Vote-rigging, bribery, and fistfights between rival supporters were the order of the day. The electoral system was rotten to the core and ripe for reform. Very few people had the vote, only ‘forty shilling freeholders,’ that is, those with property worth forty shillings or more. Parliamentary seats were bought and sold; they were even advertised for sale in the newspapers. There was no secret ballot, so a would-be MP could check whether his money used for ‘treating’ electors was well spent.

Cheshire had four parliamentary seats: two for the county as a whole, and two for the city of Chester. The Cheshire parliamentary seats were carved up between eminent county families. Between 1785 and 1829 Sir Robert Salusbury Cotton, John Crewe of Crewe, Davies Davenport of Capesthorne, Thomas Cholmondeley of Vale Royal and the Egertons of Tatton shared the honours pretty equally. Cotton and Crewe were Whigs; Davenport an Independent; Cholmondeley and Egerton were Tories. The all-powerful Grosvenor family of Eaton Hall held at least one but more typically both Chester city seats between 1780 and 1830. The Grosvenors spent over £20,000 on drinks alone for voters during the contentious 1784 city election to grease the wheels for their candidates Wilbraham Bootle and Thomas Grosvenor. 

Chester was notorious for its political in-fighting, and there were frequent riots on its streets during election time. You can read more about election fever in the county during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and some of the colourful characters involved, in Regency Cheshire.
Image: Section of map of planned Parliamentary Divisions for Chester in 1832 by Lt. Robert K. Dawson