Down the Rabbit Hole of Research

One can be diverted down all sorts of byways when researching a novel. I have been reading a volume which was published in 1856, relating to the history of Kent . I found it on, which is invaluable as a source of both obscure specialist texts and out of print popular fiction.

This particular volume was published by subscription. The list of subscribers at the end is almost as interesting as the subject matter.

Various county archaeological, antiquarian, literary and philosophical societies subscribed. So too did members of the aristocracy – Buccleuch, Norfolk and Northumberland, among others. Local noblemen represented included the Earl of Abergavenny (a Neville, to balance out Percy of Northumberland) and Earl Stanhope. This would have been the fifth Earl Stanhope, who had a somewhat undistinguished political career, and was best known for his cultural and antiquarian interests.

A name with unfortunate associations is that of Sir Oswald Mosley. This Sir Oswald, of Rolleston Hall, Burton upon Trent, was a Member of Parliament at various times between 1806 and 1837, and was also interested in local history and natural history.

Four Gurneys of Norfolk subscribed. They were members of one of the leading banking families of the time. As Overend Gurney, in 1866 the bank was involved in one of the biggest financial crashes of all time.

Eight members of another family subscribed; they had a personal connection to the subject of the volume. Of the seven men, three were of Christ Church, Oxford. Another was a clergyman. Another was a clergyman and of Magdalen College, Oxford. Another was a country gentleman. The last was a major in the 44th regiment. His address was given as ‘Sebastopol’. Very likely his family subscribed on his behalf; he probably did not have much time to spare to think about antiquarian interests while engaged in a siege.

Miss Smith of 5 Liverpool Street, City is a reminder that Liverpool Street station was not yet built. Alfred North, Esq., of 33 Huskisson Street Liverpool calls to mind a different aspect of railway history.

William Debonaire Haggard was a numismatist and an official of the Bank of England. Robert Chambers of 339 High Street Edinburgh was the publisher. Messrs Sotheby and Wilkinson, Wellington Street, Strand, were the forerunners of Sotheby’s the auctioneers.

No doubt more research would reveal further interesting characters among these subscribers. But I need to get back to the novel!

Murder most foul?

Is it necessary to have a murder in a crime or mystery novel? I’ve been considering this question while debating whether to kill off a character in a work in progress. I don’t have a great many corpses in my books. The Omnibus Murder is (so far) the only straightforward murder mystery I’ve published.

Devotees of Agatha Christie of course expect to encounter one or more bodies in the library or elsewhere in the course of one of her books. But not all Golden Age writers had a murder in every book. Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey did not.

A murder raises the stakes, of course. The reader knows that there’s a killer on the loose and other characters may be in danger.

But if one’s book features amateur sleuths, there are disadvantages to having a murder. A suspicious or violent death leads to a police investigation. The amateur sleuths, if they find the body, will have to make statements, may have to give evidence at an inquest. They will not have access to all the evidence and information that the police have. Having no official standing, they will not be able to ask questions and seek out information as they might otherwise have done. With the police directing the investigation, the amateur sleuths will not be driving the plot and will no longer be the central characters in their own adventure.

Do you believe in Fairies?

Revisiting books one loved as a child can be disappointing, but sometimes one is pleasantly surprised. There has been so much criticism of Enid Blyton since the 1970s that one forgets just how original and creative some of her work was. The Enchanted Wood, first published in 1939, is a case in point.

enchanted_ cover

First of all, the main characters Jo (a boy), Bessie and Fanny are not children of a well-to-do middle class family. ‘Mother’ (we never learn their surname) takes in washing to help make ends meet. They grow vegetables because they need them, not as a hobby. When Father loses some money, they don’t have quite enough to eat for a while. As I child, I probably thought the money had fallen out of his pocket. Reading as an adult, I wondered if Enid Blyton was hinting that he had lost it gambling.

The book is aimed at younger readers; Bessie celebrates her eighth birthday at the end. One would therefore expect the vocabulary and sentence structure to be simple. In fact, sentences are often quite long:

Their cottage was five miles from the station, and as the children’s father could not afford to do anything but walk there, it seemed a very long way indeed. There was no bus to take them, so the tired children dragged their feet along, wishing for a cup of milk and a cosy bed.

The tallest tree in the Enchanted Wood is the Faraway Tree, from the top of which all kinds of magical lands can be reached, some pleasant, some less so. In the Wood, up the Tree, and in the various lands, the children meet brownies, goblins, pixies, rabbits, bears, owls and a squirrel, as well as all the folk who live in the tree. They encounter treats such as pop biscuits and toffee shocks.

The illustrations of Dorothy M. Wheeler brought the world of the Enchanted Wood to life.


Earlier writers, such as Edith Nesbit, had used magic to transport children to other realms. But I don’t think anyone before Enid Blyton packed quite so many original, magical ideas into one book.

Then they all three slipped down the creaky stairs and out into the moonlit garden. The shadows were very black indeed, just like ink. There was no colour anywhere, only just the pale, cold moonlight. Everything looked rather mysterious and exciting.

They were soon in the Enchanted Wood. But, dear me, it was quite, quite different now! It was simply alive with people and animals! In the very dark parts of the wood little lanterns were hung in rows. In the moonlit parts there were no lanterns, and a great deal of chattering was going on.

Nobody took any notice of the children at all. Nobody seemed surprised to see them. But the children were most astonished at everything! They stared and stared.

“There’s a market over there!” whispered Jo to Bessie. “Look! There are necklaces made of painted acorns and brooches made of wild roses!”

But Bessie was looking at something else—a dance going on in the moonlit dell, with fairies and pixies chattering and laughing together. Sometimes, when they were tired of dancing on their feet, partners would fly in the air and dance there in the moonlight.

Fanny was watching some elves growing toadstools. As fast as the toadstool grew, an elf laid a cloth on it and put glasses of lemonade and tiny biscuits there. It was all like a strange dream.

“Oh, I am glad we came!” said Bessie, in delight. “Who would have thought that the Enchanted Wood would be like this at night?”


When I read the Faraway Tree books as a child, I did, for a short time, believe in magic and fairies.























Numbering the People

Staff are being recruited to work on preparing for and carrying out the National Census to be taken in 2021. After the most recent census, in 2011, there was some debate as to whether there should be another one. It is expensive, and it was argued that the information collected is already available to government by one means or another. The 2021 census will go ahead, but the argument is now about whether there should be a census in 2031.

The government might not need the census, but it is of great value to researchers. The census returns are the easiest way to make the information publicly available in a format that is directly comparable with previous censuses.

At the same time, preparations are underway to release the 1921 census in January 2022.

The 1921 census differs from most of those released to date in that it took place on 19 June. The censuses from 1851 to 1911 took place in late March or early April. That of 1841 took place on 6 June. In fishing communities, many men and boys were absent from the 1841 census as they were away at sea. The populations of resort towns were increased by summer visitors, who would not therefore have been enumerated at their home addresses. In rural areas, it was the start of the haymaking season and itinerant harvest workers may have been present.

The 1921 census is especially significant for two reasons. No further census returns for England and Wales are available until the 1951 census is released. The 1931 returns were destroyed by fire in 1942 (not attributed to enemy action) and there was no census in 1941. The 1939 Register is a very good substitute, but it doesn’t have the birthplace information that is so useful to researchers.

Of more immediate importance, the 1921 census will show some of the impact of the Great War on families and communities.

Some places grew dramatically as people moved in to work in wartime industries. The population of Eltham grew from 14,984 in 1911 to 30,112 in 1921. Some of this growth is accounted for by the Eltham Park estate, otherwise known as the Corbett Estate, built in the years up to 1914. But a large part of it was due to the building of 1,298 homes to accommodate increased numbers of workers at Woolwich Arsenal.

Similarly, Crayford grew from 6,234 in 1911 to 11,926 in 1921, as the workforce at Vickers expanded.

In small communities, researchers using the 1921 census will be able to see how many of the boys and young men who were recorded in 1911 were still there in 1921. They will be able to see how many young widows there were, and what they were doing.

They will also, in comparison with the 1911 census, be able to trace the decline of old industries and occupations and the development of new ones.

Above all, we should remember that the census is only a snapshot in time. A man may have been a farm labourer in 1911 and again in 1921. In the years between he may have served on the Western Front or in Mesopotamia, been torpedoed in the Atlantic or spent time in a prisoner of war camp. A woman shop assistant may have been a V.A.D, a member of the W.A.A.C., a munitionette or a member of the Women’s Land Army.

Important as it is, the census alone cannot reveal more than a small part of the lives and experiences of our forebears.

The Streets of London

The railways improved communications immensely. Journey times between different regions of the United Kingdom fell from days to hours. People in remote rural areas gained access to towns where they could sell their produce and have a much greater choice of products to buy.

But the arrival of the railways only worsened the already considerable problems of traffic congestion in London. In 1846, it was decided that new railways should not be permitted to enter the City or West End. The consequence was that the major railway termini formed a ring around the edge, and passengers or goods travelling to their destinations in London, or needing to cross London to continue their journeys, had to take to the streets.

Gustave_Doré_-_Ludgate_Hill_Fotor2Central London was crowded with slums and choked with traffic. Omnibuses, cabs, private carriages, brewers’ drays, carriers’ carts, coal merchants’ carts, market gardeners bringing produce to market, costermongers’ carts, parcel delivery vans, railway company vans transporting freight over the last part of its journey,  vans bringing goods from the docks to warehouses or for onward distribution – all these vehicles and more contributed to London’s traffic congestion. It could take an hour and a half to travel five miles from Paddington to Bank by horse-drawn omnibus.

In 1855, a select committee was appointed to look into road improvements for London. Sir Joseph Paxton proposed a ten mile ring road for London, with a covered way made of glass and iron, using the principles he had used in the Crystal Palace, enclosing a railway, a carriage way, and shops. The cost was estimated at £34m, which Paxton thought could be raised by either taxation or private investment. However, although everyone who saw the designs was enthusiastic, the scheme was too ambitious.

From 1855, the Metropolitan Board of Works carried out a number of road improvement schemes in London. Sir Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer to the Board, was involved in many of them.

Many new roads served the dual purpose of easing congestion and removing slum areas. Victoria Street, which runs from Parliament Square to Victoria Station, cut through Tothill Fields, or ‘Devil’s Acre’, which Charles Dickens regarded as one of the worst areas in London.

It was recognised that there was a need for a new north-south route linking Euston and Charing Cross. The existing route, St Martin’s Lane, was not only narrow and congested, it ran through the centre of the notorious rookery of St Giles, or Seven Dials.


view of St Giles

Henry Mayhew described the area in 1860:

The parish of St. Giles, with its nests of close and narrow alleys and courts inhabited by the lowest class of Irish costermongers, has passed into a byword as the synonym of filth and squalor. Although New Oxford Street has been carried straight through the middle of the worst part of its slums, yet, there still are streets which demand to be swept away in the interest of health and cleanliness… [The inhabitants are] a noisy and riotous lot, fond of street brawls, equally “fat, ragged and saucy;” and the courts abound in pedlars, fish-women, newscriers, and corn-cutters.

In 1878 another writer said:

‘The business carried on in Seven Dials seems to be of a very heterogeneous character. It is the great haunt of bird and bird-cage sellers, also of the sellers of rabbits, cats, dogs, &c…..In Dudley Street (formerly Monmouth Street) the shops are devoted chiefly to the sale of old clothes, second-hand boots and shoes, &c. ginger-beer, green-grocery, and theatrical stores… In many of the houses, in some of these streets, whole families seem to live and thrive in a single room.’

In 1877 an Act of Parliament authorised the construction of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road. The scheme was completed in 1886. In order to meet the requirement to rehouse the people displaced by the road improvements, flats known as Sandringham Buildings were built at the south end of Charing Cross Road by the Improved Industrial Dwellings Company. Nine hundred people were to be housed there, mostly in tenements of three rooms.

Sandringham Buildings 3



Other major road schemes followed, for example Kingsway and Aldwych in the early twentieth century, all of them gradually changing the face of London without solving the problems of housing or traffic congestion. Meanwhile, others were looking underground for solutions to London’s traffic problems.

A Woman’s Work – on the Farm

More women are taking up farming, according to a BBC report. But women have always played an important role in agriculture, whether as farmers themselves, as farmers’ wives, or as part of the workforce.

In Kent in 1882, 175 women farmers were listed in Kelly’s Post Office Directory. Not a large number in the context of the total number of farmers listed, but sufficient, and sufficiently well distributed around the county, that a woman farmer would not be something that was unheard of. Most of them were ‘Mrs’, suggesting that perhaps they were widows, carrying on their husbands’ farms. Interestingly, a few were, for example, ‘Mrs William Gower’, which, by the conventions of the time, would suggest that  their husbands were still living. A few of the women farmers were ‘Miss’, perhaps daughters carrying on a family farm.

‘Men have always taken the glory’ says the BBC headline, but writers on agriculture in the past were very clear about the importance of the farmer’s wife to the efficient and profitable running of a farm. Thomas Tusser published A Hundred Points of Good Husbandry in 1557. Subsequently he expanded it to Five Hundred Points. Tusser wrote:

For husbandrie weepeth,
Where huswiferie sleepeth
And hardly he creepeth
Up ladder to thrift

Arthur Young, a writer on agriculture in the late eighteenth century, believed that a farmer must have ‘a very diligent and industrious wife’ in order to succeed. John Claudius Loudon was principally a landscape gardener, but he also compiled an Encyclopedia of agriculture, first published in 1825. He wrote that ‘so large a portion of skill, of frugality, cleanliness, industry, and good management is required in the wife, that without them the farmer may be materially injured.’

Out of doors, the farmer’s wife was responsible for the milking, the poultry, the pigs, the bees, the herb and vegetable gardens. Indoors she oversaw the baking and brewing and food processing, preserving and preparation for the household. She was responsible for the butter and cheese making and the still room. She would also be responsible for marketing the produce of dairy and poultry. She would be expected to have some knowledge of herbal remedies and provide basic medical care for the household. Some clothes might be bought, but she would be in charge of making, laundering and mending clothes for her own family.

On any but the smallest farms, the farmer’s wife would have maids, often girls in their teens, working under her. Being able to train and supervise these girls so that they made a useful contribution to the farm economy was another important part of the duties of the farmer’s wife.

The farmer’s wife would not normally work in the fields, but other women might. In 1574 the executors of David Croft, a Kent farmer, paid ‘a couple of women for shearing 34 sheep’. They also paid ‘Mother Lamken’ for reaping.

In the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as fruit growing expanded, soft fruit picking was a job done mostly by women. In fruit growing areas of North Kent, women would be out picking from 4.30 am, for the fruit to be put on trains to reach London in time to be sold the same day.

The hop-picking season lasted only four weeks, but it was an essential part of the rural economy of Kent, and the work was carried out mostly by women and children, from within the county and from London. By the mid nineteenth century it was said that a workforce of up to 150,000 was needed to gather in the hop harvest.

For people in the past, women’s involvement in farming was a part of every day life; it is only as we have increasingly become town dwellers and lost touch with our rural roots that  it seems to have been forgotten.

Blog Revived

I’ve never been very good at self-promotion. I enjoyed blogging, but it took up time that I thought could be better spent writing novels. And I never knew whether it led to me or my books becoming better known. This blog lapsed, I see, nearly three years ago.

Now I’m just back from this year’s Swanwick Writers’ Summer School, where the message was very much that writers need to spend time on social media and build an author platform, so I thought I’d give blogging another go.

I’ll be blogging about the process of writing, about English history, with particular reference to London and Kent, where my novels are set, and about historical research.

Research is of course essential for anyone writing fiction with a historical setting.  I think that one piece of original source material is worth more  than any number of books written at a later date.

Thanks to the internet, a mass of original source material is now easily accessed by writers. One of my favourite research sites  is Historical Directories of England and Wales, hosted by the University of Leicester. One can consult or download regional, county or town directories from the second half of the eighteenth century up to the 1910s.

From the Leicester Directory of 1794, we learn that by far the biggest trade or occupation in the town was that of hosier – 88 of them, when there were no more than thirty in any other trade.

The Post Office Directory of London for 1841 tells us that in Oxford Street then there were ironmongers, fishmongers, potato warehouses, mangle makers, a coal merchant, even a pawnbroker, as well as a large number of milliners, linendrapers, baby linen warehouses, ‘artists in hair’ and china dealers.

In Maidstone in Kent in 1891 the River Medway was still important to local business; there were barge builders and owners, marine store dealers and wharfingers, and merchants dealing in coal, corn, manure, stone and timber had their own wharves.

Also in 1891 the parish of Eythorne in Kent, population under five hundred, was a farming area where the principal crops were wheat, barley and oats. The parish had a baker and a baker and confectioner, a carpenter, a tailor, three dressmakers,  a tobacconist, two public houses, a beer retailer, a grocer and Post Office, a blacksmith, two saddlers, a butcher, a builder, a bootmaker, a grocer and draper and a wood dealer. The carrier to Dover departed at 11.00 in the morning on Tuesdays and Fridays, returning at 6.30 the same evening. There was no school; the children went to school in the neighbouring parish of Waldershare.

I picked Eythorne at random as an example of a small rural parish, but it seems to me that there are rather a lot of shops and trades for such a small place. It would be interesting to look at the neighbouring parishes to see if they are similar.

Research is never finished!