Sunday 11 January 2015

The Sounds of Yesterday,by Laurie Graham

Research can lead a person down the most surprising byways. At the end of the day it may not add a pennyweight of value to the book one is writing but it can be fun and so very absorbing.

I am currently working on a novel about the Whitechapel murders and one of the very human little anecdotes that has stuck in my mind concerns Catherine Eddowes.

A few hours before she was murdered Kate was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and was taken to Bishopsgate police station to sober up. She was reported as having, ‘attracted a crowd on Aldgate High Street by doing an impersonation of a fire engine.’

It conjures a comical scene. We all know what silly things people do in drink. But what, I wondered, in 1888, could an impersonation of a fire engine possibly mean? Clang-a-lang-a-lang? Not neenaw neenaw, that’s for sure. Then I discovered a revealing name for a 19th century fire vehicle: a steamer. The water pumps that forced the water through the hoses were powered by steam. Of course.

Firefighting used to be a very local affair. Insurance companies would often maintain their own corps of firefighters, particularly if they had insured a warehouse containing high value goods. Otherwise parishes had to provide their own equipment and recruit volunteers either to pull the parish fire engine to the scene of the fire and man the pumps, or to provide a horse to haul it for them.

In 1865 London at last got an organised, publically funded fire brigade, and coal-fired steam pump appliances became the firefighters’ new toy. The boiler was fired up as the engine set off from the station and an engineer would stand on a rear footboard, stoking the flames under the boiler as they raced through the streets. By the time they arrived at the fire enough steam should have been raised to power the pumps. That was the theory. Sometimes, inevitably, they’d get to the fire and have to wait for a full head of steam, as happened on Commercial Street in October 1888 when a fur warehouse caught fire.

 Can’t you just imagine what the public had to say about that? ‘Call this progress! We never had delays like this when men did the pumping.’    

An hour reading about steam pumps brought me a little closer to understanding what Kate Eddowes’ fire engine impersonation might have been: the kind of choo-choo steam train noise still beloved of small children. One of the sounds that belong to history. Perhaps Kate had just heard an engine go past. Or perhaps she’d simply had too much rum. But then I stumbled upon another possible explanation.

Kate Eddowes was known to suffer from chronic nephritis or what used to be called Bright’s disease, a kidney condition that was quite likely to have made her breathless. Yesterday, when I had an asthma attack brought on by my own foolish negligence, going out in the freezing air without a scarf over my nose and mouth, I found myself huffing and puffing along the street,  stone cold sober but nevertheless impersonating a steam engine. Maybe that was what Kate was up to. We can never know and indeed the are many Ripperologists who regard the fire engine story as apocryphal. But there, for what it’s worth, is my tiny contribution to the ever-growing mountain of Whitechapel Murder arcana and crackpot theories.

What tragic bad luck anyway for Kate Eddowes that by 1 a.m. she was sufficiently sober to be released from the cells and sent on her way. Half an hour later she lay dead on Mitre Square and another sound, familiar then but now consigned to history, would have been heard. The frantic blowing of a police whistle.     



Carol Drinkwater said...

This made me smile this morning, Laurie. Thank you. As you say, the seeds of story lie in these tiny discoveries. Poor Kate Eddowes.I also enjoyed the pictures you have painted through sounds. Simple and effective.

Sally Zigmond said...

Fascinating. This is why I love historical fiction. It can open up so many doors. I thought I knew plenty about the Ripper murders - but no; there are always further insights.

Sue Bursztynski said...

What an interesting post! And how sad for the poor woman! Imagine, if she had been a little more drunk, she might have survived. The idea that everyone thought she was being funny when she might simply have been sick adds some pathos here.

The little touches of humanity are what bring history alive for me.

PS Fire brigades are an interesting area of history. I keep thinking about Marcus Licinius Crassus in ancient Rome, who bought up large chunks of the city because he had his own private fire brigade in that city of wood, and usually they wouldn't put the fire out till the poor sod who owned the place agreed to sell!

Joan Lennon said...

Poor Kate!

Susan Price said...

My guess is that she was deliberately imitating a fire-engine. For all she was worth.

I reckon there was probably enough bronchitis and asthma, pleurisy and pneumonia in 19th century London - as in my own dear Black Country even 50 years ago - for people to know the difference between difficulty in breathing and a comic performance. She gathered a crowd, after all. Don't think they'd have bothered for a bit of wheezing - far too common. But a drunken woman giving a bravura imitation of a new gadget? - Oh yes. And working class crowds always made the authorities nervous.

Of course, the Bright's disease could have helped make her performance more ocnvincing.

Great post - thank you.