Wednesday 30 September 2015

September competition

One lucky History Girls Follower can win a set of all three of Frances Thomas's Girls of Troy titles.
Our competitions are open to UK Followers only.

Just answer the following question in the Comments section below:

"Which character from the Trojan wars interests you most and why?"

Then also send your answer to so that we can contact you if you win.

Closing date 7th October

Good luck!

Tuesday 29 September 2015

Girls of Troy by Frances Thomas

Our guest for September is Frances Thomas. She was born in Wales during the war, but brought up in South London and read English at London University. She is married to a historian, has two  daughters and two grandchildren. She has written many books for adults and children, including a biography of Christina Rossetti and Finding Minerva which won the Welsh Books Council's Tir na nOg prize.  She now lives in mid-Wales.

Welcome to The History Girls!

The Girls of Troy

My father was a scholar and knew Greek.

When I was five years old, I asked him once,

‘What do you read about?’ ‘The siege of Troy.’

‘What is a siege, and what is Troy?’

Whereat he piled up chairs and tables for a town,

Set me a-top for Priam, called our cat

Helen, enticed away from home, he said,

By wicked Paris…

( Development – Robert Browning)

So Browning tells the story of how his lovely father introduced him to the tales of Troy, against the assured background of nineteenth century culture and the currency of shared values. Every schoolboy (every public schoolboy, at least) would expect to know the stories intimately, even reading them in Greek. Achilles, Hector, Priam and Odysseus would have seemed like old friends.

But I wonder today whether young readers are so familiar with them. Greek mythology doesn’t quite seem to be the accepted backdrop to Western imaginative thinking that it once was; fantasy has overtaken it as most young persons’ favourite read. Dystopian futures replace mythological pasts. The wonderful stories of gods and goddesses, of heroes and fantastic creatures don’t have the resonance that they once did amongst the young. And the publishers I approached with the idea seemed to think that mythology just didn’t sell, and therefore wasn’t worth bothering with.

Yet we call up those mythical figures whenever we refer to anyone as ‘jovial’, ‘mercurial’ ‘herculean’ ‘junoesque’; in every art gallery, their exploits still line the walls, making little sense to someone who doesn’t know the legends. Their beautiful statues fill our museums; who are they all? You need to know the stories if you are to make sense of our culture and how it arrived at the place it is now.

So I wanted, especially as we were about to make a first journey to Greece, to use some of that mythological excitement to write a story of my own, and Troy was the story I wanted to tell. But I wanted to write for teenage girls, and at first I found that relentless male and macho world a little daunting. The stories of the Trojan war are stories of men.

But… it’s surprising what you find when you look a little closer. My first ‘light-bulb’ moment was when I found that Helen of Troy had a daughter, Hermione. So what happened to her? In fact, though Hermione didn’t have anything like the fame of her gorgeous mother, she had quite a considerable story of her own. I was intrigued by her straight away – whatever was it like to be the daughter of the most beautiful and most infamous woman in the world? How did Hermione feel? Her mother had abandoned her, after all. Did Hermione resent her? Did they love each other? Was Helen capable of unselfish love?

Then I discovered that not only did Helen have a daughter, but that Achilles, the great Achilles, had a son, Pyrrhus. The light-bulb grew brighter. And that, even better, Pyrrhus and Hermione had a romantic connection. The light bulb almost exploded. My story started to take shape, and the characters began to jostle around me, making themselves heard, in the way that characters do when you start to write about them. And Hermione’s story was also the story of the doomed House of Atreus, of Agamemnon, her uncle, of Clytemnestra, her aunt, of Orestes and Electra, and poor Iphigenia, who had to be sacrificed for her father’s convenience. My first story, Helen’s Daughter , was on its way.
The next story I wanted to tell meant a jump over the sea, to the city of Troy itself. There was a young girl present in the palace there, whose story was certainly full of drama, Cassandra, daughter of King Priam. But really there was too much drama and it was all too horrific. Cassandra is punished by the god Apollo for refusing him, doomed to make prophesies that no-one believes. Later, she is raped by Ajax on the altar of the temple, abducted by Agamemnon as his concubine, and killed by Clytemnestra. I believe that young people don’t have to have stories made simple for them; they can grapple with hard issues. But I also believe that if you’re writing for teenagers, your story must contain at least a note of hope, and there’s none in Cassandra’s story. So in my second story, The Burning Towers, she’s a secondary character, though her story does get told, in all its horror. My heroine is Eirene, whom I imagine as Cassandra’s slave, and it’s she who tells the story, and has a story of her own.

For the final story, The Silver-Handled Knife, I return to Mycenae and the house of Atreus. Nobody comes well out of the Trojan War and most of the Greek kings return to meet sticky ends. Agamemnon has hardly set foot in his palace when he’s murdered by his wife Clytemnestrra and her lover. The story I tell is of revenge, as related by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the revenge that Electra and Orestes take upon their mother. All three of my stories are told in the first person, and at first I thought that a first person narrative from Electra would be just too difficult. How can you get inside the head of someone who is complicit in the killing of her own mother? I thought it couldn’t be done. So instead, I decided to use the voice of Chrysosthemis, the younger sister of Electra and Orestes; she would observe and tell the story. And so I started off.

There was only one problem – it was boring. Chrysosthemis didn’t have a story of her own, and just looking on wasn’t enough to make a drama. I realised that what I had to do was the thing I was avoiding – let Electra tell her story herself. After all, Electra’s motivation, her inner feelings , were what every reader would want to know about. If I couldn’t describe that, I’d be selling my readers short. And so I tried to get into Electra’s head, and find out how she changed from an obedient daughter of the palace to a girl with murder in her heart.

But there’s a happy ending, even for Electra. I didn’t make it up; it’s in the mythology. Orestes spent many years in exile, at the distant court of king Strophias, and the king’s son Pylades becomes Orestes’ dearest friend and accompanies him back to Mycenae on his mission of revenge. She and Pylades are attracted to each other. Electra is bruised and battered from her experiences of life, but she has a future

One of the wonderful things about these ancient stories is the degree of humanity embedded in them- the characters aren’t just mindless heroic figures, they have feelings and all-too-human emotions – they behave in ways that we can recognise and identify with. So many of the stories, told by Homer, or by the great Greek playwrights, are full of human detail; there’s the wonderful scene in the Iliad where the aged Priam makes the dangerous journey to Achilles’ tent to beg for the body of his dead son, and Achilles, in spite of his anger, is moved to tears. There’s the wily and clever Odysseus, beloved of Athene, and the moment when at last after many years wandering, her arrives back home and his ancient hound recognises him with its last breath.

There’s Demeter, desolately wandering the earth in search of her lost daughter. There’s passion and violence, jealousy and love, anger and rage, and tenderness and obsession – stories told and retold over the centuries, gaining strength and intensity from each retelling, you could find themes for a lifetime’s writing from these stories. They have a reality that made-up fantasy can’t emulate, they’re embedded in our hearts. That’s why I hope we, and future generations, will continue to read them, to study them and to be excited by them.

Frances's Girls of Troy books are available on Amazon.
Her website is

Monday 28 September 2015

Leonard Mulley: a very civil hero, by Clare Mulley

Sorting through some family papers recently, my mother came across a handsome gentleman’s silver cigarette case. The initials ‘LM’, etched squarely onto the front, stand for Leonard Mulley. Len was my father’s favourite uncle, a working class lad brought up in a two-up, two-down cottage in east Finchley alongside his thirteen surviving brothers and sisters. Cheeky - in the way that only someone who knows they can get away with it - can be, he seems to have been forever putting frogs down his sister’s pinafores when they were young, and later coal dust in their powder compacts. Several of the brothers became local boxing champs, and nearly all were sailors with the Merchant Navy before and during the war. The presents they brought back included a macaw for their mother, who used to enjoy picking out her hairpins, and rope soaked in tobacco and molasses for their father to chew – apparently it smelt absolutely delicious. This elegant silver case is not the sort of object that I had imagined Len owning but it sits well in the hand, feels weighty, and would clearly have been pleasing to own. An inscription inside, dated November 1946, tells a rather lovely story…

The autumn of 1946 was pretty dismal in England. Eighteen months since the end of the war in Europe, the early mood of jubilation was long gone. The country was in recession, reconstruction had not yet started on any significant scale, demobbed former-servicemen were finding it hard to get work, and there was no prospect of the rationing for food and clothing ending anytime soon. Len had served in the navy during the war, delivering essential supplies to Russia on the arctic convoys, and tying up a substantial part of Germany’s Navy and Air Force. On one voyage to Murmansk, his convoy was waylaid by enemy aircraft and u-boats and several ships were sunk. Traumatised, Len was transferred to clearing up London bomb damage but found retrieving civilians' bodies so distressing that he rejoined the merchant marine.

Although he returned to civilian life with few formal qualifications after the war, Len’s strong work ethic and good manner with people secured him a job as a Steward at the rather theatrical Eyot House Club, which sits on its own island on the Thames at Weybridge, in Surrey.

Eyot House Hotel, circa 1955
Copyright The Francis Frith Collection

Eyot House had been built by D’Oyly Carte, the Victorian music impresario, theatrical producer and hotelier who had already built the Savoy theatre and hotel in the Strand, among many other famous venues. In its heyday the place would have been full of celebrity guests such as WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, and writers like JM Barrie, which might explain why D’Oyly Carte once reportedly kept a crocodile on the island. By 1946, when Len worked there, the club was reduced to trading on its former glory, but it still held a certain mystique. There was as yet no footbridge to the island, so guests arrived by boat, or had to pull themselves across on the chain ferry. Once installed however, the wrap-around, Colonial-style veranda provided a strong sense of occasion, along with commanding views down the river.

The sun had set just after four in the afternoon on 24th November 1946. Although the weather had been unseasonably mild, there had been heavy rain for some days and most club members were inside, drinking tea or something stronger, and listening to the London Symphony Orchestra concert at the Royal Albert Hall being broadcast by the BBC Home Service. The setting could hardly have been more Agatha Christie, when suddenly shouts were heard coming from the river.

The Thames below the club house was at full tide and, further swollen by the recent heavy rains, the water was high and moving rapidly. Perhaps Len’s years in the navy meant the water held less fear for him. It is possible that he had helped saved others when his convoy had been torpedoed. However perhaps he had never had the chance, and the water held worse memories for him than for many. What we know for certain is that it would have taken great courage to plunge into the dark, fast-moving river that Sunday evening, but Len did not hesitate. Some time later he managed to swim to the bank, fighting hard to keep his head up, one arm clamped around a half-drowned woman. Who she was, and whether she was in the water through accident or intent, has been swept away by time and tide, but she survived that night because of Len.

The inscription inside Len's cigarette case

These dramatic events are recorded in three very brief accounts. A few lines were reported in the local paper that week. Shortly later Len was presented with his cigarette case by impressed members and staff of the Eyot Club House, ‘in recognition for his outstanding bravery in saving a life from drowning after dark, and with the river in full flood’. The following year the Royal Humane Society presented him with their ‘Honorary Testimonial on Vellum’, awarded when someone has risked their life to save another, and in this case specifically ‘for having gone to the rescue of a woman who was in imminent danger of drowning in the River Thames at Weybridge, and whose life he gallantly saved’.

Len's Royal Humane Society certificate

Sadly nothing more is known, except that the envelop enclosing the Royal Humane Society certificate was addressed to Len not at Weybridge, but at the Norfolk Hotel at Arundel in Sussex, where he was employed as Head Waiter, within a stone’s throw of the River Arun and not far from the coast. It seems that although changing jobs he wanted to stay close to the water. The Eyot House Club closed not long later, having been raided by police who stormed the island by boat late one Saturday night, and arrested a number of people for drinking after hours. 

Tragically, Len was later killed on his way to work when he was accidentally knocked off his bicycle by another vehicle. He may not have been highly decorated for his service during the war, no DSO or medals beyond those standard for active service, but Len's story reminds us that heroism is not confined to times of war. Len continued to live by the principles he had fought for during the war, risking his life for the security of others in the peace. He was a truly good man, and a hero.

Sunday 27 September 2015

Liberation from Weihsien Camp, by Janie Hampton

In August, Clare Mulley wrote in History Girls about the atom bombs dropped on Japan which killed over 150,000 people. A terrible event: but by bringing the war to a final end, millions of lives were saved. Many of these were Allied soldier prisoners-of-war but some were children, imprisoned without their parents in China. This is their story.

Eric Lidell & Brownie   

When the war began, Europeans living in China were not unduly worried. During Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, the international compounds were ignored. But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, all enemy civilians became prisoners of war, including 150 children of British and American missionaries who attended Chefoo boarding school on the north east coast. 

In 1943, after 18 months internment in Shantung Province, they and their teachers were moved south to Weihsien ‘Civilian Assembly Centre’. Inside a high wall was a small compound with a collection of huts and kitchens, and 45 Japanese guards. The 1,450 prisoners included Trappist monks, White Russian prostitutes, British businessmen and Cuban jazz players. There was no sanitation or running water and little to eat. The freezing winters brought chilblains and pneumonia, while the scorching summers led to dysentery and typhoid. Eric Lidell, the missionary and Olympic gold medal winner featured in ‘Chariots of Fire’, died of cancer there in February 1945; and only a few months later the Girl Guide captain Louise Lawless died of typhoid.

The camp had thriving Boy Scout, Girl Guide and Brownie Packs and while the children were kept busy with school, games and errands, by August 1945, three months after peace in Europe, the adults knew the situation was grave. The Brown Owl Evelyn Davey from Liverpool, weighed just 98lb and her periods had stopped.  ‘We just got used to being thin and hungry,’ she told me in 2006. She and a missionary called Eugene had been courting for a year but wondered if they would survive another winter. ‘We read Winnie the Pooh to each other.’
Eugene & Evelyn with their Brownies & Cubs, Weishien, China
The rumours of imminent peace meant even greater danger: without Japanese guards, the starving Chinese surrounding the camp would steal what little food they still had, or Communist guerrillas might kidnap the children as hostages. If defeated, the guards had been ordered to kill all prisoners, regardless of age.

On the morning of Friday, 17 August, the men were carting sewage, Boy Scouts were carrying water in buckets, women were cooking bones and rotten vegetables for soup and the Brownies were singing in church.
Brownie Log Book 1944
Mary Taylor aged 12 was lying in her dormitory, suffering from diarrhoea. ‘I heard the drone of an airplane.’ Through the window she saw a B-24 circling overhead. ‘Beyond the treetops, its silver belly opened, and seven parachutes drifted into the fields beyond the Camp. Oh, glorious cure for diarrhoea!
 ‘Grown men ripped off their shirts and waved them at the sky. Prisoners ran in circles, wept, cursed, hugged and danced as the plane circled back. The Americans had come!’  Cheering, weeping, disbelieving, dressed in rags and emaciated by hunger, the prisoners surged through the gates. The guards quietly retreated to their barracks.
‘These gorgeous liberators were sun-bronzed American gods with meat on their bones,’ wrote Mary. The seven US paratroopers had been warned they were unlikely to return alive from ‘The Flying Angel’. Instead they were hoisted onto shoulders and carried back to the camp in triumph, where they were greeted by the Salvation Army brass band playing a victory medley of national anthems which they had been practising in secret for four years.
Commandant Tsukugawa, known to the children as King Kong, surrendered but the US Major Stanley Staiger handed back his sword and ordered him to defend the camp against Communists and looters.
 The prisoners were told the Japanese had surrendered and they would be evacuated but meanwhile supplies would be dropped by air.  The Weishien Girl Guides sat up all night making giant letters out of the parachutes to read ‘OK TO LAND’. The next day B-29s dropped canisters of clothing, food, Lucky Strike cigarettes, chocolate and chewing gum. ‘Unbelievable riches and our joy knew no bounds! Our ordeal was over,’ Margaret Vindon, then 18, told me. She and her brother had been on their own for six years.
After a crate of Del Monte peaches crashed through the kitchen roof, the children were told to run for cover whenever they sighted bombers. ‘They were not about to have us survive the war and then be killed by a shower of Spam,’ said Mary Taylor.
The Americans were determined to cheer everyone up with music. But weakened by undernourishment and exhausted by suspense, the internees were horrified when ‘O What A Beautiful Morning’ premiered in 1943, played over the camp loudspeakers at dawn. This was not their idea of liberation. ‘We hadn’t missed western pop music, because we had never heard it before,’ said Margaret Vindon.
In all this excitement school continued for the Chefoo children. The headmaster decided that the 16 year-olds should take their School Certificate before the evacuation, using old examination papers. Once back in Britain, he explained the unusual circumstances to the Oxford board; they all passed and most were admitted into universities.
It took several weeks to evacuate all the internees by train and plane. The children the  faced the task of tracking down their parents.
The missionary Dr Hoyte spent months searching for his six children in China. He found them in Hong Kong where he told them that their mother had died of typhus. ‘I had been only six when I had last seen him,’ Elizabeth Hoyte remembered.  ‘Now I was in the strong arms of the half-familiar stranger, and we began the gentle probing business of getting to know each other again.’
The Taylor family - Kathleen, Jamie, Johnny and Mary - had also not seen their parents for over five years. They travelled into the interior of China by plane, train, mule cart and finally on foot. Chinese peasants blinked in amazement at the four foreign children struggling through the mud. ‘There, through a window, I could see them Daddy and Mother. Caked with mud, we burst through the door into their arms shouting, laughing, hugging hysterical with joy,’ remembered Mary Taylor.
Beryl 11 & Kathleen 15 Strange, 1945.

When Kathleen and Beryl Strange, aged 15 and 11, arrived in Liverpool by ship at the end of December, they too had not seen their mother for five years. ‘The last time,she was wearing Chinese clothes, with her hair in a bun,’ Kathleen told me. ‘When my teacher said, “This is your mother,” I said “No it isn’t. She would never wear a brown hat like that.” ’
Estelle Cliff’s mother had moved from inland China to Durban, hoping to find her children there. ‘It was six years before we came,’ wrote Estelle. ‘It was a terrible wrench from our camp extended family, and we hardly knew our parents.’
After coping with internment, the children now had to endure separation from their friends and teachers. No-one thought of the emotional effect of taking children to a cold post-war Britain where they were strangers.  But they had learned not to make a fuss, and many of them did not mention their childhood for 50 years. ‘When you are a teenager,’ said Estelle Cliff, ‘all you want to be is “normal”.’

Evelyn & Eugene Heubener, 1947.

I do not condone the use of nuclear weapons. But without the atomic bombs AT Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Pacific War might have continued for two more years and these stories have ended very differently. Over 200,000 Allied prisoners of war, up to 800,000 U.S. soldiers, 2.3 million Japanese troops and 28 million civilians who believed they should die for their country, all lived to see peace.

We can only hope that, now the Japanese government has voted to re-arm, they have learned the lessons of 70 years ago.

Saturday 26 September 2015

Mourning Palmyra, by Carol Drinkwater

The destruction of our ancient history, of magnificent sites that are, or were, jewels in our cultural heritage and are now nothing but rubble, makes my blood boil.

We are all of us reading the news and staring at photographs that are breaking our hearts. And we are so impotent, or so it feels to me, to make any difference.

I cannot make a difference, but what I can do for a few brief sentences here is to share with you a few moments from my stay in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria in 2007. I was working my way round the Mediterranean in search of the history and stories from ancient olive tree cultivation.

Palmyra was at the early stages of my long quest but it was and has remained one of the highlights of that life-changing seventeen-month journey. I am SO pleased I took the time and faced risks involved in getting there, because it will never be the same again.

The reports we have been receiving gleaned from news and satellite footage of the destruction of key sites in Palmyra as well as the brutal beheading of archeologist Khaled al-Assad in August of this year prove that we have lost a man of courage and vision as well as irreplaceable archeological treasures.

                                                                            Khaled al-Assad

My first sighting of Palmyra as described in The Olive Route.

"Palmyra loomed up out of the desert like a shimmering golden mirage, once seen never forgotten. Deep in the heart of baking sands, in the centre of nowhere, 150 kilometres  west to the Orontes river and 200 kilometres to the mighty Euphrates in the east, Palmyra or Tadmor, its original name, had grown up as a caravan stop, a terminus on routes to and from the Far East. Its fabulous wealth and reputation had come from its position, a lush oasis fed by springs of crystal water stationed in the middle of a baking sand-sea of nothingness, mid-point between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia. Such desert cities lived or perished by their natural springs. Although those of Palmyra dried up centuries ago, thanks to modern technology, a miserably underprivileged modern settlement with its inevitable posters of the leader (Assad), ripped and fluttering in the desert winds, survived alongside the stupendous golden ruins, irrigated by hundreds of miles of pipes fed from coast and metropolis…."

So, that was my first introduction to Palmyra. A wavy mirage in the distant sands that as I grew closer became real, solid. It was noisy and alive with kids kicking footballs in and around of ancient columns, temples, burial sites. Men crouched at roadsides selling freshly-picked dates. Goat bells clunked, women worked, bending to wash bundles of linen scrubbing them in the waters. They laughed and harvested in the date-palm groves and they waved to me, a lone woman in cargo pants and boots, to come and talk to them. Their smiles were wide, their curiosity warm…
They lived with monumental history and it was as normal and ordinary to them as any one of us who crosses the Thames and glimpses the House of Parliament.

One blisteringly hot afternoon I walked out on the stage of one of the ten Roman theatres in the city and tested its acoustics with a rendition of Cleopatra's death speech…
Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me…
It had been my audition speech for drama school and then in front of Lord Olivier to gain my place as a young actress into the National Theatre. And here I was chanting it in a Roman theatre in a city that had been ruled by Queen Zenobia, a distant relation of Cleopatra…
A few Syrian kids stopped to watch me, peering at me from the shadows of sandstone marvels with dark curious eyes before giggling and running away at the sight of the mad old foreign woman talking loudly to herself.

                                             Temple of Bel, now destroyed by members of ISIS

Over the next few days, I talked to camels, made hand-gestured conversation with locals, mostly women who took delight in touching my soft pale cheeks (I am actually rather olive-skinned). The inhabitants of Palmyra were gentle and welcoming. I walked every site over many days and when I left I promised myself that I would return, that I had visited a miracle, a true wonder of the world.

After its heydays (during which time it was known as the Bride of the Desert), Palmyra became a garrison outpost for Rome. In 1089 an earthquake caused damage to the city that was more or less abandoned by then. It  lay forgotten and buried beneath sand. Century after century the winds blew across these mighty dry miles and the sands settled. It was buried for almost two thousand years until its rediscovery in the seventeenth-century by two English merchants living in Aleppo. Excavations began in 1924 and the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.

How fortunate, I have been. This year it has seen at the hand of ISIS the destruction of some of its finest buildings as well as the murder of the visionary archeologist who died trying to protect many of its ancient secrets…  RIP Khaled al-Assad

My heart bleeds.

Friday 25 September 2015

THE FALLEN WOMAN by Eleanor Updale

Today, a new exhibition opens at the Foundling Museum in London.

Frederick Walker, The Lost Path, 1863 © The Makins Collection
With a special emphasis on Victorian times, it is an exploration of society's attitude to, and depiction of, women who were caught straying outside the conventional bounds of sexual behaviour: caught so often because their pregnant bellies or fatherless babes told the tale of what they had been up to.

Thanks to a habit of donation started by William Hogarth (one of its original benefactors) the Foundling Hospital became the first public art gallery in the UK, so it is appropriate that this exhibition is illustrated with paintings by some of the most celebrated artists of the period it discusses. They include Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Frederic Watts, and those whose work is shown on this page.  Using art, music, newspaper reports, artefacts and records from the Foundling Hospital archives - and with reference to fictional, as well as real unmarried mothers of the time - the exhibition describes their plight.  They were likely to be rejected by their families, unable to find work or other support, and to face the prospect of the workhouse and an early death for themselves and their children.

Richard Redgrave, R.A., The Outcast, 1851 © Royal Academy of Arts, London, 

photograph by John Hammond
The hypocrisy of blaming everything on the woman was not lost on the painters or on many social commentators of the time. Yet the artists weren't just pointing out double standards in a society where male sexual incontinence was accepted, or even condoned. There was also an element of salaciousness in some of the visual warnings about the distress dishonour could bring. To depict the women was also to invite speculation about what they had done, how, and with whom.

The museum, on the site of the original Foundling Hospital, is an ideal location for such an exhibition.  The curator, Professor Lynda Nead, examines much more than the plight of 'Foundling' mothers, but they, of course, are at the heart of the display.

Henry Nelson O’Neil, A Mother Depositing Her Child at the Foundling
Hospital in Paris (detail), 1855 © The Foundling Museum

The exhibition takes us through the emotionally searing process by which a mother might secure her child's admission to the Hospital.  First there was a trip to the porter's lodge to collect an application form. The porter kept a notebook in which he assessed each woman's appearance. His emphasis was on a quality that hangs over the entire exhibition: respectability. By the mid nineteenth century, almost 100 years into its existence, the Foundling Hospital had abandoned its original 'first come first served' policy, and an experiment with random balloting. The Hospital authorities shifted their attention from the children to the mothers, and the women they were most willing to help were those who, to their minds, carried the least 'guilt' and showed the best potential for rehabilitation.
 It was not only the babies who were to be 'saved'.

Although there can be no doubt that many of the children were the result of consensual intimacy, and others of exploitative relationships or even rape, the story that the then governors of the hospital wanted to hear was of the 'fallen' woman. She had strayed or allowed herself to be seduced, and for her child to be worthy of rescue from the harsh life a single parent could offer, she must show shame and regret.
For that reason, each applicant had to write a petition, recounting the circumstances that had led to the birth, and pleading for her child's acceptance. The exhibition includes a sound installation by the musician Steve Lewinson, drawing on the archives with the aim of bringing the petitioners' voices to life.
Of course, women came to know of the requirements for entry, and their petitions were crafted accordingly. It's important to exercise a certain amount of caution before assuming that they convey a completely accurate picture of lifestyles or circumstances.
 To be successful in finding care for her child, a woman had to show that this was her first 'mistake' (an assertion that might be supported by anatomical evidence from a midwife). She had to construct a narrative that suggested she had been led astray, and possibly that her very innocence had made her vulnerable to manipulation.
All this was put to the test at an interview. It was a process that needed deliberate preparation, and possibly assistance from someone who could help with writing the petition, or supply clothes for the public appearance. There's a grotesque parallel with some of the contortions modern day aspirational parents put themselves though for the sake of their children's education, but I won't go into that here.
Emma Brownlow, The Foundling Restored to its Mother, 1858  ©Coram in the care of the FoundlingMuseum

The interviews probably took place in one of the rooms depicted in a painting on display in the exhibition.
 In the background you can see some of the donated pictures which made the Foundling Hospital such a successful visitor attraction. The room itself was saved when the original Foundling Hospital was demolished between the Wars, and was reconstructed in the 1930s building that is now the Museum.

I have written a little here before about my father's experiences in the Foundling Hospital. He spent his entire childhood there, just after the period examined in this exhibition, having been admitted as a baby in 1913.  After he died - unaware of his origins - in the mid 1970s, the law was changed, and in 1985 I was told something of his back story. The narrative was identical to so many in the exhibition. A young woman was promised marriage, tricked into anticipating the vows, and then abandoned. Her petition told how her fiancé had fled to America, leaving her alone.
I know now, after some research, that the man was in London throughout. It must have been necessary for my grandmother to make up that part of the story to paint herself as the right kind of victim.
It intrigues me that, more than a century on from the period covered by this exhibition, the the person in charge of the Foundling Hospital archives felt it necessary, when giving me the 'facts', to stress that my grandmother was 'respectable'.

This was written in 1985
Why should it have mattered? After all, who could be more deserving of public or philanthropic support than the innocent child of truly dissolute parents?  At first sight, the Victorian obsession with worthiness seems ridiculous, or at least rather quaint. But do we persist today in penalising the children of those we regard as 'undeserving'?  Why is it that we find ourselves able to accept a care system so bad that its 'beneficiaries' often leave 'care' woefully unprepared for adult life, and with few of the supports other children now expect well into their twenties? According to the Who Cares Trust, almost 40% of prisoners aged under 21 were in care as children. A quarter of young women leaving care are pregnant or already mothers, and only 13.2% of children in care obtain five good GCSEs - compared with 57.9% of all children.*
 Are we so relaxed about consigning those children to a bleak future because we think it's all they deserve?  Do we see it as the inevitable consequence of the inadequacies of their parents? Are we in any position to sneer at the Victorian moralists, or to set ourselves up as so very different from them?

We may scoff at the Victorian obsession with 'respectability'.  It may seem to have been an odd criterion for rationing places in an orphanage, and I know that many of the children raised in the Foundling Hospital were not allowed to forget their mothers' sins.  But for all the shortcomings of the institution, the lucky children whose mothers passed the entrance test were given the tools to forge a future and to raise families of their own. I know now that my grandmother went on to marry and to have 'legitimate' children.  I have no idea whether she ever told them of her past.  She can never have known what happened to her son, whose name was changed on the day she gave him away. I'm grateful to live in an era when I am not expected to carry her 'shame' with me, but grateful too that she was spared the fate of so many fallen women and that, thanks to the Foundling Hospital, my family has survived and prospered ever since.
 At least, when she 'fell', somebody caught the baby.

George Cruikshank, A destitute girl throws herself from a bridge,
1848 © Wellcome Library,London

Here are details of the exhibition:

The Fallen Woman -
The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ
25th September 2015 - 3 January 2016
Open: Tuesday - Saturday, 10:00 - 17:00 and Sunday, 11:00 - 17:00. Monday closed.
Admission: £8.25 (including Gift Aid), concession £5.50 (including Gift Aid). Children, Foundling Friends and Art Fund members go free. Half-price admission for National Trust members.
Tube and train: Russell Square, King’s Cross St Pancras and Euston


Thursday 24 September 2015


For my monthly post on The History Girls blog I am interviewing Joanna Courtney about her debut novel, THE CHOSEN QUEEN, the first in a trilogy about the women of the Norman Conquest.  Its general target is the commercial sector of historical fiction aimed at the female market and I thought it would be interesting to talk to someone setting out in this arena for the first time.

Disclaimer:  I have to say right here at the beginning that I haven't read the novel because at some point there may be a conflict of interest and I want to keep my own way clear, but that doesn't prevent me from welcoming Joanna and asking her about her experiences.

So first things first: What is the book about Joanna?

I went round various explanations to answer this but they were full of spoilers and in the end I think the blurb probably says it best:

As a young woman in England’s royal court Edyth, granddaughter of Lady Godiva, dreams of marrying for love. But political matches are rife while King Edward is still without an heir and the future of England is uncertain.

When Edyth’s family are exiled to the wild Welsh court, she falls in love with the charismatic King of Wales but their romance catapults her onto the opposing side of a bitter feud with England in which Edyth’s only allies are Earl Harold Godwinson and his handfasted wife, Lady Svana.

As the years pass, Edyth enjoys both power and wealth but as her star rises, the lines of love and duty become more blurred than she could ever have imagined. Then, as 1066 dawns, she is asked to make an impossible choice. Her decision is one that has the power to change the future of England forever…

How did you come to write The Chosen Queen? Was it a subject you were keen to write about initially – i.e were the women of the Norman Conquest always on the cards? 

The trilogy was not so much a game plan as an evolution. I’ve always been fascinated by the past. I remember, as a child, visiting Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh and standing over the (presumably re-touched) bloodstain where David Rizzio was murdered by Lord Darnley, and being forcibly struck by the reality of standing on the same spot – the very same boards – where the killing had taken place.

That sense of the layers of human experience through time has remained with me always and when I studied English Literature at university, I found myself gravitating towards Medieval and Arthurian Studies. I was fascinated by the idea of context – of the cultural lives that surrounded these stories. A story told out-loud to a post-feast crowd of Vikings would have very different aims to a nineteenth-century novel, designed to be read in private. I wanted to understand more about those differences and inevitably, I guess, that led me into learning more about the way lives were lived in the past. The more I learned, the more I was gripped and I wanted to explore that in my fiction.

Then, a few years ago I was commissioned to write a local history book about a village in Leicestershire near where I grew up and during my research I discovered that the Domesday Book assigned the land to Queen Aldyth, wife of King Edward, later to be known as ‘The Confessor’. I looked into her life and was instantly gripped by the fascinating Godwinson family. When I decided to write historical fiction, therefore, I turned to her and my first novel was about her life as King Edward’s queen. My agent and I didn’t manage to find a publisher for that novel but Natasha Harding at Pan Macmillan enjoyed it and so, thankfully, looked out for my future work. When, therefore, I submitted my second novel – what would become The Chosen Queen – she was on the alert for it and to my delight she really liked it and Pan Macmillan offered to sign me.

Did you have a game plan in mind? 
In truth, The Chosen Queen was originally written as a single novel but then, about two days before she was due to submit it to publishers, my agent, Kate Shaw, phoned me up and said ‘by the way, everyone is after trilogies at the moment – do you think you could come up with the blurbs for two more books?’ Needless to say I had a bit of a panic at first but then I had a flash of inspiration – there were three kings fighting for England in 1066 so there must have been three queens. Some swift research led me to Elizaveta of Kiev and Matilda of Flanders and within the hour I knew that I had my other heroines. Now I really cannot imagine any of the books without the others as the three seem to fit together so well to tell the story of 1066 from all angles, so I’m eternally grateful that Kate thought of it.

How did the title come about?

The title was a problem for ages. I originally called the book The Half Year Queen as Edyth was Queen of England for more or less half a year. I liked it as a title but the problem was that Edyth was also Queen of Wales for nine years so it didn’t seem to do her justice. We worked on different ideas for ages and in the end it was really a team effort byt Pan Macmillan to come up with The Chosen Queen, The Constant Queen and The Conqueror’s Queen as a nicely matching set.

What would you say from your point of view have been the main challenges in writing commercial historical fiction? 

I sometimes think that us historical writers must be mad as we are setting ourselves the task not just of creating a good story but of trying to create one that is, in some way, ‘true’. That makes it more complex in many ways (though not necessarily more difficult) than writing contemporary novels. For me the key challenges were probably:

· Voice. I really struggled with getting this right at first and I think the awkwardness of the voice in my first novel about Queen Aldyth was the main reason that it was rejected. It’s vital to find both a narrative style and a way of writing dialogue that sounds natural to the modern reader but not too modern. It’s really an issue of being convincing. Readers need to be able to get under the skin of the heroine, so I feel it’s important not to make the language too stilted or clumsily archaic so that it draws attention to itself, but it’s also got to feel appropriate. In fact, of course, my characters would be speaking a totally alien language – something akin to Norse, more like Scandinavian than modern English – so it’s a conceit anyway, but the feel of the novel still needs to be correct to allow readers to immerse themselves in the historical world. It’s a very fine balance and we did a lot of tweaking on tone and linguistic style during the editing process.

Names. Some Saxon and Viking names can be very hard to pronounce and they run the risk of jarring on a modern reader’s internal ear and breaking the flow of the read. In the end, we chose to modernise some of the trickier names. Some readers don’t like that, and I do sympathise as this was one of the hardest decisions we made, but equally I’ve had a lot of readers come back to me saying that they don’t usually read historical fiction but really enjoyed The Chosen Queen and I think that is in part because we’ve tried to make it very accessible. Changing names does feel a little like messing with history but it’s also true that many names, especially of women, are not recorded or are recorded differently depending on the scribe so I don’t think it’s a real problem. I also chose to change some names because so many of them tend to be called the same thing and that can get very confusing in a novel. There are, for example, a lot of key ‘Edyths’ in the Saxon period which is why I chose to have Edward’s wife as Aldyth and why I adapted Harold’s handfast wife from Edyth Swan-neck to Svana. Similarly, when it comes to the Normans it’s rare to find a man who isn’t called William, so I’m having to juggle with that issue at the moment as I write the third book.

Cultural attitudes, especially when it comes to women. The feedback from my first, rejected, novel about Queen Aldyth was that publishers wanted a ‘feistier’ and ‘more relatable’ heroine and I do think that readers of commercial historical fiction – myself included – want to really drop into the heroine’s world so it’s all about finding what makes them human within their world. Telling the women’s side of history inevitably means that it is going to be less about the key facts as we know them – the battles and political issues that were documented – and more about behind-the-scenes conversations and influences. This, inevitably, has to be made up by the author and again it’s a juggling act between drawing the reader in and not seeming anachronistic. 

I think it comes down to how much emphasis you put on story and how much on history. For me, although it’s vital to get the history right, my key aim is to give my readers a really good, dramatic story. I like to find a strong shape to events and to keep the ‘cast’ as tight as possible and explore their interrelations and motivations to create an emotional pathway that brings the documented events to life in a believable and exciting way. It’s possible that in doing this I create more overtly emotional relationships than would truly have existed but I still feel that real history is about what happened between the headlines and that means a lot of time in which people talked and joked and danced and ate and went to bed together. It can’t all have been stilted and formal. People were living their lives, just as we do, not sitting around waiting to become ‘history’ and drawing on that is probably what makes my work much more ‘commercial’ than ‘literary’. As a result it may be less pure in creating a true feel of the past, as Wolf Hall, for example, does so well (or seems to do – how can we ever know?) but if it entertains and grips a reader and offers a vibrant sense of a fascinating period then I’m satisfied.

How much research did you have to do to feel confident enough to write about a period as far distant as the 11th century? Did you research first and write afterwards, or were the two intermingled?

I’ve done loads of research. This is partly because I love it and partly because I feel I owe it to my readers to make my work as accurate as I possibly can. As to when I felt ‘confident enough’ to start writing – I’m not sure I ever did! I’m a novelist not a pure historian and I think there will always be someone out there who knows more about the minutiae of my chosen period than I do, but hopefully I can bring it to a wider audience through fiction.

For all three books I’ve done a solid period of research before I even started writing. I tend to start wide, absorbing everything I can find on the period, the country and the key characters, and then I hone in a little as the story starts to take shape in my head. As I’m writing, however, I definitely leave big question marks and notes in the text of things that I need to check – often small details like what they might eat at a particular feast or what the places they visit might look like. I remember when I first read your novels being fascinated by the detail that they all carried their own eating knife and I think it’s genuine touches like that, that can really draw a reader into your characters’ world.

The research for the three books overlapped, to some extent, but there was still lots to do that was specific to each one. Book 2, for example, The Constant Queen, is set in Kiev, Norway, Iceland and the Orkneys so there was loads to learn about those places and it was fascinating to have my boundaries opened up and to see the Saxon world in a wider European context. It makes you really aware of your own ignorance as it took me ages to grasp the nature of Norway today, let alone a thousand years ago, but I feel the richer for it and hope that I can translate that knowledge fluidly for my readers. Book 3, The Conqueror’s Queen is all about Normandy and, to some extent Italy. I didn’t realise until I started my research that the Normans were conquering in Italy at the same time as their eyes turned to England and I spent a lot of time looking for connections between the two that I could use to widen and deepen the storytelling.

The fact remains, however, that there is only so much research it is possible to do in this period. There are, and no doubt always will be, many gaps in our knowledge of the Saxon period. That’s a frustration as a researcher but it’s a gift as a writer. I love the process of sifting through facts and gradually creating a historical picture into which I can insert my own interpretation of not just how things might have happened but why and, perhaps most importantly of all, what impact that had on the people they happened to. I think that as a novelist, it’s important to remember that research is there to facilitate the story and not the other way round and at some point you have to draw a line around the study and just write.

Allied to this and again, with challenges in mind, did you think anything about the differences of a thousand years ago would be particularly difficult for a modern audience to assimilate and how did you deal with it?
For me I think the key problem, as discussed above, was establishing believable emotional attitudes for my characters, especially the women. In addition to that, though, I think there is a particular issue in writing about pre-conquest England as so little physical evidence of it remains in our landscape. Apart from a few grand churches, Saxons (as I’m sure you know) classically lived in wooden halls, their estates and villages protected largely by wooden, palisade fencing. Wood does not endure and so their structures have long since decayed back into the ground and whilst there are some wonderful reconstructions (for example Regia Angolorum’s Wychurst), I don’t think this mode of living is present in the general consciousness as much as, for example, Norman castles are. The first castles weren’t built in England until King Edward’s reign and then only in the Welsh marches by Normans who had come over with him and yet they are perceived as being classically ‘English’. Conveying an older way of living to a reader without sounding like you’re lecturing them is tricky.

That said, I am now writing my third book about William and Matilda and that is presenting me with a new challenge as many of their residences are still there. I’m planning a trip in the next few weeks to see Caen and Rouen and other key locations as it’s so important to get the setting right but it’s expensive and time-consuming and as I have school-age children it’s also hard to organise so I can’t do this sort of research as much as I would like. I’d love to travel everywhere I write about (I especially hanker to see Iceland) but that’s just not possible if I want to have a family life and actually find time to write the novels too! Luckily there are many excellent books and studies to help and the internet, although at times a precarious resource, is wonderful on providing pictures so that all helps.

And similarities? What unites us with that period? I often think that one of the strengths of mainstream historical fiction when at its best is to show us as we were then rather than distant beings under layers of dust, but still in full context of their period. Any thoughts? 

I totally agree with this and undoubtedly what fascinates me about history is not the differences between then and now, but the similarities. Next year will be the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings and whilst in some ways 950 years is a long time, in terms of the evolution of humanity, it’s nothing. I can’t help feeling that it’s arrogant to assume emotions are a modern invention. Saxons, Vikings and Normans, I’m sure, would have loved their children, fought with their siblings, made and lost friends, laughed and cried, hurt and grieved, and fallen in love. Yes, they had to accept different rules about who they could marry, especially higher up the social tree, but the heady thrill of love is not new and there are plenty of unusual matches and babies documented to attest to that. 

Without getting too graphic, I cannot see how two people in bed together are going to be very different be they under Saxon furs or a 21st-century duvet and I don’t suppose ‘50-shades’ could teach your average Viking much either! I’ve read your books for years and I do think that your bedroom scenes are really well written and that they underpin your novels beautifully, not for the sexual content as much as for the chance to create emotional connections between the main characters. For example I remember in your William Marshal books, you using the idea of a woman going on top –banned by the church - to create a sense of a solid and real relationship that could forge forward in the outside world and I think that sort of intimacy can really bring historical fiction to life.

I firmly believe that the people living in pre-conquest Europe were similar to us in all the essentials of being human. A young woman having to meet her handsome suitor in muddy clothes would feel much the same then as now, and the fact that those clothes are a gown and cloak has little impact on that core experience. I feel that it’s the duty (and joy) of a commercial historical novelist to make the most of those touching points to bring history to life for the reader.

If you could take your readers back to that period for a day trip, what would you show them in 12 hours?

Wow – what a question! I often find myself thinking about the reverse – if you brought a Saxon to the modern day what would truly amaze them? Cars? Running water? Phones? Paracetamol? But the other way round is intriguing too and if there’s ever a trip on offer I’m first in the queue! 

I write mainly about high-born characters in this trilogy so I guess I’d like to offer people a chance to spend a full day at court during a key feast period. Highlights would be:

· The ladies’ bower - This fascinates me. The idea of a hall specifically for women is quite different to today in some ways, but I also suspect that it is not very far off, for example, a 1950s ‘sewing bee’ or even just a girls’ day out now. It would all, I imagine, be gossip and bitching and giggly friendships just as it is now, but it would be amazing to see it set around weaving looms and embroidery and with the different dresses and accessories.

· Martial training - I think we tend to have the idea that the men in these times were just natural fighters and it’s clearly not so at all. The high-born warriors were very much like elite athletes – they became good fighters from a huge amount of training, started at a very early age, and it would be wonderful to see that happening.

· Kitchens – I can’t begin to imagine how the poor cooks and servants fed halls full of important guests with just open fires to cook on and would love to see exactly how they did it.

· Latrines – I’m not sure I really want to see this but clearly toilets would have been a necessary part of life then, as now, and I imagine they would give the historical tourist a very strong sense of how life was!

· A feast - This would be the fun bit of the tour. I’d love to see and taste and smell a Saxon feasting hall. Modern life is very sanitised and I suspect this would be a much more sensory experience in both good and bad ways.

· Sleeping arrangements – Again I imagine this was much more rough-and-tumble then than now. I’d like to see a king’s chamber in all its fur-and-feather’s luxury but I would also love to see guest pavilions pitched beyond the hall and men sleeping on makeshift pallet beds within it. Humans all need sleep and I imagine that finding a bed at court would really help the time-tourist to feel part of their world.

· The Witan – If there was time I’d like to attend a ‘Witan’ or council. I’ve tried to create the feel of it in The Chosen Queen but as there are no contemporary descriptions of exactly how they worked (because why would there be – they all knew already!) but I’m not sure how accurate it is and would like to be present at one.

I think it will be a busy 12 hours!

Did you have any input in your book jacket? How difficult is it to navigate a path between historical accuracy and commercial concerns? (I have wrestled with this one on many an occasion!)

My editor at Pan Macmillan very kindly asked my opinions and involved me as much as she could in the process of choosing the cover, though at the end of the day the design was mainly down to their excellent specialist team. They arranged a full photo-shoot which was wonderful and I was sent reams of pictures of models to choose from beforehand which was really cool (my husband was particularly keen to help on that task!). They were all modern pictures so it was fascinating to pick out girls to be sent back in time and apparently they loved dressing up in the old clothes.

Those clothes were also picked by Pan Macmillan. I did big boards of suggestions, as did my editor, but in the end we had to go with what was available at the costumiers. This isn’t re-enactment where (as you know) everything down to the materials and stitching techniques, must be authentic, but a way of suggesting the period to the reader and we couldn’t be too precious about it.

The first sight of your cover is an amazing experience for any reader and almost a little overwhelming. I found it very strange looking my heroine in the face at first and it’s strange having to wait to see what feels like such an integral part of the book but the team at Pan Macmillan design their covers with real love and I think they’ve done a fantastic job. Although I think that self-publishing can be a really strong way to go these days, what I have found so wonderful about being with a traditional publisher is being part of a team, with experts to help with different areas - cover design definitely being one of those. Pan Macmillan put a lot of time into analysing sales data and reader feedback so that at the end of the day the cover is decided by pretty much everyone in the company which is brilliant.

I wrote short stories for over ten years before getting my novel deal (and still do) and in that industry it’s normal for titles to be changed without the author being asked and unseen pictures to be placed with it, so I’ve long since accepted the input of a design team who know their visual audience. It’s tougher with a novel as it’s very much your ‘baby’, but with Pan Macmillan it’s been a very inclusive process and the end result is brilliant and seems to really appeal to readers which is perfect.

I understand this is to be a three book series. Can you tell us about the other two? (unless you’ve already addressed that in an earlier question.

The Chosen Queen is, indeed, the first in the Queens of the Conquest trilogy, with the next novels, which will come out in 2016 and 2017, following the same period but from the viewpoint of the two other queens. 

Book 2, The Constant Queen, tells the story of Elizaveta, wife of Harald Hardrada, the Viking king. Elizaveta is princess of Kiev, but that doesn't stop her chasing adventure. Defying conventions, she rides the rapids of the Dneiper alongside her royal brothers and longs to rule in her own right as a queen. She meets her match when Harald - already, at only 18, a fearsome Viking warrior - arrives at her father's court seeking fame and fortune. He entrusts Elizaveta to be his treasure keeper, holding the keys to his ever-growing wealth - and eventually to his heart. Theirs is a fierce romance and the strength of their love binds them together as they travel across the vast seas to Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. In 1066, their ambition carries them to the Orkneys as they plan to invade England and claim the crown . . . 

Book 3, The Conqueror’s Queen, is about Matilda, eldest daughter of Baldwin of Flanders, a key player in continental Europe, and granddaughter to the great King of France. Highborn and educated, she believes she is destined for a great marriage until her father betrothes her to the upstart young duke of the new, seemingly insignificant province of Normandy – an upstart young duke, what’s more, who is bastard born and far more warrior than courtier. Matilda, having looked for an elegant, cultured and powerful husband seems to get instead a rough-edged soldier with more of a warband than a court. She will have to fight to make her place there and to work out how to form a solid and true partnership with the husband who will, in the end, take her to far more glory than she could ever have imagined.

Joanna thank you for your detailed insights and replies. I recognize and empathize with so much of this!  I wish you well as your journey as historical novelist continues!

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Lazy beds, or graveyards of hope

You might think the corrugations in this field were part of ancient strip farming, but they are something much more sinister. This field, which I saw beside Killary Fjord in Connemara this summer, is one of the potato fields that were abandoned due to the blight that caused the Irish potato famine.
They are called 'lazy beds', but in fact they bear witness to the back-breaking slog and difficulty that attended arable farming in an area where the land is full of rocks, and the soil a thin layer on top of them, except for the peat bogs that are scattered all over the country. The field you see here is a steep and narrow slope at the very edge of the fjord.
The farmers would carry seaweed up from the shore and pile it up, then put the potatoes among the seaweed. It did at least mean the potatoes were full of iodine. The potatoes would be covered in heaped soil and seaweed as the haulm grew up, in order to keep the light from getting to the tubers and greening them. Only, in 1845, the blight, phytophthora infestans, arrived and destroyed haulm, tubers and all.
Wikimedia Commons

It was the last straw for a population who had been driven out of their own lands to the most marginal land in the country, displaced in favour of 'planted' Protestant settlers. The potato, previously a delicacy for the gentry, made it possible for them to hang on in those stony places, but unfortunately only one variety of spud was widely grown, and that one was the most susceptible to blight.  To be fair, some of the landlords in Connemara did their best to help, but many of them were impoverished, up to their ears in debt, and simply had not the resources to save their tenants. British fiscal policy discriminated against Irish imports, after all. Some of the landlords just did not care. And of course there were self-righteous comments made (on mainland Britain especially) about how it was all the Irish people's fault; they were lazy, shiftless, and shouldn't expect hard-working Britons to help them. Truly, many of the things I've read look as if they'd been lifted from today's newspapers.

The fields were abandoned, just allowed to grass over without ever being rolled flat (what would have been the point?), and sheep were grazed there to save the landlords' pockets.The people starved and many died (an eighth of the total population of Ireland); the lucky ones managed to emigrate.
The ridges remain, mute evidence of anguish,  heartbreak and the deaths of a million people.
These idyllic looking fields also bear the tell-tale ridge and furrow markings.

 Both photographs by David Wilson