Friday, 21 February 2020

'No News but Flu': The Spanish Flu Pandemic, 1918 by Sheena Wilkinson

In real life I’m the world’s most squeamish person. Cough beside me on public transport and I guarantee we won’t be companions for long. But for some reason I can cope with almost anything on the page, which came in very handy when, several years ago, I decided to set a novel, The Greater Malady,  during the 1918/19 influenza pandemic.  

Why the fascination with the so-called Spanish Flu? It grew out of my long-held obsession with World War One, whose ending overlapped with the flu, perhaps one reason why this crisis – the single worst demographic disaster of the 20 century – has been comparatively overlooked. Again and again I consulted histories of the period, to find the pandemic passed over in a paragraph or two. Yet it killed at least 50 million people worldwide, and its after-effects were felt for years by many survivors. 

Despite the name, it didn’t start in Spain, nor was Spain affected more than anywhere else.  Theories disagree as to whether it began in China or India, or possibly in America, where it attacked thousands of soldiers in training camps. Germans called it ‘Tommy flu’ at first, and the English called it ‘German flu’. But Spain was neutral in World War One and therefore not bound by the same reporting restrictions as the fighting powers. When morale was already so low after four years of war, the last thing governments could afford was people panicking about infection.

And at first there seemed no need to panic. The flu came in three waves, and the first one, in spring 1918, seemed no worse than the usual seasonal flu.  But by the autumn, doctors were horrified and puzzled by this illness, described in The Lancet as ‘flu, but not as we know it.’ As well as the common symptoms of fever, cough, and severe aches, many people were stricken by
dysenteric and haemorrhagic symptoms, with many choking to death on their own blood as their lungs disintegrated. The characteristic marks of cyanosis turned the faces of oxygen-starved sufferers dark blue, which led to its being called the blue flu, or the black flu. It resembled and was sometimes referred to as ‘plague’, and it killed many more people than the Black Death, but it was ‘only’ flu nonetheless. It could strike so suddenly that many people got up feeling perfectly well, only to collapse and die by nightfall. 

It infected 1/3 of world’s population, about 500 million, with a death toll of 10-20% depending on conditions. Unlike most infections, it killed the young and fit disproportionately. The death toll of c.50 million is probably a conservative one, as people often died of after-effects, related complications etc. From about 1920 war memorials started to go up in towns and villages round the world, but there are no memorials to the flu dead. It’s hard to imagine the scale – but think of how difficult it would be for life to go on with one in three people ill. Life did go on, by and large, in a population hardened by years of war, but even so, there are widespread reports of coffins piled up in the streets, the dead lying unburied, and children starving to death because their parents were lying dead in their beds. On one day in October 1918, at the height of the second wave, sixty people dropped dead in the street in London alone. 

 Why was it so bad?  I’m not an epidemiologist or scientist, but people in 1918 were often living in close quarters, in filthy trenches, army camps, and at home in factories and overcrowded housing conditions.  There was a great deal of movement of troops and support personnel. Think of how often today we get sick after travelling. On the home front, there were food shortages, low morale, and crucially a severe shortage of doctors and nurses, 50% of medical personnel on military service. Nobody was equipped to deal with a pandemic on this scale. 

Why isn’t it better known? I’ve described it as a horror story but we choose to remember other horrors – indeed remembering horror is important in helping us not to repeat the mistakes of the past. But this was horrific in a different way from war, and maybe people were scared to remember it because they knew how powerless they were to prevent its happening again. The medical profession had made improvements in public health and infection control in the 19th and early 20th C, and the war led to great strides in wound treatment, mental health, brain surgery, cosmetic surgery etc. Powerlessness against flu doesn’t fit that narrative of medical progress and confidence, and it was accepted that there was very little doctors could actually do. Nursing -- and luck -- played the greatest role. 

Another narrative it doesn’t sit easily with is that of heroism, so important at the time. While death in battle could be seen – however grim the reality – as noble and sacrificial, death from a disease was simply bad luck. It’s also very hard to romanticize – the symptoms were so disgusting. And maybe, after over four years of the most terrible war, people simply couldn’t bear any more horror. 

We know now that, like most influenza pandemics, the 1918 flu lasted for about a year and then petered out, but those living through it had a great deal of uncertainty. What exactly was it? When would it end? Would they get it? Would they die? Was it in fact the end of the world? Was God punishing humanity for the devastation of the war? These are the questions people were almost afraid to ask at the time. They must have felt like they were living through a medieval plague, and who wants that to mess up the sense of 20th century modernity?

Funnily enough – I didn’t think it funny at the time – The Greater Malady, which I spent two years writing, was never sold. Clearly the publishing world did not share my fascination with this pandemic. But when I wrote Star by Star, set at the end of World War One, I knew that the flu would be a central issue in the book, and all that disgusting, horrific research would come in very handy. And in my forthcoming novel, Hope against Hope, set in 1921, the heroine’s family has also been bereaved by flu, not because I was being lazy and repetitive but because, a hundred years ago, with one third of the world’s population affected, there can have been very few families immune. 

Friday, 14 February 2020

Creative Non-Fiction, into the Past - Joan Lennon

I'm a History Girl.  I'm an advocate of fiction as a way into the past.  And non-fiction as a way into the past.  Then, in-between them, there's creative non-fiction.  When asked - which doesn't happen a great deal - what creative non-fiction is, I tend to flounder, usually ending up with something like "It's, um, factual, but, er, written up pretty.  Er."  Online definitions are more elegant, but the comment by critic Chris Anderson that it is a genre "currently defined by its lack of established conventions" is very much on the money.

I think maybe we know it when we read it.  I certainly knew it when I read Linda Cracknell's The Beat of the Heart Stones.  In this tiny, beautiful book, there is a conversation, between the present and the past, between a walker and a wall.  The Dyke was built up the side of Schiehallion in the late 18th century, and in The Beat, the writer begins to climb the mountain, following along the path of the wall.  More quickly than you'd think, the idea that the dyke can speak becomes completely believable.  Here is a snippet of their conversation:

So they used whatever was close by?  Here's a block of quartz, the glitter of mica schist.  Here a seaweed green section, here bare grey.

What the Earth spits out.  Would you want to heave it far across the hills? ...

It was weans and women and tinkers hauled these rocks - left them in a rickle each side of the line, within reach of the hands that built my long slow uphill spine.

Whose hands?

One craftsman each side.  Raising two inward-leaning walls that kissed just before they were capped.  Think of the men as you walk ...

They saw at a glance how one stone would nudge and slide against another, the shape and ache of a gap ...

They made it a rule - never pick up a stone more than once.  Assess them where they lie.

The author's line drawings of the wall climb across the pages and intermingle with the words.  For me, it was a way in to the past that wasn't fiction or non-fiction, but both.  

The book ends with a question, as the present overtakes the past.  I wanted it to be longer, except it is the perfect length.

Schiehallion (1083 metres), viewed across the River Tay 
(wiki commons)

P.S. This little gem of a book, and Linda Cracknell's other fiction, non-fiction and creative non-fiction can be bought here.

P.P.S.  A short distance from the Dyke, the slopes of Schiehallion had also been the site of Maskelyn's Observatory.  "The Schiehallion Experiment" of 1774 aimed to estimate the weight of the earth.  (In the process, it also gave us what became known as contour lines.)  You can watch a short video here that describes the basics of what happened, before the whole thing came to a dramatic end.  As Wikipedia tells us,

"During a drunken party to celebrate the end of the surveying, the northern observatory was accidentally burned to the ground, taking with it a fiddle belonging to Duncan Robertson, a junior member of the surveying team. In gratitude for the entertainment Robertson's playing had provided Maskelyne during the four months of astronomical observations, he compensated him by replacing the lost violin with a Stradivarius."

But that's a bit of creative non-fiction for another day.

P.P.P.S. When you read this, I will be in the middle of a month's writing residency on Fair Isle.  I think I will be working on historical narrative poetry, but who knows?  Maybe I'll be busily engaged in historical creative non-fiction.  Time will tell ...

Joan Lennon's blog.
Silver Skin.

Friday, 7 February 2020

The Best Historical Fiction for LGBT History Month - chosen by Anna Mazzola

February is LGBT History Month in the UK and therefore an excuse to pull together my favourite historical fiction novels that explore gender and sexuality throughout the ages.


An exquisitely-written reimagining of The Iliad, told from the point of view of Patroclus, Achilles’s lover. An entirely fresh take on the Trojan War and its heroes by the author of that other extraordinary novel, Circe.


McGann’s thrilling and erotic debut is a tale of obsession and murder set during the violence of the English Civil War. Dark, complex and unflinching. Everyone should read McCann’s novels immediately.


Set in the 1850s and ’60s, during the wars the U.S. fought against the Sioux and the Yurok, and the Civil War, this is a stunning and deeply moving story of two soldiers—an Irish immigrant, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole.


The Sealed Letter explores the story of a divorce trial that scandalised mid-Victorian London, focussing on the reluctant involvement of Emily Faithful and her relationship with the seemingly less-than-faithful half of the marriage, Helen Smith Codrington. An intriguing and cleverly-written mystery.


Really I could have included most of Sarah Waters’ books here, but Fingersmith remains my favourite: a glorious mystery and love truly with a truly gripping plot.
Also featuring a wonderful cast of villainous characters, brilliant use of 19th century slang (‘Pigeon, my arse!’) and the best twist in the business.


The Regeneration trilogy is an incredible fictionalized account of the relationship between army psychiatrist Dr Rivers and a group of interconnected patients, including Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. It blends brilliantly the horrors of war with gay life in Edwardian England and the newly emerging science of psychology.


An epic and heart-breaking tale of perseverance as well as an exploration of race, gender, family, and sexuality in 1930s Georgia. The novel is, among many other things, a story of love between women.


In 1939 a series of Sicilian men were taken from their homes and imprisoned on the island of San Domino in the Adriatic Sea. Their crime? They were gay. Out of this little-known slice of history, Sarah Day has created a fascinating and beautifully written novel.

And coming soon...

Do also look out for Neil Blackmore's The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle, sauntering your way in April 2020: a dark and funny romp through the Grand Tour - The Favourite meets the Talented Mr Ripley in 18th century Europe.


Anna Mazzola is a writer of dark historical fiction.

Friday, 31 January 2020

The Defynnog Yew, a remarkable tree! by Katherine Langrish

One day in March this year,on a weekend in the Brecon Beacons, we stopped at the little church of St Cynog in the village of Defynnog to visit what some people claim may be the oldest yew tree in Europe - around 5000 years old! Whether this date is accurate is disputed - but experts agree it's very old indeed, at least 2000 to 3000 years.

We pushed through the lych gate and went up the path through the graveyard. There were venerable yews a-plenty - you can see one in the photo below -  but the one we were after is on the far side of the church - a church it of course predates by centuries, if not millennia.

St Cynog's has been here since the 11th century and may be older, though most of the structure is now 15th century. (The story of Cynog can be found at this link.) In the porch is a 5th century pillar stone carved with Latin and Ogham inscriptions commemorating 'Rugniatis son of Vendonius'. The yew was there before him, too.

And here it is. When you get near you can see it has two trunks and so looks like two trees, but DNA testing (I never knew you could DNA test trees) by Roslin Forestry research confirmed the two trunks are identical. Two trunks, a single tree. Moreover they found that the tree is 'monoecious', both male and female.

I bought a pamphlet in the church which put forward a number of theories about the yew (some mutually exclusive): that it was planted long ago to honour a tribal chief; that it could have been an accidental or natural germination; that it was been grown from a cutting taken from another sacred tree far away or even abroad; that it was a sacred tree which symbolised the axis mundi... clearly, nobody really knows. In the Middle Ages apparently it may have been a special meeting place, and the centre of Cantref Mawr, the Hundred of Defynnog. The best guess is that the church was built here because of the tree; the tree itself was sacred. And now it shelters the Christian graveyard.

The tree is so huge I couldn't get a close-up of more than parts of it. Here's me, glancing down at our dog Polly who was taking a great interest in the clefts and hollows of the two vast trunks...

One rare and interesting characteristic of the Defynnog Yew is that it produces 'golden boughs' - sprays of leaves with a blanched, yellow colour, very striking against the usual dark foliage. Was this so from the beginning, and is it what made the tree so very special?

I was also interested by the green fur of yew leaves covering parts of the trunk like a cloak.

The church pamphlet goes on to claim that Wales has the largest collection of ancient Yews on earth and that many were 'brought here as cuttings, branches or staffs from the Holy Land or Egypt, which were then planted in remote places so that their survival would be ensured, well into the future.' If so (no evidence is given in support for this practice and I have to say I'm a bit dubious - why in remote places? why not in established church yards? would a staff really root?) such cuttings would also post-date this particular yew. The church guide also makes the claim that the modern graveyard was once a neolithic burial site, which I would be happy to believe if - again - any evidence or reference were provided. It may be so...

In his book 'Superstitions of the British Isles'  Steve Roud says no one really knows why yew trees are so often grown in graveyards. "Accident can be ruled out, and a deliberate policy presumed, and there are numerous stories which are told to explain this." He investigates some - that yew wood was used for making bows, so it was ordered that yew trees should be planted in every churchyard - that because yews are poisonous, they were planted in churchyards where cattle could not reach them - and concludes there is no real evidence for any of them and though there was clearly "a traditional connection between yews and death or mourning in medieval times in Britain, its exact nature has yet to be discovered."

Robert Graves, in 'The White Goddess' has (characteristically) a lot more to say about the yew - that it's one of the Five Magical Trees of Ireland and the fifth letter (I fo Idho) in the Tree Alphabet, that it's "the death-tree in all European countries, sacred to Hecate in Greece and Rome", that in Ireland wine barrels were made of yew-wood so it was known as "the coffin of the vine", that yew stakes were driven through the corpses of the fated Irish lovers Naoise and Deirdre to keep them apart but that "the stakes sprouted and became trees whose tops eventually embraced over Armagh Cathedral," that "In Brittany it is said that churchyard yews will spread a root to the mouth of each corpse..."

Axis mundi, tree of death, tree of eternity, all of those things? Well... Yews are evergreen and sombre, lit with the little red berries of which the flesh is tasteless and the seed is poisonous, and they live practically for ever...

Maybe that's how it all began.

Visit Katherine's website at
and her blog at Seven Miles of Steel Thistles

Katherine left us a few precious posts before she stopped being a History Girl. We are very happy to use one today as it was Gillian Polack's turn and she has had to leave her home in Australia and relocate because of the air quality from the bushfires, Gillian will be back later this year but thanks, Katherine!

Friday, 24 January 2020

Glimpses of Singapore's Past by Ann Turnbull

My first visit to Singapore, in October 2013, was in response to a family emergency. We stayed in Chinatown, near the General Hospital. The streets there are lined with shophouses whose upper storeys overhang the shop fronts below, creating a covered walkway. These paths, known as the 'five-foot ways', provide much-needed shade and also shelter from the rain.

We saw street sculptures depicting older times and many interesting old houses.

There were plenty of young people around, with children and babies - but I also noticed older people, and was struck by how many of them had bandy legs.

"It's rickets," I was told, "caused by lack of food in childhood. Singapore suffered terribly during the war."

Of course. These people were the children of the late 1930s. Much later, I found out more about World War II in Singapore.

In January 1942 Singapore - then a British colony - came under relentless air attack from Japan. Hundreds of people died, and huge areas of the city were reduced to rubble. By 15th February Singapore had fallen. The next day Japanese soldiers marched into the city. After the war, there was a feeling among people in Singapore that the British had deserted them - and in retrospect it does seem that, had the British mounted a counter-attack at the critical moment, they might have prevailed.

The Chinese community remembers the horror of the Sook Ching - the 'purge through cleansing' - a mass screening and purge of Chinese men aged between 18 and 50 who had supported the war effort in China. About 50,000 men were loaded into lorries, taken to Changi or Sentosa, and shot. There must have been huge numbers of fatherless families left behind. Food was scarce, and people trapped in the city struggled to find anything to eat or anywhere to shelter. It's no wonder that those who are left still carry the scars.

When the British returned in 1945, Singapore was in ruins and its people were struggling to survive. 'People's Restaurants' were set up to provide affordable food, and the city was slowly rebuilt. But the housing shortage persisted for many years.

We were told we should visit the Chinatown Heritage Centre in Pagoda Street - a small museum in a converted shophouse. On entering, we found ourselves in a reconstruction of a tailor's workshop.

There were sewing machines, pattern books and order books on display. A baby's cradle swung from a hook in the ceiling. The tailor ran a successful business, but he and his family and apprentices lived very frugally in the rented premises and worked from around 8am till 9pm.

Upstairs, on the first floor, we were astonished - shocked - to see that all the space except a narrow access corridor had been divided up into cubicles measuring 8' x 8'. These spaces were rented out by the landlord as living accommodation. At night even the corridor was let to labourers who had nowhere else to sleep. There was a single kitchen and toilet shared by more than forty people.

Unlike the kitchen (which must have been impossible to keep clean) the cubicles were made as homely and neat as the inhabitants could manage. Their few personal possessions, photographs and good luck charms were given space; their bowls and spoons and baskets were kept clean; there were children's toys, and a few items of clothing on hooks.

The first cubicle - almost filled by a workbench that doubled as a bed - was home to a carpenter and his pregnant wife; in the next were a hawker, her husband and their children; then four Samsui women (these were female construction workers); a clog-maker and his family; a factory worker with six children. There was even a physician and his family; he ran his practice from here, attending mainly to the very poor whom he could not bring himself to charge.

It was while looking at these people's homes that I noticed, among the pictures pinned to the walls, some images that I recognised: British women with perms and frilly aprons and dazzling smiles - 1950s women. These were the advertisements I remembered from my own childhood. It was only then that I realised how recent all this was.

Chinese immigrants had been coming to Singapore in search of a better life for a hundred years or more. They were known as the 'Sinkeh' - 'newcomers' - and were often drawn by stories of rags to riches.

Most of them were ripped off by existing residents within days of their arrival and left penniless. One man, quoted in the background history display at the museum, said that when he saw coolies, pitch-black with coal dust, at work on the quay, he knew he had come to a hard place. Unless a man had a trade he would become an indentured labourer.

Singapore became a republic in 1965. Although Malay is the national language, in practice everyone speaks English because that is the language of business. Most of the inhabitants are Chinese, and Hokkien Chinese is also widely spoken. The Peranakan community are the descendants of Chinese traders, held up in the Malacca Straits by the trade winds for months at a time, who married local women. Indians have also lived in Singapore since the 19th century, and Little India is a thriving area. The city is full of temples, mosques and churches, reflecting the various communities.

On a second visit as tourists in 2018 we saw and enjoyed all the beautiful gardens, indoor shopping malls, museums and galleries. Having found out about the people's struggle to rebuild and recover since the 1960s, I was more than ever impressed and astonished by Singapore's success.

Contrary to what is implied by the name Singapore (which means Lion City), there have never been any lions in Singapore!

Friday, 17 January 2020

A very long way from Rome - by Ruth Downie

If there’s a museum around, I’m usually to be found in the Roman section. But Roman sections are hard to come by in Hong Kong, where a recent visit forced me out of the comfort zone to discover the treasures beyond. Here are a few favourites.

The Time Ball Tower

This is set in a complex of Victorian buildings now renovated for modern use and collectively known as “1881 Heritage

Tower with ball on pole above it
 If you know what a Time Ball does and why (and they’ve been around since 1829) then skip the next section. If you share my former bafflement, read on.

There’s a clue in the location: the Time Ball Tower is set on a hilltop that would have been visible to most of the ships in the busy Hong Kong Harbour below. And that’s the point. In order to navigate longitude, a ship’s captain needed to know exactly what the time was, and until the mid 18th century, timepieces were notoriously unreliable at sea. If you haven’t read “Longitude”, Dava Sobel’s account of how the inventor John Harrison solved that particular problem, then I thoroughly recommend it. But even Harrison’s marvellous marine chronometer would only work if it was set to the right time in the first place.

For many years ships visiting Hong Kong would set the time by the sound of a noon-day cannon. Well, maybe not by the sound. Because as anyone who’s watched distant fireworks will know, sound doesn’t travel as fast as light. The noise of the cannon could take up to three vital seconds to reach the far ends of the harbour, so what the sailors actually did was watch for the puff of smoke. A more accurate signal, but worryingly ethereal.
Mechanism of time ball

It was a British naval officer who invented the visual clue of the time-ball: a huge metal ball to be hoisted up a pole and then dropped at a precise time for all to see. Hong Kong adopted the idea in 1884 and the ball fell daily at 1.00 pm sharp, as determined by the nearby observatory.

Thus it was with great anticipation that Husband and I rushed over to the refurbished tower at 12.55pm, only to wait… and wait… and wait, until our mobile phones told us the moment had long passed. What we didn’t register until later was the day. The original time ball did not fall on Sundays or public holidays, and this was a Sunday. Time and tide might wait for no man, but the sychronising of timepieces evidently does.

The Odometer

pull along wooden cart with two figures and a drum on topHong Kong Maritime Museum is always a treat, and they currently have an exhibition on map-making. Fundamental to making a decent map is being able to measure distances. While the Romans seem to have had some sort of wheeled vehicle with cogs that dropped pebbles through holes, the Chinese approach was far more stylish.

Here’s a replica of a machine in use during the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD). After a set distance the little men on top bang their drum. Much more fun than pebbles in a box, no?

Fishing-net weights
Narrow-waisted stones

These are from the Hong Kong Museum of History and were in use in Neolithic times. Such a clever and simple idea. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I’ve never seen anything like them before.
Replica boat with net weighted down by stones

The Rat Bin

The story of these grim but highly practical objects is told in the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences.
Black metal bin with hinged lid marked RAT BIN H 525

In 1894 Hong Kong was ravaged by plague. In the fight against the spread of disease, numbered bins were placed on lampposts all over the city for the collection of dead rats in disinfecting carbolic acid. Bins were emptied twice a day and each creature was marked with the number of the bin it had come from before being inspected. Any signs of plague infection in the rats gave the authorities a head start in surveying the local area for human cases.

(Incidentally, the bacterium responsible for plague was first discovered in Hong Kong during this outbreak. It’s named Yersina Pestis after one of its identifiers - Alexandre Yersin.)

St Paul’s, and a few St Nicholases

On a more cheerful note: some major cultural fusion in nearby Macau.

foreground - plastic Santa figures in garden. Background - carved stone facade of church
In the background: the stunning fa├žade of St Paul’s. It’s all that remains of a church and college built in the 17th century by exiled Japanese Christians and Chinese craftsmen in a Portuguese-controlled territory under the direction of an Italian Jesuit. In the foreground: heralding a very twenty-first century Christmas.


Something familiar

And finally - there wasn’t a total absence of Romans.
Roman glass vessels

These familiar-looking glass vessels (now in the Maritime Museum) arrived sometime between the second and ninth century, presumably via a trade route. And to demonstrate that the travel wasn’t all one way, recent work on Roman-era cemeteries in London and Somerset suggests that some of the occupants had origins in East Asia.

I wonder what their favourite British finds would have been?

Ruth Downie writes a series of murder mysteries set mostly in Roman Britain, and featuring Roman army medic Ruso and his British partner, Tilla. To find out more, visit

Friday, 10 January 2020

Felicia Skene: writer & philanthropist by Janie Hampton

Felicia Skene, left, with her niece Zoe Thomson, wife of the Archbishop of York,
and her brother William Forbes Skene, Historiographer Royal of Scotland, in 1892.

When I first moved to Oxford I rather disapproved of the hostel next door, with its Victorian attitude to young, single mothers. I was not surprised when our local vicar told me that it was run by the ‘Skene Moral Welfare Association’. I then learned that the Skene in question was Felicia Mary Frances Skene, one of the most radical women in nineteenth century Oxford. I was even more amazed to discover that she was my grandfather’s great aunt, known in the family as ‘Fifi’. I wanted to know more.
Felicia Mary Frances Skene as a young woman

Her father James, was a wealthy Scottish lawyer and amateur artist whose engravings illustrated Walter Scott’s novels. Born in 1821, Fifi comforted Scott with fairy stories the night in 1825 when he lost everything. Roused by her cheerful spirit, he decided to fight bankruptcy and work through his debts. Scott wrote that Fifi’s parents ‘bring so much old-fashioned kindness and good humour with them that they must be always welcome guests.’ They were also enterprising and resourceful.
James Skene believed that travel was the best form of education, and so led his family on a grand tour around Europe. Fifi was taught the piano in France by Liszt, whom she described as ‘a wild-looking, long-haired excitable man’. Between 1838 and 1845 the family lived in Athens where Fifi sang with the Greek royal family. During an expedition on horseback across the Marathon plain, she spent the night in a shack with Albanian peasants and their pigs. At the age of twenty-four she brought her young nieces aged ten and eleven (one of them my great grandmother Janie) home from Athens by ship and train via Constantinople. Arriving in England she wrote her first book Wayfaring Sketches among the Turks and Christians, first in French and then in English. Her observations of conditions in slave markets, galley- ships and an Ottoman Pasha’s harem made it a bestseller.

Fifi’s father James Skene of Rubsilaw, 1775–1864,
 with two of his grandchildren.
The Skene method of education obviously worked. Her older brother James Henry married Rhalou, a Greek aristocrat and became a British Consul to Aleppo. Fifi’s brother George was Professor of Law at the University of Edinburgh and Sheriff of Glasgow. Another brother William became the Historiographer Royal of Scotland, writing the first academic history from Scotland’s point of view. One of her sisters married the Swedish ambassador to Washington, Berlin and Paris, and the other married a Greek archaeologist– the brother of her sister-in-law.
Fifi settled in Oxford, where her social views were considered overly progressive, especially for a woman. Her 1866 novel Hidden Depths was an exposure of prostitution in Oxford inspired by the injustices she had witnessed in the prison and women’s reformatories. The Athenaeum criticised her writing as ‘unrepresentative of society’, The London Review disapproved of the message and Mudie’s Library considered the subject-matter altogether too provocative. The Lesters: A Family Record warned readers of the dangers of alcohol but was denounced by Saturday Review as being ‘cheap melodramatic horror’ and ‘almost beneath criticism’ while Academy dismissed the novel as 'dull and destined for failure'.
Despite many offers, the auburn-haired and boisterous Fifi was far too busy to bother with marriage. She preferred to carve out her own life as a writer and philanthropist than belong to a man. Fluent in both French and Greek, and possessing a photographic memory, she published more than twenty books under the pseudonyms of Oxonesis, Francis Scougal and Erskine Moir. Her interest in the high-church ‘Oxford Movement’, inspired a theological work The Divine Master, which ran to eleven editions. She wrote for Blackwood’s, Cornhill and Macmillan's Magazines, Quiver, Temple Bar and Good Words, which had a circulation of 100,000 and featured contributions by Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope.
Fifi’s 1865 anonymous pamphlet, ‘Penitentiaries and Reformatories’ on the humiliation of ‘fallen women’ whom society ‘sought to hide its blackest curse under a veil of mock prudery. . . because their sin was unfit to be named in the polite society that received with open arms the very men on whom they sinned’. (University of Indiana's Victorian Women Writers Project)
Fifi was a deeply religious and principled woman and used the income from her books and articles to finance her philanthropic work. Her biographer, Edith Rickards, wrote in 1902 that ‘it was her rule throughout her long life never to spend on herself what she gained from her writings, partly from her natural love of giving, partly from an old-fashioned idea that it was an undignified thing for a lady to earn money for her own personal advantage.’

'The Skene Arms', left, in St Michael’s Street, Oxford.

For most of her life, Fifi lived in St Michael’s Street in the centre of Oxford. It’s nickname was ‘The Street of Seven Deadly Sins’. Her home was known as ‘The Skene Arms’, because it was always open to beggars, clergymen, prostitutes, politicians and students. In her Cornhill Magazine article ‘Ethics of the Tramp’ she wrote that like her parrots, men of the road should roam free and never be incarcerated. She braved the wrath of local pimps and drunken husbands by finding refuge for women fleeing prostitution and domestic violence.
Fifi, Tatters and Rev. Algernon Barrington Simeon,
the first Warden of St Edward’s School,
whom she nursed though diphtheria, 1875.
After years of impromptu visits to Oxford Prison accompanied by Tatters, her Skye terrier, Fifi became England’s first official female Prison Visitor. She insisted on complete confidentiality and demanded that male and female prisoners be housed separately, for the protection of the women. On their release, she gave prisoners a hearty breakfast and a reference for employment. She even organised marriages to legitimatize the children of ‘fallen women’. Independently of any political movement, she fought for prisons to be used for rehabilitation; for the abolition of capital punishment; and for the decriminalization of suicide. She also campaigned against female inequality, animal vivisection and religious intolerance. When the Prime Minister, W.E. Gladstone, asked her advice on the new theory of evolution, she told him that Darwin’s discovery was true, and compatible with Christianity. 
Fifi helped found St Edward’s School for the sons of poor clergymen and dug the first sod of earth for its new buildings in North Oxford. With Dr Henry Acland, Fifi trained nurses to deal with cholera and smallpox outbreaks in Oxford. But when she offered her nurses to Florence Nightingale for the war in the Crimea, all but three were turned down for being ‘too working class.’

Fifi, 1821-1899, in old age.

Fifi died of bronchitis in 1899 and was buried in St Thomas Church, near Oxford railway station. A century later the assets of the Skene Moral Welfare Association were redistributed among Oxford’s social housing associations. In old age, Fifi had said of herself, ‘I am like the Martyr’s Memorial – everybody knows me and no-one is interested me.’ Beyond Oxford, she has largely been forgotten, but in 2002 a blue plaque was erected outside her home, now a hostel for single men. The plaque describes Fifi as ‘Prison reformer and friend of the poor’ but there is no mention of her literary achievements.
At times I have felt that my own career, which is split between writing popular history books and international development, confuses people. Great Aunt Fifi demonstrated that a woman can have as many different careers as she likes.
 Some of her titles: Wayfaring sketches among the Greeks and Turks, and on the shores of the Danube by a seven years resident in Greece, 1849. The Isles of Greece, and other poems, 1843. Use and Abuse,  a tale, 1849. The Inheritance of Evil or, The Consequence of marrying a deceased wife’s sister, 1849. The Tutor's Ward, 1851.  The Divine Master, 1852. S. Alban’s, or, the Prisoners of Hope, 1853.  Hidden Depths ,1866. Still and Deep, 1875. Memoir of Alexander, Bishop of Brechin, 1876. Raymond, 1876.  Life of Alexander Lycurgus: archbishop of the Cyclades, 1877. More than Conqueror , 1878. The Shadow of the Holy Week, 1883. A Strange Inheritance, 1886. The Lesters: a Family Record, 1887. Through the Shadows: a Test of the Truth, 1888. Awakened. A tale in nine chapters, 1888. Dewdrops: selections from writings of the saints,1888. Scenes from a Silent World, or, Prisons and their Inmates, 1889.