Thursday 27 January 2022


The history of seasons isn’t always what we think it is. Using the Australian summer as a baseline, when I was a child the Christmas cards all had snow on them. The pavement melted with heat and yet we were expected to believe that snow was going to fall. 


During the last forty years, Australia has finally come to expect that summer falls when summer falls, and that Christmas and New Year are warm. An interesting effect of this is that some people have asked “How were the seasons described in Australia prior to European settlement?” In my region, there were six seasons and those six seasons changed when certain plants bloomed, or when rivers filled, or when animals and insects were on the move. 

Because the seasons were described by set events rather than by fixed dates, they're a lot more precise than the European seasons translated to Australia. Some of our more recent popular beliefs work with the six season description, too. For instance, in Canberra, we say that heaters go on every year on ANZAC Day (25 April). Winter doesn’t begin until June: the imported seasons don’t match the calendar, so local customs act as a corrective. 

Jump back to England in the Middle Ages and this kind of discrepancy abounds. Chaucer describes April showers, but one of the key moments in the year isn’t in April, but on 25 March. The key dates for new year, tax, in fact, for most things were linked to key religious moments in the Christian calendar. One has to look at records of weather to find when the seasons changed, and one of the records of weather patterns is in literature. 

I should sit down and look at the studies of weather patterns for a region, and compare the literary and other documentation that show how people saw seasons, and compare them with that Christian calendar and the way it shaped peoples’ lives. Then I can see just what the differences are between the way I live the seasons and how they are described for my own life and compare that to the Middle Ages. 

I don’t have time for this, unfortunately. My research is in quite different fields right now, and I don’t even have the excuse that it will help my next novel. I suspect that this post is my reminder to myself that, one day, when I have time, I want to do this. It’d take a week, for I already have the resources and… I really want to know. What gaps were there between the documented seasons and the way people lived in the seasons in, say, thirteenth century England? 

This post was brought to you by a long summer’s night in the middle (of course) of a heat wave. January is not a cold month where I live.

Friday 21 January 2022

In defence of ‘What If?’ by Jane Thynne


When my new novel was published this year, I became everything I had once disdained.  


As an avid amateur historian, I had always shied away from the field of Alternative History, or Counterfactual History as it’s sometimes called. The genre tends to leave a bad taste in the mouths of those who try to represent history as it was. Those novelists who slave away over every detail no matter how minute – from what shade of blue was possible in the early eighteenth century before the German pathologist Max Perls invented Prussian Blue, to how long would it take to travel by train from London to Berlin in 1933? Or how much would a cup of coffee cost in the Café Kranzler?

I know, because I am one of them.


Alternative History seems to laugh in the face of all of us who toil in archives and the obscure sections of long remaindered biographies, who comb through the ex-library-copy memoirs, letters and unpublished diaries, attempting to resurrect a detailed picture of the past. 


The idea of Alternative History especially disturbed me as a former newspaper journalist. Sceptics might question journalists’ passionate fidelity to the truth, but the whole aim of our training centres on finding out facts and standing them up.


And now I was proposing to abandon my fidelity to historical fact, my caution with chronology, my rigour over real people, in favour of what . . . just making it up?


Widowland is an Alternative History set in 1953, premised on the idea that Britain and Germany did not go to war but formed an Alliance in 1940 under the rule of Edward VIII and Queen Wallis. Britain has become a Protectorate of Germany and the Protector, Alfred Rosenberg, has instituted an oppressive caste system for women based on the classification of women by raclal and hereditary status, as instituted in Nazi Germany.


Yet even as I wrote it, I realised that all my deep-rooted objections were wrong.

Of all the sectors of the Alternative History genre, the Nazi era is one that keeps on giving. Stand out contributions to Nazi Alternative History include Robert Harris’s Fatherland, C.J.Sansom’s Dominion, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. This is undoubtedly because the Nazi era spawns so many questions and its legacy in post war consciousness is immense. The period offers numerous ‘what ifs’ to tempt us, starting with What If Adolf Hitler had been accepted into the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and went on to become a moderately successful watercolour painter? Later, What If Germany had succeeded in conquering Russia? And What If D Day had failed? 


But does it disrespect the lives of those who lived or died in the war, to imagine what might have been had none of it happened? 

I hope not. Indeed, I think speculating on the great ‘What Ifs’ of history are part of being a historian. The posing of counterfactual questions has always been a legitimate factor in historical thought – Livy, for example, wondered how the Roman empires would have fared against Alexander the Great. Blaise Pascal famously mused how if Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter ‘the whole face of the world would have been changed’. 



The ‘What if’ that has always tantalised me, and which I attempted to tackle in Widowland, is the possibility that Edward VIII might have remained on the throne, rather than abdicating in 1936. This was highly likely, and the consequences for the future of Britain would have been momentous. Edward was friendly with senior Nazis – especially Goering – and had held discussions with Hitler at the Berghof in 1937. Documents recovered only recently show the former king urging the Nazis to bomb England more heavily in the cause of peace. For Edward to remain on the throne, it may be that Wallis Simpson would have had to refuse him, or it might be, with the support of the press and an adoring public, he might could have tried to ride out the scandal of marriage to a divorcée. But certainly, he would have needed to come to an accommodation with Germany that would drastically alter the British way of life 


Asking ‘What If’ encourages us to examine our belief in the contingency of events and the agency of individuals. Exploring what didn’t happen is a way of asking about what did, and how closely that path was avoided. Generally, history is not simplistic, and we don’t live in a Sliding Doors world where everything hinges on a single action or plan. Historical events are made up of numerous variables. Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination might have been the spark that set Europe aflame and combusted the First World War, but it was not the only precondition; larger historical forces, both economic and cultural were also in train in 1914. 


We are all lucky to be writing at a time of mounting popular enthusiasm for both history and Historical Fiction. That in itself encourages people to think about the way we remember history, and how history is rewritten to suit contemporary narratives. 


Although I’m a convert to Alternative History, I do have a couple of caveats. I won’t feature people who are still living, and I tend only to fictionalise those people whose lives were fairly public and much observed. 


Meanwhile, I face the same quandary as most novelists - not so much What If as What Next?

Friday 14 January 2022

Joy, Happiness, Culture and Refinement - by Ruth Downie

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when, if you didn’t know something and neither did your neighbours, you had to find a book and look it up. When I first worked in a library it was not unusual for people to phone us in search of answers to quiz questions, because unless you owned your own encyclopaedias, there was only one place to find help. So when I started to look at the story of one local library I was amazed at what a struggle its creation had been. Surely everyone would have thought a library was a Good Thing? 
Evidently not. 

Large Victorian pavilion with plants and seating
Ilfracombe's seafront pavilion, c.1870  

By the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign the small town of Ilfracombe, on the coast of North Devon, was a thriving holiday destination. In the first decade of the 20th century the reading tastes of locals and visitors alike were catered for by no less than five subscription libraries. Readers could thrill to stories by Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and Louis de Rougemont, whose controversial adventures included “Round the World on Wheels”, “Twenty-eight Days Without Food” and the alarming “Shot Through the Head with a Ramrod.” 
Victorian gentleman
Louis de Rougemont

Keen to attract customers, the libraries advertised their stock in the newspapers. JS Fletcher’s mystery novel “The Death that Lurks Unseen”, Florence Warden’s “A Lowly Lover” or AEW Mason’s “Miranda of the Balcony” could be borrowed for 3d (just over 1p). Eager readers could have three books at a time for an annual subscription of 21s (£1.05). However, if you couldn’t pay, your chances of enjoying any of the latest tales - including my absolute favourite title, LT Meade’s “Maid with the Goggles” - were slim. There was no mention at all of reference works.

From about 1850 onwards local councils were empowered to set up free public libraries, but take-up was slow. There was a flurry of activity around Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 but Ilfracombe’s attempts to join in did not begin until early 1899. On 14 January The Ilfracombe Chronicle & North Devon News printed a letter of support from an anonymous ratepayer who hoped the proposed library would prove “a counteractive influence to the public house.” 

The Chronicle’s local columnist, “Man about Town,” was also delighted with the idea, declaring in the same issue that “A library open to all classes, rich and poor, is a great boon to professional men and artizans [sic] alike”.

Unfortunately not all the town’s councillors agreed with him.

“The… speeches of the members,” declared the disgusted Man About Town in his column the following week, “proved… that many of them know nothing at all about the question.” This, he felt, was the only possible reason for the Council’s “utterly inexplicable” veto of the proposal despite widespread public support.

He dismissed the counter-suggestion of a “voluntary library” as “twaddle,” and saw no sense in the decision to consult the ratepayers. Indeed, 94 out of 99 letters sent to the Council chairman were in favour of the scheme.

“In the course of my professional duties,” declared one, “I am constantly brought in contact with students who are hampered in their studies for want of a good reference library.”

Another claimed, “The people of this town are endowed with great natural intelligence, but have been unfairly handicapped in the pursuit of knowledge by the absence of such an institution.”

On 28 January Man About Town returned to the subject for a third week, confident that despite this setback the ratepayers of Ilfracombe would see their own public library before long. Other local papers were not so sure. He quotes the North Devon Journal as being “astonished” at the decision, but the Exeter Gazette concluded that it was “a wise one” in view of other pressing needs for funds. Meanwhile the North Devon Herald pulled no punches. There was, it said, “no valid reason whatsoever why the ratepayers should be taxed… to furnish folks with a very limited selection of books, which they would only grumble and cavil over… the public will always clamour for anything they can see a chance of getting for nothing.”

Portrait photo of smartly-dressed man with white hair and beard
Andrew Carnegie
The Council finally voted to adopt the Public Libraries Act in 1903, but little changed until 1904/5. That was when a knight on a white charger rode into town. In spirit, at least. In body, Dunfermline-born Andrew Carnegie remained in the USA. A man of humble origins, Carnegie had educated himself largely by reading, and subsequently made a fortune in the steel industry. In 1901 he sold his company for $480 million, which made him about twice as rich as Bill Gates is now. Carnegie then devoted himself to philanthropy and, along with much else, his generous grants enabled the setting up of 2509 public libraries across the world. £3000 of his money (about £375,000 today) was on offer to Ilfracombe.

Should the town accept? A Carnegie grant would come with strict conditions, and the recipients were expected to find the library’s running costs for themselves. The council voted to receive the money, but in January of 1905 the Chronicle reported “great differences of opinion” at a lively public meeting:
Mr W Pile said "they should put every opportunity of improvement in the way of the young men of the town. (CHEERS)

"…Mr Dadds went on to say that public libraries were a failure nearly everywhere. (HEAR HEAR) What did they read in these libraries? (RUBBISH) The town was expecting to get a Higher Grade School, and did not need the library."

The report offers a great deal more in this vein, suggesting everyone present was having a marvellous time – until the vote. The count was 85 for the library, 100 against.

Nevertheless, plans for a library were approved in 1912. There then follows a long silence, only partly explained by the interruption of the Great War.

On 23 May 1925 the Ilfracombe Chronicle Gazette and Observer ran the subtitle, “Carnegie Trustees want something definite”. This was not unreasonable, as “It is now more than 20 years since the promise was made by Mr Carnegie” and there was neither a library nor any obvious sign of one. The council, still mired in complications over the site, voted to adjourn.

It was not until 1934, 35 years after it was first proposed, that Ilfracombe’s Free Public Library finally opened in the rest room of the magnificent Ilfracombe Hotel - “lofty and airy, flooded with light from the glass dome roof.” (The hotel is the large building on the left in the picture.) There were 820 fiction, 300 juvenile fiction, and 440 non-fiction and reference books. It was created with help of the Devon County library service, which had received substantial help from the Carnegie fund and had set up 463 branches across Devon. The Ilfracombe Chronicle & North Devon News shared the good news on 14 December. 

Picture of rocky beach with large seafront hotel
Ilfracombe seafront

“I feel convinced,” announced County Councillor Mr RM Rowe, “that the provision of a public library will not only add to the amenities of this township, but will also bring a large measure of joy, happiness, culture and refinement to the inhabitants.”

The Ilfracombe Hotel is long gone, but the public library which began life there is still bringing joy, happiness, culture and refinement to the town. Sadly I have searched the catalogue in vain for “Maid with the Goggles”. 


Thanks to Ilfracombe Library, who inspired the original research, and Ilfracombe Museum, who provided most of the material. All errors are of course my own.

For a brief summary of the rise of English public library (with occasional refs to NI, Scotland & Wales) visit the Historic England website.

For more on Andrew Carnegie, visit the website of the Carnegie Corporation

When she isn't hanging around museums, libraries and archaeological holes in the ground, Ruth Downie writes a series of murder mysteries. They're set mostly in Roman Britain and feature army medic Gaius Petrieus Ruso, and his British partner Tilla. To find out more, visit


Photo credits -
Pavilion - Francis Bedford, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
Louis de Rougemont - George Newnes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons 
Andrew Carnegie -User Magnus Manske on en.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Ilfracombe sea front -Photochrom Print Collection, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday 7 January 2022

I Remember, I Remember, the House Where I Was Born by Susan Price

Thank you to Susan Price for this guest post; Janie Hampton will be back in July. And a Happy New Year to all our readers!


My mother hated me saying that I was born in a slum, but I was.

Brades Row was a terrace of houses at right angles to the surfaced road into Oldbury. The front doors opened directly onto ‘the track’ which was exactly that — an unpaved dirt track leading down from the rough fields of scrub and hawthorn to the road. On the other side of the track stood a row of ‘brew-houses’ or ‘wash-houses’: the names were interchangeable.

(‘Wash’ was pronounced with a long ‘a’, as at the beginning of ‘acorn.’) The wash-houses were of damp, blackened brick. They contained a large stone sink, a pump, and a boiler with a fire underneath. This was for heating water to do the laundry, which was done in a tub of water and pounded with ‘a dolly.’ I seem to remember a mangle too, for squeezing water from the clothes. My grandmother had washed clothes in this wash-house, and so did my mother. The wet clothes were hung on a line in the garden to dry or, if it was wet, hung around the house where they dripped on people and made them miserable. They could take days to dry.

  Follow this link to find out more about the exhausting chore of washing with a dolly and dolly-tub.

Beyond the Brades Row wash-houses was a stream, called the Brades brook, which ran under the road and emptied into the canal which ran behind the Brades Tool factory. (The gate of ‘the Brades’ with its huge clock was opposite the end of Brades Row.)


This illustration shows the Brades Steel Works, which was established by 1796 and exported tools all over the world. Draw an imaginary line up from the 'W' of 'Works and you come to the main gate, with its clock tower. Brades Row was later built directly opposite that main gate at right angles to the road.

Behind the factory you can just see the canal which brought raw materials to the Brades and took away finished tools. My mother lived in fear of me toddling past the Brades to fall in the canal and drown. It looks a long way to toddle, to me.

The Brades Steel Works has long since gone. And Brades Row, where I was born, is an elusive place. In this drawing, it hasn't yet been built and I can't find a later photograph that shows it. Soon after my family left, in 1960, it was demolished.

This link takes you to a site with information about The Brades (which was named after Saint Brade, the saint of Sandwell Abbey.  
The Brades brook had flooded the track and houses on more than one occasion. Some people in the row tried to keep the banks of the stream built up, to prevent this. It didn't always work. 
Behind the row of houses were long strips of garden and beyond the garden wall there were wild, scrubby fields where sometimes cows and horses roamed. There was also a pig-sty. In those days, the Black Country was blackened country. 

Inside the houses… What can I remember? The floor of the kitchen was of bare stone flags because I remember playing with a wind-up toy on them. There was an old-fashioned kitchen range instead of a fireplace: the fire was built in the range. But I think there was also a gas-stove in one corner. 

I think there was a large stone kitchen sink but there was no running water in the house. (There was no bathroom or toilet either.) Water had to be fetched in heavy buckets from the wash-house across the track: a heavy task.  

There was no electricity in the house. It was lit by gas-lamps, with a meter. When your shilling in the meter ran out, the light went out and left you in darkness. As my mother was convinced the house was haunted, she didn't like this at all.

My grandparents had lived in Number 5 before my parents, renting it from ‘Danksey’ who owned the whole terrace and came himself to collect the rent. Since they were good tenants, he gave them the chance to rent a large flat in another building he owned, a ‘coal-master’s’ mansion he had divided up. He was happy to accept my mother and father as the new tenants in 5, Brades Row.

I’m told that while my grandparents lived there, my grandmother refused to enter the house first if they returned to it after dark. This was because, when the lamps were lit, there was a rush of cockroaches across the floor and down the walls, to their hiding places in cracks and crevices and she couldn’t stand their scuttling.

The houses were also alive with mice who came in from the fields. Intermingled with them were white and patched mice which had once been pets, but had escaped and gone feral. My grandfather had a long-running battle with one black and white mouse he called ‘Micky Duff.’ Other mice regularly fell into the traps Grandad set but Mickey Duff, easily recognisable by his pied coat, evaded them all. 

A random mouse impersonating Mickey Duff. The original photo is to be found here, on Wikimedia.

One cold, snowy winter’s day, Grandad was sitting by the fire when he saw Mickey run along the skirting board and go into the oven by an air-vent. Grandad leapt up, blocked the vent with newspaper, and turned on the gas. Several minutes later, he turned off the gas and opened the oven door to reveal the still corpse of his enemy. With a cry of triumph, Grandad seized the body, took it to the door and threw it outside into the snow. And Mickey Duff revived and rushed back into the house between Grandad’s feet. “I give up,” Grandad said. “Mickey Duff has won. He can have the run of the house from now on.”

With no bathroom, you could wash yourself at the kitchen sink. You could even boil a kettle for a wash in warm water if you were nesh. But many people just took a towel across the track to the wash-house and washed over there in the icy cold water from the pump, using a big green cake of laundry soap, which was also used for scrubbing floors. Since every house had its own wash-house, it was a little more private than washing in front of the kitchen window — but biting cold in winter. I can dimly remember — or think I can — being put in the wash-house’s big stone sink by my mother and bathed there. In summer, though.

And toilets? During the night you used a chamber pot —known as a ‘gozunder’ because it went under the bed. During the day you went out of the door and walked up the track to a row of brick built lavatories near where the fields began. There were 21 houses in the row and 11 lavatories. (Our house was number 5, in the middle of the row, and it was bigger than the others because it had once been where the landlord had lived. So it had a back door and a front door. The other houses had all been divided into two.) 

You walked up the track, past about ten houses, to the lavatories. They had doors made of wooden planks with a metal latch — so did the houses, but the gap at the bottom of the house doors was smaller. There’s a Black Country expression: ‘He had a loff like a gleed under a doo-er.’ It’s a phrase Shakespeare would have understood. Loff — ‘laugh.’ A gleed is a small, hard ember of burned out coal from the fire. A doo-er is a door. 

Imagine a small coal from the fire, kicked about the floor until it lodges in the gap at the bottom of a planking door. The door is opened, dragging the gleed across a stone-flagged floor. The resulting, teeth-gritting sound is what the laugh was like. 

So, no indoor plumbing. No electricity. Planking doors opening directly onto a dirt track. Small, cramped, damp rooms. Mice and cockroaches. I think that qualifies as a slum, Mum. 

I was born in 1955. Our unfit-for-purpose voting system had ensured that the Tories had been re-elected but all over the country Labour councils like ours were making good on their 1948 promise to improve the lives of the 90% who didn't own 44% of the country's wealth. They were clearing slums like Brades Row and building council estates.

So, when I was four years old, my family moved to a nearly new council house. My mother could not believe her luck but was terrified that she wouldn't be able to pay the rent. She'd paid ten bob a week (50p) for 5, Brades Row. The council rent was £1, paid fortnightly, so every other week she would have to find two whole pounds.

But for this mere doubling of rent she gained a semi-detached house, not a terrace, that wasn't damp and didn't leak. It had no cockroaches or mice. All of the three bedrooms had windows (one of the bedrooms at Brades Row had been a windowless cupboard.)

There was electricity! And in the kitchen, a sink with taps to fill it with hot or cold water. And a gas-stove!

There was a bathroom with a plumbed in bath that could be filled with warm water! And, beside the bath, a wash-basin and a lavatory. Indoors!

The front door didn't open directly onto a pavement or dirt track but onto a small front garden and a path that led to the street. Behind the house was a small but private back garden where my mother could plant all the flowers she loved.

She loved that house too. During the week when she didn't have to pay the rent, she bought us the new shoes or clothes we needed, but it was egg and chips every night during the week the rent had to be paid. Now and again we had to hide with her under the table when the rent-man knocked (because he would sometimes come round the back and peer in the window.)

When my parents moved to that council house, they were less than half the age I am now and they believed the world was becoming better: kinder and fairer. When their children were ill, they took them to an NHS doctor, the cost already covered by their taxes. Their children were given a comprehensive school education, better than any education any member of our family had ever had before.

But now look where we are. The Trade Union for Billionaires is in power again, with a majority, despite only roughly 40% of votes cast being for them. They've sold off council housing and decent homes are again in short supply. The NHS has already been partly sold off to American companies: the rest will follow soon. The necessities of fuel, water, communication and transport have been sold off, mismanaged, made more expensive and less safe.