Yes, it’s Victorian

I always said I’d never write anything set in Victorian times. More fool me; I should know better than to use the word never. But that was before I started reading more about the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890. It’s one of those rare occasions when the strikers prevailed and that alone is enough to make it inspirational. And then, long taken with a picture by Leeds artist Atkinson Grimshaw, a story named Annabelle Atkinson and Mr. Grimshaw appeared from nowhere. I liked Annaballe; she installed herself in my head and wouldn’t go away. Then I began seeing a man running down Victorian Briggate, with its horse-drawn trams and Hansom cabs. And a new tale began nagging at me. This is the beginning of it – I’ve only completed 16,000 words so far, but all you’re getting is a snippet. What I’d like is your opinion, please…



Tom Harper pounded down Briggate, the hobnails from his boots scattering sparks behind him. He pushed between people, not even hearing their complaints as he ran on, eyes fixed on the man he was pursuing.

            “Police!” he yelled. “Stop him!”

            They didn’t, of course they didn’t, but at least they parted for him. At Duncan Street he slid between a cart and a tram that was turning the corner. His foot slipped on a pile of horse dung and he drew in his breath sharply. Then the sole gripped again.

            Harper ducked in front of a Hansom cab, steadying himself with a hand on the horse’s neck, feeling its breath hot against his ear for a second, then plunged on. He was fast but the man in front was even faster, stretching the distance between them.

            His lungs were burning. Without thinking, he glanced across at the clock on the Ball-Dyson building. Half past eleven. He forced his feet down harder, arms pumping like a harrier.

            As they reached the bridge the man leapt into the road, weaving between the traffic. Harper followed him, squeezing sideways between a pair of omnibuses, seeing the passengers stare at him in astonishment. Then he was free again, rushing past the row of small shops and watching the man disappear round the corner onto Dock Street.

            By the time he arrived the street was empty. He stood, panting heavily, unable to believe his eyes. The man had vanished. Nothing, not even the sound of footsteps. To his left, a cluster of warehouses ran down to the river. Across the road the chimneys of the paper mill belched its stink into the air. Where had the bugger gone?


He’d had been up at Hope Brothers, barely listening as the manager described a shoplifter, his mouth frowning prissily as he talked. Outside, the shop boy was lowering the awning against the May sun.

            He scribbled a word or two in his notebook. It should be the beat copper doing this, he thought. He was a Detective Inspector; he should be doing something worthwhile. But one of the Hopes lived next door to the new Chief Constable. A word or two and the Superintendent had sent him down here with an apologetic shrug of his shoulders.

            Then Harper heard the shout and dashed out eagerly, the bell tinkling as he threw the door wide. Further up Briggate a man was gesturing and yelled,

            “He stole my wallet!”

            That was all he needed. Inspector Harper began to run.


He tipped the hat back and wiped the sweat off his forehead. Where was the sod? He could be hiding just a few yards away or off beyond a wall and clear away in Hunslet by now. One thing was certain, he wasn’t going to find him. Harper straightened his jacket and turned around. What a bloody waste of a morning.

            He paused on the bridge, lighting a Woodbine and looking down at the river. Barges stood three deep against the wharves, men moving quickly and surely along the gangplanks, their backs bent under heavy loads. It was a hard way to earn a day’s pay, but what wasn’t?

            On either side of the Aire the factories were busy, smoke rising to cloud the sun. A trace of deep blue floated on the water from the indigo works upstream, bright against the dull grey. The bloated corpse of a dead dog sailed past it, carried by the current. He watched it until it passed from sight.

            Briggate was busy with Saturday couples, in from the suburbs and parading in their best. The men were shaved so close their cheeks looked pink and prosperous, their wives showing off their bright summer dresses, freshly laundered by a servant at home in Headingley or Roundhay or wherever they lived.

            He wasn’t in a mood to see any more smug faces. Instead he cut through Queen’s Court, where washing was strung out between the crumbling old houses to dry, hopeful of a glint of sunlight. A barefoot boy threw a ball against the wall, concentrating furiously on catching it. The ball slipped from his hand and rolled towards Harper. He picked it up and tossed it back, the boy grinning as he pulled it out of the air.

            He cut through the ginnels, someone singing a song beyond a door, and came out by the Corn Exchange., strode quickly across the market with a wave and a wink to the girls working behind the stall at Mr. Marks’ Penny Bazaar and across to Millgarth police station.

            “Had a productive morning, sir?” the desk sergeant smirked. For a moment he was tempted to reply, then shut his mouth. Whatever he said, George Tollman would have heard it scores of times before. The man had stood behind that counter since God was a lad. He’d been there twelve years earlier when Harper had nervously reported for his first day as a young constable and he’d likely remained until they carried him out in a coffin. Instead Harper just shook his head and pushed his way through to the office. He tossed his hat onto the desk and leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes for a moment.

            “Bad morning?”

            “One of those when you wonder why you even bother.”

            He glanced up at the man leaning against the wall. Billy Reed had been promoted to Detective Sergeant six months before. In his early forties, he’d joined the force after ten years in the West Yorkshire Regiment. When he’d started out in plain clothes he still thought like a soldier, obeying every order without question or hesitation. Harper had pushed and prodded at him until he’d learnt to think for himself. The black dog still nudged the man at times, leaving him, his temper like quicksilver, but Reed seemed cheerier than he’d once been. He’d even gone out to Hepworth’s and bought a new suit to replace the old, fraying jacket and trousers he’d worn so often.

            “Never mind,” Reed told him, “it’ll be busy soon enough now the gas workers are on strike.”

            “They didn’t have much choice, did they?” Harper observed angrily. “The council sacked half the stokers at the gasworks and said they were going to pay the rest less and take one of their holidays. For God’s sake, Bill, how would you like that?”

            “You’d better not say that when the chief’s; you’ll give him an apoplexy. By the way, one of the constables was in here earlier asking for you.”



            That was interesting. Ash covered the beat that had once been his, the area between the Head Row and Boar Lane, west from Briggate over to Lands Lane. It was the old, poor yards and courts, the part of Leeds that had barely changed in a century or more, where folk counted themselves rich if they had threepence left come payday. It had been his for six years, until he’d become a detective. He’d known the faces there, the people, all the crime and the promises that end up as nothing. He’d carried men home to their wives on a Saturday night after they’d drunk away their money, tended wounds, and laid a sheet over the old who’d died of hunger.

            Ash was still new, just a year as an officer, but he seemed conscientious enough. If he had something it might be worth hearing. He stood and picked up his hat.

            “I’ll go and find him.”

            Reed leaned close, his eyes twinkling. “I hear congratulations are in order, too.”

            Harper laughed. There was never much chance of it remaining a secret for long.




He found Ash outside the Theatre Royal, gently moving on a match girl. Once he’d watched her go reluctantly down the street, the constable turned to him. He was tall, a good hand’s breath over six feet, the cap making him taller still. His uniform was crisp and pressed, buttons shining and pressed, just as the regulations ordered, hair gleaming with pomade, the moustache neatly clipped.

            “You were looking for me?” Harper said.

            “Yes, sir.” He glanced around. “Maybe we’d better walk a while. Just in case the sergeant comes around.” He led the way up the street before ducking into a court, his wide shoulders brushing against the sides of the opening. The few people outside their doors melted away at the sight of the police.

            “What is it?” He was curious now, wondering why Ash needed to talk out of sight of prying eyes.

            The man chewed his lip for a moment before answering, his face dark and serious in the shadow.

            “It might be summat or nowt, really, but I thought I’d better pass it on. Do you remember Col Parkinson?”

            Harper nodded. Parkinson had never done a day’s work more than he was forced to do, always some little scheme going on that usually paid out to nothing. A thin, ferrety face, most of his teeth gone, those left in shades of black and brown. His wife was almost as bad as him; the only good thing he could say about Betty Parkinson was that she doted on their daughter. Martha must be about eight now, he guessed. Soon enough she’d be done with school and out working if Col had anything to say about it.

            “What’s he done now? It shouldn’t be anything you need me for.”

            “It’s not him, sir.” Ash hesitated. “Well, not quite. It’s that little lass of his. She’s not been around for a week. He says she’s gone to stay with his sister in Halifax.”

            “Does he have a sister there?” He couldn’t recall.

            “The neighbours say that the first time he mentioned her is after the girl was gone.”

            “What about Betty? What did she tell you?”

            “She’s in Armley jail, sir. Three months for receiving. Not out until the end of July.”

            Harper snorted. It was hardly a surprise. If one of them wasn’t in jail usually the other was. “You want me to talk to him?”

            Ash nodded. “He’s sticking to his tale but there’s summat in there I just don’t believe. And I don’t want anything happening to Martha. She’s a grand little girl, always happy. You wouldn’t credit it with parents like hers. I just didn’t want everyone knowing.”

            “I’ll go and have a word. Where does he drink these days?”

            “At home with a jug unless he has a bob or two. That’s the other thing, sir. He seems to have a little money.”

            Harper jerked his head up.

            “What are you trying to tell me?”

            “I don’t know, sir.” Ash frowned. “I honestly don’t know.”


Around here he didn’t even need to think of the way. He’d walked it every day for so long that he knew every twist and turn, each ginnel and gap. At one time he’d could have said how many lived behind each door, what they did and whether he needed to watch them. Many would be strangers now but there would still be plenty of faces he’d recognise.

            He slipped through to Fidelity Yard. The place was even worse than he remembered it, cobbles broken, half the flagstones pulled up, the windows of the cottages so grimy they could barely let through any light. A dog barked as he passed one of the houses. A sign in a window advertised Smiley’s Barber Shop, a dirty red and white pole hanging at an angle. But the chair inside was empty and the barber gone. He smiled. Johnny Smiley would be out at the Rose and Crown, supping what money he’d earned during the morning.

            Harper stopped outside the black door, paint peeling away from the wood in long strips. This wasn’t a place where the houses needed numbers; no one back here received letters. He brought his fist down hard, knocking long and loud then rattling the door handle.

            “You can stop now. He’s not there.”

            The woman’s voice made him turn.

            “You know where he is, Mrs.Dempsey?”

            She blinked twice until she placed him, arms folded across her broad chest. Virginia Dempsey was sixteen stone if she weighed an ounce and not much more than five feet tall. If anything, she was bigger than ever.

            “Well, if it in’t Mr. Harper. Looking reet flash these days, you are, Constable.”

            “You’d better get it right, Ginny. It’s Inspector Harper now. And the suit’s one of Mr. Barran’s specials, five bob discount to a bobby. Nowt flash about it, love. Do you know where I can find Col?”

            “Got business with him do you?” she asked suspiciously.

            “What do you think? He’s not on my social list.”

            She sniffed.

            “Happen you’ll find him at the Leopard Hotel. Spends a lot of time there these last few days, what with his missus in Armley and Martha up in Halifax.”

            “Halifax?” he asked as if he’d heard nothing about it. “What’s she doing up there?”

            “Gone to stay with his sister.”

            “I didn’t even know Col had a sister.”

            “Oh aye.” She lowered her voice. “That’s what he says, leastways. I’ve never seen her meself.”

            “Martha was just a nipper when I saw her last.”

            “I bet she’d still know you, Mr. Harper. Dun’t forget anything, that lass. Sharp as owt and twice as bright. Betty even had a picture took of her when they were flush. Up on their wall, it is.”

            He nodded slowly.

            “Up at the Leopard, you said?”

            “Reet enough.” Her laugh came out like a cackle. “Don’t know who he’s been robbing but he’s not been short lately. But mebbe you’d know more about that.”

            He smiled.

            “Aye, maybe I would, Ginny.” Let her think that for now. If he needed more he could always come back.


Hotel was a grand word for it. He wouldn’t have stayed there for love nor money. He passed by the archway leading through to the cobbled yard and pushed open the door to the saloon bar. The wood was ancient and dark, the white ceiling long stained shades of brown and yellow by smoke.

            A few men were drinking, sitting at tables in the cramped room, some glancing up as he entered. They all had beaten-down faces, the tired look of the weary and the worn. Harper spotted Parkinson in the corner, his head drooping, an empty glass of gin in front of him.

            He sat down noisily, dragging the chair over the flagstone floor. Parkinson raised his eyes, squinting at him questioningly.

            “I know you, don’t I?” His gaze was blurry, the words faintly slurred. Not drunk yet, Harper decided, but he’d taken the first few steps on the road. The man would still be able to think. And lie.

            “Aye, you do, Col.” He knew the man was barely older than him but he already looked old and faded, cheeks sunk where so many teeth had been pulled, the hair thinned away to nothing on his scalp. “It’s Inspector Harper. Constable Harper as was.”

            Parkinson nodded his slow understanding as Harper stared around the bar, not surprised to see it had quietly emptied. It always happened. Some of those would have known him, the rest would have smelled him for a rozzer.

            “You been staying out of trouble?” he asked.

            “Course I have,” the man answered.

            “I hear your Betty’s in Armley again. What do they do, keep a cell for her up there?”

            “Not her fault,” Parkinson told him. The Inspector almost chuckled. If he had a penny for everyone time someone had said that, he’d be a rich man. It was never their fault.

            “And how’s Martha? She was no more than a bairn when I saw her last.”

            “A good lass,” Col said, nodding his head for emphasis. “A very good lass.” He patted the pockets of his tattered old jacket. “Do you have a cigarette?”

            Harper pulled out the packet of Woodbines. Parkinson’s gaze slowly followed his movements. He handed one to the man and lit it.

            “Martha,” he prompted.

            “She’s with me sister.”

            “I didn’t know you had one, Col. I never heard you talk about her.”

            “In Halifax.”

            “Oh aye? How long’s Martha up there for?”

            “Till…” He hesitated. “Till my Betty’s out. Better that way.”

            She should have been at school but he doubted Parkinson would worry about something like that.

            “Better for you, you mean. If she’s not here you don’t have to look after her. So what’s your sister’s name, Col?” Harper asked idly.

            For a few seconds Harper didn’t answer.

            “Sarah,” he said finally. “She’s married, got little ‘uns of her own, too.” He took a deep draw on the cigarette.

            “Where does she live in Halifax, then?”

            “I don’t remember”

            “You don’t, Col? Your own kin? You sent Martha up there and don’t even know where she’s going?”

            “I put her on the train. Sarah was meeting her at the station.”

            “How would she know what train? Good at guessing is she, this sister of yours?”

            “I sent her a letter.”

            Harper laughed.

            “Come on, Col. You can’t write and you don’t know where she lives. How are you going to send her a letter?”

            “I had her address at home, on a piece of paper up on the mantel. And my Martha writes a reet good hand. I had her do it.”

            “How long’s she been gone?”

            “A week.” Parkinson shrugged. “Day or two longe, mebbe. I don’t know.” He started to rise. “I need to be going.”

            Harper clamped his had tight around the man’s wrist.

            “Not yet, Col,” he said quietly. “Not when we’re having a good little natter.”

            Parkinson sat down again, shoulders slumping.

            “What Betty think about all this?”

            “I’ve not told her yet. I will.”

            Ash had been right, Harper thought. There was something going on here.

            “I think you’d best give me your sister’s address. Just so I can get in touch and make sure everything’s all right.”

            Parkinson shook his head. “In’t got it, do I? I threw it out after we’d sent the letter. Don’t need bits of paper cluttering up the place.”  Harper kept hold of the man’s arm, fingers digging hard into the flesh. Parkinson’s eyes were starting to water, his look almost pleading.

            “I’m off to Armley on Monday to see Betty, so you’d better be telling me the truth.” He squeezed a little harder, feeling the man flinch. “You understand?”

            “Yes.” He let go. Parkinson cradled his wrist, rubbing it lightly, his look a mix of wounded pride and anger.

            “You’ve got money for a drink, too,” Harper noted. “That’s not like you.”

            “I won it. A bet on the rugby.”

            “Frist time for everything, eh, Col?” He waited a heartbeat. “If you have something to tell me, find me at the station.” Harper stood slowly then bent down, his mouth close to the man’s ear. “I hope you haven’t been lying to me, Col. If anything’s happened to Martha I’ll make you wish you were dead.”


Parkinson was hiding something, that was obvious. But as he strolled back to Millgarth in the sunshine he couldn’t imagine what. He could see Col sending the girl somewhere so he didn’t have to look after her, but the tale of a sister was all lies. The big question was why; what was he hiding?

            As soon as he entered the station he could hear the buzz of talk all around and the dark undercurrent of complaints. Something had happened. In the office he looked at Reed.

            “The Superintendent wants you,” he said, glancing up from a report.

            “What is it?”

            “All leave cancelled from Monday.”

            “The gasworks?”

“What else would it be?”

            He knocked on the door and Superintendent Kendall waved him in.

            “Sit down, Tom,” he said. Kendall was in his fifties, grey hair cut short. When Harper became a detective Kendall was already an inspector; he’d the young man in hand and passed on what he’d learnt. Now he was in charge of A Division, a solid policeman, utterly honest and loyal to the force. The only thing he lacked was imagination. “When did you get back?”

            “About two minutes ago.”

            “Long enough to have heard, I suppose.” He picked his pipe out of the ashtray, tamped down the tobacco with a nicotine-stained fingertip and struck a match. “There was trouble at the Wortley works last night.”


            “Nothing bad. Not yet, anyway. That’s going to start on Monday. They’re bringing in the replacement workers then.”

            “The blacklegs, you mean, sir,” Harper said coldly.

            Kendall ignored the words. “It’s our job to keep everyone safe. We’re not playing at politics with this, Tom. All we’re going to make sure no one breaks the law.”

            “And if they do?”

            “We arrest them. Whoever they are.”

            Harper nodded.

            “The train with the replacements is coming on Monday night. And I expect you to keep that quiet,” Kendall said pointedly. “They’re bringing them into the Midland goods station so they can just march the men over to the Meadow Lane works.”

            It made sense, he thought. The gasworks was just across the road, no more than a hundred yards away.

            “What do you want me to do, sir?”

            “I want you down there when they arrive.”

            “In uniform?” He hoped not; he’d been grateful to leave the blue suit behind. He had no wish to wear it again.

            Kendall shook his head.

            “You and Reed will stay in plain clothes. There’ll be a crowd wait. Bound to be. Mingle with them. You know what to do if there’s a problem.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            The Superintendent sighed.

            “It’s going to be an ugly business, Tom. Probably violent.”

            “Probably?” He could feel himself start to bristle.“It’s certain to be. The gas committee’s getting rid of men just to save a few pennies. Of course they’re angry.”

            “I know where your sympathies lie,” Kendall said. “You’ve never made a secret of them. But I’m relying on you to do your job properly.”

            “I will, sir.”

            “After Monday night you’ll be on duty until all this is over. I’ll have some camp beds set up.” He hesitated. “You’ve been a bit of a dark horse.”


            “A little bid tells me you’re engaged.”

            Harper smiled. He hadn’t allowed himself to think about Annabelle during the day; he’d wanted to concentrate on the job.

            “I proposed last night.”

            “Well, you’d best tell her she won’t be seeing you for a few days.” Kendall’s face relaxed into a smile. “Getting married might be the best thing to happen to you, Tom. It steadies a man. I’ve been married almost thirty years now and I’ve never regretted a day.” He grinned. “Well, not many of them, anyway.”

            “Thank you, sir.”

            “Are you working on anything special at the moment?”

            Harper thought about Martha Parkinson.

            “Something odd. I’m not sure what it is yet.”

            “You’ll need to put it aside until all this is over.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “No need to report before Monday evening. I won’t need you before then.”

            “Thank you, sir.”

            Back in the office he pulled the watch from his waistcoat pocket. Half past four. Plenty of time yet. Reed had gone, his desk neat, the small piles of paper carefully squared off, the pens lined up. That’s what happens when you hire a military man, he thought. Everything in order.

            He looked over at his own desk. Documents everywhere, scrawled notes, a nib that had dripped ink on some paper. But then he’d never had army discipline. He’d left school at nine to work at Brunswick’s brewery. Twelve hours a day of rolling barrels around had given him muscle, and he’d spent his free hours reading, borrowing everything he could from the library. Novels, politics, history, he’d roared through them all. He’d laboured at his writing until he had a fair, legible hand. Then, the day he turned nineteen, he’d applied to join the force, certain they wouldn’t turn him down.

            He found Ash in the changing room, sitting on a bench, painstakingly updating his notebook.

            “You were right about Col. Something’s going on there.”

            “Any idea what it is, sir?”

            “Not yet,” Harper said with a quick shake of his head. “But I want people keeping an eye on him in case he tries to do a flit.”

            “And if he does?”

            “Bring him in.”

            The constable nodded, then said,

            “Sounds like this strike’s going to keep us busy for a few days.”

            “Aye. Just make sure you don’t end up with your head broken.”

            Ash laughed. “Cast iron skull, that’s what me ma always says. More likely they’ll be the ones who are hurting.”

2 thoughts on “Yes, it’s Victorian

  1. Pingback: Friday comment: The Strikers Win, by Chris Nickson. | Beyond Guardian Leeds

  2. Pingback: The Monthly @ChrisNickson2 – Skull and Stone Yard. | Beyond Guardian Leeds

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