I’d always said I’d never write a Victorian crime novel. I was certain of it. With so many already out there, what was left to add?
But somehow, I reckoned without Leeds tapping me on the shoulder.
Walk through the city and the Victorian era doesn’t just echo. It roars. It’s a time you can literally reach out and touch. The city’s architectural jewels are its grand Victorian buildings – the Town Hall, the Corn Exchange, and the solid, powerful edifices put up by the banks and insurance companies. They were the bricks and mortar promises of solidity, propriety and prosperity. A reminder of when this was one of the industrial powerhouses of the British Empire. And at the other end of the scale, the back-to-back houses in places like Harehills and Kirkstall stand as brusque accusations of the poverty so rife back then.
A world away, yet still close enough to be a very real part of today. But I wasn’t interested.
Then Leeds gave me the tale of its Gas Strike.
By 1890, the workers had begun to organise. The unions had were gaining strength. And that year, with the Leeds Gas Strike, they showed their power. Their terms of work changed by the council, wages cut, jobs slashed, the gas workers had no choice but to walk out. ‘Replacement workers’ were drafted in from Manchester and London to stoke the furnaces and keep the gas flowing. But they didn’t know they’d have to face a mob thousands strong. In fact, they’d been recruited under false pretences, believing they’d be employed at a new works. As soon as they discovered the truth, most abandoned their posts. The lights were flickering. Factories were closing. Within three days the strikers had their victory. For austere times it was an glorious story: the workers won.
I was intrigued. This might be a tale worth telling.
Reading more about the strike led to Tom Maguire. He was a young labour activist in Leeds, still in his middle twenties in 1890, a believer who helped build the labour movement, and became one of the founders of the Independent Labour Party. More than that, he was a poet (it’s a line from one of his works that gives Gods of Gold its title) who died in poverty in 1895 – yet thousands reportedly lined the roads as his coffin was taken to the cemetery.
There was definitely something here. But it needed something more personal to tip the scales and make me renege on my no-Victorian promise.
A couple of years ago I wrote a short story that took its inspiration from Atkinson Grimshaw’s dark, evocative painting Reflections On The Aire: On Strike, Leeds 1879. It shows the river, almost empty of ships, and a woman standing alone on the bank, clutching a bundle. Annabelle Atkinson. That was what I called her. And even then I knew we had unfinished business. She was too powerful, too vibrant a character to ever be satisfied with a single, brief appearance.
But she bided her time. It was only when I was researching the Gas Strike that she came and sat beside me in a swish of velvet.
‘I know all about this, luv,’ she said with a smile. ‘I was there, remember? Do you want me to tell you about it?’
So Annabelle introduced me to her fiancé, Detective Inspector Tom Harper, and the other characters in her life. We strolled along the streets of Hunslet and the Leylands together, drank in the Victoria in Sheepscar, were jostled by the crowds on Briggate and window-shopped in the Grand Pygmalion on Boar Lane. We sang along with the music hall tunes they loved – “My Old Man,” “Sidney The One-Week Wonder,” “’Enerey The Eighth”.
After that, how could I walk away?
Especially when with them came the ghosts of my own family, of Isaac Nickson who brought his wife and children to Leeds from Malton in the 1820s, of his descendants – William, John William, Harold Ewart – and the stories they had to tell me.
I couldn’t refuse. I didn’t even have a choice any more.
‘Tom Harper pounded down Briggate, the hobnails from his boots scattering sparks behind him…’