Next month On Copper Street, the fifth book in my Victorian series, will be published. One ongoing minor character has been Tom Maguire, a real person, and one of the unsung heroes of British politics, and one of the greatest unknowns ever to come from Leeds.
He discovered socialism in the 1880s and became a firebrand speaker, rousing the men and helping them win strikes. He was someone who helped in the formation of the Independent Labour Party, only to find himself sidelined by others with more of a taste for power. Tom Maguire died in Leeds in 1895. This is an extract from the new book. The circumstances of Maguire’s are true to reports of the time.
‘I had word about something while you were gone,’ Superintendent Kendall said.
‘What?’ From his expression, it couldn’t be anything good.
‘Tom Maguire. They found him dead at home. You knew him quite well, didn’t you?’
Knew him and liked him. Maguire had organized the unions. He’d helped them win their strikes, and he’d been there at the birth of the Independent Labour Party two years before. All that and not even thirty yet. But politics never paid the bills; he’d earned his money as the assistant to a photographer up on New Briggate.
‘How?’ The word came out as a hoarse croak. Surely no one would hurt him…
‘Natural causes,’ the superintendent said. ‘The doctor’s there now. I said we’d send someone over.’
‘I’ll go,’ Harper said.
‘A couple of friends called to see him this morning. Nobody had heard from him in a few days. The door was unlocked. They walked in and he was there…’
He knew Maguire had a room on Quarry Hill, no more than two minutes’ walk away from Millgarth, but Harper had never been in the place before; they’d always met in cafés and pubs and union offices. It was up two flights of rickety, dangerous stairs in a house that reeked of overcooked cabbage, sweat, and the stink from the privy next door. How many others lived in the building, Harper wondered? How many were packed into the rooms? How many more had lost their hope and will in a place like this?
The door to the room was open wide. The table was piled with books and magazines and notebooks. Politics, poetry, all manner of things. A few had slid off, scattered across the bare wooden floor. No sink, just a cheap cracked pitcher with a blue band and a bowl. A razor and leather strop, shaving brush and soap. A good, dark wool suit hung on one nail, a clean shirt on another.
That was the sum total of the man’s life.
The doctor was finishing his examination, wiping his hands on a grubby piece of linen. The inspector tried to recollect his name. Smith? That seemed right. An older man. Not uncaring, but hardened by the years. They’d met a few times before, always in situations like this.
‘He’s not one to trouble the police, Inspector.’ Dr Smith closed his bag. ‘Pneumonia. Sad at his age but nothing suspicious.’ He said good day, and the sound of his footsteps on the stair slowly faded away.
Harper could feel the cold all the way to his bones, as if there’d been no heat in here for weeks. The hearth was empty, carefully cleaned, but not a speck of coal in the scuttle. He opened a cupboard. The only thing on the shelf was a twist of paper that held some tea. No food. Nothing at all to eat.
The bed was cheap, pushed into the corner. A thin, stained mattress. Maguire lay under a grubby sheet and a threadbare woollen blanket. On top of that lay a heavy overcoat to give more warmth.
Two bodies in their beds, he thought. So different, he thought, but the ending was just the same. The doctor had covered the man’s face, trying to offer a little decency against the brutality of death. Harper pulled it gently away. The policeman inside needed to see for himself. Maguire’s skin was so pale it barely seemed to be there. His eyes were closed. No lustre in the ruddy hair.
A gust of wind rattled the window. Tom Maguire dead. No heat, no food. And no one to really care. Maguire had been ill; Harper had heard that. But this? How could he have died with nothing and no one around him?
Harper laid the sheet back in place. He’d liked the man. He was honest, he had principles and convictions that didn’t bend with the wind or the chance to line his pockets. He’d believed in the working man. He’d believed in the power to change things.
Very quietly, as if a loud sound might cause the corpse to wake, Harper pulled the door to. He started the walk out to the Victoria public house in Sheepscar. He needed to tell Annabelle.
‘Did you see him?’ she asked. ‘His body?’ He nodded.
When he entered she’d been standing by the window in the rooms above the bar she owned, gazing down at Roundhay Road. At first she didn’t even turn to face him and he knew. The word must have spread like ripples across Leeds: Tom Maguire was dead.
His eyes searched around for their daughter, Mary.
‘I asked Ellen to take her out for a little while,’ Annabelle said.
He put his hands on his wife’s shoulders. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. He tried to pull her close but she didn’t stir.
‘I knew he was poorly. I should have gone down to see what I could do.’ Her voice was tight and hard. Blaming herself, as if she could have kept him alive. ‘I could have done something.’
What could he tell her? She’d known Maguire all her life. They’d grown up a few streets apart on the Bank, Annabelle a few years older. Life had taken them in different directions, then politics had brought them together again after she began speaking for the Suffragist Society.
Annabelle began to move away, ready to gather up her hat and shawl. ‘I can go over there now. I’ll see what I can do.’
Harper shook his head. ‘Don’t. There’s nothing. Honestly.’ If she saw how Maguire had lived and the way he died, then she’d never forgive herself. He put his arms around her, trying to find some words. But they wouldn’t come, just thoughts of a barren, bitter room.
He thought back over things he’d heard in the last few months. Word was that the new Labour Party was pushing Maguire away, that he was the past, not the future. He’d been seen out drinking a fair few times, so far gone that people had to help him home. That wasn’t the man he’d known, not the one he’d want to remember. It certainly wasn’t the one he’d watched who inspired hundreds of labourers with a speech on Vicar’s Croft and helped win them a cut in working hours. Not the man who led the gas strike like a general and beat the council. And definitely not the shyly humorous man he talked to in the café by the market. That was the Maguire who’d remain in his memory.