The Hanging Psalm

Leafing through a book a few days ago, I landed on the phrase ‘the hanging psalm’; it’s Psalm 51, intoned as a convict stood at the foot of the gallows, waiting to have the noose placed around his neck.

More than that, it was a wonderful title for a book.

And suddenly I had a story. How far it will go remains to be seen (of course). But for the moment, it’s roaring like a train. This is the beginning. I didn’t make up these facts. They’re from testimony to a commission, and they’re far more brutal than anything from my imagination.

What do you think?

Leeds, 1820


They were grave men. Sober men, neat in their black coats, white stocks snowy at the neck. Important people, businessmen, landowners who believed that wealth and position meant they knew about life. Three of them together at the polished table, papers arranged in piles before them. The one in the middle spoke.

‘Your name is Simon Westow. Is that correct?’

He waited for a moment before he answered. Let them look at me. Let them see me.

‘That’s right.’

‘How old are you?’

‘Thirty in July. If I was told the truth.’ He wasn’t about to call them sir. If they wanted his respect, let them bloody earn it.

‘You were in the workhouse, I believe?’ The man kept his voice even, reading from the sheet in front of him.

‘Went when I was four, after my mam and dad died.’ He could hear the scratch of a pen as the clerk in the corner took down his answers.

‘How did they treat you? When did they put you out to work?’

‘Are you really sure you want to know that?’

It made them stop. Just for a second. But he had their attention. The man behind the desk smiled.

‘That’s why we’re here. Our aim is to find out about child labour.’ A slight pause. ‘But you must know that. It was made perfectly clear to you.’

Oh yes, he thought. Perfectly.

‘They set us on at the mill when we were six, and let the manufactories do their worst.’

‘And what might their worst be? How often were you beaten?’

‘Regularly,’ Simon said. ‘Boys and girls alike.’

The man looked down and shuffled a few of his papers.

‘More than once the overseer made us take off our shirt, climb into one of the bins on the floor, and he’d hit us with his stick until we were bloody.’ He let his words remain calm as the images raced through his mind. The facts could speak loudly enough.

‘What else?’

‘They’d tie a two-stone weight to our backs and make us work. Two of them for the bigger lads.’

‘I see.’ They looked a little uncomfortable now, all three of them shifting on their seats. Good.

‘There was one boy who could never work fast enough. He tried hard, but he couldn’t manage it. Every week the overseer hung him from a beam by his wrists and beaten with a strap on his back to try and teach him a lesson.’

‘Did he improve?’

‘He died. He was seven years old.’

‘I see.’ The men were staring now. The clerk had stopped his writing. The only sound in the room was the soft tick of the clock. But he hadn’t finished yet.

‘Once they took a vise, a pair of them, and screwed one to each of my ears. Then they had me work half the day with them in place.’

‘Why would they do that?’

‘For their own amusement. I still have the scars.’

But they wouldn’t want to see, he knew that. He’d leave this room and they’d try to forget everything he told them. Maybe it would come back in their dreams tonight. Every night. Exactly the way it had for him.

‘Don’t you want to know where it happened?’ Westow asked.

‘That’s not part of this inquiry. We’re here to discover, not blame people for things that happened in the past.’ His voice changed, becoming gentler, trying to appease. ‘How long did you work there?’

‘Until I was thirteen. Seven years.’

‘Thank you, Mr. Westow.’

He stood, back straight, and walked to the door. A final question stopped him.

‘What is your occupation now?’

He turned to stare at them. ‘I’m a thief taker.’

Hanging Psalm revised


14 thoughts on “The Hanging Psalm

  1. You have to go further with this you had me so intrigued that I had to go off and search to see what Leeds was like in the 1820’s and also have a look at my Family Tree and see who was around and where at that period in Leeds History quite a few were in Hunslet which at that time would have been on the increase.

    1. I already have a few thousand more words written. It’s an interesting period, with industrialisation really beginning to take hold, people arriving from all over. And pretty much midway between Richard Nottingham and Tom Harper.

      1. heartbeatoz

        It is an interesting period in time especially for Leeds and the growth it had, and now you have me off doing research on Thief Takers, blimey I get to learn a lot of history through your Books.

  2. Margaret Abraham

    Know you write about true facts, and I am a fan of your books but I think this one will be a hard one to take in .that said I am waiting in anticipation for the publication. Yours sincerely Margaret Abraham

    1. The facts are brutal, and all the more so for being stated baldly. But the novel itself is come. I wouldn’t anticipate publication too much – it’ll be quite a long time before I finish writing it, and then to see if any publisher is interested! But thank you for your confidence in me!

  3. Barbara Oehm

    Yes I like the sound of this. As another correspondent commented ‘we learn a lot of history through your books’ The Hanging Psalm (Miserere mei, Deus) Part of it is used in the Anglican Morning Prayer service (Vs 15) and lines of this psalm appear in Choir Anthems, notably vs 10 and 11. However readings of it in church rarely start at the beginning these days, i imagine because of vs. 5, which might cause a few raised eyebrows and uncomfortable shifting on pews….
    The names in your books are always so accurately “Leeds”. Wilson for example used here. My mother was a Wilson before she married and my father used to wind her up everyone he came across a Wilson…”there’s always a bloody Wilson somewhere…” Sugden, was my paternal Grandmothers name, featured as the villain in your Tom Harper mystery “Skin like silver”. That one kept us guessing until the end. Can’t get enough of your books. Just keep writing them 🙂

  4. Most of the names come from graveyards – always a great place to research names, especially first names. I’m not sure Wilson will stay in this one, to be honest. I haven’t decided yet if it feels right for him…but names are powerful signifiers, in many ways. Geographically, as you say. But in fiction, they can give an indication of how someone might be. I have a book coming out in about 12 months, set in the 1930s. The main character is called Urban Raven. I’d never come across the name Urban before, but that was what my great-uncle was called. Urban Bowling. Together, they’d sound ridiculous these days, but Urban was so unusual that I wanted to keep it. Raven I found in Beckett Street cemetery.
    I’ll keep writing, don’t worry. It’s not in me to stop. Just need to hope that people want to keep publishing them!
    And thank you for those lovely words.

  5. Diana MacIntosh

    There was a notorious factory in Nottingham, which took children from the workhouses of London. Their little bodies were buried behind the factory.
    It is now posh flats, one of workers wrote a book about his experience

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