1820, and with the final defeat and exile of Napoleon, Britain was at peace for the first time in a generation. In Leeds, the Industrial Revolution had taken firm hold of the town. Manufactories (as they were known) had sprung up, with businessmen eager to take advantage of the new machinery and steam power to increase their profits. For the first time, a haze of smoke hung over the city, one that would only grow worse and worse and these factories and mills grew and grew until the Leeds skyline became a forest of chimneys.
For men with capital and vision, there was plenty of money to be made. The world’s first steam locomotive was already operating, hauling coal from the fields in Middleton down to the staithe near the bottom of Salem Place. Another two years and Joshua Tetley, from an Armley family of maltsters, and with a family shop on Mill Hill selling malt, as well as wine and brandy, would gamble and buy Sykes’s Brewery. Yes, there were fortunes for men who took chances. Benjamin Gott and John Marshall had already proved that at Bean Ing and Holbeck, with wool and flax on an industrial scale that no one had seen before.
Factories created jobs. The population of Leeds at the start of the 1800s was around 30,000. Two decades later it was 48,000, with plenty more in the out-townships (where the home weavers still made a living of sorts, although that would rapidly die away).
Conditions in the countryside were poor. With enclosure, many agricultural workers and the families were turned off the land they’d known for centuries. People pressed and piled into Leeds, hoping that the streets would be paved with gold. Of course, they weren’t. With so many seeking work, labour was cheap; the bosses could pay what they wanted, and the workers had no union to represent them. You took what was offered, or you got nothing at all.
All these people needed somewhere to live. The first back-to-backs had been built in the early 1790s (ironically where the upscale Victoria Gate shopping centre and John Lewis now stand); now speculative builders began to develop streets of them in the Leylands and the area beyond Millgarth. There was money to be made in housing.
For most people in Leeds, though. Life was grinding poverty. The chance of getting ahead was non-existent. Simply treading water was daily effort. Many went under or left, dispirited. For some who stayed, political radicalism offered a ray of hope.
It was a time when only the wealthy and the landowners had the vote. Leeds didn’t even have an MP. Most people had no say in the way their country was run. The government was still scared that revolution might be possible and cracked down hard on sedition. On all crime. Small offences could mean transportation to Australia or Tasmania, a brutal life in the young colonies. Shipping the criminals to the other side of the world became government policy, although many would serve at least part of their terms on the old ships known as prison hulks. The magistrates imposed harsh sentences. After all, it was for the good of the community.
For all that, though, they couldn’t stop people thinking, and radicalism was already firmly established in West Yorkshire. Around the turn of the century, right the way through to 1812-13 the Luddites had tried to wreck the new factories, as machines took away job from skilled craftsmen.
With the war, food prices had risen, to the point where keeping a family alive was almost impossible. Leeds had seen food riots over the price of grain, notably one led by ‘Lady Ludd’ – probably a man in a dress; the population was swift to stir and slow to cool.
That’s Leeds in 1820.
And into that landscape walks Simon Westow. Orphaned at four and put in the workhouse, set on to work in a mill at six. An angry man. And now, grown, a thief-taker. With no police beyond the Constable and the night watch, thief-takers are the only resort for those who’ve had property stolen. At this time the definition of property included wives and daughters and anything they possessed or brought to a marriage. Most prosecutions for theft had to be undertaken privately. The result was that people generally only cared about the return of their property.
Simon is resourceful, successful. Married with a pair of young twin sons. Until their birth, his wife Rosie had worked with him. Now his assistant is Jane, somewhere around 14 years old. When she was eight, her mother arrived home to find the girl being raped by her husband. Preferring the security of a wage to the temptation of a girl in the house, she threw Jane out to survive on the streets. She did, and discovered she had the gift of being able to follow without being noticed, a useful trait for a thief-taker.
A girl who chooses to reveal nothing, who hides her emotions behind a wall, a feral life has made her into a deadly young woman.
Simon’s business takes him from the wealthy to the underclasses. He knows how the town works in every way. He knows its secrets. The one thing he doesn’t expect is the past.
The Hanging Psalm will be published on September 29 in the UK.