How Annabelle Changed Me

A couple of things have surprised me about The Tin God. Of course, I’m over the moon about the reviews it’s being receiving, far better than I could ever have expected.

I set out to write a crime novel, a continuation of the Tom Harper series. And really, that’s what I did. But what people seem to see as the heart of the book is Annabelle’s fight to be elected as a Poor Law Guardian. That astonished me, but also gladdened my heart. It’s important, it’s vital, and it means, perhaps, that I’ve written something that reaches out beyond genre to deal with something bigger. As a writer, I don’t think you can ever aim to do that. If it happens, it’s serendipity.

The book has also changed me a little, made me more aware, more vocal on issues. And since I completed it, I’ve been assisting the curator of an exhibition called The Vote Before The Vote, about the Leeds Victorian women who worked for equality and the Parliamentary franchise, perfectly apt for the centenary of some women receiving the vote. Most of these figures are unknown, written out of suffrage history, and they deserve so much more than that. The exhibition runs for the month of May in Room 700 at Leeds Central Library, and there will be a website with all the information.

Exposter final 1

I’m very, very proud to be involved with this. I feel I’m contributing something to the history of my city. Happy, too, as the official launch for The Tin God takes place during the exhibition. And especially because Annabelle has her own board there as part of it all, melding fact and fiction. Emblematic of the working-class women who were involved in the long struggle. She’s become a part of history in a very tangible way, and I suspect that somewhere, she’s beaming with pride, although she’d never admit it.

annabellecard 200_1

On that note, I’ll give you a little from one of her election speeches, and hope it makes you want to buy the book. If you’re anywhere close to Leeds on Saturday, May 5, between 1-2 pm, come to the launch. There may well be more than you expect – and you’ll have the opportunity to see an important exhibition.

book launch

This takes place after someone has set fire to a hall when Annabelle is set to give a speech. Instead, she addresses the crowd out on the street.

‘This happened because someone is scared of women. Not just as Poor Law Guardians or on School Boards. He’s afraid of women. Frightened of half the population. What is there to worry him? Do you know? Because I’m blowed if I do. Just three years ago there were fewer than two hundred women as Poor Law Guardians in the whole of England. Two hundred out of a total of thirty thousand. It’s not exactly taking this over, is it? We want to increase that number here. People believe we should. Important people. The Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, thinks there should be more of us. I’ll tell you what the Secretary of State for India said: “No Board of Guardians is properly constituted when it is composed entirely of men. Having regard to the fact that so large a proportion of the population of our workhouses are women and children, it seems vital to me that women should take their part in Poor Law administration.” Even the men at the top of government and the church think we belong. The one who set fire to this place – to your hall – he’s swimming against history. Women are running for the offices they can hold, and some of them are going to be elected. If not this time, then next, or the one after. We’ve started and we’re not going to stop. That tide he’s swimming against, it’s going to drown him.’ Harper watched as she looked around the faces, her breath steaming in the air. She was smiling. ‘I’ll tell you something else. You vote for me, and you can help send him packing. More importantly, you’ll be electing someone who wants to help the poor, not punish them. You there, John Winters, Frank Hepworth, Catherine Simms. You all know me. You know where I live. Maybe the Temperance people might not like the landlady of a public house holding office. Yes,’ she told them, ‘I’ve heard that grumble. But you know that when I start something, I do it properly.’ She paused and drew in a breath, straightening her back so she seemed taller. ‘You’re ratepayers. You can vote. I’m asking you to put your X next to my name. Thank you.’

And remember. vote for Annabelle Harper!

annabelle election poster texture


Pen Work

Yes, The Tin God is out, and I’m overwhelmed by the reviews it’s received so far. I’ll be going on about that book again very soon, I know.

In the meantime, though, a short story that came to me this morning. No idea how it popped into my mind. And not all of it is true. I’m not about to tell you which bits are false, though…

I never told you

I lifted the nib from the paper, watching the ink colour dark blue against the white. A fountain pen, the first time I’d written with one in years. It was old, expensive once, and probably antique now, the better part of half a century old. It had been father’s, of course. One more thing he’d bought that we couldn’t really afford. But then, he was a man who’d occasionally spend money we didn’t have. Like the watch that cost far more than most men made in a week, or the baby grand piano that hardly fitted in the front room, and big Wolseley car with leather seats and a walnut dashboard. The type of thing that drove my mother to silent despair.

And this was what remained. Fifteen years since he died. The fountain had passed to me. I’d put it in a drawer and just found it again the week before. Then some cleaning and finding somewhere to buy real ink. That wasn’t as difficult as I’d imagined; apparently penmanship making a comeback. Artisan copperplate. Retro chic, of a sort.

What to write, though? That was a good question. Weighing the pen in my hand, the way it slid comfortably between my fingers, it seemed to demand something special.

I’m a left-hander. We’re not built for writing with instruments like this. We either have to turn our hand crabwise or hold it in an unnatural position to avoid blotting everything with the side of our hands.

I’m old enough that I learned to write with the old type of steel nib that had to be dipped into an inkwell. A relic of Victorian times, barely a step up from a goose quill. The year I turned ten, a teacher told me in June that I needed to learn to write without the awkward blotting before I returned to school in September. I did. I sweated the summer away, practising. At that age you don’t question authority; you adapt. I still write that way, not that I actually write much anymore. All my work is on the computer now. Yet I still remember the relief when I started A-level classes and we could take notes and submit essays in ball point.

The last thing I wrote with a fountain pen was a letter. To my girlfriend of the time, quite formally breaking things off. We’d been going out for almost six months, almost an eternity at that age. Long enough that people thought of us as a single unit – DaveandJane.

She went to the girl’s school next to our boy’s grammar. I’d wait at the bottom of the hill in the morning so we could walk up together. Then later, in the afternoon, back the way we came, talking about – I don’t remember.

Truth to tell, there’s very little that I do remember. Her face won’t even come into focus in my memory. It should. After all, she was the first girl I believed I loved. We lost our virginity to each other, a scrambled, dismal affair on my bedroom carpet that lasted seven seconds, if I’m being generous. Yet the years have turned her hazy. Gauzy. Try to touch the memory and my fingers slip right through it. I’m not sure if that’s a talent or a failing.


Those were days of longing. Innocent days, still a couple of years away from discovering that sex could be oral, too. Jane went on holiday for a fortnight with her parents. I pined and kept a diary – in ball point – and played “Wild World” over and over.

We’d stared going out after she split up with a boy in the year above me. It was one of those things she never wanted to discuss. No comparisons, no recollections. I never persisted; some dogs were safer left sleeping.

But after six months, I heard a whisper. A quiet word from a friend. The kind of thing to start the paranoia twitching. Someone had seen her in town, sitting in a café, talking to her ex.

Ask her? Confront her? I was sixteen, I didn’t have that much confidence. Or perhaps I was scared of an answer I didn’t want to hear. Fear seemed to crowd in around me, especially after another friend said they’d seen her with him at the cinema.

I sat in my room, playing guitar and waiting for inspiration.

We still walked to and from school together. When I looked in her eyes, everything seemed quite normal, quite content. But was that some reluctance in her kiss? One weekend she said she wouldn’t be able to see me – relatives were visiting. Yet when I accidentally strolled past on the Saturday afternoon, her parents were working in the garden. They didn’t see me, no conversation.

My throat went dry, I felt sick.

At home, I took a sheet of notepaper and picked up the fountain pen.

I made up an elaborate tale. I’d been seeing a girl from another school for three weeks. I apologised for cheating, but now I was admitting it, and it was only fair to end things. I knew Jane was wonderful, but this was the only right way to end things. I apologised again, waited until the ink was dry, folded the paper and put it in an envelope. I knew the address by heart. I still do, for that matter.

Strike first. It was a matter of adolescent pride. Walk away with my head held high or be known as the boy who was dumped.

I left early for school on Monday morning. She wasn’t waiting by the parade of shops after the final bell rang. It was over. It was done. The next I saw of her, she was holding hands with her older boy. He saw me and smirked.

In sixty-three years, I’ve told my share of lies. Hard to live that long without a few. But that was the first big one. I put the pen to paper again.

I never told you the truth.

Looking Ahead For Tom And Annabelle Harper?

It’s ironic, really. I always swore I’d never write a crime novel set in Victorian times. There era was overdone, with Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins – even Dickens – and all who’ve followed in their footsteps. And now I have six of them out there, plus a seventh just completed.

annabellefrom book_3

It still makes me shake my head. Especially the reviews that have come in so far for The Tin God. I’ve created something that people seem to love…

Actually, it all began with a painting by Atkinson Grimshaw, the Leeds artist. A woman standing by the canal, holding a bundle. The water is almost empty because of a strike, the smoky skyline of Leeds tries to peer through behind her. She’s alone, just staring.


She was Annabelle. That’s how she came into my life. It simply grew from there. A short story at first. Then, after reading about the Leeds Gas Strike of 1890, a novel. An event where the strikers won in three days, even as the Council Gas Committee imported strikebreakers? I had to commemorate that.

So Annabelle came back. She told me all about it and introduced me to her husband, Detective Inspector Tom Harper and his assistant, Sergeant Billy Reed. Out of that arrived Gods of Gold.


The books are unashamedly political. No apologies for that. But they’re also crime novels, the two intertwined in a heart around Leeds. The newest, The Tin God, is the most political of all, and one where Annabelle finally takes centre stage.

In fact, she doesn’t, although the plot revolves around her bid (along with six other women) to be elected as a Poor Law Guardian in 1897. Trying to stop the man who doesn’t want women in politics is the core. But the heart, the linchpin, is Annabelle trying to win in the Sheepscar Ward.

annabelle election poster texture

The Tin God was a book that seemed to write itself. I was simply the conduit. And over the last few years, Annabelle (in particular) and Tom have become every bit as real to me as friends I meet. I know them, and they know me. They’re family, in a way.

I’d like to say that I have plans for them, but the truth is, they have plans for me. To tell their story to the end of the Great War. Whether that will happen or not remains to be seen. But I’d like to do it. Although the books themselves aren’t planned out, I know what happens in their lives, and in their daughter Mary’s, too.

The book I’ve just finished writing will actually be my last Victorian (assuming my publisher likes it, of course). No, I’m giving nothing away about it, except it’s set in 1899. If another follows, that will be after 1901, and we’ll be into the Edwardian and George V eras. There’s plenty of Leeds material – the 1908 Suffragette ‘riot,’ the start of the war, news from the Somme in 1916, the Leeds Convention of 1917, and finally, finally, the Armistice a year later.

That will prove interesting. I’d certainly never imagined writing an Edwardian crime novel. Or even given a second through to George V. But I have a strong impression that Annabelle and Tom will guide me through it all.

In the meantime, I’d be very grateful if you read The Tin God. And the other books in the series.

the tin god 4 (1)

The Real Annabelle Harpers

The Tin God has finally appeared in print, and damn, the reviews have made my heart soar.  As a number of the writers have mentioned, the central figure of book is Annabelle Harper, a working-class woman running to be elected as a Poor Law Guardian in 1897.

annabellefrom book_3

“I absolutely adored this book, right from the very first chapter. I loved the setting, I loved the characters, and I loved the gritty feel of Victorian police work. But more than anything, I was in love with the plucky and persistent Annabelle Harper, and with all the women like her who moved mountains with regards to women’s rights today… the show was definitely stolen by one, little, pub-owning woman who had the nerve to run in an election.”

“Nickson drops us straight onto the streets of his beloved Leeds. We smell the stench of the factories, hear the clatter of iron-shod hooves on the cobbles, curse when the soot from the chimneys blackens the garments on our washing lines and – most tellingly – we feel the pangs of hunger gnawing at the bellies of the impoverished.”

A change in local government law three years before made it possible for someone like her to run for office. But were there really working-class women in Leeds fighting for equality and representation?

Of course there were.

Three years before Annabelle’s campaign, a woman named Mrs. Eliza Dickenson of 4, School Street in Stourton, a miner’s wife “much involved in the recent colliery strike,” received the second-highest number of votes in her ward and was elected as a Poor Law Guardian for the Rothwell Ward. A perfect example. That same year, Mrs. Woodock of Beeston Road, very close to the Hunslet workhouse, was also elected, for the East Ward.

Mrs. Ann Ellis was a power-loom weaver from Batley (not Leeds, but close). Along with two icons of the 19th century Leeds Suffrage movement, she arranged protests against the Factory Acts that were intended to limit the ability of women, especially married women, to work. Mrs. Ellis was instrumental in setting up branches of the Women’s Trade Union League across West Yorkshire, and in 1875 led a six-week strike of women weavers in Dewsbury.

Ann Ellis (standing behind Alice Cliff Scatcherd)

Mrs. Ann Ellis, standing

The most famous example, perhaps, is Mary Gawthorpe. She grew up in Meanwood, the daughter of a factory foreman (and Tory election agent) and a textile worker. A bright child, Mary won a scholarship to secondary school. But as that only covered the school fees – secondary education wasn’t free at that time – her father refused to let her take, and she became a pupil-teacher at her primary school, teaching younger children in the day and receiving her own lessons in the evening and on Saturday. When she qualified, a little before her 21st birthday, she moved her mother and siblings over to Hunslet to take them away from her abusive father.


By that time she was already becoming active in the Labour Party, the National Union of Teachers, and was a member of the Leeds Suffrage Society, quickly developing a reputation as a public speaker. Labour’s inaction over women receiving the vote took her to the WSPU, and more militant action. In 1909 she was severely beaten after heckling Churchill at a meeting. Six months later she was assaulted again, and a judge threw out the case when she tried to press charges against her attackers. The accumulated injuries made it impossible for her to continue with her work.

These are just a very few examples. There were dozens, maybe hundreds, more. Not just in Leeds, but everywhere. Your town, your city almost certainly had one or two. Ordinary women, without wealth or status or privilege, who felt compelled to act, to do something. They’re the real heroines.

I love Annabelle dearly. To me, she’s completely alive. But a part of me knows that to some degree that I’m the one who controls her destiny. She’s emblematic of the real women who truly did risk everything for equality. I hope you’ll support her in her campaign to be elected.

When I sat down to start The Tin God, I was there to tell a crime story. That’s what I hope I’ve done. But, in my head, it’s become something bigger, a book that opens a window on a time when women were pushing and struggling to become accepted as full citizens, even if there was little prospect of success. I feel as if I’ve tapped into something bigger – but I may be entirely delusional on that. Of course, I’d love for you to buy a copy of the book. But if you can’t, please order it from the library, and if they don’t have it, ask them to buy a copy. Not just because it’s my book, but because it might give a little understanding of what all those real Annabelle Harpers had to endure. And please, honour those who really did put it all on the line. They were the pioneers. They deserve it.

Friends and Traitors – A Review

friends and traitors


I’ve long been a fan of John Lawton’s Inspector (Superintendent, Chief Super, Commander) Troy series. I re-read the entire canon regularly. They’re historical crime novels set between the 1930s and 1963, with depth resonance, and a convincing blurring of the line between mystery and spy novel. Critics love his work, and the surprise is that the books have never become best sellers. So news of a new Tory novel was definitely exciting, as the last few years have seen him working on a different series with a spy and chancer named Joe Holderness.

Friends and Traitors, though, is every bit as much about the defector Guy Burgess as it is about Troy. They have a small shared history, and it’s Troy who’s in Vienna on a family trip when Burgess appears in a very orchestrated move to declare that he wants to return to Britain. But is it all real, or some ploy by the KGB? Is Burgess being used?

More than anything, this is a book that feels as if it’s bringing together every strand of Troy’s past and present. A few are missing – police mentor George Bonham and doctor/occasional lover Anna Pakenham – but most at least poke their heads around the door. Even Holderness puts in an appearance.

The heart of the book, though, is the conflict of the insider and outsider in society. Burgess, even as a traitor, remains an insider, a man who went to the best schools (Eton and Cambridge), who was part of the elite, something that can never be discarded. Yet Troy, who comes from dubious money – a father who fled Russia with a fortune and became a newspaper proprietor and aristocrat – is also a public school alumnus, with a similar web of connections. The obverse side of the same coin, and still an insider, no matter how much he fights against the idea.

And ideas are central to the novel. Of places in society, breaking out but never away; even Shirley Foxx finds that instead of never being able to go home again, you can never entirely leave the past behind. Of art, and myth, and self-creation, or re-creation. The characters, real and invented, live and breathe the way they do in all Lawton’s work, but there’s curiously little passion at play here, unlike, say, Black Out, which existed on a wave of it. That really only comes closer to the end – at the same time that Troy, chafing under the suspicion of the spooks (again) and the duties of rank, finally gets a murder to investigate – two of them, in fact.

No spoilers, but an end that’s bleakly satisfying. And Tory, as almost always, keeps his emotional distance from everything and everyone.

Friends and Traitors is satisfying in the way that every Lawton book satisfies. The prose goes down like cream, and the characters feel so real you could have a conversation with them. It’s good…and yet, it doesn’t feel like Troy at his best, unless Lawton is deliberately closing the circle. The past weighs too heavily on the present (the ghosts of Troy’s father and Troy’s wife loom in the background), and there’s little sense of any future.

That’s not to say I won’t read it as regularly as the others in the series. He’s that good a writer. I just might not enjoy it quite as much.

Frank Kidson And The Music Of The Tin God

This week. This week. Finally, The Tin God will be out. It feels like forever since I sent the manuscript to my publisher, then went through it with the editor. And now it’s happening. Doesn’t matter that I’ve been through it all before, I’m excited. This book means so much to me.

Not just because it’s about women’s rights, although that’s the central focus. But there’s also music in there; the lyrics from folk songs are the clues, one of the threads in the book. I’ve used folk music before in my novels, but only passing references. Things were more overt in my Dan Markham books, with Studio 50 and 1950s jazz, and in the two Seattle books, where grunge – a hated name – and alt-country were central ingredients.

But the traditional folk of The Tin God gives me chance to bring in someone I’ve wanted to involve in my books for a long time – Frank Kidson. He was a real man who had an unusual companion, his niece, Ethel (whose real name was Emma). Kidson was a man fascinated by several things – art, Leeds pottery, and folk songs. He was one of the first real song collectors and became known throughout the country, a pioneer well before those who received far more credit. He wrote several books, including the wonderful Traditional Tunes, which figures largely in my book, and wrote a column on songs for the Leeds Mercury.


There were song collectors in different parts of the country in Victorian times, and they regularly wrote to each other and compared variations on songs. In the north, though, and certainly in Yorkshire, Kidson was a towering figure, one who developed theories about songs and how old they might be – actually, not as ancient as most people might imagine.

In the book, Frank and Ethel Kidson live at 128, Burley Road, their address at the time. A little later, they moved over to Chapeltown, to 5, Hamilton Avenue, where Frank died in the 1920s. A blue plaque sits on the house, quite deservedly commemorating one of Leeds’ great men.

kidson plaque

In 1923, to recognise his contribution to music, Leeds University awarded him an honorary M.A.

kidson MA

I put together a Spotify playlist of some of the songs from The Tin God. All traditional, and you can listen right here. Or – since Spotify barely pay artists for their work – I’ve also put together a playlist on YouTube.

Songs of all types interested him, including the popular broadside ballads, which were written, printed up, and sold on the streets, sort-of op ed/confessional/humorous take on life and current events. He bought them and saved some in a scrapbook, which is in the Family History Library at Leeds Central Library, and well worth a look.

One that isn’t in that collection, though, is How Five-And-Twenty Shillings Are Expended In A Week, which is a broadside:

It’s of a tradesman and his wife, I heard the other day,
Who did kick up a glorious row; they live across the way;
The husband proved himself a fool, when his money all was spent,
He asked his wife, upon her life, to say which way it went.

So she reckon’d up, and told him, and showed him quite complete,
How five and twenty shillings were expended in a week.

5 and 20

Kidson published a little of the song in Traditional Tunes. At the proper launch for The Tin God, which will be on Saturday May 5, 1pm, as part of The Vote Before The Vote exhibition, it will be performed by Sarah Statham, who was part of the glorious Leeds band, Esper Scout. Details right here.


Early Reviews…And Listen To Annabelle Speak

It’s’ just over a week until The Tin God is published. I’m hugely proud of this book, it feels as if it’s taken on greater resonance that the crime story I set out to tell – but readers will judge that more objectively than I ever can, of course.

I’m pushing this book hard. Among other things, there’s going to be a blog tour to coincide with publication, and that includes giving away a copy of the novel. So please, keep your eyes on the blogs listed below or follow on Twitter.

Meanwhile…here are a few reactions from early reviewers:

“Chris Nickson is an amazingly skilful author with a love of Leeds, its varied and deep history, and demonstrates it with each book he writes.”

“The whole story has such resonance with today’s current affairs that it makes you realise how much there is still to do regarding social attitudes, as well as how far we have come.”

“I like the strong sense of characterisation in the novels. Annabelle is a suffragette, looking to make things easier for her daughter, Mary, in her path through life. She is, however, no airy fairy dilettante being strong, capable and practical with her feet planted squarely on the ground. I cheer at her every move. She is supported in her efforts by her husband, Tom…He is another strong character. He’s not as enthusiastic about being Superintendent as he might be as the paperwork and meetings take him away from investigative work but this threat to his wife and family gives him the opportunity to roll his sleeves up and get stuck in.”

“There’s a particular talent here with this author’s fine-tuned ability to thread actual historical events into his fiction. This one is quite thought-provoking in reflecting upon those who initially paved the way for women’s rights and those, yet today, who stand tall in the face of current roadblocks. This still grows curiouser and curiouser…”

“The author Chris Nickson is Leeds born (as am I ) and it’s clear that he loves his home city and its place in history, as one of the leading lights of industry. He brings the Leeds of 1897 very much to life both in terms of actual historical events of the time and in the sights, sounds, and smells of this great city. I really enjoyed this particular storyline as it demonstrated the struggle that women had, ( and some would say, still have) to be recognised and valued as legitimate candidates for office, and to be considered equal to men.

I make no bones about it – I love Chris Nickson’s books – love Tom and Annabelle – love the sense of old Leeds with its cobbled streets, the houses huddled together against the chill whipping off the River Aire, the friendly community, and the good old fashioned policing.”

“I always enjoy the sense of period that Mr Nickson evokes and The Tin God is no different. Annabelle’s campaign speeches resound with the possibility of change but don’t ignore the terrible blight of poverty prevalent in the fictional Sheepscar ward.”

And with that mention of Annabelle’s campaign speeches, through the miracle of technology (and the superb voicing of Carolyn Eden), I’ve been able to find one. Take a listen and see if it convinces you….

After that, wouldn’t you vote for Mrs. Annabelle Harper?

annabelle election poster texture

Perhaps you need to discover The Tin God for yourself. I know an author who’d be very grateful…it’s out March 30 in the UK.