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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.