From The Grave To The Page

Would you read this book? I hope so.

In 2016 in Leeds, archaeological excavations at the site of what is now the luxury shopping centre of Victoria Gate uncovered 28 bodies in was once burial ground of the Ebenezer Chapel. Until 1797 it had been a place of worship for Baptists, then it was taken over the Methodists. The graveyard had been closed in 1848, and the building itself demolished in 1936.

Ebenezer Chapel

That’s the background. But with the digging, the horror was about to begin. It’s what provided the inspiration for The Blood Covenant, the new Simon Westow book that’s due in December. History was unearthed and walked on to the page.

12 of those bodies were children and examination showed that nine of them had experienced diseases like rickets and anaemia. But there’s far more than that. They’d spent most of their short lives starving. Quite literally starving, in a rich, industrial city.

Dr Jane Richardson of the Archaelogical Services WYAS, told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “What makes these stand out is not the fact that remains were found, but the malnutrition they show us. It was the most grim part of Leeds at the time, and malnutrition was so prevalent. You can only imagine what these children must have gone through.”

The lived in absolute poverty, according to academic Malin Holst: “We’ve analysed quite a few populations that were very poor, like in Rotherham, but these really stick out,” she said. “They lived in these hovels in the backyards of back-to-back housing, and you could only get to them through tunnels – which were so small even a coffin could [not] fit through. If you can imagine trying to get sewerage or rubbish out, or even just trying to see sunlight – impossible. Children as young as six would’ve been working 12 hours a day in factories, it was just horrible.”

Think about that. They were working, earning money. Everyone in the family would be labouring, bringing home a wage yet they had no choice but to live like that. One of the bodies belonged to a child aged between eight or ten. The growth was so stunted it looked to be three or four.

In 1834, after the cholera epidemic, Dr Robert Baker reported on various areas of Leeds to the Board of Health, pinpointing the worst places in Leeds. Of the area around the chapel, he wrote: “I have been in one of these damp cellars, without the slightest drainage, every drop of wet and every morsel of dirt and filth having to be carried up into the street; two corded frames for beds, overlaid with sacks for five persons; scarcely anything in the room else to sit on but a stool, or a few bricks; the floor in many places absolutely wet; a pig in the corner also; and in a street where filth of all kinds had accumulated for years.”

Never mind horror fiction. The facts are far worse. There were real children who lived short, terrible lives and died like that, breathing in the soot, barely seeing the sun.

The skeletons were examined on the TV programme The Bone Detectives. You can watch it here.

Reading about it, seeing the bones. That was the moment The Blood Covenant took shape. All too often, those children were abused by overseers in the mills and factories. That’s simply a documented fact.

Simon Westow had been a victim himself during his years in the workhouse and the factory.  It had stayed with him, scarred him mentally and physically. When Dr Hey handed him notes he’d made about the bodies of two factory children from Ebenezer Street, it drew out his old ghosts.

‘He made a copy of what he’d written when he saw the children’s bodies. The older boy was ten. He’d lost two fingers on his left hand when he was younger. He was covered in bruises, it looked like he’d been beaten with a stick or a strap. It was much the same with the younger one. He was just eight.’

            ‘Who did it?’ his wife asked. Her fists were bunched, fingernails digging into her palms.

            ‘A mill overseer,’ he replied.

            ‘Which mill?’

            Simon shook his head. ‘He didn’t put that in there.’

Simon is going to give those children some justice. But it going to prove harder, and far deadlier, than he’d or his assistant Jane imagined.

The cheapest place to pre-order The Blood Covenant is here and UK postage is free. It’s published at the end of December.

Well, will you read this book?

Chance Encounter

Tomorrow, On Copper Street, the fifth of my Leeds Victorian novels, is published. Like the rest of the series – and like my Richard Nottingham books, set in Leeds 150 years earlier – the social conditions of the people, and the city itself are vital parts of the story. Yes, they’re mysteries, crime novels, but with a Dickensian social conscience. For me, it’s impossible to look at the past without seeing the dirt, smelling the stink, and hearing the pain of so many who lived there.

The books are, perhaps, a way to offer some sort of memorial to the unremembered, the ones who, like my own great-great grandparents, were buried in common graves.

But first, to whet your appetite for On Copper Street, how about a new Annabelle Harper short story?

Leeds, 1896

 

She’d gone five paces past the man before she stopped. There were beggars everywhere in Leeds, as common as shadows along the street. But something about this face flickered in her mind and lit up a memory. He was despondent, at his wits’ end, but unlike so many, he wasn’t trying to become invisible against the stones, to disappear into the fabric of the city. He might not like it, but the man was very much alive. She stopped abruptly, turned on her heel in a swish of crinoline and marched back until she was standing over him, shopping bags dangling from her hands. It was the last day February, a sun shining that almost felt like spring.

‘You, you’re Tommy Doohan, aren’t you?’

Very slowly, as if it was a great effort, he raised his head. He’d been staring down at the pavement between his legs.

‘I am,’ he answered. His voice was weary, a Leeds accent with just the smallest hint of Ireland, easy to miss unless you were familiar it. He stared up at her, baffled, with his one good eye, the other no more than a small, dark cavern above his cheek. ‘And who might you be? You don’t look familiar.’

‘Annabelle Harper,’ the woman replied. ‘Annabelle Feeney, when you knew me. Back on Leather Street.’

His smile was weak. He looked as if the entire weight of the city had pressed down on him and left him small, broken. It had dropped him in this spot

‘That was a long time ago.’

His suit had probably been reasonably smart once. Good, heavy wool, but the black colour had turned dusty and gritty from sitting so long. Cuffs and trouser hems frayed, threads hanging to the ground. Up close, she could see the grime on his shirt, no collar, no tie. The shine had long vanished from his shoes. He was bare-headed, his hair dark, growing wild and unruly. His cap sat upside-down between his thighs. In a rough, awkward attempt at copperplate, the cardboard sign propped against it read: But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you.

‘Luke,’ she said. ‘Chapter eleven, verse forty-one.’ Annabelle grinned. They’d been in the same class at Mount St. Mary’s School. ‘The nuns must have rapped my knuckles a dozen times over that one. Sister Marguerite would be happy it finally stuck.’

‘Ah, me as well. Twenty times, at least. But they’d have a harder time doing that now.’ He held up his right arm, the hand missing two fingers and the thumb.

Annabelle took a slow, deep breath.

‘My God, Tommy, what happened?’

‘Just a little fight with a machine,’ he said wryly. ‘I think I won, though. You should have seen the machine when we finished.’

‘How can you-’ she began, then closed her mouth. She knew the answer deep in her bones. You laughed about it to stop the pain. You joked, because it you didn’t you’d fall off the world and never find your way back. ‘Come on, I’ll buy you a cup of tea.’

‘I can’t let a woman pay for me.’

She dropped the bags and stood, hands on her hips, face set.

‘You can and you will, Tommy Doohan. Get off your high horse. You’d have been happy enough if I’d put a tanner in your cap. Now, get on your feet.’ She looked up and down New Briggate. ‘There’s a place over there, across from the Grand. And I’m not taking no for an answer.’

For a moment he didn’t move. But her voice had a razor edge, and he pushed himself to his feet, scooping a couple of pennies and farthing from the cap before he jammed it on his head.

He was tall, towering a good nine inches above her. Close to, he smelt of dirt and decay, as if he might be dying from the inside.

‘I’d carry your bags for you, but one of the paws doesn’t work so well.’

‘Give over,’ she told him, and his mouth twitched into a real smile.

 

He cradled the mug, as if he was relishing the warmth, only letting go to eat the toasted teacake she’d ordered for him. When he was done, he wiped the butter from his mouth with the back of a grimy hand, then felt in his pocket for a tab end.

They’d been silent, but now Annabelle said: ‘Go on, Tommy, what happened to you?’

‘When I was sixteen, I headed over to Manchester to try my luck. Me and my brother Donald, do you remember him?’

She had the faint image of someone a little older, tousle-haired and laughing.

‘What could you do there that you couldn’t here?’

‘It was different, wasn’t it?’ he said bitterly. ‘I’d been a mechanic down at Black Dog Mill, I could fix things, and Don, well, he was jack of all trades.’ He smoked, then stubbed out the cigarette in quick jab. ‘We did all right, I suppose. One of the cotton mills there took him on, made him a foreman, earning fair money.’

‘What about you?’

‘Down at the docks. Long hours, but a decent wage. Lots of machines to look after. I met a lass, got wed, had ourselves a couple of kiddies.’

‘I’ve got one, too. A little girl.’

Doohan cocked his head.

‘What does your husband do? You look well off.’

‘You’ll never credit it.’ She laughed. ‘He’s a bobby. A detective. And I own a pub. The Victoria down in Sheepscar.’

He let out a low whistle.

‘You’ve turned into a rich woman.’

‘We get by,’ Annabelle said. ‘Anyway, what about your family?’

‘Gone,’ he told her bleakly. ‘About two years back I was working on this crane, you know, hauling stuff out of the boats. The mechanism has jammed. I almost had it fixed when the cable broke. It’s as thick as your arm, made from metal strands. Took the fingers before I even knew it, and a piece flew off into my eye.’ He shrugged. ‘I was in the hospital for a long time. Came out, no job. They told me that since I didn’t have two full hands, I wasn’t able to do the work any more. Goodbye, thank you, and slipped me two quid to see me on my way like I should be grateful.’

‘Where was your wife?’

‘Upped sticks and scarpered with my best mate as soon as someone told her I wasn’t going to be working. Took the children with her. I tried looking round for them for a long time, but I couldn’t find hide nor hair. Finally I thought I’d come back to Leeds. I might have a bit more luck here.’ He sighed. ‘You can see how that turned out. On me uppers on New Briggate. Begging to get a bed.’ He spat out the sentence.

‘Couldn’t you brother help?’ Annabelle asked.

‘Donald was married, and he and his brood had gone off to Liverpool. He has his own life, it wouldn’t be fair. Me mam and dad are dead, but there are a few relatives who slip me a little something.’

She stayed silent for a long time, twisting the wedding ring back and forth around her finger.

‘How long did you work at all this?’

‘Seventeen years,’ Doohan said with pride. ‘Ended up a supervisor before…’ He didn’t need to say more.

‘Do you know Hope Foundry? Down on Mabgate?’

‘I think I’ve seen it. Why?’

‘Fred Hope, one of the owners, he drinks in the pub. He was just saying the other day that he’s looking for engineering people. You know, to run things.’

Doohan raised his right arm with its missing fingers to his empty eye.

‘You’re forgetting these.’

‘No, I’m not. You’ve got a left hand. And your brain still works, doesn’t it?’

‘Course it does,’ he answered.

‘Then pop in and see him tomorrow. Tell him I suggested it.’

‘Are you serious about this?’

‘What do you think?’

‘He’ll say no. They always do.’

‘Happen he won’t. Fred has a good head on his shoulders. He can see more than a lot of people.’ Annabelle opened her purse and pulled out two one-pound notes. ‘Here. It’s a loan,’ she warned him. ‘Just so you can get yourself cleaned up and somewhere decent to sleep. Some food in you.’

‘I can’t.’

She pressed the money into his palm.

‘There’s no saintliness in being hungry and kipping on a bench,’ she hissed. ‘Take it.’

He closed his fingers around the paper.

‘I don’t know what to say. Thank you. I’ll pay you back.’

‘You will,’ she agreed. ‘I know where you’ll be working. And your boss. Now you’d better get a move on, before the shops shut.’

‘What about…?’ He gestured at the table.

‘Call it my treat. Now, go on. Off with you.’

At the door he turned back, grinning. He seemed very solid, filling the space.

‘Is this what they mean by the old school tie?’

fd6e893b-1a79-4ca0-b893-31bff3118253