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?

History, Raging About Leeds, and On Copper Street

It’s just seven days now until the publication on On Copper Street, continuing the story of Tom Harper and his wife Annabelle in 1890s Leeds. Strangely, it feels as if I’ve been waiting an eternity for this day, although rationally I know it’s not that long since The Iron Water appeared.

I wrote a little about what suffuses the book here, and that sense of mortality is bound to become part of anyone work as they grow older. Even raging against the light or refusing to go gentle into that good night is an admission of it. And that’s fine; after all, death is just one act in life. Whether it’s the final one is something we’ll all find out when it happens to us.

On Copper Street isn’t the end for Tom Harper. I have very definite plans for him – for the two of them, really. There’s still plenty of late Victorian Leeds to explore. The city is in constant flux, still proud, still growing, still a centre of industry. And that new century isn’t far away, beckoning on the horizon. Tom and Annabelle will still only be in their 30s when it arrives. They have years ahead of them.

Much of ‘old Leeds’ still survived then – Richard Sykes’ house on Briggate, dating from the 1500s, and the old bow-windowed shop on Lower Briggate, just as two examples. Many of the courts and lanes still existed and were in daily use. As a new city, Leeds was on the cusp, wanting to be modern and look ahead, but not yet ready to quit the past. The thousands of back-to-back houses that were built for working families were only supposed to last for 70 years. Next time you drive around Harehills or Kirkstall or Hunslet or Armley, think about that. 70 years.

At some point in the 20th century, though, Leeds made a strange bargain with fate. As far as possible, it decided to sacrifice much of its history to the gods of commerce. The grand Victorian buildings could remain, and those that daren’t be demolished, like St. John’s and Holy Trinity churches. But everything else was fair game, deemed to stand in the way of progress. The slums were no loss, of course, and that redevelopment was welcome.

Cities change, of course. They evolve like organisms, like a species. But the past is a vital part of that evolution. It tells us where we came from and can offer hints of where we’re going.

But all too often, in its rush to become the Northern capital of retail, finance, and students, it’s as if those who run this city are ashamed of its history. Two decades or so ago there was the idea of tearing down Kirkgate Market, one of Leeds’ great jewels. Even now, it’s ridiculously shortchanged as the council bows at the glittering altar of Victoria Gate. Kirkgate – the street – is only just beginning to take the first steps back from years of being run-down.

The past that’s largely being ignored, of course, is that of the ordinary people. Those great Victorian buildings were monuments to wealth, to prosperity, and in their turn replaced something older and humbler. But these days, those running Leeds seem to genuflect at the slightest tinkle of coins. The ordinary people never mattered that much – you’ll be hard pressed to find many of their voices recorded in the history of Leeds – but now they seem to be actively pushed aside for the glitter of gold.

Nothing can redress that balance. But I try, at least to some small degree, in my books. The ordinary folk, the ones who’ve left no trail through history, are celebrated. Maybe something like On Copper Street reflects Leeds as it really was. We can’t turn back the clock, and we probably wouldn’t want to, but we dash recklessly after the new and shiny at our own peril.

By the way, after nosing around a little, this seems to be the cheapest place to buy On Copper Street. And I hope you will, of course, or borrow it from your local library, while they still exist (if you’d care to leave a review somewhere I’d be very grateful, too). Perhaps it’ll make you think a little, about life and death, and about history.

Thank you.