Sunday, 6 October 2013

A Writer’s Research

As the majority of my writing recalls events which happened before anyone I’ve ever known was born, it takes a great deal of research to produce the finished work. Personally I find all research to be enjoyable, although that for my recent release of Bloody British History Stafford published by The History Press was particularly enjoyable and I’m very much looking forward to producing further volumes.

In preparing the Stafford volume I ploughed through every local newspaper released for the area from the early nineteenth century until the end of the Second World War. I lost count of the number of reels of microfilm I saw scrolling past but soon learned where to find the relevant columns. This would have saved some time had I not been distracted by some of the reporting of the day. Some of the news items would hardly be considered worthy of even a mention today. The reporting style, too, was most entertaining. One story, covered in Bloody British History Stafford, concerns the large fire destroying much of the town centre in 1887. Many volunteers pitched in to aid the firemen, some being interviewed by the local reporter. I found the quotes most amusing. Such eloquence from witnesses regularly given free supplies of thirst-quenching ale during their rest breaks, with not even a hint of a grammatical slip.

Not suitable for inclusion in the book were a number of stories which I made a note of simply because I found them so entertaining. For example can we imagine a modern headline proclaiming how wondrous it must be to live in a certain terraced house as recently the combined ages of the four residents surpassed three hundred years!

With modern transportation methods meat is brought into our towns and cities in easily handled sizes to be trimmed and cut for the customer. Once the slaughterhouses were situated within the town, the animals brought in alive. Several stories were related regarding the cattle and their attempts to avoid the butcher’s slab, always assuming they knew of their destination. It was common for butchers to bring the animal to their premises, the beast led by a halter to its final destination. One butcher could not understand where all his halters were disappearing to, so instigated a thorough search of his servants’ rooms. He found the remains of the halters, each minus the ends, within the skirts. It seems his employee desired a very full skirt in the style of the day, however could not afford the metal hoops to fill them out and found a suitable replacement in the halters.

Escaped animals, presumably those not tethered by a halter, were quite commonplace. One evening in May of 1858, Mr Bridgwood, a butcher in Eastgate Street, lost control of a bullock. It ran into the yard of the New Inn where a young lady was targeted. She fled and escaped when a young child wandered into the path of the now rather angry bullock. The child was knocked down and would have suffered worse than the minor bruising had it not been for the intervention by a man who “seizing a large stick laying conveniently at hand, applied it with vigour to the forehead of the enraged brute.” Others managed to tether its legs, making it topple over and enabling them to break its legs, thus preventing it escaping and allowing the butcher to kill it where it lay – in the middle of Stafford.

However one narrative of Victorian pomposity appeared in an edition from May 1864. The newspaper reported how, while it was mindful a Smithfield (meat market) was a necessity, it was appalled that these creatures were still allowed to roam the streets on the way to the abattoir. It seems on the day of the May Fair two animals were highlighted as to why this must be dealt a most severe and final blow. Firstly one rampaged through the crowded streets until apprehended. However it was the second, a cow which attracted the most attention when it decided “to venture into the District Bank, perhaps in order to pay a call on the mayor.” There is no explanation as to why the mayor was in the bank, nor why they thought the cow may be seeking the man out. However it seems likely the mayor had done something to irritate the newspaper in recent weeks, or maybe he was just extremely unpopular. Yet things deteriorated shortly afterwards when, as the newspaper reported, “in the presence of both sexes of all ages the screams and dismay was apparent to all as it did the unthinkable – it calved. An indecent disgrace and disgusting filth for any town to be forced to endure.” A letter the following week echoed the editor’s sentiments in saying “in 1864 and within 130 miles of the Metropolis (London) this should be allowed to happen!” I still wonder how far from the Metropolis a cow would need to be to give birth in public and for it to be considered acceptable?

Incidentally, I shall be signing copies of Bloody British History Stafford at Waterstones in Stafford from 10am on Saturday October 19th 2013. Look forward to meeting you there.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

1 comment:

  1. "I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects"

    Well, you could cover the origins of Whiteleaf Cross if that interests you? I'd be quite interested. And the history of the Black Prince in Princes Risborough. Local history here sounds like it should be interesting, but on the face of it, it seems pretty dull. If you can dig up anything I didn't already know, that would be fascinating.

    To my knowledge, the cross was originally a pagan phallic symbol that was turned into a cross by Christians in the middle ages.

    And the Prince only visited his manor in Princes Risborough once - so we're told - making the whole Prince connection less than exciting.

    But if you can tell a better story, please do! :-)