November 7, 2013
I was exploring the tiny rural churchyard of St Bartholomew’s in Lower Basildon recently, when I came across one of the most unusual and poignant gravestones that I have ever seen. Right next to the main path is the statue of two young boys, both wearing swimming trunks. The inscription is heartbreakingly sad:
To the dear memory of
Harold and Ernest Edward
The fondly cherished sons of
Edward John and Priscilla Deverell
Of the Church Farm, Basildon
Who were drowned while bathing
In a side branch of the Thames near home
On the 26th of June 1886
Aged 16 and 15 years
They were lovely and pleasant
In their lives and in their death
They were not divided.
As soon as I got home, I looked up their story in the Reading Mercury.
The brothers went bathing with a friend one Saturday evening in a local backwater of the Thames. It was a spot that they were used to visiting and which was usually used for washing sheep. Unbeknown to the boys, the water had been used for ballast operations and so the depth near the bank had increased from three or four feet to eight. As soon as they entered the water, they were out of their depth and sadly, they could not swim. Ernest slid under the water first and his brother tried to rescue him using a boat-hook, before he too slipped into the depths of the river. Their friend, who could swim a little, waded in and clung onto one of the boys, unable to drag him out. He held him in his arms until he died. He too lost consciousness but was rescued just in time.
The bodies of the brothers were recovered shortly afterwards and taken home to their parents and older sisters. Devastated, the Deverell family erected the moving tribute to their lost boys.
July 23, 2013
One of the joys of family history is making contact with other members of your tree. I’ve been in touch with many ‘relatives’ online but until now, I’ve never had the opportunity to meet anyone in person. Following publication of an article on American emigration, a member of the Nottage family from Barkway in Hertfordshire wrote to me and we discovered that we shared the same ancestral roots.
The Nottages have lived in the village of Barkway since the early nineteenth century. My family left in the late 1800s to find work abroad and in the north of England but other branches of the family stayed behind. Through the censuses from 1861 to 1911, there are many Nottage families living on the High Street, which is the main road through the village. The parents of the family member who contacted me are the very last Nottages to live there and I was very excited when they invited me over to meet them.
As I approached the door of their cottage, I did feel a little like Davina in Long Lost Family. Fortunately there had been no painful separations or tragic histories to herald my visit and we had a lovely afternoon chatting in their beautiful garden over cake and sharing stories from our family’s past. I felt as if I had known them forever and we instantly formed a connection.
After tea we took a walk along the High Street and my guide, Ann pointed out the houses where the Nottages had lived. Although I’d visited the village before, it wasn’t until we walked along the road together that the history truly came to life. I had a wonderful time with my ‘long lost family’ and I can’t wait to visit again.
July 17, 2013
Ever since I’ve lived in Reading I’ve been dying to get inside the prison. Positively oozing dark Victorian history, it’s closed to the general public due to its current function as a young offender institution and remand prison. Despite this, a few local friends have been inside for professional reasons (rather than criminal) and I’ve been madly jealous when they’ve reported on its fascinating interior. When I received a tip off that at this year’s school fête there would be a tour of the prison in the silent auction – the battle of Reading Gaol began.
HM Prison Reading was built in 1844 based on the model design of Pentonville Prison, with a cruciform shape. It promoted the ‘separate system’ where prisoners were kept in solitary confinement to prevent persistent criminals corrupting newcomers.
In the summer of 1896, notorious baby killer, Amelia Dyer, was arrested in Reading and spent time in the gaol before she was transferred to Newgate for execution. At the same time, Oscar Wilde was incarcerated there and after witnessing the hanging of trooper Charles Wooldridge who, overcome by a fit of jealousy, had slit the throat of his wife, he immortalised the crime of passion in his famous Ballad of Reading Gaol. So when the silent auction opened, I marched straight over to the tent.
There was only one bid on the sheet so I put down a modest, but increased sum. I kept an eye on it throughout the event and no one else seemed to show much interest. Then, just five minutes before the close, someone else sneaked a slightly higher bid under mine. But I managed to dash in at the very last minute before the bid was closed for my final offer. It was in the bag and I’m waiting now for the arrangements to be sorted. I am more than excited about visiting the prison at last and I will definitely report back….
June 18, 2013
My local station at Reading is undergoing a multimillion-pound redevelopment that includes five new platforms and a state-of-the-art passenger footbridge. Already, parts of the station are unrecognisable from how they were just a few months ago and it’s quite exciting to watch the new station take form.
The first railway station in Reading opened on 30 March 1840. Designed by Brunel, it was one of a number of key points on the Great Western Railway line between London and Bristol. In 1844 the Great Western Hotel opened opposite the station and it is alleged to be the oldest surviving railway hotel in the world. However, the beginning of this important phase in railway history was marred by a fatal accident.
On 24 March 1840, just a week before the station was due to open, a loud noise like the crashing of timber was heard in the town centre. A strong gust of wind had struck the men working on the construction of a waiting room next to the station house. There were several casualties as the wind blew down the lantern, which was on a wooden structure on top of the building. Weighing four tons, it was carried over the station house, damaging a chimney before it fell to the ground. Young worker, Henry West, 24, was blown with the lantern and his body was found 200 yards away from the site. His death was instantaneous.
Henry’s bereaved workmates erected a memorial to him in St Laurence’s graveyard in the centre of Reading, where he is buried:
IN MEMORY OF HENRY WEST
Who lost his life in a WHIRLWIND at the
GREAT WESTERN RAILWAY STATION, READING
On the 24th of March, 1840 – Aged 24 years.
Sudden the change, in a moment fell
And had not time to bid my friends farewell.
Yet hushed be all complaint, ‘tis sweet, ‘tis blest,
To change Earth’s stormy scenes for Endless Rest,
Dear friends prepare, take warning by my fall,
So shall you hear with joy your Saviour’s call.
The current station is due for completion in summer 2015 and hopefully this time there won’t be a whirlwind to herald its opening.
June 10, 2013
I love travelling by train and recently I enjoyed one of my favourite journeys by rail: from the south to my home city of Manchester. Ever since I was a student in London in the 1980s, steaming up through the English countryside to the north has been a treat. While I was in Manchester I had dinner very close to the Museum of Science and Industry. Especially as the museum is currently embroiled in a desperate battle to avoid possible closure, I felt moved to be so close to this wonderful place: the site of the very first modern railway in the world.
The Liverpool to Manchester line was officially opened on 15 September 1830. Local business was suspended for the morning as enormous crowds gathered at both ends to witness this momentous occasion. While everyone was waiting for the arrival of the train in Manchester, the sky became overcast and a severe thunderstorm broke out with heavy showers of rain. Just after one o’clock, amid the crashing thunder and vivid strikes of lightning, the spectators strained to catch a glimpse of the Northumbrian. This was the first train to arrive in the procession drawing the carriage with the Prime Minister and 1st Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley who was not a fan of the steam-powered invocation – he worried that it might ‘encourage the lower classes to travel about’.
As the Duke and his entourage of local dignitaries alighted from the train, the news was delivered of a ‘melancholy accident’ that had taken place earlier that morning. When the engines had stopped for fuel during their journey from Liverpool, several gentlemen had dismounted including local MP and former President of the Board of Trade William Huskisson. He was walking along the rails to the carriage where his wife was sitting when he caught the eye of the prime minister. As Huskisson advanced to shake the hand of The Duke of Wellington a cry of danger was heard: Stephenson’s Rocket was coming down the other side of the track. Everyone scrambled back into the carriages but Huskisson missed his footing, fell back onto the track and was run over by the locomotive. Lord Wilton bound his mangled legs with a silk handkerchief to stem the bleeding and as he was lifted from the track, Huskisson shouted, “I have met my death. God forgive me.” He died later that evening.
Despite this terrible event, the first modern railway journey was a huge success. Although originally constructed for the movement of freight, the Liverpool to Manchester line saw a massive boom in passenger travel and the railway began to transform the lives of many working people, regardless of the fears of the Duke of Wellington.
May 31, 2013
After spending my days pounding the grimy streets of 19th century Manchester’s underworld, it’s refreshing to explore a more attractive place in Victorian history. Established in 1843, Blackgang Chine, on the Isle of Wight, celebrates its 170th anniversary this year and this wonderful theme park hasn’t lost any of its old-world charm.
Famous for smuggling and shipwrecks, Blackgang hit the headlines for the first time because of a maritime disaster. In 1836, the Clarendon was returning from the Caribbean laden with exotic goods such as rum, coconut and sugar, when it ran aground during a terrible storm and was dashed to pieces in Chale Bay, just below Blackgang. Hundreds of sightseers flocked to the village to see the wreck and an enduring interest in this remote part of the island was kindled.
In the early 1840s, Alexander Dabell, a local entrepreneur and shop owner who described himself as ‘a pioneer in this far flung barbarous clime’, carved out pathways through the chine so that visitors could admire the spectacular views. In 1844, a huge fin whale was washed up on the shore near the Needles and Dabell bought the carcass. After stripping the blubber and bleaching the bones, he displayed the giant skeleton in a custom-built hut in Blackgang Chine.
When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert opened their luxury holiday home on the Isle of Wight in 1845, the tourist trade flourished and the island became a fashionable place for wealthy Victorians. At Blackgang, Alexander Dabell added a gift shop, gardens, a shipwreck museum and tearooms. When he died in 1898, his son took over the business.
There are no traces left of the Victorian attraction, as many old buildings have been washed away into the sea due to landslips but the spirit of the first enterprising adventure remains. Populated by fairies, cowboys, pirates and dinosaurs, Blackgang Chine is still a magical place to visit.
May 23, 2013
Broadmoor Revealed is a gripping account of the Victorian inmates of Broadmoor, England’s first criminal lunatic asylum. The hospital opened its doors on 27 May 1863, to receive its first patients; all women convicted of crimes of theft, murder and infanticide. The chilling opening of the book sends a shiver down the spine inviting the reader to undertake a journey into the institution’s turbulent and haunting past.
Originally intended as a guide to the Broadmoor Hospital Archive, Mark Stevens’s fascinating book is based on case studies carefully selected from the 2,000 Victorian inmates. Well-known criminals, like artist, Richard Dadd; Edward Oxford, the would-be assassin of Queen Victoria; and the Chocolate Cream Poisoner, Christiana Edmunds, are interwoven with the stories of more ordinary people, many of whom were victims of circumstance. Meticulous and comprehensive research sets each individual firmly in the context of their family background, social milieu and the Victorian criminal justice system. The book also sheds a powerful light into life in the nineteenth century through themes such as the role of women in society, immigration and the treatment of mental health patients.
Senior archivist, Mark Stevens, presents these cases in a compelling and highly readable narrative. Through his objective voice and wry observations, he succeeds in bringing these shadowy characters back to life. His style is knowledgeable and confident as he re-creates the events leading to the act that brought each one of his subjects to Broadmoor. He evokes vividly their often bizarre and disturbing delusions, their manic behaviour, fantasies and obsessions; all presented in a sympathetic and deeply humane manner. Broadmoor Revealed is rich in detail, well-written and a totally engaging read. The book ends with a nostalgic virtual tour of the building, remembering the ghosts that still linger from its past.
As Broadmoor Hospital celebrates its 150th anniversary, Broadmoor Revealed unlocks the doors and draws the modern-day reader deep into its secrets. I would highly recommend it.
Broadmoor Revealed, published by Pen and Sword Books, is available now.
May 14, 2013
Broadmoor Hospital in Crowthorne, Berkshire has an enduring fascination. Originally known as Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, the doors opened for the first time on 27 May 1863 and as the hospital celebrates its 150th anniversary, author Mark Stevens unlocks the past and brings to light the cases of its first inmates.
Mark Stevens is the senior archivist at the Berkshire Record Office and is responsible for the Broadmoor Hospital Archive. His passion for the individuals who spent time there during the Victorian era has led him to share their stories. He kindly agreed to answer some questions about his work.
As an archivist you must come across many fascinating documents and artefacts. What drew you initially to explore the Broadmoor archive in more detail?
I guess I already had an interest in the subject matter – we’d taken in the archive of the old Berkshire county asylum a few years before Broadmoor came in. I think anyway that mental health is one of the last taboos, and then here before me, laid out in these old case books were the summaries of people’s lives – real people – who had suffered an episode of mental illness. Here were their worries, hopes and fears. It was utterly compelling. Then the Broadmoor archive is just the same only more so, because the nature of the patients’ circumstances – their domestic life laid bare at a trial, then hospital care for decades after – often give you a cradle to grave story of the sort of person we often find difficult to understand. You pick up a file and there is someone’s life story before you. It’s like a tragic version of ‘This is Your Life’, really, though if all the stories have unhappy beginnings, a few of them do have slightly happier endings. Anyway, the whole thing sort of draws you to it, really. I found myself in a pull that I couldn’t escape.
Yes, to a certain extent the book is the things that people might expect to read about. Some of the patients are already well-known, people like Richard Dadd and William Chester Minor. What I’ve tried to do is add a new take on those well-known tales while including more of the things that I wanted to research. What really struck me was just how ordinary and everyday most of the patients were. Dadd and Minor were exceptional, and I thought that by focusing on them, the reader gets a rather skewed impression of Broadmoor. The true story of Broadmoor is actually found in the boy or girl next door rather than the occasional tortured genius. Mental health problems can affect anyone and I wanted to show that has always been the case.
I’m particularly interested in the plight of the female inmates at Broadmoor. Do you think that the women were more likely to be victims of circumstance than cold-blooded criminals?
That’s a question that I don’t think has an easy answer. I reckon that it probably depends on what sort of case you tend to empathise with. I’d probably say that virtually all the patients at Broadmoor were the victims of circumstance, but that’s the nature of my reaction to their stories. There is arguably a distinction to be made between those found insane at trial and the convicts who had gone mad in prison – I suspect that the general public will have less sympathy for the latter, by and large – but that distinction existed on both the male and female sides. I can show you habitual troublemakers of either sex as well as male and female parents who have killed their families to ‘protect’ them from some imaginary suffering.
What was the most challenging aspect of preparing the material for your book and writing up the individual cases?
Converting facts into a readable narrative, definitely. Researching a case is one thing, but turning it into a story is something else entirely. What do you draw out, what do you push into the background, how do you shape character, all that sort of thing. I feel that I am only beginning to learn my trade on that one. It helps to have an editor, of course, because having another person’s input forces you to focus rather than go off on tangents.
Publication often brings forth new information. Have any facts or new sources come to light that give further insight into the subjects of the book?
I think that my version of the Christiana Edmunds story is the fullest yet written, and I do feel that I’ve got closer to her true character than some of the other pieces that I’ve read. The only published work I took a little issue with was Simon Winchester’s very heterosexual reading of William Chester Minor. I think Minor’s sexuality is not so easily defined and I have tried to maintain a more open mind about what made Minor the man he was.
The main ‘new’ thing about the book is all the case histories that make their debut in it. You will get a chance to meet a lot of new Victorian men and women if you read it. It’s their cases that took me longest to work up, of course, but I hope those are the bits that really give ‘Broadmoor Revealed’ a wow factor.
Do you have a ‘favourite’ case or character from Broadmoor’s colourful history? Or is there a story that has particularly haunted you after the research was complete?
I feel an incredible attachment for everyone that I’ve written about. No one is in the book that I did not want to put there. You can probably tell from the new stories which cases I especially like, as there is a little more detail about those people. I’ve also got plenty of favourite cases still to be written up, but they all follow the pattern of being ordinary people living everyday lives.
The depth of feeling I get from the book takes my breath away at times. I find it all very affecting. It’s the little details, I guess, that really hit you: I think of the few minutes when a young wife who, having failed at suicide, laid out her children’s bodies before making tea for her husband; or of each letter from a daughter to the man who had killed her mother, telling him of her new life in the workhouse and her siblings’ progress. These people lived and loved just like any of us, and they never allow me to forget that. I find it impossible to think of them in abstract. I feel very strongly that I want to look after them and try to do them proud.
Broadmoor still exudes an atmosphere of grim fascination. What do you hope will be the impact of your book, as it draws near to its 150th anniversary?
There’s been surprisingly little written about Broadmoor over the years. I’d guess that most people’s impression of it is a newspaper one, often associated with some dreadful crime or controversy. It’s a rather partial image, and I’d like to try and round that out if I can. At the end of the day, it is just a hospital. A special one, I grant you, but everyone there is being treated, and it’s no surprise to discover that some patients are in ruder health than others. I guess if I can get people to take a second look at the place, beyond the headlines, then that would be a great impact.
Your second book, ‘The Victorian Asylum: A Patient’s Handbook’ is due for publication next year. Do you have plans for further work on the history of Broadmoor?
I hadn’t really intended to write ‘Broadmoor Revealed’, to be honest with you. It just sort of happened based on things people asked me to do over the years, so it’s become my guidebook. The ‘Handbook’, which I’m working on at the moment, has a similar origin, and once again that is going to be full of useful details that any tourist might like to note. What I want to do next is stay a while in one place and go much deeper into the culture. I’m going to do that with another two Victorian Broadmoor books. I’m going to be a bit coy about the contents, but hopefully you can tell by now that I like stories about people and so you won’t be surprised to hear that both those books are going to be people books.
I find the whole subject captivating – now I wait to find out whether others will too.
Many thanks to Mark for such an inspiring interview.
April 18, 2013
I celebrated my 18th birthday in 1984 with a family meal in a local pizza restaurant followed by a nightclub in Manchester with my friends.I don’t recall much about the occasion but I’ll never forget how the night ended. I was in Piccadilly Gardens in the centre of the city when two rival gangs of skinheads clashed right around me. There were large numbers of crazed young men with crew cuts, steel capped DMs (much more lethal than the Twitter sort) and armed with pieces of wood with nails in the end. Ugly and frightening scenes ensued as they brawled en mass and I spent the rest of the evening helping a young ‘fighter’ who had sustained a nasty cut to the head. This incident wasn’t particularly unusual back then in ‘Gangchester’ and footage of rioting in the 80s recently shown on the TV (because of a certain funeral) has brought back many disturbing memories of that era. I’ve also been researching gang warfare for my book and I’ve discovered that the city’s violent history of streetfighting stretches at least a century back from the 1980s.
In the later decades of the nineteenth century, the streets of Manchester were terrorised by notorious gangs, known as ‘scuttlers.’ In 1890, there were many detailed descriptions of these terrifying street fighters in the press: ‘Scuttlers’ were young men and women, usually between the ages of 14 and 20, and ‘scuttling’ consisted of fighting between rival gangs, all armed with weapons such as knives, stones, broken bottles and the infamous scuttlers’ belts. Hundreds of youths would engage in vicious hand-to-hand combat in regular violent clashes, the purpose being to defend their territory and maim their opponents mostly by striking them with the buckle of the nail-studded leather belts. There were few deaths but many young streetfighters were disfigured by deep cuts to the face and hands, or were even stabbed.
Detective Caminada had no illusions about how dangerous these gangs were: ‘Many a good tussle have I had with other classes of criminals, but I would rather face the worst of these than a scuttler.’ In his early years as a police constable he faced them many times, and he didn’t always come away unscathed. In 1892 a 16-year-old factory worker was fatally stabbed during a ‘scuttle’ and Billy Willan, also 16, was convicted of his murder and sentenced to death. Desperate to avoid the gallows, Willan appealed to the famous detective to save him. Caminada took on his cause, unaware that, in a bizarre twist of events, his compassionate act would not only change young Willan’s life but have a significant impact on a member of the detective’s own family.
I shall draw on my own vivid memories of that night in Manchester as I write about the scuttlers in my book, The Real Sherlock Holmes.
(Due to the unforeseen circumstances, there are no photos of my 18th, but the one above is from two months later – we’re all still smiling!)
March 29, 2013
The Devil’s Ribbon is an utterly compelling story of political intrigue and gruesome murder. The violent death of Unionist MP, Gabriel McCarthy leads Victorian pathologists, Hatton and Roumande, into the complex web of Fenian politics with sinister plotting, dark allegiances and tense confrontations.
This is the second investigation for expert forensic scientist, Adolphus Hatton and his assistant, Albert Roumande. When Hatton is summoned to the house of the murdered politician, he falls under the spell of his beautiful widow, Sorcha, who reminds him of a past love, lost in tragic circumstances. Hatton’s character is subtly developed in this story, exploring his loneliness and need for love through memories from his adolescence whilst revealing his own intrinsic link with Ireland’s troubled past. As more horrific murders leave a trail of tantalising clues, Hatton is forced to collaborate with Inspector Gray, a flamboyant and colourful police officer with whom he shares a complicated and ambiguous history.
The plot is totally gripping and as the murders take place, the turbulent history of Irish separatism unfolds with all the characters enmeshed in buried secrets and clandestine plots. The pace is fast moving with unexpected twists and turns as events reach a series of explosive climaxes that rock the very foundations of Victorian society and put Hatton’s skills to the ultimate test as he races against the clock to find the perpetrator of the crimes before more fall victim to this brutal and violent conspiracy. The ending is completely unpredictable and beautifully written in the style of the Victorian murder mystery tradition.
Denise Meredith is a brilliant storyteller and recreates the atmosphere of Victorian London with evocative and powerful descriptions from the eye-wateringly accurate accounts of dissections in the morgue to the squalor and misery of the city’s notorious rookeries. The novel also gives a fascinating insight into the events and experiences that led to the nineteenth century Fenian bombing campaigns with vivid and shocking descriptions of the poverty and starvation suffered by the Irish during the Great Famine.
I absolutely love spending time with Hatton and Roumande in their murky world of early forensics, murder and intrigue and I can’t wait for their next adventure.
The Devil’s Ribbon is available now.