The sleeping giant

In the early morning of 10 June 1886, a 17 kilometre rift opened in the mountains on the far side of this lake, spewing out steam, fire, and finely pulverised rock.


It sleeps on the far side of the lake with the same name. Tarawera. The translation is something like the peaks (or cliffs) that burn. And on 10 June 1886, it did, indeed, burn, and more than a dozen villages around the shores of the lake ceased to exist in a cataclysmic six hours.

Until that day, Lake Tarawera had been part of the journey to the famous Pink and White Terraces, silica deposits cascading down the hillsides of Lake Rotomahana in a series of delicately coloured terraces, studded with hot pools.  Tourists came from Europe to see this scenic wonder of the world, making the long trip by ship and then by coach and finally by whale boat or canoe.

In the early hours of the morning of 10 June, the tourist trade died, along with over 150 people.

It began with a series of violent earthquakes that woke people in the village of Te Wairoa, starting point for the Lake Tarawera crossing. When the mountain began erupting around 2am, tourists left the hotels to climb a nearby slope to see the fireworks, retreating as the great clouds of ash, lava and lightening began to rain debris down on their heads.

The view from the road down to Lake Tarawera. The mountain is in the distance. Te Wairoa was tucked behind the ridge to the right.

It was the beginning of a bombardment that would last six hours and leave the village buried in metres of mud and ash. At that, the village got off lightly. Te Wairoa was protected in a valley and sufficiently distant for most residents and visitors to survive. Those closer to the mountain were not so fortunate, their settlements completely destroyed and buried.

The Pink and White Terraces vanished, leaving a 100 metre crater that later filled with water. Ash choked the skies, so that the day was turned to night. Refugees from the disaster began to trail towards Rotorua, meeting rescue parties as they trudged.

The story of that night is told in diaries written by the tourists and European residents of the area, in the oral tales handed down through the local people, and excavated from the material thrown up by the volcano.

My novella for the Belles’ 2017 holiday box set takes place against the background of the eruption. 





How to be a child in Regency England

Today, I welcome Quenby Olsen to the blog, to talk about her research into Regency childhood. Over to you, Quen.

While writing The Firstborn (a story that features a very chubby, very assertive infant named George) I fell down the frequent rabbit hole of research about how babies and children were regarded in the nineteenth century. The fact that stood about above everything else? If you were a child born in Regency-era England, then your childhood was most likely remarkably different from only one generation before you.

In the eighteenth century, the prevailing belief about children was that they should be treated (and be expected to behave) as miniature adults. The advice we hear today, to let kids be kids? Not something you would have heard in the early Georgian-era of powdered wigs and telling French peasants to eat cake. But round and about the turn of the nineteenth century, there was a tremendous change in not only how children were brought into the world, but how they were raised.

Obstetricians began to take the place of midwives, and women were encouraged to “lie in” for at least a month after giving birth, taking on help from neighbors and family. Many households still sent their young children off to be cared for by wet nurses from about the age of three months (poorer households would most likely not have this option) presumably to give the mother freedom to re-enter society and also to bring about the ability to have more children quickly. (Jane Austen, for instance, was sent to live with another family from the age of three months to two years. As dire as this sounds, she was visited by one or both of her parents every day. Though this practice was looked down on by the generations immediately followed.)

The tight, constraining swaddling of an infant that had been the norm in the eighteenth century was pushed aside in an effort to give babies more freedom of movement. Swaddling had also been used in an effort to keep babies calm and quiet, as if the crying of a child was a bad thing. In the nineteenth century, adults began to understand that crying was a normal part of infancy and childhood, often a result of the baby and child still learning how to express themselves.

Play and games were encouraged as being essential towards a child’s development, and children’s clothing reflected these changing attitudes. While babies were kept in long gowns to keep them warm, as soon as they reached the age of crawling and walking, they were placed in “short clothes” to give their chubby little legs room to maneuver. Pudding caps were used as well, a slightly padded helmet, of sorts, to help prevent the bumps and bruises that came with learning to walk and run and jump. (And just when you thought overprotective parenting was a modern invention…)

Children were also drawn tighter into the bosom of the family, and many households all ate their meals together rather than keeping the children separate with a nursemaid round the clock. The belief was that they would better learn to socialize and grow into better adults by seeing the behavior of their elders and to “practice” with them. But it had the added benefit of keeping the family together and letting the parents and children play a larger part in each other’s lives.

By the age of eight is when things would begin to change in the child’s life. If you were a boy, your education went into overdrive. Being sent off to school, the hiring of a tutor, or being sent to learn from the local parson were all popular options. Girls, on the other hand, were more likely to be kept at home for their education (especially as a girl’s education consisted of things like needlework, painting, music, and less history, science, and languages than their brothers). A governess would often be added to the household staff (though we all remember Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s horror at discovering that all five Bennet daughters were raised without the aid of a governess).

As the nineteenth century moved forward, the role of motherhood and the importance of children being children only progressed further. A short while after the Regency period, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert arrived, two people who both reportedly doted on their children (all nine of them!) and all while running an empire. Now, nearly two centuries later, it is remarkable how many things have changed, and yet how with the upswing in popularity of cloth diapers and midwives and ensuring that kids have ample time to play, just how many things have remained the same.

The Firstborn

Sophia has sacrificed everything for her younger sister, Lucy. She has removed them from the only home they ever knew, taken on the care of Lucy’s illegitimate son, George, and even assumed the role of a widow and mother in order to erase all hint of scandal from the boy’s birth. But rumor continues to follow them like the darkest of clouds, and Sophia must adapt to her new existence as a false widow with no prospects beyond the doors of her small cottage.

Lord Haughton will stop at nothing to prevent the slightest whiff of disgrace from tainting his family’s name. When he learns of his younger brother’s latest indiscretion-one that leaves a bastard child in his wake-Haughton rushes across the country to offer the boy’s mother a comfortable living in exchange for her silence about the child’s true parentage. But he arrives only to have his generous offer thrown back in his face by Sophia Brixton, a sharp-tongued and sharper-witted woman who proceeds to toss him out of her house. But just because he is banished from her home does not mean he is so easily banished from her life.

Buy Links: Amazon


Finnian shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Up to this point, nothing had transpired in the way he’d imagined it would. And as for Sophia, she was too blunt, and too intelligent. And that was what worried him most.

He gestured towards the recently vacated table. “Will you be seated?”

Her shoulders pressed back. “I’ll stand, thank you.”

He cleared his throat. She was not going to make this easy for him. A point for her, since he doubted she had any idea what had brought him all this way. “The child—”

“George,” she said, interrupting him. “His name is George, after our father.”

“Of course.”

“No,” she spoke again, while his next words still danced on the tip of his tongue. “Not ‘of course’. Such a phrase denotes your being aware that our father’s name was George, or knowing what type of man he was and why we would choose to honor him in such a way. But here you are, darkening my doorstep nine months after his birth. A fact which proves to me that either you didn’t know about him before now, or you simply didn’t care.”

He inclined his head, yet dared not take his eyes off of her, not for a second. “My apologies. I assure you it was the former, and as soon as I discovered that my brother had a son—”

“And where is your brother? And why are you here in his stead?”

Finnian could feel his temper beginning to rise. Never before had he allowed himself to show anger in front of a woman, and yet she was the most infuriating creature he’d ever encountered. “He is in London. I assume.”

“You assume?” To his surprise, her mouth broke into a smile and a soft laugh emanated from the back of her throat. “In other words, you have about as much sway over the life of your brother as I have over my sister.”

“I’m not here to discuss my family,” he said, his voice taking on a note of warning he hadn’t even intended to be there.

“Oh, but I’m sure you’re here with the sole purpose of discussing mine. Or am I wrong?” A flash in her eyes countered the steel in his voice. “The mere fact that you’ve arrived today with a prior knowledge of not only both our names, our location, George’s existence, and no doubt a myriad other trivial items concerning our past and present life tells me that you’ve gone to great lengths to find out all you could before traveling here from…” She waved her right hand in a vague circle. “… wherever you call home. Which means, no doubt, that you wanted the upper hand in this discussion. Which also means that I will most likely not care for whatever it is you’ve come to tell me.”

Finnian fumed in silence. If the baby’s mother was even half as maddening as the woman standing before him, he wondered how David had survived with his manhood and his sanity intact. “I had come here with the intention of speaking to the mother of my brother’s child,” he ground out between clenched teeth.

“But she is not here,” she said, delivering the confession with the precision of a wielded weapon. “And she is not like to be anytime soon. And since your appearance here is most likely connected with George, then you will have to make do with speaking to me.”

Meet Quenby Olsen

Quenby Olson lives in Central Pennsylvania where she writes, homeschools, glares at baskets of unfolded laundry, and chases the cat off the kitchen counters. After training to be a ballet dancer, she turned towards her love of fiction, penning everything from romance to fantasy, historical to mystery. She spends her days with her husband and children, who do nothing to dampen her love of the outdoors, immersing herself in historical minutiae, and staying up late to watch old episodes of Doctor Who.

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Where there’s a will there’s a way

In last week’s Footnotes on Friday post, I wrote the first post of three on inheritance in Georgian England. Part 1 was about entails and titles. This week, I want to talk about wills. Part 3 will be about dowries, marriage settlements, and jointure (provisions in a will for the widow).

Only certain people could make a will

Then, as today, a will is a statement that says who is to have your property after you die. So the first requirement for our Georgian testators (will maker) is that they had some property (real, personal, or both).

They had to be ‘in their right mind’. If they made a will while insane or drunk, and someone could prove that, the will would be void. So would be the wills of convicted felons, traitors, outlaws, suicides, slaves, prisoners, and people who had been excommunicated’

Married women could only make a will with the consent of their husbands, and that consent could be withdrawn right up until the will was probated.

All other men and women could make wills, as could boys over the age of 14 and girls over the age of 12. In practice, poor people didn’t and those with substantial property to leave mostly did.

Wills were a way to look after the survivors

A will allowed a testator to make sure everyone was looked after, to pay debts (real or moral), and possibly (as we see in many stories) to settle final scores. Many testators specifically said that they’d made a will in order to prevent disputes in the family after their death. A few seem to have intended their grudges to live after them.

Wills were a final chance for the dead to impose conditions on the living, which is a marvelous device for us storytellers. In theory, testators could dispose of their own property however they wished. However, if the will seemed unfair, it might be challenged. As noted above, one ground for contesting a will is that the person made it while incompetent. A potential beneficiary might also contest the will on the grounds that it was made while the testator was under pressure, coercion, or undue influence, or that that the testator was defrauded (for example, into signing the will thinking it was something else).

Certain life events made a will invalid

A will was also invalid if it wasn’t properly witnessed, if a later will could be found, or if the person had married since the will was made. The birth of a child made a man’s will invalid, but not a woman’s.

‘Executing’ the will

The will usually named someone as executor. The executor was a person who would make sure that the testator’s intentions were carried out. Wills involving real property didn’t need to be probated  (‘proved’ in a probate court). Wills involving personal property, including leaseholds on land, did go to the church courts who were in charge of probate from the time of Henry II until 1858, the church courts granted probate or administration, and the will on which A Raging Madness pivots was probated in the Chancery Court in York.

Dying intestate

If a person died without a will, and if there were no deeds of settlement to the contrary, common law took over, and English common law said that an oldest son inherited the real property. If there was no will and no son, the property was divided among the daughters. If not offspring at all (and legal adoption didn’t exist), a set of rules came into play about who got what, with a portion for the widow and the rest divided among other relatives.

Personal property wasn’t covered by primogeniture, and was divided by the same rules if there was no will.

  • one third to the widow, remainder to the children
  • if there were no children, half to the widow, remainder to next of kin
  • if there was no widow, remainder to the children
  • if there were no children, administration could be granted to someone with an interest in the estate (eg, a creditor)
  • if there were no next of kin and no one wished to claim administration the estate would revert to the Crown.



Who inherits the title and the estate?

The heroine of A Raging Madness is a penniless widow, with no family except her horrible in-laws,  her dead husband’s loathsome half-brother and his even more ghastly wife.

So why was she penniless? She is living in a substantial house on a nice little estate which has been comfortably supporting her, her mother-in-law, and the two villains, as well as a number of students. Who owned it, and why didn’t she?

Down the research rabbit hole I go

In order to know the answer, I had to research inheritance law in the early 19th century. What happened if a man died without a will? What if he had a title? What if his property was entailed. If he left a will; could he leave his wife out of it?

In this post, I’m going to talk about titles and entails. In part 2, I’ll get to wills and widows.

Gervase was a baronet

Ella was married to a baronet who inherited his estate while he was still a boy, and to understand why that matters, you need to know about entails.  Entails were to do with real property (land and buildings), not with titles.

(I’m not a lawyer, and this is all in layperson’s language, so please correct me in the comments if I’ve got anything wrong.)

Your title went to your heir

Who inherited a title was decided by the wording of the document setting up the title in the first place. Mostly, this was ‘heirs male of the body’, which meant the eldest living legitimate male in a direct male line from the most recent of the title holders to have male descendants.

That’s a complicated sentence, so let’s tease it out. If the baronet was married and had living sons (biological—adoption didn’t count), the eldest son would inherit the title. If he had no sons, but grandsons, then the eldest son of the eldest son would be baronet. If he had no male descendants, but his brother had sons, then the heir was the eldest living male descended from the baronet’s father, the most recent of the title holders to have male descendants.

A few titles were set up to go to females if there’s no male heir. If a qualifying heir is thought to exist but can’t be found, the title goes dormant (EDITED I originally said into abeyance, but that’s different. See Nancy’s correction, below). If no heir exists, it becomes extinct. That’s what happened to Gervase’s baronetcy. His son inherited it the moment he was born, since Gervase was already dead, but he died while still a baby.

I’ve posted before about male primogeniture, which was the English system. Primogeniture just means the eldest offspring.

If your land was entailed, it also went to your heir

Most titles, when granted, came with land, villages, and one or more houses or castles. The wealth of the aristocracy was still, in the early nineteenth century, in their land. Not because the real property naturally belonged to the title, but because the aristocracy had figured out a way to stop a careless descendant from getting rid of it all. They could create a agreement that settled the property on the heirs to the title, whether or not those heirs had been born yet. This agreement was called a Deed of Settlement and it meant that the current title-holder had life possession of the property, but that it belonged to the heirs.

This was the fee tail (or entail). By contrast, land owned in fee simple belonged to the current title-holder.

Entails needed to be renewed, generation by generation

In English law, real property was covered by something called the Rule Against Perpetuity. The Rule meant you couldn’t make a will stick if it left your house and land to your own descendants forever and ever. The Deed of Settlement could leave real property to your heir and maybe your heir’s heir.

I’m guessing that Gervase’s grandfather had a conversation with his son (we’ll call him Horace) that went something like this. “Now you’re twenty-one, boy, I need your signature on these documents. It’s the entail. It’ll keep the house and land with the title, so it goes to your son.”

Horace takes a quick look and frowns. How is he to support himself in London if he can’t use the land as a stake in a gambling match or as security for a loan? His father, who had the same conversation with his own father, can see the way the boy’s mind is working.

“Obviously, lad, you’ll need a raise in your allowance, and I’ll pay the lease on your London townhouse.”

Horace looks his father up and down. The old codger is hale and hearty; could live till he was ninety, beyond a doubt. Probably by then Horace will have settled down and will be glad to still have an estate on which to settle his wife and family. He signs the Deed of Settlement, and the land is safe for another generation.

Which is tricky if the heir has only daughters or the title holder dies young

Marry your daughters to someone who could support them

Of course, your heir signs the Deed of Settlement fully confident that he’ll eventually have sons. What if he doesn’t? There he is, with the whole estate tied up in the entail, and five daughters. He’d better find husbands for them all, for the next heir, his second cousin twice removed, won’t want to house them.

Or what if he has a son and then dies before the son is twenty-one? The agreement has to be made between adults. In my story, Horace inherited and then died before Gervase turned twenty-one. The entail meant the property was settled on Gervase by the agreement between Horace and his father, but the entail goes no further than Gervase, the next generation after Horace. Gervase can leave his real property however he likes, or die without a will, in which case the rules of inheritance come into play.

More about that next time.


Research and The Reluctant Wife

My guest for Footnotes on Friday is Caroline Warfield, who will talk to us about the different types of research that inform her wonderful books. And continue scrolling for a giveaway and an excerpt of her next release.

Research represents one of the vital tools of a historical novelist. We’re frequently asked to share our research when we discuss our books. I’m always bemused by that. Which research?

Early in the process, academic research is important. I need to understand the era, the setting, the historical figures, the circumstances and a general picture of people’s lives.  A stack of books glares at me from across the room as I type this.  East Asia the Modern Transformation, my Fairbank-Reicshauer survey text from college is buried under two works on the East India Company.  The Reluctant Wife is set in India, but that one is finished. The work-in-progress, The Unexpected Wife (due next October) takes the hero to Canton, China where he will encounter—surprise—the East India Company. Again. This kind of research mostly sets the mood and enlightens the setting. It isn’t terribly helpful on a daily basis.

Some details are tough to get at. Tomes on the company, and even forays into the internet, weren’t much help with details of daily life. I got stuck on uniforms and military life on the edges of the Bengal Presidency. A friend connected me to her father-in-law who provided pages of wonderful detail. I may have only used bits and pieces but those bits make the story much more alive and, I can only hope, more authentic.

Once writing is underway, the questions we didn’t anticipate crop up left and right. What is the punishment for counterfeiting coins in 1832?  (severe, possibly capital) How would the heroine treat burns in 1835? (with honey) How could the hero tell if a dead assassin was hindu or muslim? (circumcision) When was foxglove found to be useful for heart failure? (before 1800) For those, I scurry to the Internet, usually successfully.

There is another sort of research that enlivens my work, however. Fiction, regardless of historical era or setting, is about people, and romantic fiction is about relationships. My books are all embedded in family—the families of origin of the hero and heroine, and the family they form when they finally come together. For that, my research is all around me. Family is the great school of life. Families mold us for better or for worse. They lie under our character, conflicts, and motivation good and bad. They  provoke the strongest of all human emotions, both negative and positive. Reasearch? I’d say so—if we’re paying attention.

What do you think?  How much real information do you look for in what is, after all, a novel? Is the human more or less important?

The Reluctant Wife

Children of Empire, Book 2

Genre: Pre Victorian, Historical Romance  *  Heat rating: 3 of 5 (two brief -mild- sexual encounters)

ISBN:  978-1-61935-349-9 * ASIN:  B06Y4BGMX1 * Page count: 275 pages

Pub date: April 26, 2017

When all else fails, love succeeds…

Captain Fred Wheatly’s comfortable life on the fringes of Bengal comes crashing down around him when his mistress dies, leaving him with two children he never expected to have to raise. When he chooses justice over army regulations, he’s forced to resign his position, leaving him with no way to support his unexpected family. He’s already had enough failures in his life. The last thing he needs is an attractive, interfering woman bedeviling his steps, reminding him of his duties.

All widowed Clare Armbruster needs is her brother’s signature on a legal document to be free of her past. After a failed marriage, and still mourning the loss of a child, she’s had it up to her ears with the assumptions she doesn’t know how to take care of herself, that what she needs is a husband. She certainly doesn’t need a great lout of a captain who can’t figure out what to do with his daughters. If only the frightened little girls didn’t need her help so badly.

Clare has made mistakes in the past. Can she trust Fred now? Can she trust herself? Captain Wheatly isn’t ashamed of his aristocratic heritage, but he doesn’t need his family and they’ve certainly never needed him. But with no more military career and two half-caste daughters to support, Fred must turn once more—as a failure—to the family he let down so often in the past. Can two hearts rise above past failures to forge a future together?

Find it here:

About Caroline Warfield

Traveler, poet, librarian, technology manager—award winning author Caroline Warfield has been many things (even a nun), but above all she is a romantic. Having retired to the urban wilds of eastern Pennsylvania, she reckons she is on at least her third act, happily working in an office surrounded by windows while she lets her characters lead her to adventures in England and the far-flung corners of the British Empire. She nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart.

Caroline is a RONE award winner with five star reviews from Readers’ Favorite, Night Owl Reviews, and InD’Tale. She is also a member of the writers’ co-operative, the Bluestocking Belles. With partners she manages and regularly writes for both The Teatime Tattler and History Imagined.


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Twitter @CaroWarfield


Children of Empire

Three cousins, torn apart by lies and deceit and driven to the far reaches of the empire, struggle to find their way home.


Caroline will give a kindle copy of The Renegade Wife, first book in the series, to one randomly selected person who comments. She is also sponsoring a grand prize in celebration of her release. You can enter it here:

The prequel to this book, A Dangerous Nativity, is always **FREE**. You can get a copy here:


Clare briefly explained what she had learned about the inaugural run of a mail steamer to the Suez.

“What is the advantage?” he asked.

“It cuts four months off the time we would spend cooped up on a ship,” Clare answered.

“Camels,” Meghal declared. Her eyes widened as a new idea struck. “And crocodiles.”

“The disadvantage?” he asked, barely controlling his laughter.

“Goodness, Fred. I would have to disembark with two children, travel overland to Cairo, travel by river barge down the Nile and the Mahmoudiyah Canal to Alexandria before embarking on yet another steamer for Falmouth or Southampton while managing luggage and keeping your daughter from wandering off with the first interesting band of Bedouins she encountered.”

“But Papa can help with the luggage, and I promise not to follow any—what are Bead-oh-ans?”

Clare’s face registered the shock he felt. Neither one of them had mentioned his plans to his daughters. Clare raised a brow and shrugged, obviously unwilling to rescue him.

You’re on your own, Wheatly, he thought as he tried to put words together while Meghal smiled hopefully at him.

“I thought you knew, Meghal. I’m not going with you. You will have to take care of Miss Armbruster for me.” She will like the idea of caring for everyone, he thought, pleased with himself for coming up with that.

His daughter’s instant response disabused him of that notion. “Why?” she demanded, the universal challenge of children everywhere. Before he could think, she stabbed him in the heart and twisted the knife. “Don’t you care for us?”

“Of course, I do! Never think that.”

“Where will we go? Who will take care of us? Do we have to live with Miss Armbruster?” Meghal colored and turned to Clare. “I’m sorry, Miss Armbruster. Ananya and I like you, but you aren’t family,” she said. “We need family.”

Fred seized on her words. “That’s just it. I’m sending you to family. Your Aunt Catherine and your cousins will be happy to have you come and stay with them while I”—he clenched his teeth—“while I find work so I can send her money for your care.”

Meghal sank back in the chair, outrage still rampant on her face.

“Meghal, I can’t care for you if I can’t work.”

In lieu of an answer, she jumped down from her chair and hurried to the bedroom, returning with her beloved box. Fred groaned. I should never have read them to her. She dug down under her cousins’ missives and pulled up ones she knew were from his sister.

“My aunt wants you to write to her. She would be dee-lighted to see you if you come to England. She would help us, and the earl who is a farmer would too,” Meghal announced, folding her arms across her chest and thrusting out her lower lip. “We can come back after we see them. You must come.” She leaned forward when another notion flitted across her expressive face. “We could go by Egypt if you come. Please come,” she wheedled.



Antisepsis pre-Lister

According to a quick Google search, antisepsis was invented by Joseph Lister. A number of study sites make this claim, so it must be right. True? No, false. Lister pioneered the widespread use of carbolic acid for surgical instruments and operation theatres. That’s true. But the history of antisepsis is older and much more interesting.

Antisepsis is the use of special cleaning practice for cleaning a sick, delivery, or operating room and any wound. Anti=against and sepsis=the presence of harmful bacteria and their toxins in human tissue (or, in other words, infection).

And human beings have been fighting infection by various means since the dawn of time.

A little of what you fancy

Observation gave our ancestors lots of information about what happened when a person had an open wound, how likely the patient was to sicken and die, and what the carers could use to improve the odds.

The Ancient Greeks, the Egyptians, the Chinese, and the doctors of the Muslim World all wrote about and practiced antiseptic techniques. They used various substances to clean rooms, clothes, equipment, and people. They covered wounds with dressings coated in other substances. And all long before Lister. Wine or vinegar or alcoholic spirits. Honey. Certain muds. Mouldy bread. Distillations of sulphur, silver, or mercury. Herbs and mushrooms. Green tea. Lime and iodine. Even fire, to cauterise a wound or burn away a corpse or a patient’s clothing and dressings.

Something in the air

They were disadvantaged by not knowing the enemy they fought.

From the time of the Ancient Greeks, western medicine believed that wound infection was caused by air; that wounds became inflamed and then full of pus and eventually gangrenous because they were exposed to air.

It made sense. A person with a simple fracture healed with no infection. A compound fracture that broke the skin frequently led to infection. Similarly the difference between an internal wound and an exterior one. A person might die of some internal ailment, but their chances of infection were hugely increased by surgery to fix it.

So what was it about the air? Our medical pioneers had a couple of theories.

One was that cold was the precipitating factor. The inside of the body is a nice warm place. If the person has an injury or surgery, cold air gets into the wrong place and makes the person sick. So get the wound covered as quickly as possible with something that will keep the air out.

The other was to do with smells. Everyone could see for themselves that more people got sick in bad smelling places. And fewer of those who were sick survived. Moving a soldier out of the hospital where everything smelt awful and into a tent or barracks increased his chances of survival.

Hence the plethora of techniques to counter the smells of disease and corruption.

The techniques worked. Sort of. Some of the time

It was all very hit and miss, and how could it not be when germ theory had not yet been imagined, let alone proven? But mouldy bread, if it is the right kind of mould, will help to prevent infection in wounds, as will honey, and washing instruments in alcohol or boiling water or even simple soap will also help, as will thoroughly washing hands, changing bed sheets, and wearing clean clothes (rather than, for example, going straight to an operation from changing a dressing on a patient whose wound is infected).

The eighteenth century was a time of codification and discovery, laying the groundwork for the great advances of the nineteenth. The word ‘antisepsis’ appears in print for what was probably the first time in 1721, and both British and French doctors explored a variety of ways to prevent wounds from going bad.

My personal hero is Dr Alexander Gordon, a naval surgeon on half pay who became a general practitioner at Aberdeen Hospital, specialising in obstetrics. He wrote compellingly of the connection between contagion and puerperal fever 50 years before the pioneer Semnelweiss, and who even suggested parallels with the type of fever that appeared in wounds or after operations. His Treatise on the Epidemic Puerperal Fever of Aberdeen said:

By observation, I plainly perceived the channel by which it was propagated and I arrived at that certainty in the matter that I could venture to foretell what women would be affected with the disease, upon hearing by what midwife they were to be delivered, or by what nurse they were to be attended during their lying-in; and in almost every instance my prediction was verified.”

Touchingly, he admitted:

It is a disagreeable declaration for me to mention, that I myself was the means of carrying the infection to a great number of women …

What a guy. Clear headed, not so stuck on doing things by the book as to miss what was happening in front of his eyes, and ready to take responsibility when he realised that women only suffered from the illness if they were attended by nurses, midwives, or doctors who had attended a previous sufferer.

Not long after he published his theory, Gordon was called back to sea, where he contracted tuberculosis. He died in 1799.

Link with A Raging Madness

In A Raging Madness, my heroine was the daughter of an army doctor. As a girl and young woman, she had worked alongside her father, and she uses the skills she learned to operate on an abscess to save the hero.

She mentions her father’s agreement with Gordon’s theories to explain why she insists on cleanliness while operating. How did she and her father hear about them, since they were away overseas at the time? Ella’s father died in 1797, and the Treatise was not widely known.

Fortunately for me (but not for Aberdeen), the second of two epidemics of puerperal fever in Aberdeen was in 1792. I’m assuming that Gordon and Ella’s father were friends; perhaps they served together at the same hospital when they were training. And perhaps they corresponded after Gordon joined the navy and Ella’s father the army. It’s all possible, right?


Holidays, Holydays, Carnivals, Festivals, and Vacations

We’re on holiday this week, away for some rest and recreation. This is the third year that my beloved and I have met my brother-in-law and his wife in Rotorua, which has been billing itself as New Zealand’s thermal wonderland for more than 100 years.

The getaway has become part of the rhythm of our life; something we do each year as Autumn slides down towards Winter.

Other regular patterns are punctuated by the liturgical year of our Catholic faith. We’ll be home for Palm Sunday, to be followed by Holy Week and Easter. Ascension Thursday, Pentecost (which the English used to call Whitsunday), the beginning of Advent, Christmas, and around again to Lent. And lots of other feast days and commemorations along the way.

Some of these have also become secular celebrations, joining national commemorations like Anzac Day and Waitangi Day. And sports adds another whole layer of seasonal markers: duck-shooting season, the first day of rugby or cricket or athletics for the year.

Then there are the markers particular to our family: anniversaries of good things and sad. Weddings, births, deaths. The night my beloved and I first kissed. (August 3rd 48 years ago! Where did the time go?) The day we experienced our first snowfall after moving from the North Island to the South. Births of children and grandchildren. The day my mother died. Milestone events, many of them at crossroads on my life’s journey.

In the past I write about, those living in the English countryside still measured their years by the changing seasons, with the liturgical year intertwined around the natural rhythms. The English term for holiday comes from the old English word for holy day. In medieval times, holy days meant only basic necessary work. Peasants worked long hours, of course, during spring planting and the harvest season, but they expected, and got, time off in the rest of the year. (Relatively speaking. No swanning off to the coast for a week; animals and people still had to be fed.) Even better if the holy day was also a festival, for the term festival comes from the Latin word for joyous, and by the 14th century had already taken on the connotation of an abundant meal, a feast.

Feast days punctuated the year; major feasts like Easter, Christmas, the Epiphany, and the feast day of a local Saint; minor feasts for other saints. And all of them had their own special food: in England, Simnel Cake, Twelfth Night Cake, Tansy Pudding, Shrove Tuesday pancakes, and on and on.

Carnival is an interesting word. It comes from an old Italian word meaning ‘to remove meat’, and originally meant the day before Lent, a time of penance when no-one in the Catholic world ate meat. Or does it? Some scholars think it predates Christianity and has something to do with the worship of the goddess Carna, to whom worshippers sacrificed pork and beans. At first glance, their rationale seems to be based more on not wanting the origin to be Christian than on actual evidence, but there you go.

The last word on my list is vacation, which is what they call holidays in the United States. The term is a more recent one, and has Puritan roots. The Puritans didn’t think much of holidays. Six days a week you worked, and the seventh you prayed. However, school worked by different rules, if only because the children were needed at home to help with the harvest. The teacher and students vacated the classroom; in other words, they went on vacation.

I appear to be falling into the habit of including annual celebrations in my Golden Redepenning novels. Farewell to Kindness revolves around the week following Whitsunday; A Raging Madness (out in May) reaches its climax at Easter; the one I’m writing now, The Realm of Silence, takes place over midsummer. And the research is fascinating. In the early 19th century, many of the old traditions survived, at least in country areas and among the ordinary people. A few still survive into the modern day. What traditions do you and your family keep?

Also see: To everything there is a Season; Festivals on WIP Wednesday



Spies and other creepy crawlies

The last decade of the 18th century and the first of the 19th was not all balls, assemblies, and house parties, even for Britain’s top ten thousand families. Radical notions were abroad. Outrageous ideas such as land reform, a fairer distribution of resources, and universal male suffrage. Even female suffrage, but that idea didn’t have support beyond a very small group of women.

In the view of those who controlled the country, such ideas were dangerous. It seemed clear to most of our aristocrats that God had ordained a system in which the rich spent more on a single waistcoat than the seamstress who made it earned in a lifetime of sewing. The French Revolution had shown that the poor did not agree.

Was the threat real?

Coffee houses were meeting places for those who wanted to discuss radical ideas.

How real was the threat that the downtrodden labourers of Britain would rise up like the French, kill their betters, and sweep away all the apparatus of government, church, and Society? It didn’t happen. Minor flare-ups and riots did not draw the kind of popular support the rebels hoped.

Perhaps the British people did not have an appetite for the kind of bloodbath that had happened over the channel. Perhaps Parliament made enough changes, albeit slowly and reluctantly, to give reformers hope for a legitimate social evolution.

Or perhaps the desperate endeavours of a cadre of spies provided sufficient information about the radical societies that their paymasters could nip revolution in the bud.

Who were the spies?

When I hear the term ‘spy’, I tend to think of people operating in the territory of some foreign power, as part of a declared or undeclared war. And this period had those, too. More about them another time.

But today, I want to talk about the spies that worked within Britain, infiltrating radical groups and feeding information back to the government official or nobleman who employed them. I became interested when I realised that my current hero and heroine, and the heroine’s fifteen year old daughter, we’re heading straight into the middle of the 1812 riots in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Riots? Revolts? Or damp squibs?

And what did they do?

Georgian spies did not merely report the plans of the little groups who fomented the rising. They contributed to riots and attempted revolts, by enthusiastically providing false information to the organisers so that they would have plans to sell to the government.

Certainly, the government paid large sums in bribes and reward to those prepared to join an organisation that was possibly fomenting revolution. The spying effort was managed across various agencies and individuals, all working independently of one another, and researchers reading government records have unearthed a six-fold increase in costs in the last two decades of the 18th century.

More police stooge than James Bond

Today, anyone going undercover in a democratic nation is hedged about by restrictions designed to protect the rights of citizens. For example, in most countries, the agencies need evidence to convince a judge that a crime is being committed. Back then, all it took was a willing person and a purse full of cash.

And entrapment is a crime. An officer who entices a gang member or terrorist into committing a feolony is themselves guilty of a crime. Not so back in the tumultuous years of which I write though, depending on the jury, evidence of entrapment could and sometimes did, lead to a case being thrown out of the court.

Forget James Bond. What the English government had was more like the police informer in the modern tv crime shows: a dirty little man with a drinking problem, half blackmailed and half bribed into reporting the activities of those who thought him a friend.


I recommend

Regency Spies: Secret Histories of Britain’s Rebels and Revolutionaries, by Sue Wilkes.


Aboard the prison hulks

During the 17th and 18th centuries, and into the 19th, the British used former seagoing vessels as prisons for convict and prisoners of war. They were made unusable by removing rigging, masts, and rudders, reconfigured with jail cells, and moored.

Prison hulks provided a quick solution to the need for more prison space when land capacity was overstretched. During the Napoleonic wars, Britain faced the need to accommodate more than a hundred thousand prisoners at a time: French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Greek, Croat, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Polish and American.

Officers signed a parole document promising not to escape, and were assigned a place to stay. Ordinary soldiers and seamen were imprisoned, and there just were not enough prisons. The prison hulks were one of the answers.

In 1806, twenty hulks were in use, the larger ones capable of containing 1200 men. By 1814, the number had climbed to fifty-one. The hulks were moored in groups in naval harbours, including Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth.

The British blamed Napoleon for the huge number of prisons. He, they said, changed the rules. He would not exchange prisoners; he detained civilians; he ordered returning officers to break the parole that was a condition of their return; and he would not allow invalids to go home. Furthermore, he refused to pay an allowance for the upkeep of each French prisoner in Britain. How uncivilised!

In fact, according to historian Gavin Daly, these practices of the old European aristocracy had been swept away by the French Revolution. Napoleon was not the instigator of change but the product of it. And the British were slow to react. The hulks were an ad hoc response to an unexpected situation.

During and after the war, the French decried the prison hulks for lack of food, overcrowding, the brutality of the guards, and exposure to disease. They spoke of horrendous mortality rates, and survivors who were nearly all disabled by their experiences. “Imagine a generation of the dead coming forth from their graves…and still you have no more than a feeble…idea of how my companions in misfortune appeared,” Louis Garneray wrote in The Floating Prison, the story of his nine years of captivity at Portsmouth.

This French perspective has dominated the historical narrative since Waterloo, but recent historians have questioned whether it might, in some particulars, be exaggerated.

The hulks were not palaces. They were overcrowded, and disease thrives in overcrowded situations. The average death rate was 3 to 4%, worse than most land-based prisons but slightly better than Dartmoor. But nothing like the death rate among ordinary criminals, which could be more than 20% on the hulks set aside for them.

(I tried to find a death rate for ordinary British soldiers in French prisons for comparison purposes, but the only estimates I found were in the counterpart overblown propoganda written by the British during and after the war. The only thing I can say for sure is that prisons weren’t nice places in either country, but it was better to be an English prisoner in France than a Spanish one.)

Back to the hulks. The competition for the role of commander of a hulk, evidenced by the waiting list for each commander position, hints at the opportunity for self-enrichment. Some sources claim that commanders or their officers regularly stole from the supplies, selling them for a profit and leaving the prisoners to go hungry and poorly clothed.

At the time, those in charge of the system countered such charges by claiming that the bored prisoners spent their time gambling, and those who went without were unsuccessful gamblers.

Historian Patricia Crimmins describes the food:

The prison diet was monotonous and dietetically unbalanced, but it compared favourably with that of civil prisoners in British jails and not unfavourably with the fare of British seamen. Prisoners had a quart (two pints) of beer, one and one-half pounds of bread and one-third of an ounce of salt daily; three-quarters of a pound of fresh beef on six days; half a pint of dried peas on four days; four ounces of butter or six ounces of cheese on Friday; but no fresh fruit or vegetables or wine except to the sick. British sailors had a pound of biscuit per day; and four pounds of beef, two pounds of pork, two pounds of peas, one and one-half pounds of oatmeal, six ounces each of sugar and butter, and twelve ounces of cheese per week, plus a gallon of beer and half a pint of rum per day.

Crimmins also writes of prisoners who obtained their release by volunteering to serve in the navy, and who found conditions so bad they petitioned to be returned to the hulks!

Handcrafts were not just a way to pass the time, but provided the possibility of a bit of income.


Three roading heroes

In the second half of the 18th century and the early years of the 19th century, the main highways of England saw a revolution.

In 1754, an advertisement boasted that the trip from London to Edinburgh took only “ten days in summer and twelve in winter”. Compare that with the mail coach in 1832 which was advertised as 42 hours and 23 minutes. (The return trip was longer: 45 hours and 3 minutes.)

The difference was largely down to the construction of the roads.

John Metcalf was a blind Yorkshire man who had worked as a carrier, including a stint with the army moving guns over boggy ground. In 1765, he won a contract to build a three-mile section of road, and he applied his experience transporting heavy loads to such good effect that he built over 180 miles of road throughout his career.

He believed a good road needed good foundations and a smooth convex surface that would drain easily. He knew rain caused the most damage to roads, and focused on good drainage, with ditches both sides.

At around the same time, a French engineer was also experimenting with better road construction. Pierre-Marie-Jérôme Trésaguet pioneered a two-layer construction, with large stones at the base and a thin layer of smaller stone above that would be pressed down and jammed into one another as traffic passed along the road.

Thomas Telford was a Scot raised in poverty and apprenticed to a stonemason. He went on to become a largely self-taught engineer and architect. Appointed Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire in 1787, his successful designs for bridges and roads lead him to jobs managing the design and construction of several canals, including their aquaducts, plus 184 miles of roads and bridges in the Scottish Highlands.

EDITED to add a profile of a Roman road.

EDITED to add a profile of a modern road.

Our next road hero has given his name to the road construction we still use today. John Loudon MacAdam was born in Scotland. He purportedly showed an interest in making roads as a school child, but moved to the United States on his father’s death when he was 14. Returning 13 years later with what was left of the fortune he’d made during the War of Independence (the government of the new United States confiscated quite a bit of it), he bought an estate.

At the time, most roads were made of gravel, which turned back into ruts, ridges and potholes as soon as heavy vehicles drove over the freshly spread surface. MacAdam began experimenting to see what could be done about this.

In 1798, he was on the move again, appointed as an agent for revictualling the navy in the west of England. He settled in Falmouth, but travelled all the time for his work, over roads that were “at once loose, rough, and perishable, tedious and dangerous to travel on, and very costly to repair.”

MacAdam had worked out that roads worked best when they were raised above the surrounding land, well drained, and made from stone broken into cube shaped fragments. Despite local opposition and at his own expense, he built a number of roads that were so successful he was, in 1815, appointed surveyor-general of the Bristol roads.

And the rest is history. As Bristol’s road network was transformed from muddy dangerous rutted quagmires to even well-drained surfaces that carriages could swiftly traverse, other places started asking how to take the same engineering feat home to their places.

The website Electric Scotland says:

In 1823, on McAdam’s petition, a committee of the House of Commons was set up to inquire into the feasibility of applying this new system of road-making throughout the country. McAdam, of course, attended, and gave evidence at length. Only then did it appear what immense labours and trouble he had taken in order to bring his system to perfection. Between 1798 and 1814 he had travelled no less than 30,000 miles in order to examine the roads of Britain. He had spent 2,000 days on his travels, which had cost him £5,000. Besides this sum, he had expended large sums on private experiments. All this he had carried out from entirely disinterested motives; his only wish was that the roads should be improved for the public good. Philanthropists who work among the destitute or afflicted are generally recognized, but we should not forget that the patient, painstaking round of labour which McAdam undertook for the good of his fellow men, is also philanthropy at its highest.

My characters in my current work-in-progress are on a road trip between Cambridge and Newcastle in 1812: hence the excursion down this road-making byway.