Ferry cross the Mersey

Looking to Liverpool from the Seacombe foreshore, in around 1816. The small boat on the right is a ferry.

My current work-in-progress is set in a village on the Wirral Peninsula, across the River Mersey from Liverpool. Which means I’ve been researching the Mersey ferry. Or, I should say, ferries.

It turns out that people have been running a ferry service across the Mersey for well over a thousand years. Historians agree that such a service, by row or sail boat, predates the Benedictine Priory at Birkenhead, but once the monks were established, they did their best to monopolise the trade. Annoying for the other locals, but useful for historians, since we have the records of the court cases they took to try to stop other providers.

The monks charged for the service, which helped to pay for the hospitality they offered travellers at the abbey. Some of the unauthorised providers were less scrupulous, overloading their boats and charging much higher fees.

After the dissolution of the monasteries, the right to offer a ferry service changed hands a number of times, and at tunes several formal services were offered, as well as the age old recourse of the traveller: a request to any inhabitant with a boat: ‘I’ll give you a bob if you row me over the river’. Travellers were advised to set the price before they got into the boat, and not to pay till they got out.

At the time I’m writing about, there were at least five routes operating: Liverpool to Woodside (the original route that the monks established), Liverpool to Seacombe, Liverpool to Eastham, Liverpool to Tranmere, and Liverpool to Rock Ferry.

The first steamship operated between Liverpool and Runcorn in 1815. The Elizabeth was a wooden paddle steamer, measuring 58 feet and 9 inches in length, and with a cabin that could take around a hundred passengers. The cousins behind the service were two teenagers, one a naval officer and the other a member of the local militia. It cannot have had the reception they hoped for, because the ship was sold in 1816 and the company dissolved.

In 1816, the steam packet Greenock replaced the Elizabeth. The Greenock was 85.3 feet in length. She remained less than a month on the Runcorn run, before being transferred to the Liverpool to Ellesmere Port route, taking travellers to and from the Chester canal.

Other steamers also criss-crossed the River Mersey in 1816, and soon more followed. The ferries were no longer dependent on the wind, and could run to timetable, which made the service much more reliable.

And the crossing was quick. The time recorded for the Aetna, which began a service from Liverpool to Tranmere in 1817 and continued for fifteen years, is five minutes.

The steamer service is a plot point in my story, which is set in 1816. My hero has purchased a half ruined manor house, and is restoring it to sell to a Liverpool business man, since steamers mean a regular and reliable service now connected this peaceful countryside to the city.


Horse racing in Georgian England

Writing stories set more than a hundred and fifty years ago, especially stories with characters who have a penny or two, means writing about horses — if only to mention them in passing. Many of my books include journeys, so ‘in passing’ has meant researching carriage and riding horses, including how they were bred and stabled. Along the way, I somehow managed to end up with at least two heroes who were horse breeders: almost the only ‘trade’ a gentleman could engage in without attracting social censure.

This week, I went a step further, when a subscriber-only story for my newsletter turned out to be about the heiress to a racing stud, whose marital fate will be decided by a horse race.

But what kind of horse race in the years just after Waterloo? What were the rules? How long was the course likely to be? Even, as it turned out, what might a villain slip to a horse to prevent it from running, and what symptoms of poisoning would the horse show? (Probably night shade, my vet and author friend Lizzi Tremayne and I decided.)

Here are some of the sources I consulted when writing The Fifth Race, which will be available in the newsletter I send tomorrow.

18th Century foundation of the Jockey Club, and silk colours by owner

Going to the races

Horse racing on the Georgian index

Regina Jeffers on Thoroughbred Horse Racing

Training the 18th century racehorse


The smart widow’s country carriage

When I was writing the first, and even the second, draft of The Realm of Silence, I called the carriage my heroine is driving up and down the Great North Road, to and from Edinburgh, a phaeton.

A high-perch phaeton for the sporting man around town — far too dashing for my widow, and built for show, not for comfort.

I knew a phaeton was a round-town vehicle, and that I’d be smacked by those who know better, so last week I went hunting for a four-wheel two horse carriage that a dashing, fashionable, but not scandalous widow might use when travelling. (The children and servants are in a travelling coach, but Susan prefers to drive herself as much as possible. As who wouldn’t.)

The story required that the carriage had room enough for two people in comfort and three at a squeeze, with one of them driving. I allowed for space behind for a servant, and a fold up top against the weather. And I found the carriage I needed, allowing for the fact that each carriage would have been custom-made, so Susan’s did not have to fit some factory production process, but could be made to her preferences (and my story).

A cabriolet — later, many of them became taxis, giving us the term ‘cab’

I’ve found some neat resources, which I share at the bottom of this post, and some interesting information.

I knew that phaetons came in high-perch and low, and that ladies might drive the later without risk to their reputation, but probably not the former. Cabriolets were an Italian invention that reached England late in the 18th century — another sporty vehicle, but this one entirely suitable for a lady, low slung between the single wheels, and pulled by a single horse. But, again, not what I was looking for.

A phaeton from later in the century, after the name began to be applied to a vehicle with four wheels.

But the field was vast. Carriages, even more than custom-made cars today, varied according to the needs and tastes of the owner around certain defined features. Number of wheels. Number of passengers. Seat for a driver-groom or not. Type of axle, wheel, and spring. Height from the ground. Open or closed. Rain cover or no cover. One horse, two, or up to six. And lots more.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, one enterprising coach builder created a four-wheel vehicle with some of the features of a cabriolet, and some of a phaeton. This hybrid cabriolet-phaeton was not a great success, but a few years of refinement, and it gave birth to the four-wheel cabriolet, the victorian, and several other comfortable but elegant carriages for town and country driving.

I’m postulating that in 1812, my Susan had one of the early successful models, and that she might well have chosen to bring it with her from London to Edinburgh and back again, driving it herself on fine days, perhaps with one or two of the children to keep her company.

A Glossary of Carriages: http://www.arnkarnk.plus.com/glossary.htm

The Slower Road: https://theslowerroad.com/category/reference/carriages-carriage-types/page/6/

The victorian was a popular carriage in the mid-19th century.




The year without a summer

The volcanic gases and particulates in the atmosphere led to spectacular sunsets, such as those later painted by Turner.

In 1816, after an unusually severe winter, the United Kingdom experienced ‘a summer more unseasonable than any former one in my remembrance’ (from correspondence between Susan Farington and Antony Hamond). Nurseryman Samuel Curtis called it ‘the most unpropitious season ever remembered’, and diariest Pegge Burnell called August ‘a most unseasonable month’, describing it elsewhere as ‘dismal, wet, and cold’.

Various studies in the United States, England, and Europe have concluded that this was more than regular climate fluctuation, although winters in the last decade of the eighteenth and early part of the century had been exceptionally cold. Sunspot numbers were down; volcanic activity was up. And then, in 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted in the largest volcanic eruption in, perhaps, thousands of years. For hundreds of miles, the sea was covered in pumice. Ash darkened the sky so that candles were needed throughout the day, and even with candles, people could see only a few metres. Tens, and perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people died. And high in the atmosphere, tonnes of sulfur dioxide thrown out of the volcano turned in sulfuric acid, making an aerosol that would block incoming solar radiation for years to come.

It took time for the effects to reach the other side of the world, but the record shows that the spring, summer, and autumn of 1816 were exceptionally wet and cold, with frequent storms and floods. Harvest failed in the United States, Britain, and across Europe and Asia, leading to famine on a wide scale and starvation among the poor. In China, peasants turned to growing opium in order to make money, and the boom in production led in time to the Opium Wars and the opium trade that still exists today.

In England, people were already suffering severe hardship and food shortages because of the long years of war, harsh economic policies that favoured the wealthy, and the vast mass of unemployed swollen by more than 400,000 men from dismissed from the army and navy after the war. Adding a volcanically enhanced winter to the mix was devastating.

…despite the long run of generally cold wet conditions experienced in the 1810s, extreme weather recorded in the spring, summer and autumn months of 1816 may have been ‘truly exceptional’ and ‘of a degree for which it is reasonable to invoke an external forcing mechanism’ (Sadler and Grattan 1999, 187).

Our sources also add further evidence in support of 1816 being a difficult year for many people across the UK. In Upper Annandale (Dumfries and Galloway), the correspondent to the Farmer’s Magazine (17, 483) described a year ‘having neither spring, nor summer, nor harvest’ and our sources too emphasise the need to recognise a sequence of unusual weather, most of it unfavourable for agriculture, within 1816. The weather hampered agricultural (and other outdoor) work, and harvests of grass, grain and vegetables were of poor quality and quantity. There was a shortage of fodder and livestock was lost in floods or heavy snowfall in some places. Storms and floods uprooted trees, and damaged homes and other buildings. Normal routines were disrupted and travel difficult. An impact on physical and emotional wellbeing is also inferred. [Veale, Endfield. Situating 1816, the ‘year without a summer’, in the UK. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/geoj.12191/full]

(I am researching conditions in summer 1816, because my next book, House of Thorns, take place at that time.)


The history of mistletoe at Christmas

It’s the season for mistletoe, or at least so it would have been back in England during the 18th and 19th century. The little plant with its golden boughs, yellow-green oval leaves and sticky white berries had an important role to play in Christmas celebrations, forming the crucial part of the Kissing Bough or being hung in bunches in strategic places around the household.

Any woman standing under the tree could be asked for a kiss, and courted bad luck if she refused. In one version of the tradition, every kiss was paid for by plucking a berry from the hanging stems, and when the berries were gone, so were the kisses.

So how did a little parasite come to be a magical harbinger of romance?

There are a few stories; some from Norse tradition, some Greek, some from the druids of ancient Britain, and some with strong Christian traditions.

The plant that killed the favourite

In Norse mythology, one god was the favourite of all the others. Everyone loved Baldur. Everyone, that is, but Loki, the god of mischief. Frigga, Baldur’s mother, protected her beloved boy by travelling all the world, and asking everything that grew on land and under it to promise never to hurt Baldur.

As a result, Baldur became invulnerable to anything thrown or thrust at him, provided it was plant-based. Of course, poking Baldur with plant-based weapons became a favourite game, because boys are like that. But Frigga had forgotten one important fact.

Mistletoe doesn’t grow on land or under it. It grows on the branches of another plant — including, willow, oak, and apple trees. Loki made a dart from mistletoe wood and gave it to the blind god, Hoder, so he could join in the game. And Baldur died.

Everything in heaven and earth wept, and Frigga tried for three days to restore her son. In the end, her tears became the mistletoe berries, and Baldur woke from death. In her joy, Frigga made the mistletoe her sacred plant, and decreed that anyone standing under it would never come to harm, but would only be kissed.

Power over hell

In Greek myth, mistletoe had power even over hell. Two doves bought a golden bough of mistletoe to Aenas to light his way through the forest that blocked the way into Hades. When he showed the bough to the ferryman at the River Styx, he and the bough were instantly transported alive across the river.

The sign of peace

To the druids, mistletoe was very special. They believed it could heal just about anything. They cut it from oak trees with sickles of gold, and gathered it without letting it touch the ground. And they hung it in bunches in houses to keep away sickness and war, protect the household from sickness and ghosts, and bring happiness and fertility.

Anyone passing under mistletoe had to lay down their arms and desist from fighting until the next day, even in a forest. Even more so in a house, where guests would stand under the mistletoe to greet their hosts with a kiss of friendship.

Love conquers death

No wonder, with this history, the mistletoe was adopted by the new Christians of Northern Europe, who easily made the transition to seeing this plant of healing and peace as a symbol of Christ, who lay down his life to bring peace to the world, and who came alive out of death. Mistletoe became particularly associated with the birth of Christ, which was now being celebrated in midwinter, when mistletoe had been a traditional part of pre-Christian ceremonies.

Friendship kisses under the mistletoe translated nicely into the new Christian celebrations.

Kissing for luck

Exactly how kisses of peace became the romantic kisses we think of today, we can only guess. But the idea that mistletoe will bring prosperity and fertility might have something to do with it. Prosperity for a woman meant marriage, and by the sixteenth century, kissing under the mistletoe was wildly popular among the working classes.

By the nineteenth century, the custom had often been adopted above stairs as well as below, though not by all. Some regarded it as licentious and improper. But only the most rigid of moralists would refuse a kissing bough to the servants’ hall, even if his or her own daughters could safely pass through the family’s parlours safe in the knowledge that no errant white berry posed a risk to the sanctity of their fair lips. Poor girls.

A week today, I’m publishing the ebook version of If Mistletoe Could Tell Tales, a collection of my Christmas novellas and novelettes. The print version is already available. At 92,000 words, or 320 print pages, of stories about the magic of romance during the magic of Christmas. At $2.99 for the ebook, it represents a 40% discount over the cost of the individual books. And the print cost of $12.50 makes it a great stocking stuffer. Follow the link in the name above for blurb and buy links.


The forts of the English coast

I love George Clarke’s Restoration Man television show, and was fascinated by a recent episode that showed here in New Zealand following two separate projects to restore a Martello tower. I’d heard of them, but had no idea of their history, and once I looked it up, I knew I’d found the exact object to fill a plot hole in The Realm of Silence.

Martello towers are small round forts built along the southern and eastern of England, with a few in Ireland and Scotland. They were based on towers built in Corsica to repel the Barbary Pirates. The British navy was very impressed when they were unable to overcome one at a place called Mortello Point, though it fell to a land assault.

The war with France

So in the late 18th and early 19th century, when invasion from France was a real threat, the government embarked on a plan to build the towers, each around 40 feet tall. They were garrisoned by 15 to 24 soldiers and an officer, with food and water, sleeping quarters, and a gun on a swivel to repel sea or land invaders.

They could be accessed only through a door some 16 feet above the ground, accessed by a ladder, and were designed to withstand heavy attack.

140 were built, but the invasion plans receded with the destruction of the French fleet at Trafalgar and had faded by 1812 [edited after JSMF2’s comment, below], and they never had to be put to their intended use.



Edinburgh underground

This week’s Footnotes on Friday is a cry for help.

I’ve dropped one of my characters into trouble, and I need atmospheric detail and historic fact on the way to getting her out. Are any of you experts in Edinburgh’s underground?

Amy Cunningham, daughter of Susan Cunningham and granddaughter of Lord Henry Redepenning, has been kidnapped and is being held in the cellar of a house somewhere in Edinburgh. She finds that a pile of rubbish hides either a hole or a trapdoor that lets her into Edinburgh’s underground ways, where she has various adventures and experiences before being taken up by an amiable crowd of university students/apprentices/seamstresses or whatever I decide, and escorted to her family townhouse.

But which underground ways?

I’ve narrowed it down to the South Bridge Vaults or Mary King’s Close, both of which were available to me in 1812.

The Vaults are chambers formed in the arches of South Bridge, which was built in 1788. South Bridge was a shopping arcade that bridged a gully, and the 19 arches beneath it contained 120 rooms that quickly filled up with taverns, tradesmen’s workshops, and slum housing. All in the dark, and increasingly illicit and nasty.

Robert Louis Stevenson described the places in his 1878 book Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes:

“…under dark arches and down dark stairs and alleys…the way is so narrow that you can lay a hand on either wall. (There are) skulking jail-birds; unkempt, barefoot children; (an) old man, when I saw him last, wore the coat in which he had played the gentleman three years before; and that was just what gave him so preeminent an air of wretchedness.”

Mary King’s Close is a relict of a much earlier time. In a city enclosed by walls, it’s common for new buildings to be erected on top of old ones, the weight of centuries sinking the past with cellars containing what was once the street or even upper floors of a building. Legend has it that Mary King’s Close, which is under the City Chambers, was sealed up in the 1640’s to prevent still living plague victims from infecting the rest of the city. Another source I found says, more pragmatically, that the City Fathers of the time were worried about losing trade to the New Town so they:

decided to build a grand new Royal Exchange. And they found the perfect spot opposite St Giles Cathedral, with just one small problem – the streets of houses already there. But rather than knocking them down, they took the top floors off and used the lower floors as foundations. Mary King’s Close was covered over and swallowed up into the building’s basement. The sloping ground meant the houses fronting the Royal Mile were destroyed but further down the close whole houses were buried intact. [https://www.ontheluce.com/underground-edinburgh-mary-kings-close/]

People being people, many of the denizens refused to leave, and you could drop into the underground right up until the start of the twentieth century to have a wig made or to buy tobacco.

So which one? And what would it have seemed like to a gently-born if feisty 15-year-old Regency maiden? Can anyone help? Drop me a message on my contact page. I’d love to hear from you.


Thank you to the historians

Look what arrived in my mail box yesterday! 905 pages of detailed research pertinent to my current work in progress, The Realm of Silence.

Pertinent in the tiniest of ways. I am, after all, writing an historical romance. I might use my blog to prose on about the interesting facts I discover in my reading, especially on Fridays, but I don’t stuff them all into the stories.

Still, I’m about to take some of my characters in to Penicuik, and they need to talk to a French sergeant who is imprisoned there. So how could that happen? Were the prisoners isolated from the local citizens? Did they get a chance to mix? What happened when they were sick? Or if they died?

Ian MacDougall can tell me, and from the first 50 pages, which is all I’ve read so far, he can do so in a clear and interesting manner. Not always the case, I can tell you!

So far, for this book, I’ve read two guides to the Great North Road in Regency England, several books about rebels, radicals, and agitators, and a number of journal articles about prisoners-of-war.

Undoubtedly, as the characters continue telling me their stories, I’ll be off to find out more.

So this post is to thank all the serious historians who have spent years reading everything they can find on a topic (including contemporary sources), talking to other experts, studying artefacts, and writing up their results. MacDougall has six pages of bibliography and three pages of thank-yous to people he has interviewed or who have sent him stuff.

He and all the other wonderful historians I’ve relied on over the years save me from making wrong turns in the story or artefacts or actions or language that is wrong for the period. It matters to me, and it matters to many of the readers, and I just wanted to stop for a moment to say I’m grateful.

Thank you.

And watch this Friday spot for more about Prisoners of War in Scotland from 1803 to 1814.


Serving God, the Parish, or possibly Mammon in late Georgian England

The church and the parish were important in rural England in late Georgian times. Faith in God was a simple part of life for most ordinary people, if not for the idle rich. Besides, village life depended on farming, which revolved around the seasons, and the liturgical year and important feast that reflected the seasons. And Sunday services were still mandatory, (until the late 19th century) with non-attendance punishable by a fine.

So who presided over these services?

To someone raised in the last half of the 21st century, the concept of church livings—where a local landowner has the power to appoint the rector or vicar to his local Church of England parish—seems odd. Yet it made a lot of sense in the beginning, encouraging those with wealth to build churches.

Those with the power to appoint had what was called an advowson, which was a type of property that could be bought, sold and inherited.

Oxford and Cambridge colleges controlled nearly 5% of benefices, presenting them as gifts to fellows and masters who wished to marry and leave academic pursuits. Another 10% or so belonged to the Crown, to be presented to government supporters. Bishops and cathedral chapters possessed about 20%. The gentry and aristocracy held the largest share, on the order of 60%. Most great families had at least one or two livings at their disposal.  [Maria Grace at English Historical Fiction Authors]

The advowson conferred the right to a living, also called or a benefice; a post that guarantees a fixed amount of property or income. This income came from tithes: great or small, depending on the parish. Parishes that paid a great tithe had a rector. A great tithe was 10% of all cereal crops grown in the parish and sometimes wool. Parishes that paid a small tithe had a vicar. A small tithe was 10% of remaining agricultural produce. By late Georgian times, tithes had commonly become a fixed cash payment, whose value had very likely dropped from the time it was first set.

The practice of sending younger sons into the Church meant that many parishes were served by clergy who were landed gentry first and foremost, and whose parishes rarely saw them.

Without patronage, being an ordained cleric was not a passport to a life of clover. Over a fifth of ordained clerics in late Georgian England never had a living, and a third took more than six years. A quarter died young, emigrated, or went into teaching.

If you weren’t one of the lucky 20 percent, with the well-connected friends or relatives who could see to your future by giving you a parish, or the 25 percent who died or left, you took a job as one of the working bees of the late Georgian church, as a curate.

Curates might work alongside their vicars, or they might act instead of them, while the lucky fellow was off socialising or hunting. The curate’s wages were paid from the vicar’s own pocket. Just to confuse things, if a curate was permanently appointed to a parish that had no or an absent rector or vicar, the curate would often be called ‘vicar’.

Whatever he was called, the resident pastor, at the very least, was responsible for church services: Sunday services, weddings, baptisms, and funerals, plus visiting the sick. And, of course, the very least was what some did.

But, according to at least some commentators, the bulk of them were decent men, doing their best. Maybe they were not exciting. Indeed, the exodus to more enthusiastic forms of Christianity offered by the Wesleyans and others grew in strength through the Georgian period. But:

The bulk of the English clergy then as ever were educated, refined, generous, God-fearing men, who lived lives of simple piety and plain duty, respected by their people for the friendly help and wise counsel and open purse which were ever at the disposal of the poor.  [Henry Wakeman in An Introduction to the History of the Church of England]


I love research

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I love research. I even love research when I have a perfectly delightful plot that falls apart when research proves it couldn’t have happened. Working out what might be historically probable instead, or at least plausible, has allowed me to drop down many an exciting rabbit hole into research wonderland.

For example, in  A Raging Madness, my hero Alex has a leg full of shrapnel, and is currently helping my heroine to escape from relatives who are determined to lock her up in an asylum for the mentally unwell.

Shrapnel? What kind of shrapnel? What munitions carried shrapnel at that time? What battles were they used in? How were shrapnel wounds treated? What was the long term prognosis? How about complications? And did they even call it shrapnel?

It took me a while to find a suitable battle, but eventually I put Alex the right place to be on the business end of a canister shell, a cannon ball with a weak outer shell filled with scrap metal. When the cannon fired, the shell burst apart, and a broad fan of metal caused devastation among the enemy troops. And, in my case, on the body of the assigned escort of a British diplomat who was observing the battle.

Ella, my heroine, was the daughter of an army doctor, and I figured she’d solve all of Alex’s problems by removing the shrapnel (and no, they didn’t call it that). But not so. Then, even more than now, removing shrapnel or even bullets (unless they are lead) was a very bad idea.

Even today, going in after a splinter of metal might cause more harm than good, and the world is full of people walking around with bomb fragments buried inside. Back then, with no antibiotics and no anaesthetics, the treatment of choice was to leave the mess alone.

Over time, one of three things would happen. The body and the shrapnel would adjust to one another. The body would reject the shrapnel, moving it piece by piece slowly out to the surface. An abscess would form, and the poisons from the infection would kill the patient unless someone acted to drain the abscess.

Hurrah! I had my intervention. Poor Alex developed an abscess.

But escape? Alex can barely walk, let alone ride. Ella is recovering from addiction to the laudanum that her relatives have been force-feeding her. (Another rabbit-hole: what does laudanum withdrawal look like? Feel like?)

I needed a plausible way for two such invalids to escape.

I chose a canal narrowboat for a number of reasons.

One: I loved the idea of the villains haring all over the countryside looking for them while they ran away by the slowest form of non-pedestrian transport ever invented.

Two: I’ve always wanted to go on a canal cruise, and this way I got to watch YouTube clips and call it working.

Three: By 1807, when my story is set, the canal network stretched from the Mersey (with access to Manchester and Liverpool) all the way to London. Travelling by narrowboat was feasible. Canals were a supremely profitable way to move goods in the early 19th century, and had been for a number of years. At a steady walking speed, a horse could move fifty times as much weight on a boat as it could on a road. The canals provided still water and tow paths to ease the travel, and locks, tunnels, and viaducts to overcome obstacles. Later, canal boats were mechanised, and later still the railways put the canals out of business. But in 1807, Alex and Ella hitched a lift with a charming Liverpool Irishman called Big Dan.

Four: I could put my hero and my heroine in close confines, calling themselves married, for five to six weeks. Not only did they have heaps of time to talk and even to succumb (or nearly succumb) to their mutual attraction, they were also in deep trouble (or Ella was) if anyone found out. They used false names. They stayed away from fashionable places. But even so, their novelist made sure that someone with no love for Alex saw enough to cause trouble.

Five: The time frame let Alex develop an abscess and recover from the operation, all before he needed to be on hand to save Ella when rumours spread about the two of them and their canal interlude.

And down the rabbit hole I went.