My writing life – In search of tranquillity

Front of houseTwo years ago we became the proud owners of a brand new home where my writing desk now dwells. We hadn’t intended to buy a new home but fate stepped in and gave us a shove in that direction. We had been searching for the perfect home for several years. Living in or near the countryside with a good-sized garden for our four plump and well-loved chickens was a pre-requisite. Then the two elder chickens, sleek black rock Doris & fat little bluebell Lulu, died within months of each other. Much as we missed them, we were still the proud owners of two flighty Leg bars and though not nearly as friendly, they were still our girls and worthy of a good home. Then one night, the fox came. Fox 2: Chickens 0. We were left with an empty hen house, a few random feathers & no necessity for land.

Buying a new home just sort of happened. We obtained a part-exchange valuation purely for interest, viewed a few show homes and before we knew it we had paid a deposit and instructed a solicitor. A date was set, some conveyancing hurdles were overcome and we moved in during a rainstorm in June 2014. Then it got complicated.

Our house is lovely – really bright and light for a new home and a little haven of writing happiness. But like all new homes, there was a lengthy snagging list and the builders accidentally forget to install the fitted wardrobe in the master bedroom and tiled the bathroom brown when we had chosen grey. They pushed hard for us to sign off the snagging list despite the fact that much of the frontage had not been finished but we stood firm, refusing to sign for something on a ‘gentleman’s agreement’. Good thing too as it took months to resolve.

The builders were pretty well-behaved in the intervening months. They fitted a temporary wardrobe and several months later they completed the real one, albeit on a slant. They returned several times and finally straightened it, sorted out most of the snagging and we, in turn, agreed to ignore the fact that all our towels were steel grey, settling for the brown bathroom with good grace.

Then a year later it started. We purchased the house on the strength of the green in front which was never to be built upon and would ultimately be a public green area. The site office, the concrete towers and all the building resources beside the green had long outstayed their original two removal dates. They were supposed to disappear about six months after we moved in, but despite numerous promises, there they remained; and with the added aggravation of concrete towers being topped up on a regular basis. Having run out of space and with no intention of opening their other tract of land, the builders suddenly plonked a contractor’s car park in front of our house. Every morning at 7.20 sharp hordes of traffic pulled up, causing noise, disturbance and a nasty bottleneck at the top of the road. We had been promised a lovely green space and had been left with no possibility of living in quiet enjoyment of our property. Lulu

The world can be a cruel place and the car park issue is small potatoes compared to the problems some people face who don’t even have a place to call home. But sometimes it’s hard to see the wider picture and we became caught up in the injustice of the situation and the attitude of the builders who practically laughed in our faces when we complained. So we decided to stop moaning and start acting. We took the usual channels of writing, phoning and involving the local council who were supportive but slow to act. When this didn’t work, the residents of our road took half a dozen cars down to the sales suite with photographs of the newly created car park interspersed with photocopies of the promised green area taped to the inside of the windows. There was a delicious irony in parking in their own reserved spaces given that it was getting so difficult to park in our own. It took four days of bad publicity for the builders to change their minds. The car park was removed, the site office disguised and works on the green area began. Hurrah for people power.

Now two years on the cars have gone (except for a recent blip swiftly resolved), and the green area is now yellow, covered top to toe with rape seed. OK, it’s not the flat green area we were promised, it’s a meadow; and all the more beautiful for being wild and out of control. The top half of the site office where the contractor’s played golf across the fields has been removed, the silos have gone and some of the roads have even been paved. I write at my dressing table at the front of the house overlooking the yellow against the distant hill. It’s not perfect but it inspires me.

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A writer’s life – The pros and cons of a broken wrist

I painted the kitchen this weekend – well seven eighths of it to be exact.  My task was rudely interrupted by the failure of my footstool to stay intact.  After twenty year’s loyal service, it split in two while I was cutting in around the carefully masked cooker hood.  I shattered my wrist while the ceiling received a liberal stroke of ‘white with a hint of bamboo’ as I fell.  On reflection, I came off worst.

Determined to make the best of it, I compiled a list of pro’s and con’s.  For every downside, there must be a balancing upside.

I can’t type.  What’s the point of a one handed touch typist? Woman up.  You can type one handed.  Lucky you not to have broken your right hand.
Much worse, I can’t go to the gym Walk the dog then.  And while you’re about it, consider the deficiencies in your latest plot line.
I’ll get fat! Good point.  No chocolate or biscuits for you until the cast’s off.  Make that dog walk a mile longer.
But my wrist’s smashed up.  I might need an operation. Then you can use that experience in your writing.  No event is ever wasted!
Fine – but I’ll have to go into hospital (inconvenient) and the cast will be on even longer (not known for my patience). Refer back to the previous answer.
Whatever.  But I can’t drive for six to eight weeks?  That’s a threat to my monthly book club and the new ALLI writer’s meet I hoped to join. Big deal.  Suddenly too good to ride the bus, are we?
It hurts. I’ll give you that one.  No pain without gain, they say.
On the plus side, I’ll have more time for reading, writing and research if I’ve got nothing better to do. Now you’re talking.  You’ve got a ‘Writing’ magazine upstairs with the plastic wrapper on.  Time must be at a premium.

And so the internal dialogue rumbles on.  Yes, it’s a nuisance, but sometimes when you are trying to squeeze too much in, life takes control and bites back. I’ll have less time for the physical things.  DIY must take a backseat and I don’t suppose I’ll swing a kettlebell for a while – but it’s given me an unexpected six weeks to catch up with a spot of reading and time to research my new murder mystery. A wrist with a twist, you might say.

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Opium – “Mother’s Friend.”

Glass Pharmacy Bottles with old  Labels

A number of poisons are referenced in Vote for Murder, as one might expect in a murder mystery.  Mary Cage, despite her poverty, was an opium eater.  This use of drugs, among the poorest in Victorian society, might seem unlikely but opium was, in fact, readily available and extremely cheap.  To put it in context, it was possible to purchase a quarter of an ounce of opium for the same price as a pint of beer.  In East Anglia, opium was widely sold in pills and penny sticks.  In other parts of the country it was dispensed as “poppy tea.”

Opiates or laudanum, caused episodes of euphoria, but these highs were followed by bouts of depression, slurred speech, restlessness and poor concentration.  Long term use of laudanum caused addiction but there were other short term symptoms including muscular aches, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Perhaps the most concerning use of opiates, was as a ‘quietener’ for children.  Mary Cage used opium pills to subdue her children in Vote for Murder:

“…two nights with no sleep has a remembering effect and I crushed the pills down and the children lay torpid and quiet about me, as Mary Ann and James had done those many years before.”

The use of opiates to subdue children was common place in working class households. Proprietary medicines were manufactured for the express purpose of calming children.  Godfrey’s cordial, a preparation of opium, water and treacle, was known as “mother’s friend.”

With the sale of drugs unrestricted and little or no direction on how to use opiates, deaths of children were inevitable.  The article below, from the Nottingham Evening Post 22 June 1907, recounts the sad demise of Aubrey Samuel Barnes:

Nottingham Child’s Death

An inquest was held at Leen-side this afternoon touching the death of Aubrey Samuel Barnes aged ten months, whose parents live at 144, Portland Road, Nottingham.

Kate Elizabeth Frances Barnes, the mother of the child and the wife of Frederick William Barnes, lace manufacturer, said deceased had suffered from bronchitis and constipation and had been under Dr. Roberts’ treatment.  She had also given it a cordial which she obtained some time before for herself.  On the label of the bottle was inscribed, “Infants’ Cordial. Poison.”  She obtained it from Mr. J.G. Wildgoose, chemist, of Alfreton Road.  There were no directions on the bottle.  She gave the child a dose at midnight on Wednesday.  On the following day she sent for Dr. Smith, who paid frequent visits, but death took place in the evening.

Dr. Smith stated that when he saw the child on Thursday morning it was in a state of collapse from narcotic poisoning.  It was a puny infant, and had evidently suffered from bronchitis.  Witness ascribed death to bronchitis, accelerated by narcotic poisoning.  The cordial referred to contained opium. Opium was very detrimental to children under twelve months, although it was a common thing for parents to give it.  In some parts of Nottingham, the common use of laudanum amounted to an abuse.

John Wildgoose, chemist, of Alfreton Road, said that the cordial which he sold contained a preparation of opium.  A spoonful of the cordial would have about a sixth of a grain of opium.

The Coroner suggested to witness that he ought to put the prescribed dose on the label, especially as the cordial was taken by both adults and infants.

The jury found that death was due to misadventure, and expressed the opinion that the chemist should state in future on the label the amount of the dose that should be taken.

Murder & Suicide in Great Waldingfield

Great-Waldingfield-SignWhen Joshua Bowers left for work in March 1881, he did not expect to be summoned home to be told that his second wife had taken her life and murdered two of their children.  The day began like any other with Joshua walking to the farm of J Walter Hills where he was employed as a horseman. Around midday he was called back to the village to be told the awful news.

Born in Great Waldingfield, Suffolk in 1836, Joshua was the son of Peter Bowers, an agricultural labourer. He married his first wife, Emma Bird in 1859 and they moved to Upsher Green a small hamlet of red brick houses just outside the village. Their first child Henry Bird Bowers was born in 1859 and his brother Phillip Edmund Bowers followed shortly after in 1861. In 1863 Emma gave birth to her third and last child Elizabeth Sarah Bowers. The little girl died after a week and was buried on 24th March 1863. A week later Emma also died aged just 24 years.

With two small children to take care of, Joshua did not spend long looking for another partner and by May of 1864 he had married Susannah King, another resident of Great Waldingfield.

Their union produced six children, two boys and four girls. They lived together with the sons from Joshua’s previous marriage. Susannah’s health had been poor since the birth of her daughter Laura in 1880. She was both weak in body and prone to severe bouts of depression which, if treated today, might be diagnosed as post natal depression.

On Saturday 26th March 1881, Joshua Bowers left the house at about 9 o’clock to go to work. He was joined by his sons while his four daughters stayed at home with his wife. She had been complaining of a pain in her head and was lying upstairs in bed when he left.

The previous month, Susannah voluntarily admitted herself to St Leonard’s hospital in Sudbury. She had only recently come home. Her mother, Sarah King had cared for her since her return. Sarah was at the house that morning but left to collect her parochial relief just after Joshua departed. Susannah remained upstairs with the three younger girls while the eldest Elizabeth aged 13, scrubbed the floor downstairs.

Shortly after her grandmother left, Elizabeth was interrupted by her sister, 7 year old Ruth. Susannah had asked Ruth to fetch a razor to trim her corns. Elizabeth refused to let her younger sister have the razor so her mother came downstairs to collect it herself. Unconcerned, Elizabeth carried on with her chores. Moments later she heard a piercing scream coming from the upstairs bedroom.

She rushed upstairs to see two of her sisters covered in blood with their throats cut. Her mother was standing over the baby with the open razor, ready to cut its throat. Elizabeth tried to take the razor from her mother and her hands were badly cut in the struggle. She pleaded with her mother to stop but Susannah just said “Leave me alone, Lizzie”. Then she cut the throat of Laura, the youngest child. She turned towards Elizabeth who jumped from the top to the bottom of the stairs in fright.

Elizabeth’s screams alerted the next door neighbour, Mrs Carter, who ran upstairs and into the bedroom where she saw the three children with their throats cut. Susannah Bowers was still alive and walked towards Mrs Carter with her arms outstretched. Mrs Carter ran downstairs as fast as she could and ran straight into the path of another neighbour, Thomas Day, a beer house keeper.

By the time Day arrived upstairs, Susannah Bowers had cut her own throat and was dead on the bed beside her children.

Although two of the children were lifeless, Ruth Bowers was still mobile and required urgent medical attention. Mr Joseph Horsford, a surgeon of Long Melford was called and he tended to Ruth who was eventually saved. Nothing could be done for the other children who had died quickly. Susannah had cut both the trachea and jugular veins of baby Laura so her death was virtually instantaneous. The left hand jugular vein of four year old Emily was still intact so she may have lived for two or three minutes.

An inquest was held on Monday 28th March 1881 at Thomas Day’s Beer house in Great Waldingfield. It ruled the deaths of the children as “wilful murder by the mother”. A second inquest was held immediately afterwards in front of the same jury to decide on the cause of death for Susannah Bowers. The jury returned a verdict of “Temporary insanity”.

By the time of the 1881 census on 3rd April 1881, the surviving members of the family were living apart. Joshua was still living in the same cottage at Upsher Green with his eldest son Henry and his injured daughter Ruth. The other three remaining children from his marriage to Susannah King were staying with different relatives within the village. Elizabeth, who had been so brave during both the killings and as principle witness at the inquest, was living with her Uncle James Bird and Aunt Mary (nee Bowers).

On the night of the census, Phillip Edmund Bowers, second eldest son of Joshua from his marriage to Emma Bird was living with his grandparents George and Elizabeth Bird. His aunt, recently widowed Anna Maria Gallant, was also staying with her parents George and Elizabeth. Once again Joshua Bowers selected a new partner quickly and by May 1882 Anna Maria had given birth to the first of five children that she had by Joshua. Registered in the 1891 & 1901 census as his housekeeper they applied to the local vicar to marry. Under the 1835 Marriage Act it was against the law for a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister so the vicar refused the marriage and entered his decision into the parish records where it can be read today.

Joshua and Anna Maria lived together as man and wife until her death in 1902. He died in 1914 at the age of 78. Frances Ruth Bower survived her ordeal and married John Butcher in 1893. She died in 1958 at the ripe old age of 85 despite her earlier trauma. For Elizabeth Bowers, the memory of the loss of her mother and two younger sisters never left her. In 1888 she married Albert Edmund Day at Great Waldingfield. Her eldest daughter was born shortly after. She was christened Emily Laura Susannah Day.

To find out more about about this family, follow the link below

Joshua Bowers

English Murder Mysteries

Agatha ChristieChecking through my Goodreads books yesterday, I realised how deeply entrenched my book tastes have become.  Everything I enjoy most is set in England and involves a good old-fashioned murder, preferably not too graphic.  Not surprising really since I was bought up on a diet of Agatha Christie & P G Wodehouse.

This intransigent reading habit was one of several reasons I joined a book club.  I thought it would be good to expose myself to other genres.  In the last six months I have read A history of Lonliness, The Cellist of Sarajevo, Rebecca, The Life of a Banana, Tuesdays with Morrie and The Boy that Never was.  And a depressing bunch of books they are, let me tell you.  Rebecca is the shining star amongst them (although I enjoyed The Cellist of Sarajevo).  But if there’s one thing I have learned from the book club experience, it’s that I like what I like.  It may not be highbrow literature, it’s not Booker prize winning stuff, but the books I love have a beginning, a middle and an end – and above all else, they have a plot!

So it’s English murder mysteries all the way for me, particularly anything with a family history or genealogical twist.  My top six of all time, in no particular order, are:

Agatha Christie – Crooked House

Robert Goddard – Past Caring

Val McDermid – The Wire in the Blood

Susan Hill – The Various Haunts of Men

James Ruddick – Death at the Priory

Dan Waddell – The Blood Detective

I’m sure there are many deserving English murder mysteries that should be on the list.  There are several up and coming genealogy writers (Nathan Dylan Goodwin springs to mind) and some debut authors (Paula Hawkins – The Girl on the Train) who have captured my attention.  Who are the best all time English murder mystery writers?  Your suggestions would be appreciated.

Intellectual inferiority & other excuses…

Millicent FawcettIt is interesting to read reports of early attempts to promote the case for women’s suffrage.  In this extract from the Bury Free Press, July 1871, Millicent Garrett Fawcett argues against multiple reasons given by men (and anti-suffrage women) against emancipation. She counters all arguments rationally and eloquently, but forty years later the government of the day still refused to grant votes to women.

“Mrs Fawcett, who, on presenting herself, was loudly cheered, then proceeded with her lecture, which was a resume and refutation of the argument used by the opponents of women’s rights to the franchise in the House of Commons on the second reading of the Woman Suffrage Bill. 

These arguments she enumerated as follows:  That women were represented already, that to give them votes would be to give two votes to their nearest male relation, or to their favourite clergyman; that it would occasion domestic broils; that it would destroy family government, which was necessarily despotic; that women were intellectually inferior to, and physically weaker than men, and therefore ought not to have the franchise; that home was woman’s sphere, that women were superior to men, and would be deteriorated by contract with the ruder life of men; that the line must be drawn somewhere for if women got votes they would demand to be admitted to Parliament; that women did not want votes; that women were by nature conservative; that women could not be soldiers; that the deference and courtesy now shown to women would be lost; that women suffrage would be destructive of the foundation of society, and obliterate the distinctions of sex; that the Bible said nothing about it; that reason must prevail; that authority was against it. 

To each of these objections Mrs Fawcett replied seriatim, and concluded by contending that the suffrage was not only woman’s right, but that woman, man and society would be improved by her possessing it.  She was much cheered, and received the thanks of the meeting, as did Sir R Murchison for giving the use of the theatre.

Mistreatment of Suffragettes

Women’s suffrage was newsworthy and accounts of suffragette militant exploits were often reported nationally, usually negatively.  The cruel treatment of those suffragists engaged in acts of peaceful protest is often conveniently forgotten.  The two accounts below, taken from The Framlingham News, portray the shocking treatments suffragettes were subjected to in the course of their fight for the vote.

Framlingham Weekly News 10th Oct 1908 The Suffragette

Suffragettes Ill-treated

Mrs. Despard and Miss Margaret Sidley, who visited Maidstone in the Suffragist van on Wednesday evening, were subjected to brutal treatment.  They had announced an open-air meeting, and a crowd of 3,000 assembled.  The Suffragettes were received with showers of granite chippings with which the road was being repaired.  A stone struck Mrs. Despard on the forehead, inflicting a nasty abrasion.  She pluckily mounted a chair and faced the crowd, who pushed her off the chair and smashed it.  When the van arrived the suffragists abandoned the attempt to speak, and barricaded themselves within.

Deliberate attempts were then made to over-throw the van, which was pushed uphill and allowed to descend by its own momentum.  Only by the narrowest shave was disaster averted.  The windows of the vehicle were smashed, the tailboard was wrenched off, rotten eggs and other missiles were flung, the imprisoned ladies being kept in a state of terror.  At length the police intervened, and amid much booing the van was driven away.

Framlingham Weekly news 8th March 1913

In Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon Mrs. Flora Drummond and several other members of the women’s Social and Political Union were made the object of hostile attentions of a huge crowd and were persistently pelted with pieces of turf.

Members of the crowd sang, danced, waved sticks, cheered and hooted in turn, and the statements of the speakers were greeted with cries of “You ought to be tarred and feathered,” and other similar taunts.

One suffragette was struck in the eye and another in the mouth.  Mrs. Drummond’s hat was disturbed with a walking-stick, which became entangled in her hair.

Another speaker had a fierce tussle with a member of the audience who attempted to board the platform.  Later the same woman injured her wrist in a tug-of-war for possession of a spectator’s stick.

At the close a formidable rush was broken by the police escort.

On Sunday afternoon an attempt by suffragettes to hold a meeting on Wimbledon Common led to disorderly scenes.

After the speakers had vainly endeavoured for half an hour to obtain a hearing, amid the blowing of motor horns and the singing of popular songs, the crowd closed in on the platform, the suffragettes were dragged off and despite efforts of the police to protect them, three of the women were knocked down.

An exciting scene was witnessed in Oxford-street on Saturday afternoon, when two suffragists, who during the morning had been playing a piano in the West End, were attacked by a couple of men, and in the skirmish which ensued the piano organ was upset and considerably damaged.

The women, both of whom are London members of the Women’s Social and Political Union, were engaged in the week’s self-denial campaign, which opened that day, and were thus engaged with the object of gathering funds on behalf of their union.

In the face of such hostility, it is easy to imagine why some women felt they could not expect to advance their cause through peaceful demonstration.