I write historical fiction set in East London just after WW2 and the most difficult thing about writing about the lives of post-war women today is to try to show readers the vast changes that have occurred in social and moral attitudes over the last seventy years.
For example; the idea that a woman from a working class background would ever go to university was almost unthinkable. Rather than a career the ambition of the majority of young women at that time was to get married and have children. It was expected of them and very few people questioned it. Society supported this as girls’ education featured cookery and needlework designed to equip them with the necessary skills to be a good housewife; very different from the expectation of today’s young women. Continue readingShare this...
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Now for those of you who don’t know my husband is a vicar in the Church of England and one thing he always complains about in my books is that all my villains are religious people. That is not strictly true, of course, but I admit many of the characters in my books who have a persona of holiness and morality are often pretty hateful people who do some very horrible things.
However, no matter what their own views on a divine being are if you’re a historical author you will have to recognise that religious institutions were an intrinsic part of everyday life right up to the 1960s.
The church legalised your marriage, baptised your children, gave you the last rites to secure your place in heaven and then buried you. Remember too, before the welfare state you had to be a recognised member of a parish to apply for poor relief or to stand any chance of an education for your children in a Sunday school.
Some parishes were run by vicars who were appointed by the bishop more often than not at the behest of a wealthy patron. The vicar was almost certainly a member of the ruling class and would
expect servitude and obedience from their flock and regular invitations to dine and hunt with the local gentry. He was often in charge of a number of churches which were ministered to by a ‘perpetual’ curate for a meagre stipend or allowance.
To assist the Rector, Vicar or curate in their holy duties were churchwardens, who had a long staff as part of their office with which to keep order during the services. Under them was the parochial church council made up of ‘gentlemen’ who oversaw such things as refuse collection, street maintenance, neighbourhood disputes along with church finances. Until after the 1st World War the PCC would have been exclusively male and made up of local business men or small land owners. They in turn appointed the parish beadle or constable who was in charge of the welfare side of the parish, as with Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist. The verger assists in services, setting things up like the communion plates and changing the altar cloths and there was the sexton who dugs and tended the graves.
It can’t be over emphasised that in times past being an officer of the parish carried enormous status which extended to their wives who often kept a finger on the pulse of a congregation for their husbands by overseeing the welfare provision and under taking parish visiting. As I said a veritable gold mine of plot and character opportunities. Continue readingShare this...
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Broken bottles on the top of a wall.
The last time I can recall seeing this was in about 1997 when I was a District Nurse in Newham. I used to park my little car around the back of Forest Gate clinic and walk through the estate next to it each day. There was one house that had cemented in broken bottles running along the top of their boundary wall. I thought by now it would be illegal under all sorts of EU and Health and Safety but apparently you can still use this form of deterrent but I have to say would have been a common site in Connie’s day is now, quiet rightly, consigned to history.
Pianos in public houses.
Before digital Sky Sports, TV, juke boxes and radio, no East End public house could hope to attract customers without an old upright Joanna. It was the main stay of Friday and Saturday night entertainment when patrons would gather around to sing the popular songs of the day and old favourites, very like modern Karaoke. As well as community singing people would often be cajoled into doing a ‘turn’, usually a sentimental tune. My Aunt Nell, who I based Millie Sullivan’s Aunt Ruby on in Call Nurse Millie, always sang ‘When I Leave This World Behind’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pb-9lk249v4 and at the end there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. And the pub didn’t have to pay a pianist as many people had pianos in their own parlours and could play. My Father, although never formally taught, could play by ear and as a young man was always asked to parities, which in my 1970s teenage years was the equivalent to having a good record collection. Of course music in public houses can trace its history right back to the early 1800’s with supper room singers in side rooms off the main drinking area who would pass the hat like a modern busker. Sadly, with public houses morphing into restaurants or sports bars the sight of a crowd gathered around a piano with a pint in their hands singing is a thing of the past.
I decided against giving you an actual 1950s photo of this as I’m sure if I had you’d be too freaked out to ever visit my blog again. However, I can assure you that right up to the 1960s there would always be a pig’s head or two in the butcher’s window for the thrifty housewife to purchase. For today’s generation meat –if they eat it at all- comes in neatly clear plastic boxes with a delicate little padded doily beneath it to soak up what little blood there might be. However, when I was a child meat came in great chucks of animal parts sitting on plastic trays and oozing blood. Every Saturday morning, while out shopping with my mum, I would queue up outside the butchers whose shop window was filled with such delicacies as the aforementioned pigs heads, trotters and hearts, liver, kidneys, fluffy piles of tripe- sheep’s’ stomach- ox tail and sweetbreads, which are neither sweet or bread but the thymus gland and pancreas of lamb. In addition, where were often un-plucked chickens that for an extra 6d could be drawn and cleaned by the butcher once purchased or left for the housewife to do. My Aunt Nell always one to save a bob or two always gutted her own chicken. Now if you think this is like something out of the dark ages just remember; that while meat had been on war-time rationing from 1939 until 1954 offal hadn’t. People had got used to eating meat that today you can only find at specialist butchers. Although, children today would turn their noses up at such things Connie and her generation would probably have sat down to a plate of all of these things at least once a week.
Homemade go carts.
Now as my old Nan used to say, “kids today don’t know they’re born”. If you Google children’s go-cart today you’ll be offered a large array of colourful plastic purpose built cars or even mini- racing cars with small engines but for Connie’s generation a go-cart was a hammered together affair made up from some old pram wheels, orange crate and string. The posh version might have a nailed on piece of wood that acted as a brake but otherwise it was the soles of your shoes that stopped you.
Of course, looking back they were blooming lethal and how more children didn’t end up under the front wheels of vehicles I don’t know but in the 1950s the backstreets were almost devoid of traffic with just the odd delivery van passing by. With so many children living cheek by jowl with siblings, relatives and other families in the same house it’s little wonder the streets were the natural place for them to let off steam and with bomb sites on every street corner the material for their improvised toys was always close at hand.
While the boys scooted around in their fragile boxwood vehicles the girls played other games, one you don’t see any more, hopscotch. It’s origins go back for hundreds of years and variations can be found all over the world but while you often see hopscotch courts painted in playgrounds you never seen them chalked on pavements as Connie would have. It’s yet another casualty of children no longer being able to play in the street.
Penny for the Guy.
There was a time when from mid-October onward little gangs of children could be seen huddled around a homemade dummy which represented Guy Fawkes and asking passing strangers for money. The Guy was usually haphazard affair made from holey jumpers and frayed trousers stuffed with newspapers. Its face was drawn on a piece of card or if you could afford a tanner, a bought one of pressed cardboard. On a day or two before the 5th November children would gather their money together to purchase fireworks. Instead of the organised back garden firework parties, with buckets of water standing ready, that we’re used to today children used to let off their own fireworks- often unsupervised, around a bonfire of fruit crates and discarded timber stacked up on one of the many un-cleared WW2 bomb site. I suppose for today’s children the imported Trick or Treat and Halloween festivities has supplanted the traditional celebration of democracy although no one would dream of letting a child wander about alone in the dark asking for money or sweets so the modern Trick or Treaters usually accompanied by their parents.
Chemist’s own tonics and cough mixtures.
As today most medicines come in either bubble packs or in sealed bottles the job of the pharmacist as the maker of medicines has completely disappeared. Therefore it might surprise you to know that in Connie’s day it was common place for a pharmacist to supplement his income by making up his own preparations.
Before the introduction of free prescriptions in 1948 people who were feeling a bit ‘under the weather’ would pop into their local chemist and ask him for a chest plaster to draw out the phlegm or to make them up a tonic or pick-me-up The main reason for this was it was much cheaper than a trip to the doctor. Chemists were the first port of call for many and also supplied their own recipe for cough mixtures, teething syrups and preparations to treat chilblains, cold sores and conjunctivitis. Of course in most cases it contained nothing more harmful that vitamins, malt, cod liver oil flavoured with sugar syrup or liquorish but until the Dangerous Drugs Act, of 1964, it could also contain cocaine and marijuana for medicinal purposes a fact I’ve used in Wedding Bells for Nurse Connie with unforeseen consequences.
X-ray machines in shoe shops.
Today parents would run screaming from a shoe shop offering to X-ray their children’s feet to ensure the shoes they were purchasing were correctly fitted but unbelievably that’s exactly what thousands of unsuspecting parents did. I remember having my feet X-rayed in the Regent Street Branch of Clarks when I was about seven or eight. Of course this was before the result of the nuclear test carried out during 1940s and 50s showed a link between radiation and cancer.
School boys in short trousers.
Unlike today where boys are dressed in trousers from the moment they’re born in Connie’s day boy stayed in short trousers right up until the time they went into secondary school and sometime for a year or two after that. They were invariably grey and held up by an elasticated belt with an S-shaped clasp. Apart from the truth that cut knees heal while ripped trousers don’t, another reason cited for keeping boys in short trousers for so long was to ‘get some air to their legs’. This may be a misinterpretation of the benefit of sunlight to prevent rickets but for whatever reason, even early-maturing fourth-year boys with downy top lips and broadening shoulders could be seen running around in short trousers until they were at least eleven or twelve.
Children sitting while adult stand.
Now without sounding like ‘angry of Essex’ one of the things that makes me a little annoyed is children sitting in a train seat while adults are standing. Yes, I know they’ve paid their fare like everyone else but in Connie’s day no child would have been allowed to occupy a seat while an adult, of whatever age, stood.
It wasn’t so much about the seat but teaching children to respect their elders. This went beyond public transport protocol to opening doors for an adult, not interrupting them or barging past them and standing up when a teacher came into a room. In Connie’s day and there was a clear demarcation between children and adults and they lived very different lives. Even when children left school they remained in subordination to their parents, right up to the time they were married. Although the advent of the 50s teenage culture from America shifted the balance a bit even as late as the mid-60s many young people were still handing over their wages to their parents.
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Now the reason I’m so into history is because I love to discover little details and marvel at the difference between the life I live and times past.
Usually these are quite marked changes such as in clothing or innovative technology but for me some of the most interesting aspects of change are the little things that almost go unnoticed.
My new book Wedding Bells for Nurse Connie isn’t set that long ago, relatively speaking, just as the NHS started in 1948 and it would be easy to highlight any number of things that have changed radically since that time. Fashion, communication, transport and medicine, but I’d like to concentrate on some little everyday things that seem to have changed unnoticed.
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5th July 1948
As the early morning July sunlight crept around the edges of the faded curtains, Sister Connie Byrne, the senior nurse for the Spitalfields and Shoreditch Nursing Association, flicked her head in an attempt to dislodge the lock of her golden red hair from her temple, without success.
But then wasn’t it always the same? As soon as you tied your mask and put on your sterile gloves, your nose started to itch or a stray hair tickled your forehead.
Ignoring it she wriggled her fingers in her rubber gloves. ‘Right, Mrs Sinclair, one more push and I should be able to see baby’s head.’
Margaret Sinclair, a slightly built young woman with fluffy blonde curls, rolled her grey eyes. ‘I bloody ’ope so.’
Margaret and Don Sinclair and their four – soon to be five – children lived on the third floor of Fallow House in Brushfield Street just a stone’s throw from Petticoat Lane. The three-room dwellings must have seemed like palaces to the artisans who first moved into them a hundred years before but now they were one of the dozens of damp, overcrowded Victorian tenement waiting demolition under the LCC’s post-war slum clearance programme.
‘Right, Margaret,’ she said, placing the labouring woman’s left foot against her own hip. ‘With the next pain I want you to tuck your chin in and push down into your bottom.’
Margaret nodded then, taking a deep breath as another contraction built, she lowered her head and strained. Continue readingShare this...
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Having interviewed Sister Byrne about the new NHS I thought I might try and gage what the medical profession feel about the changes, which is why I’m in the tea shop at Liverpool Street Station
to meet Dr Hari MacLauchlan.
Me: ‘Good morning Dr MacLauchlan and thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions for my readers.
Dr MacLauchlan: ‘Not at all.’
Me: ‘Can I ask how long you’ve been back in the country and have you noticed any changes?
Dr MacLauchlan: My ship from Calcutta docked at Southampton three months ago. I managed to get some temporary digs in Clerkenwell but as most GP post come with accommodation I expect I’ll be moving into something a bit more homely soon. And as to changes not so many as I’d imagined. Although, I thought the LCC would have cleared most of the bomb sites and rationing would have finished.
Me: ‘I’m a bit surprised you’re still looking for a post as I thought there was a shortage of doctors in London at the moment.’
Dr Hari: Well, yes so am I but I’ve had a few interviews and it’s only a matter of time before the right post presents itself. In fact I have an interview this afternoon which looks very promising.
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I thought I’d give you a little insight into Wedding Bells for Nurse Connie by interview Sister Connie Byrne. It’s 8am in the morning and I’m going to have a few words with her as she chains her bicycle up in the backyard of Fry House.
Me: ‘Good morning, Sister Byrne, can you tell me what you’ve been up to this fine morning?
Nurse Connie. ‘What I’m usually up to when the phone goes at 3am in the morning: delivering a baby.
Me: ‘Boy or a girl?’
Nurse Connie: ‘A boy. Seven pound nine ounces and was my first.’
Me: ‘Your first?’
Nurse Connie: ‘ NHS baby.’
Me: ‘Of course, it’s the 5th July and the new health service starts today.
Nurse Connie: ‘It started at midnight last night so the Sinclairs weren’t charge 10/- for my services to see Master Sinclair safely into the world.’
Me: ‘So you’re in favour of the new health system?’
Nurse Connie. ‘I certainly am. I’m sure there isn’t a district nurse or midwife in the land who doesn’t hate charging a desperate mother with a poorly child for a visit or taking the last few coppers from an elderly person who need a bit of help to the toilet. And I for one won’t be sorry that from today I can throw my weekly collection book in the bin.
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If you do a quick search for the history of District Nursing you’ll no doubt discover that William Rathbone’s founded of what is described as the first district nursing service in Liverpool in 1863. If you dig a little deeper you might also unearth the fact that almost forty years before Rathbone’s philanthropic gesture Elizabeth Fry, the well-known prison reformer, set up home nursing services in Brighton after seeing for herself the shocking conditions of the poor.
You’ll even read how Florence Nightingale supported the founding of District Nurse Associations throughout the country describing district nursing as “that most important of all its [nursing] branches”.
This seems a laudable statement until you learn that as the notable Lady with the Lamp was lamenting in 1867 that “until we have district nursing in London we shall have done nothing even when we have reformed all the hospitals and all the workhouses” Ellen Ranyard had already laid the foundation of the first district nurse service in London ten years before.
Born in Nine Elms in 1809 Ellen Ranyard, the wife of a non-conformist minister, founded the Bible and Domestic Female Mission in 1857. Unlike many of the mission societies formed at that time instead of utilising middle and upper-class women to further its cause Ellen Ranyard recruited her Biblewomen from the poor working-class communities the Mission was reaching out to.
Although very successful in their initial goal of distributing bible tracts to the poor it soon became clear that a practical as well as spiritual dimension was needed so in 1868 the Biblewomen nurses were established. They, too, were poor, working women who after three months training in a London hospital would return to serve their communities as Biblewomen nurses.
Although initially based in Covent Garden they soon expanded east to Whitechapel and south to Bermondsey. Their duties included referring patients to doctors and hospitals, inspecting infants in mother’s meetings, and encouraging medical self-help among the poor.
Within 25 years the Bible and Domestic Female Mission had over 80 Biblewoman nurses in London and Ranyard’s Biblewomen nurses continued to operate in South London even after the introduction of the National Health Service but were absorbed into the London borough’s district nursing services in 1965.
I discovered Ellen Ranyard when researching my post-war East London District Nurse series and the fictitious St George and St Dunstan’s District Nursing Association in my books is based on the East London Nursing Society founded by Ellen Ranyard’s Biblewomen Nurses Mission in Poplar.
Today her fierce evangelical fervour and views on the causes of poverty would be regarded as narrow and bigoted. However, her pragmatic way of ministering to the poor and sick introduced for the first time the model of cultural link-workers used in health promotion work throughout the world today.Share this...
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I can pinpoint the moment I fell head over heels in love with history to the day, as a child I watched Roger Moore as Ivanhoe gallop across our black and white TV screen on a white horse.
My infatuation grew throughout my childhood fed on TV series like the Buccaneers, Robin Hood, The Forsyth Saga including a brief flirtation with the Wild West with Bonanza. Dr Who, too, in its earlier days went back in time, who could forget one of his early companions Jamie McCrimmon? I later moved on to the Onedin Line and of course, along with the rest of the female population in 1975 fell in love with Robin Ellis as he strode across the screen as the original Ross Poldark.
I just love the thought, feel and possibilities of the past. All my life I’ve fanaticised about broad-shouldered, chiselled featured men with piercing eyes dressed in doublets, kilts, starched collars and cravats and redcoats, what woman hasn’t?
Of course I didn’t just watch historical fiction but I read it almost exclusively in books by Anya Seton, Mary Stewart, Nigel Tranter, George Shipway, Dorothy Dunnett and Sharon Penman to name but a very few.
The joy of writing historical fiction is also that the past isn’t just one point in time. It can be Nero’s Rome, Robert the Bruce’s Scotland, Revolutionary Boston or Lautrec’s Paris or for me, post-war East London.
It can also focus of major historical character such as, the Empress Matilda, Cecily Neville, Joan of Arc, or Marie Antoinette but it can also have more lowly protagonists such as Frances Nelson Lord Nelson’s long suffering wife or Elizabeth Fry, with her eleven children and bankrupt husband.
Of course, you can have fictionally characters, who inhabit a real time and place and who fall in and out of love but who aren’t constrained by actual events.
But that then leaves me with another question I’m often asked which is ‘Do I write Romance or History?’ and again my answer is always the same. ‘I couldn’t tell you; I just write stories?’
Wedding Bells for Nurse Connie.
It’s 1948 and the nurses of the East End of London are making the most of life post-war. For Connie in particular, things are looking rosy as she looks forward to planning a future with her sweetheart, Malcolm. But, as many a young bride-to-be has proved, the course of true love never did run smooth and Connie finds herself having to grapple with interfering mothers and Malcolm’s reluctance to set the date.
But while there are many obstacles to overcome before walking down the aisle, at least Connie can relax in the knowledge that she’ll soon be married to the man of her dreams, can’t she?
Life at work isn’t all smooth sailing either. The newly-formed NHS is keeping the nurses of Fry House extremely busy and as ever in the life of a nurse heartbreak lurks at every turn. But there are some new faces to keep things interesting. And one in particular might be the answer to all of Connie’s problems.
‘A delightful, well researched story that depicts nursing and the living conditions in the East End at the end of the war’ (Lesley Pearse talking about Call Nurse Millie. )
‘…The writing shines off the page and begs for a sequel’ (Historical Novel Society)
‘…you will ride emotional highs and lows with each new birth and death. Beautifully written with some sharp dialogue.’ (THE LADY)
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Well not him personally, I understand he’s a really nice chap, but just his books. And I’m not annoyed with him for him being a universally known author while I’m a struggling mid-list one so please let me explain my annoyance.
I’ve just come back from a week’s cruise and his books along with other old favourites like Maeve Binchy and Joanna Trollope, seem to be as numerous as sunbeds on the ship. I’m annoyed because with so many fabulous authors out there people still seem to grab the same old thing from the airport W H Smiths before boarding their flight.
Given that most people cite ‘time to read’ as one of the things they enjoy most about relaxing on a beach they seem to give very little thought to the matter before they check in at the airport. So as a public service to my favourite people – readers – I thought I’d give you a few of recommendations for authors you may not have discovered to pack in your suitcase.
If you like a good thriller/murder why not try The Holy Thief by William Ryan the first of his Korplev Mysteries.
Set in 1930’s Moscow under Stalin’s oppressive and paranoid regimen we follow the fortunes of Captain Alexei Korolev a detective in the Moscow Criminal Investigation Department. Not only is this a cracking detective story but a fabulous insight into the corrupt, blood-soaked world of communist Russia at the time. Fabulous read and highly recommended.
If you’re after an intelligent action hero in uniform then The Scarlet Thief by Paul Fraser Collard might be for you. The first of the Jack Lark series is set during the Crimean war and
features Private Jack Lark of her Majesty’s King’s Fusiliers. As Jack is a good old East End lad from the Victorian rookery of Spitalfields I was willing the story to grab me from the start and it did. I won’t say too much as it would spoil some of the twists and turns but the book starts at a breakneck pace and continues to the end. Again good period details which don’t intrude on the action.
The Girl Under the Olive Tree by Leah Fleming. In the same vein a heart-wrenching read, which follows the fortunes of Penny Georgiou a half British and half Greek nurse. We meet her in pre-war Athens and then as she ministers to the sick in German occupied Crete. It’s fantastically atmospheric and holds your interest on every page with a very satisfying ending.
So far I’ve given three historical recommendations but now I’d like to throw you something of a ‘curve ball’ with my next recommendation Aurelia by Alison Morton. This is the 4th in her Roma Nova series and is set in the alternative world of Roma Nova a remnant of the Roman Empire that survived into the 20th century. Morton does a brilliant job constructing this modern Roman society within the alternative history of the 20th century minus Hitler and a different configuration of European states. It’s a story of industrial espionage and spies with Aurelia Mitela a serving officer in the Pretorian Guards and member of one of the ruling families, as a sort of female James Bond getting into all sorts of mayhem for Empire and Family.
Although you might be floating in the Med or laying on a beach in Spain you can travel further field; to the Australian outback in fact, with the Wild One by Janet Gover. It’s the second in her Coorah Creek series featuring the small mining town somewhere deep in Queensland. We meet photographer Rachel Quinn and park ranger Dan Mitchell both struggling with unresolved issues and heart-break in their past. As Ms Gover originates from an outback town like Coorah Creek she takes you there right down to the dry dust on your boots. Well recommended although you might want to start with Flight to Coorah Creek, the first in the series.
Lastly, I’d like to recommend Where Love Lies, by Julie Cohen. It’s a wonderfully crafted novel about Felicity and Quinn, a newly married couple and their fight through a very unusually threat to their happiness. My sympathies veered between Felicity and then Quinn at the start of the book but then found myself willing them both to win through. Absolutely love the whole story and read it in two days flat but I must warn you to keep a box of tissues handy.
Have a nice holiday and enjoy.Share this...
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