Calico and Silk by Christine Evans

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This is the final book in Christine Evans’s “Gorbydale” (Rochdale?  Or maybe Oldham?  Or somewhere in the Rossendale Valley?) trilogy – completed not long before the author’s tragic sudden death last January.  The Cotton Famine and the American Civil War are long over – although we see how the effects of an economic shutdown last for many years – and there’s not that much history in this final book; but it’s a very readable family saga.  And it’s interesting to see Elizabeth Blackwell and her sister Emily make appearances, and also to see disabled character Matt lead a fulfilling personal and professional life.

There are more daft names (Hadrian) and slightly daft plots (man thought to have been eaten by alligators comes back from the dead but then collapses and dies of alcohol poisoning in the street, wife accidentally kills husband with laudanum overdose).  The alligators are in Louisiana, BTW: there are no alligators in Rochdale.  At least, I hope there aren’t.  But it’s generally a good read.

If you haven’t read the first two books in the series, it might be rather confusing, especially as there are two different families involved, and two different branches (plus assorted relatives by marriage) of one of those.  But all three taken together aren’t bad, and there are so few books about the Cotton Famine (my dissertation topic) that I get very excited whenever I find one!   I was just so sorry to hear about Christine’s sudden death, and am glad that she was able to see her work, or at least the first two-thirds of it) published whilst she was alive.  I was also very sorry to hear about the recent death of Sharon Penman, one of my all time favourite authors.  Sad news.  But their books live on, at least.

Britain’s Most Historic Towns: Manchester – Channel 4

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This was one of the best programmes I’ve seen all year.  There should be programmes like this on every day.  On every channel.  At prime viewing time.  What more could anyone ask for than to watch a TV programme which says that “Manchester is as great a human exploit as [ancient] Athens” (Disraeli), talks about Manchester “pumping the rich blood of economic vitality and revolutionary identity around Britain” and points out that Frederick Douglass was “fascinated” by Manchester because of the number of people here working to change the world for the better?  And it showed a picture of Old Trafford.  (OK, OK, it also showed a picture of the Etihad, but never mind that.)  And it talked about the Cotton Famine.  The Cotton Famine was my dissertation topic.  I get very excited when people talk about it.

We got Peterloo.  We got the Anti Corn Law League.  We got the Manchester to Liverpool Railway (the Huskisson incident was not mentioned).  We got Engels and Marx meeting up at Chetham’s (the fact that Engels’ office was in what’s now Kendals, which always amuses me, was sadly not mentioned).  And, of course, we got the suffragettes.  I just need to mention for the ten billionth time that I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst and her sisters.  Then, at the end, we were shown a picture of Marcus Rashford.  Marcus, being a very modest young man, is probably rather embarrassed at being mentioned alongside the likes of Richard Cobden, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emmeline Pankhurst and the organisers of the meeting which sadly ended in the Peterloo Massacre, but I thought that that was rather lovely.

This really was brilliant.  Alice Roberts was so enthusiastic and so totally biased in favour of all the radicals and reformers of 18th, 19th, 20th and now 21st century Manchester.  I got all excited, like I did when I was a teenager reading books by Asa Briggs et al about the role of Manchester in the Industrial Revolution.  Yes, I really, genuinely am that sad and that weird.  Always have been, always will be.  Indulge me, OK.  Christmas has just been cancelled.  I needed cheering up.  This cheered me up.  So has United beating Leeds 6-2.   Well, somewhat.

We started off with canals, cotton mills and railways – and a drone flying over the city to take pictures.  This was obviously filmed recently, but they managed very well with social distancing – Alice Roberts met various historians, but only one at a time, and they stood well apart.  Then we heard about the difficult conditions under which the mill workers lived and worked, and then moved on to the mess which was the constituency system pre 1832, and, of course, the electorail system too.

That, obviously, brought us on to Peterloo.  We heard about the radical press here, notably the Manchester Observer, and then about the Massacre itself. If Mike Leigh hadn’t made such a mess of the film, we might hear a lot more about Peterloo: I’m still narked about that.  Anyway.  Even now, we get people saying that it wasn’t really a peaceful protest, or that it wasn’t really that bad.  This, using documents from the time, kept in the wonderful John Rylands Library, made it quite clear that, yes, it was a peaceful protest, and, yes, what happened was that bad.  We heard about the Peterloo Relief Fund set up to help the injured and the families of the dead.  And we heard about the “fake news” put out about it all.  It was all very, very much on the side of the peaceful protesters.  And quite rightly so!

Strangely, there was no mention of the Chartists.  That was a very odd omission.

However, we did hear about Richard Cobden and the Anti Corn Law League.  Possibly a teensy bit of political agenda pushing here, the only bit of the programme I wasn’t keen on.  Or maybe I imagined it.  But let’s ignore that, and focus on the fact that the Anti Corn Law League eventually succeeded in bringing down food prices – at a time when, even during the Potato Famine, landowners were only interested in keeping prices up, and never mind the fact that people were going hungry.   And, oh, how I wish that the Free Trade Hall had never been sold off and turned into a hotel!  It’s such a big piece of our history. We used to have school Speech Day in there.  It was always very boring, very hot, and at the same time as a crucial match at Wimbledon, but the fact that it was in the Free Trade Hall rather than the school hall was rather exciting.

On to Marx and Engels, and the interesting point was made that Elizabeth Gaskell probably did more to draw public attention to “the condition of the working classes” than Engels did.  Lucky Alice Roberts got to visit her house, and also Chetham’s Library: both are sadly closed to the public at the moment 😦 , thanks to bl**dy Tier 3 regulations.  Charles Dickens also got a mention, but I find Hard Times unspeakably annoying.  Mrs Gaskell’s books are much better.  And, yes, they would have reached a far wider audience than the Engels book did.  Both them were rather patronising, quite honestly, but those were different times.

Then on to the Cotton Famine.  I’ve just read an utterly ridiculous book which claimed that everyone in the Lancashire textile areas supported the Confederacy.  It also said that the Confederacy only had six states, when it had eleven, so the author was clearly pretty clueless.  And he said that Prince Albert was gay, which seemed a rather odd comment.  But it annoyed me that a supposed history textbook has gone on sale spouting such rubbish.  Yes, there was some support for the Confederacy, but the general feeling in the Lancashire textile areas (I’m saying “textile areas” because it was a whole different ball game in Liverpool) was pro-Union because of the slavery issue.  Whether the war was actually about slavery or about states’ rights is a debate for another time, but there’s that famous letter sent to Abraham Lincoln from “the citizens of Manchester”, and the equally famous reply.  And there’s a statue of Lincoln in the city centre … close to where one of the Christmas markets should currently be being held.  Given the damage done to the regional economy by the Cotton Famine, that was a very big thing.

We were also told that Frederick Douglass was fascinated by Manchester. Well, of course he was.  Anyone would be 🙂 .  But I love the fact that he was.

And then to the suffragettes.  Emmeline Pankhurst, of whom there is, finally, now a statue in town.  Alice spoke to a woman who’d actually changed her surname to Pankhurst!   That’s rather extreme fangirling, but it’s fascinating that someone does find Emmeline Pankhurst so inspirational that she’d do that.  And we saw the Manchester – First in the Fight” banner which now lives in the People’s History Museum.

First in the Fight!   “We are a city of changemakers.”  “Greatest Hits of Radical Movements.”  I actually Googled Alice Roberts to see if she had Manchester connections, but, as far as I can see, she hasn’t.  She was just being gloriously pro-Manchester.  We take all this as a compliment, obviously!   We are very proud of being involved in the Repeal movement and the Suffragette movement and everything else.  And, as I said, I thought it was rather lovely that that picture of Marcus Rashford was shown.  We’re having a tough time at the moment.  But we’ve had tough times before.  We’ve come through those and we’ll come through this.

And this programme was brilliant.  Not that I’m biased or anything …

 

 

Twist of the Thread by Christine Evans

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This is the sequel to Song of the Shuttle.  Much like that, it’s well-researched and quite entertaining, but a little far-fetched!  I’m not sure how realistic it is that a housemaid from a Lancashire mill town would persuade a former Confederate soldier to marry her, and then take over the running of his ruined plantation, insist on paying all the former slaves a fair wage, and become close friends with all the former slaves, giving everyone else in their district of Louisiana a salutary lesson in race relations and equality, during Reconstruction.  Nice idea, though!  The fictional town of Gorbydale doesn’t match up exactly to anywhere, but it’s probably closer to Rochdale than anywhere else, and Rochdale was particularly well-known for its anti-slavery stance.

Meanwhile, the dodgy husband tried to murder his wife’s ex-employer’s cousin, accidentally murdered her friend instead, spent a lot of time gambling on Mississippi riverboats, faked his own death, and then turned up in Liverpool.  As you do.  As I said, it wasn’t particularly realistic, but, apart from a quibble over the demography of Cheetham Hill, and possibly some confusion over the date of the opening of Strangeways (I’m not quite sure what year it was meant to be in the book by then), the actual history was fairly accurate.  And it was a good read.  I need distracting, at the moment.  I’m sure we all do.

This was meant to be a series, but, sadly, the author died suddenly.  She’d written the third book before her death, but obviously there won’t be any more.  There wasn’t as much history in this book as in the first one – that, despite the rather bonkers storyline, appealed to me because it was about the Cotton Famine, my dissertation topic, and the American Civil War, one of my great and long-term historical loves, but this one was more about the personal lives of the characters.  As well as the story of Dolly, the housemaid, we heard about Jessie, the main character in the first book, and how she coped with having a disabled child, and also about Jessie’s friend Honora (whom Dolly’s husband tried to murder!) and her medical studies in America.  It was all quite interesting, but a bit more about Gorbydale’s recovery from the Cotton Famine would have been nice.

During the Famine, of course, there was state assistance via the Public Works Acts, but there was also a huge privately-organised relief effort, with money being raised from all over the world, and local committees distributing it, and organising, for example, sewing schools, which feature in this book.  With Andy Burnham launching the OneGM fund today, and Marcus Rashford doing so much to raise money to provide meals for disadvantaged children, I’ve been thinking a lot about this.  And my house is built on the site of what was a Cotton Famine Public Works programme.  Anyway, that’s beside the point.  This isn’t the greatest book ever, but, as a 99p Kindle download, it was well worth reading!

 

Song of the Shuttle by Christine Evans

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This is local history month, and, in any case, I’m always on the lookout for books about the Cotton Famine, my university dissertation topic.  There aren’t many of them around, so I was very pleased to find this one.  The author had obviously done a huge amount of research into the subject: there was a lot of information in this, and a lot of lovely descriptive passages as well.  The storyline got rather far-fetched, with everyone whizzing backwards and forwards across the Atlantic in the middle of a war, and marrying people from different backgrounds, and there were a few other niggles too, but, overall, it was an entertaining read, for a 99p Kindle download.  My house is built on the site of an old reservoir, which was constructed as one of the Public Works projects which provided employment for people who were out of work as a result of the Cotton Famine.  That has got absolutely nothing to do with this book, but I like telling people about it 🙂 .

Our characters live in a town called “Gorbydale” (odd choice of fictional name!), somewhere on the moors near either Oldham or Rochdale.  There are a lot of references to an old Roman fort, and the only one I can think of round there is at Castleshaw, near Oldham; but the fact that it’s a weaving area rather than a spinning area, the use of “dale”, and the reference to an outing to Hollingworth Lake suggest that it’s more the Rochdale side.  And some of them live in “Doveton”, which I think’s meant to be more towards Oldham, maybe round the Delph area.

Whilst I’m not entirely convinced that a family of weavers would have been entertaining guests in the parlour and serving tea in the best china cups – although you never know, as wages in the cotton industry were pretty high in the 1850s, and this family was clearly meant to be relatively prosperous -, there were some excellent descriptions of the town, the mills, the homes, and Methodism which was (and is) quite big in the area.  Our heroine is Jessie, the daughter of the family.  Also featured are the family who own the local mills, which have glorious names like Invincible Mill and Endurance Mill.  Perseverance Mill was the more common one, but same general idea!  The millowners have got a handsome but idle son, Robert, and a spirited niece, Honora living with them.

There’s an unpleasant sub-plot in which an American business associate visits the millowners, and rapes their maid, who becomes pregnant.  The narrative makes out that it was all the maid’s fault.  Whilst that’s how people would probably have seen it at the time, I wasn’t very impressed that the narrative seemed to go along with that.  Another niggle was the mis-spelling of Fort Sumter as “Fort Sumpter”, but that can be forgiven.  The attitude towards Dolly the maid can’t.  One of Jessie’s brothers, Arden, is wrongly accused of being the father of Dolly’s baby … whereupon he takes off to America to fight for the Union, the war having begun by this point.

OK, there were certainly cases of men from Lancashire going to fight in the war.  So that was fair enough.  Less realistically, Robert, who’s got a bit involved with Jessie, then also takes off to America, to run the blockade and get himself to Louisiana, so that he can get some cotton and bring it back!   Twice.  This was where it started getting rather silly.  He then gets press-ganged into the Confederate army, is seriously injured, makes his way to the rapist business associate’s plantation, and is cared for by the slaves there.

Back in Gorbydale, it’s all rather more realistic – and very well-portrayed, with a lot of narrative about the problems caused by the infamous Surat cotton, and also about the establishment of sewing schools for unemployed women.  Jessie and Honora both get involved with a local sewing school and become friends.  They then head off to America, to look for Arden and Robert!   They just happen to find Arden.  Then they find the rapist business associate, who’s lurking around Washington as a spy, and help Allan Pinkerton to catch him.  And then they volunteer as Union nurses … despite the fact that Dorothea Dix was after women who were plain, over 30, and, presumably, American.  To be fair, it did mention that they didn’t exactly meet the requirements!  And who should somehow end up in their hospital but, you guessed it, Robert.

Robert recovers, and returns to England with Jessie (chaperoned by one of the former slaves, who then goes back to America.  There wasn’t half a lot of to-ing and fro-ing across the Atlantic, in the middle of a war!), everyone is apparently OK about him marrying a mill girl, and they get married.  Honora stays on in America to train as a doctor, as you do, and gets together with Arden.

By this time, it’d all got so far-fetched that I wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid if Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S Grant and Robert E Lee had all rolled up in Gorbydale, to be served tea in the best china cups in the parlour.  However, it was a nice enough read, and the information about the effects of the Cotton Famine, the damage that it did it to the regional economy and the efforts that were made to ameliorate them, had obviously been researched in a lot of detail.  It really isn’t easy to find novels set during the Cotton Famine, and, for 99p, this one was certainly worth a go.