That time of year again…

It’s October. Nearly halfway through, in fact. And I know from experience that I write better in November if I’ve planned thoroughly beforehand.

So, am I doing Nano this year?

I’m currently without my laptop, as it’s been away for repair for over three weeks. The good news is that they’ve said that as it’s taken so long I’m entitled to a new one instead, so I’m waiting for a voucher to spend to get a new laptop. It would be incredibly difficult to complete nano without a laptop to sit with in the evenings and to take to meetups.

But once I get my new one, there’s that excuse removed.

So what are the pros and cons?


Every time I do nano, the end product is a little cleaner than the previous year’s work. My writing improves under the consistent practice. I remember, again, how much I enjoy writing. I have a real sense of achievement. I enjoy joining in with other writers, comparing word count, creating worlds, completely losing myself in the process. I end up with a novel that’s ready for editing and polishing.


I already have several novels at different stages of completion and they need focus in order to get finished. (But nano helps to build up a momentum and enthusiasm). I don’t have the time (but I have plenty of time for playing solitaire, or reading books). It’s hard work.

So is that it? Am I just work-shy? Or am I afraid to succeed?

I guess I’ll be spending the next week or so deciding on a project (there are one or two contenders, and I’m sure I can come up with something I want to spend a month on). And then I’ll be planning to spend my spare time in November putting that world into words.

After all, it’s only for a month, right?



Reconstructing the past

I headed out to Whitstable this morning, to do further research on one of the workhouse families. I’ve decided that a short story based on the story of one of the children will form my contribution to an anthology of short stories my writing group is intending to publish, and I’m looking for material to flesh out the story and bring it to life.

I walked around the town, finding the house where they used to live, walking alongside the harbour, and identifying the school she would have gone to, and then went round the local museum and had a look at the local history section of the library.

As I walked back to the car, I passed a pub, which had a notice outside: “Back in 2015”. I’m guessing it refers to their live entertainment, but it felt strangely fitting, as for those two hours I’d been back in around 1880, and it felt strange to return to the present day.

As I drove home, I started musing about the difference between writing historical fiction and writing fantasy. In historical fiction, I’m trying to keep as true to the facts as I can, and weaving a story around those facts. I have a lot of flexibility, but within a very tight framework. It’s so easy to make a simple mistake with facts and instantly alienate a lot of readers. I’m also aware that I’m trying to fill in very large gaps – it’s one thing to imagine what she might have done on her way home from school, but I’m not even sure what she would have called her parents!

In one way, writing fantasy is easier. I’m creating my own world, and nobody can tell me that I’ve got my facts wrong. But in another, it’s the same thing. I want my world to be credible, and so I’m trying to think about how societies change and evolve. How do three very different races start spreading out and co-operating, only to have relationships break down and become hostile? How does a town function? How does a religion spread? How does intolerance show itself?

Admittedly, on some of those points I only have to read the papers, and the current world situation is definitely feeding itself into my novel. But that feeling of power, of deciding policy, is very real. And the feeling that it’s got to be close enough to the truth, or in this case at least A truth, is still very strong.

I thoroughly enjoyed my morning, and will be repeating the experience, with more time. In the meantime, I’ve got a new draft of my short story to get on with, and a novel or three to get finished.


Earth closets

I spent a pleasant few hours in the archive room today – I was making my way through a huge tome that was the minutes of the meetings of the Board of Guardians of Blean Union Workhouse from 1883 to 1886. It really is a magnificent book, about 18 inches tall and six inches thick, all handwritten in exquisite handwriting (which actually inspired me to order a new calligraphy pen; we’ve really lost the art of beautiful handwriting these days!).

Each entry begins with details about the date, the purpose of the meeting (usually the ordinary Board meeting), and who was present. The accounts are detailed, and then any correspondence dealt with. These meetings were held every two weeks, and each entry consists of around four or five pages.

I found myself focusing on the Guardians themselves on this read, wondering who these people were who had such power in their hands, what they thought of the Inmates and their duties, and what type of person they were. Some names were familiar to me. Names such as Iggulden and Wacher are still known in the local town as businessmen. Prescott-Westcar, the then owner of Strode Park (the local large estate), showed up as a Guardian partway through, although he doesn’t seem to have attended the Board meetings.

They were obviously shrewd businessmen, who believed in getting value for money. I came across an ongoing argument with a firm who had repaired the cooking equipment, and put in a bill for £53. Messages went back and forth, asking them to account for the cost, and as their claims did not tally with what the Master believed had been done, instructions were given to pay £43 rather than the total price.

There were several complaints to local tradespeople (especially the baker) for inferior quality goods, ranging from bread and flour (unsuitable for use) to problems with a coffin (although later the tradesman was allowed a small sum for a nameplate for each coffin).

The plumbing was a big issue. There were three water closets, one being by the Board room, one on the Elderly Women’s landing and one on the Elderly Men’s landing, and several earth closets. During the period I looked at, arrangements were made for modifications to the building, adding a drying room for the laundry, a drying room for earth for the earth closets, and new earth closets (Moules’ earth closets) to be built on the boundary of the property.

There were problems with the building works, when the builder who won the tender with the lowest price asked for an extra £15, and was not only told no, but had the tender taken away from him, and then later when the builder in charge was slow to complete the works.

There were problems with the Medical Officer not attending to a Pauper, and various other complaints, so that he was asked to resign and a new officer found. One of the Receiving Officers died unexpectedly, and a new one was appointed – he also took on the duties of registration of births and deaths in the district, and administering vaccinations.

There were a few pieces of good news – on a few occasions a note of thanks was made to local residents for gifts of books or periodicals for use by the Inmates, and when one lady was thanked for playing the Harmonium at services, she replied that the instrument was becoming worn out. She was despatched to a music shop in Canterbury to choose a new Harmonium, at a cost of £14.

Having looked at the names of the men attending the meetings, and noting that John Collard consistently attended the meetings as their Chairman, and was elected unanimously every year, I was surprised to notice that in August 1885 he was missing. At the following meeting, two weeks later, the Board were expressing their shock at his death, and sending condolences to his family.

So it seems these men (yes, all men, as far as I could see) worked hard to ensure the Inmates received what was due to them. They claimed support from locals who had family in the Workhouse (although one man was excused when it was revealed his wife had committed adultery) and arranged for movement between Workhouses where appropriate, people being sent to their own area for support where possible.

The only direct mention of any of the Inmates I’ve been researching was when the eldest of the five orphans was apprenticed to a local builder, but it was interesting to read the reports of the papers being signed.

It’s been a long time since I last went to the library to do some research, but I do enjoy it, and I do feel these people’s stories, so meticulously recorded, deserve to be told. I really must make the journey more often.


Back to the workhouse

It’s been a long time, but next week I’m hoping to get back to the library for some more research on Blean Union Workhouse. I started the project by researching specific people who were in the workhouse on a specific date. Having managed to get quite a long way in tracing their stories, I turned my attention the workhouse itself.

The problem that I’m having, apart from the fact that the library is nearly an hour’s drive away, is that there is so much material it’s hard to know where to start and what to pull out. There are many huge books that are handwritten minutes of the Guardians’ meetings, containing regular reports on the financial status and also correspondence and other notes. There are files of letters. I’ve already spent time ploughing through the admissions registers.

There is so much data there, but the challenge is pulling useful, interesting information from it. Bearing in mind that it’s all hand-written, sometimes difficult to read, and individual resources are not indexed, I’m reduced to reading, making notes of interesting anecdotes within the records and looking for some sort of narrative thread.

I’m trying to concentrate my search around the 1880s to 1890s, as that’s when the families I researched were there, but I’m wondering whether I should try to make it a general history of the workhouse as well. There is a thesis available on the workhouse, but that seems to concentrate on earlier times, and sets the workhouse in the context of the society surrounding it, rather than focusing on the workhouse itself.

On the other hand, what in that history is likely to be interesting and relevant to readers? I can’t imagine that a detailed record of the finances would be interesting to read, and I don’t have the ability to pull out the deeper significance of them anyway. I’m interested in stories about the people, but such stories are likely to be short anecdotes rather than a long cohesive thread.

Any suggestions would be very welcome. In the meantime, I need to find the information I need to book a desk and order a resource for next week’s planned visit.


R is for research

Posted as part of the a-z challenge.

Research: dull or interesting? I get involved in research for various things, from researching information for my novel to checking things for my work. Recent searches have included religious extremism (novel), dwarf and elf names (novel), the difference between any more and anymore (work) and the use of viewpoints within fiction (work and my own novel).

I’m engaged in a project to research our local workhouse, which is fascinating. The only drawback is the expense; while the research itself is free, it also involves over an hour of travel by car, car parking for the day and organising some sort of lunch, as well as necessitating a day away from paid work.

When I did my teacher training, we did an exercise on research. We were asked a bunch of questions, and had to give the answer plus how certain we were of the answer. We then had time to research online, and then had to again give an answer plus how certain we were. The result was generally that after an hour of research the answers might not have changed, but the certainty of that answer had dropped! Our tutor alleged he’d deliberately changed an answer on wikipedia to throw us off as well…

There’s a great deal of satisfaction in looking things up and finding the right answer. And sometimes it’s essential. Other times, it’s just a time-waster, a way to avoid doing what we really should be doing.

And on that note, I must go and do what I should be doing right now, which ironically includes research…

Reading as a writer

A few years ago, I watched a programme about adult literacy. An educator took on a few adults who were illiterate and set out to help them master the world of words. He was determined that he was not going to give up on them, as it appeared their teachers had, and would figure out what was stopping them from reading and open up the world of words for them.

They were an assorted bunch, of different ages, and with different problems, ranging from not having had the support they needed at home to help them practise to having real issues with shape and rotation of letters. With one particular woman, they resorted to having her make letters in plasticine, as she discovered that only by physically experiencing the shape and feel of the letters could she remember them and learn them.

By the end of the programme, they could all cope with basic reading, but their reactions were mixed. One woman was heartbroken over all the time she had lost, and all the books she had not read, while another had a very surprising reaction: she was furious. She felt that by being able to decode all the words around her, she had been deprived of peace of mind. She yearned to go back to the days when she could walk down the street without being aware of all the letters and words.

I find it difficult to imagine not being able to read; in fact I’m addicted to reading, being unable to pass text without stopping to read it. I only realise just how addicted I am when I see something that I can’t quite read, and start feeling extremely twitchy and uncomfortable until I’ve moved closer or found some other way to deal with it.

But my reading has changed greatly over the past few weeks. Now that I’m partway through writing a novel, my reading is influenced by my writing. This has taken the form of reading books with similar themes, to discover how the book copes with the switch from the real world to a fantasy world, or describes a computer game, and is moving on to more general writing issues: now when I read I’m asking myself how much I’ve learned about the character, or the setting, or the world; why I’m interested in that specific character; how the author makes what could be a nasty character more sympathetic, or how he changes voice when he changes viewpoint; how he sets up an impossible situation, and then bends the rules to solve the problem; why something is introduced in a certain way.

Just like the woman who learned to read, there’s no going back. As a proofreader, I find myself distracted by silly errors, because they interfere with the decoding of the text, but as a writer I also find myself questioning the plot, and how the author has planned things, and how he has drawn us in to the world and the characters.

There are more practical issues too: how many characters? How long are the chapters? How does he jump from story arc to story arc? How do we keep up with which arc we’re on? Why does he tell that scene from that POV? And the very basic issues of whether the plot makes sense and if the characters are believable.

Sometimes this new awareness makes life harder; it’s difficult to find a book that really engages, because I’m too easily distracted by the writing. And if I do find a book with a good writing style, then there’s the feeling of inferiority, that envy that I feel when admiring someone else’s eloquence and wanting it for myself.

One thing I’m becoming more and more aware of is that there are two dimensions to storytelling: there’s the story itself, and the storytelling skills. I’ve read gripping stories where the writing style is lacking, and I’ve read books where the writing is strong but the story itself lacks pace and structure.

And then just occasionally I come across a book where both meet. Where a strong story is told by a good storyteller. Where the words flow on the page and the story pulls you along until you can’t resist.

And oddly, that’s where I often slow down, where I find I read a few pages, or a chapter or so, then put the book down, then pick it up later to continue. It’s as though I’m enjoying the book so much that I can’t bear to get to the end of it.

It doesn’t often happen, sadly, and it happens far less frequently than it used to in my childhood. Has my new awareness come between me and the book world? Or is it just an inevitable part of growing up, that reality prevents us really getting absorbed in a book?

Either way, I feel my reading has taken on a new dimension recently. And I really must get back into the habit of writing regularly as well, a habit built so well during November and then lost in the scramble of December.


Stories from the workhouse

Just to remind you of my workhouse project: I’ve been researching our local workhouse, Blean Union Workhouse, which was in the north of Canterbury, particularly around some of the inmates who were present for the 1881 census. Previously I’d been looking at the admissions and discharge registers, the death records, and the Medical Officer’s book.

Last time I visited the archives, I started looking at the minutes of the Guardians’ meetings. The Guardians were local men who were responsible for attending meetings and ensuring the workhouse was running smoothly. Meetings were held sometimes weekly, sometimes fortnightly. The minutes were written by hand in large ledgers, which must have been around 18 inches by 12 inches, and a good 4 inches thick (this is me looking back and estimating; I must remember to take a tape measure with me next time!). I started with the book that covered 1878 to 1882, and by the end of the day I’d managed to read about three-quarters of it, so there’s still a long way to go! There were 13 previous volumes, covering earlier years, and several that followed this one.

Each meeting recorded the names of those present, gave figures about the workhouse, and then recorded any other issues that had to be dealt with, or letters received, and these proved fascinating reading.

One of the first things I read was a report furnished by members of the committee who had attended the Kent Lunatic Asylum at Chartham (later St Augustine’s Hospital) to check on the welfare of the 26 inmates who were chargeable to the Union. There were 10 men and 16 women, of whom all but two were recorded as chronic and incurable cases. The committee inspected the facilities and domestic arrangements and were satisfied that “in their opinion the Establishment is efficiently and carefully conducted and reflects credit upon the Staff concerned in its management.”

Some of the entries concerned applications for transfer of inmates between different workhouses, either returning them to their home area or accepting them as the Blean Union’s responsibility. This would be done either by mutual agreement if they were satisfied as to the inmate’s area of residence, or by obtaining an order if there were any dispute. There were also issues with family members who were asked for money to help support a relative in the workhouse.

Another big issue was staffing.

Questions were raised over the medical officer, who was in trouble for non-attendance at a patient, delayed vaccination forms and illegible writing. He was also at one stage instructed to find himself an assistant, as he claimed he was struggling to fulfil all his duties.

In October 1878 the porter was summoned and warned over his disobedience of orders, insobriety and general neglect of duty. In June the next year he left, with no notice, and the post was advertised for a single man between the ages of 25 and 45, at the sum of £20 per annum. A new man was employed shortly thereafter, and a letter was received from Canterbury workhouse asking for a reference for the former porter, who was now employed there. The reference was given stating that they had no fault to find with the character or conduct, but that his duties were not always carried out as well as they would like.

It was only a few months until the new porter was reported absent from his post for three days and then being insubordinate, so he was sacked and the post was vacant again. It was offered up for the same £20 per annum, with furnished accommodation, and was duly taken by a man from Chartham. He did not last long either, and in fact the porter changed several times over the period I read. At one point it became known that the man currently in the position was married, and he was called before the board, where he explained that they had been separated for two years. As he had otherwise discharged his duties satisfactorily, they agreed to overlook the deception.

In 1879 the schoolmaster was admonished for the way he was failing to see to the industrial education of the boys at the workhouse. Shortly afterwards, following an inspection of the school by HM Inspector of Workhouse Schools, he resigned, and  the current industrial teacher, a Miss A.T. Hewlett, was allowed to take up the higher post of schoolmistress, at a wage of £30 per annum. A new industrial teacher was advertised for to teach the girls, at £20 per annum. This was advertised as suitable for a single woman or widow, and included accommodation. Two applications were received, one from Kent and one from London, and their third class train fare was paid to attend for interview, from which one was unanimously chosen.

All posts made to the workhouse were sent to the Local Government Board for approval, and this was the only example I came across where they did not simply approve without comment, for they demanded figures as to the numbers of girls at the workhouse, and their ages, and then declared that there were not enough girls to make her appointment worthwhile, and she was given notice. The post of industrial teacher was instead given to a man, who was a tailor and could pass on his trade to the boys. He was employed at a rate of £30 per annum. I believe that around this time a small extension was built to the workhouse to include a tailor’s workroom.

There were problems finding a new Chaplain for the workhouse, until eventually one was found who was willing to take on the post, at a salary of £60 per annum, on condition of the permission of the Archbishop of Canterbury being received. For this money he was expected to “perform Divine Service once on Every Sunday, Christmas Day, and Good Friday between the hours of 10am and 4pm, and [to] pay at least one intermediate weekly visit to the workhouse, to examine the schools and visit the sick.”

I also found stories about behaviour issues and issues with contractors, but I’ll save them for my next post. I can’t wait to get back to the archives and continue reading! It was amazing to think of the men whose discussions were recorded, and the hours that must have been spent painstakingly writing up the minutes – I’m not sure how many people could write that much by hand with few or no corrections these days. I know I couldn’t. Another skill that’s being lost.


More research – and hitting jackpot!

I decided this week that it was about time I headed back to the history and library centre to see what other records were available regarding the workhouse. I drove through rain and sleet to get there, and this time parked in the railway station car park, which allowed me to stay for longer in the day but provided a short walk through the foul weather. I paid £10 for the privilege of taking photos of the records as I worked, but sadly the copyright rules prevent me from publishing them at this point, as the licence is for personal research use only.

Apprenticeships and employment

My first request was for a set of books that promised records of apprenticeships and visits to children who had been found work from the workhouse. The first only contained three entries, and left me feeling rather disappointed, but the second had a few more records and the third was much more useful still, containing not only details of children who had been found employment but further information; I was touched to learn that someone, probably around 1900, had carried out their own research into the children, and had recorded details of what had happened to them. Entries ranged from “died at sea” through “did exceedingly well at apprenticeship but died of consumption shortly thereafter” to “Did well during apprenticeship and went on to Australia, doing well there when last heard of.”

Here I found some important information about Edwin Newing, the oldest of the orphans – aged 12 at the time of his parents’ death, at the age of 16 he was apprenticed to a builder in Eddington, Herne until the age of 21. Next to his name the note said “Left apprenticeship and went to America – married Mary Curtis. Did well – returned to England and is doing very well indeed as a Painter etc.” I was interested in this casual mention of his wife, and was rewarded a couple of pages later with an entry for Mary Curtis herself, who was employed in a private household in Kensington, her note saying “Did well and stayed some years afterwards going to America got married to Edwin B Newing returned and keeping lodging house Herne Bay & doing well.” A quick check revealed that in fact Mary Curtis was in the workhouse at the same time as Edwin during that 1881 census, so although they apparently married in Canada they had already known each other since childhood.

I was, however, curious about Edwin leaving his apprenticeship, since he was already in Canada by the age of 20.

Punishment book

My next request was for the Punishment Book. This proved to be a wonderful source of information, if not for “my” people then for life in the workhouse generally. The one person I was familiar with who did show up a few times was Sarah May, the charwoman who seemed to have spent her entire life in and out of the workhouse. She was recorded with transgressions such as obscene language, indecent behaviour in the wash-house, and going to a ward where an able bodied man was at work contrary to orders given by the matron. Punishments tended to be withdrawal of butter for the day and substitution of bread or potatoes for the main meal. I found this quite amusing until I realised that she was around the same age as I am now and was being punished like a child. I also learned that she had a teenage daughter in the workhouse with her, as at one point they were both in the punishment book together, with an entry that appears to read “striking her mother”/ “striking her daughter”.

John Hearnden (the lunatic) was also in the punishment book, for leaving the premises without permission instead of going to work in the garden, or staying out longer than permitted – in fact this seemed a common transgression, particularly amongst one or two of the men, who were regularly reported as returning late and drunk, occasionally returned by the police!

At this point, from 1860ish to around 1880ish, punishments seemed to be mainly withdrawal of food and/or free time, but there are very few punishments recorded in the 1880s and there appears to be a sharp change in the 1890s onwards with punishments recorded including caning, birching and solitary confinement, or a specific “disorderly diet” for 24 hours.

At this point in my research I headed for lunch in the small cafe round the corner, and returned refreshed and ready to tackle the next set of documents.

Emigration records

Knowing that some of the Newing children had journeyed out to the States and Canada, I had requested what was listed as emigration records, and discovered this consisted of a large but slim envelope containing various papers. The first couple of papers were records showing agreements to transport various children, dated around 1862, including information on what dietary allowance would be made for them and assurance that they would be given a place to sleep no smaller than 6ft long and 18 inches wide. All very interesting, but not directly related to my orphans, so I held out little hope as I turned to the next document, a small handwritten letter. I was getting used to deciphering handwriting by now, so the words “little Newings” jumped out at me. Checking records when I reached home confirmed my first belief – this letter, written in 1892, was from the couple who ran the boarding house where Charlotte and Nathaniel Newing were recorded as living in 1891, and was addressed to the clerk at the workhouse, confirming that Mrs Heaven would be happy to escort the little Newings up to London. I had to laugh at this – the “little Newings” were 13 years old (Charlotte) and 15 years old!

Having transcribed this letter into my records, I turned to the next document – and that’s when I found myself unable to believe my eyes: it was a letter written by Edwin Newing himself! The oldest of the orphans, he had travelled to Canada and was now writing to the clerk of the workhouse asking for his brother and sister to be sent out to him so he could care for them. Here I discovered more about this failed apprenticeship, as he said in his letter: “We are orphans, and was brought up in the Blean Union Workhouse until I became old enough to earn my own living, when I was apprenticed and owing to ill treatment on the part of my master, I absconded before I served my time and went to live at Wallington, Surrey where after being out of work for a long time, I made an application to the Croydon Guardians for assistance in emigrating to this country, which after due consideration they awarded me £5 which I understood came from the government grant, awarded annually for assisting emigration. Since I have been in this country I ordered my little sister and brother’s discharge then inmates of the B. Union, and have paid for their maintenance ever since, which has been a very great strain on my purse, so much so, that I cannot afford to continue it any longer. If I had them out here, they could live with me, and the expense for their maintenance would not be an inconvenience to me.”

This, then, was the cause of the letter from the Heavens arranging escort, and the rest of the folder was taken up with a series of memorandums from passenger, shipping, insurance, commission & general agents in London, arranging for transport for the Newing children up to Liverpool and then onto a ship over to Nova Scotia. It appears they had to travel second class, as the ship would not carry steerage due to problems with quarantine for cholera, and 15 shillings was paid to the stewardess on board to take care of them on the journey. They duly boarded the Carthaginian on October 25th 1892.

A copy of an emigration document explains: “These children will be met by their older Brother on landing at Halifax in which Town he resides and is an assistant station master on a Railway. He will maintain the children at his own home until suitable situations are provided for them.” It provides an account of the expenses involved, a grand total of £7.

At this point it was time for me to head for home, through brilliant sunshine, taking a detour to avoid the motorway where a 15ft deep sinkhole had opened in the central reservation since I had travelled up on it this morning. Remember that rain?

I’ll be going back to the library next week, to continue my look through the archives. I’ve now learned that what looks promising sometimes isn’t, while treasures can lurk in the least likely of places, and I’m getting much more of a feel for the people who lived there and those who were responsible for their care.


Learning to read

I first learned to read when I started school, many years ago, and I’ve always found it easy. I remember one afternoon when I was around seven years old I read two Enid Blyton books in one afternoon. By the time I was ten I was reading books written for adults, and I chose my secondary school on the basis of the books in the school library.

So it was a shock today to experience problems reading.

To be fair, it wasn’t that surprising I was finding it difficult: hubby and I had gone on a one day course with the local library service, introducing palaeography, or reading old handwriting, with the idea of showing how to access old archives.

There were nine of us plus the tutor, and with her assistance we worked our way through a variety of documents, from wills to stocktaking to personal letters, dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some were easier than others, but in just about all the documents there were unfamiliar ways of forming the letters, strange flourishes that were sometimes for decoration and sometimes significant and we even came across one writer who dotted his Cs!

The most entertaining was a letter from a man to the woman he was supposed to be marrying that day, expressing his deep sadness at being unable to marry her – from what we could gather, he had lost his voice and would be unable to say his vows, but he hoped that remedies of sugar candy would restore his voice and allow the marriage to go ahead at a later date (“From your dearest husband to be. Give my love to your maid Susan”!).

I found it frustrating to have the writing in front of me but struggle to make out the letter forms, or to put the letters together and understand what word was made. Sometimes letters were left out, sometimes the spelling was non-standard and sometimes it was simply a word that was unfamiliar in modern times. A P with a line underneath it, for example, was usually short for PAR or PER, while a P with a line over it was PRA or PRE. W and V were interchangeable, and a W with a flourish over meant VER, so EVERY looked a little like EWY. One document spelt TOWN as TOWEN throughout. Often if a word was abbreviated there was a line over the top – I guess that was the origin of the apostrophe to show omitted letters in the abbreviations we commonly use, such as ISN’T.

The whole experience brought home to me how dependent we are on reading to help us in our everyday lives, how we take the skill for granted and how tough it must be for someone who does struggle with literacy. I wondered what people would think in years to come, trying to decipher some of the writing people do these days, such as B4 U GO and TY, and how consistent they would consider our spelling and letter forms to be.

I’ve just completed a writing challenge, to put 50,000 words together. I enjoy words. I enjoy the stories they can tell. I’m grateful that I can complete such a challenge, and that reading is not normally an issue for me.

And I’m looking forward to the time when I manage to get back to the library again to get back to the workhouse records, because maybe I’ll be tackling the handwriting in the documents with a little more confidence because of my experience today.

Look out for learning experiences at your local library – well worth the effort!


A trip to the workhouse

The main workhouse is on the left

The main workhouse is on the left

My workhouse writing has not made much progress lately; I’ve done just about all I can on the actual families, I’m on an economy drive so can’t afford the petrol to go to the archives centre for more general research on the workhouse, and I haven’t yet managed to get focused on the background reading.

I did order the death certificates for Edwin and Fanny Newing, the parents of the orphans – they both died of tuberculosis, a couple of years apart.  Edwin’s death was reported by his brother Edward, who had been present at the death in Kent and Canterbury Hospital, and records his occupation as house painter and age as 32. Fanny’s certificate recorded she’d had the disease for years, and her death was reported by her cousin, who was present at death. The cousin must have been illiterate, because the certificate shows “the mark of”.  Fanny’s occupation was marked as “the widow of Edwin Benjamin Newing, Painter (master)”.

Poor Fanny. A widow and mother of five children at the age of 28, already in ill health, and dead by the age of 30. She’d already been in the workhouse for a few weeks before her death, with all the children, whose ages ranged from 14 to 2. They all moved back out for a while, then the children were back in and Fanny presumably went to stay with a cousin, where she died a few weeks later.

I decided it was about time I visited the site, so this morning I walked out that way with a camera. It’s about 15 mins’ brisk walk from home along the main road, and as I walked I found myself wondering if Philadelphia ever walked that route; it would have been vastly different then. No busy traffic, just the occasional horse and cart, or other walkers maybe. The route is lined by a hedge and horse chestnut trees on one side; I wondered whether they had been there back then, whether the children ever picked the blackberries or collected conkers. Maybe, just maybe, one of the children planted a conker at the side of the road and it grew into one of the trees that are there now.

The old water tower stood opposite the main entrance

The old water tower stood opposite the main entrance

I walked along what had been the main entrance track to the workhouse, looking at the the buildings and trying to tell the old converted buildings from the new buildings that had blended in so well. The original descriptions of the workhouse say it was built in a quadrangle with an enclosed courtyard (“Build poor men’s houses, but instead of having one long street, bend it into a quadrangle, which forms also a prison,” said the Assistant Poor Law Commissioner for the area), and that extra, separate wings were added later, for nursing infectious patients – stables and a carriage house, with a fever ward over, reports one source. There are accounts of the bell between the fever ward and the main building not working, and repeated notes from the medical officer that it should be fixed. Reports also tell of draughts in the women’s ward, with requests for something to break up the windflow so the patients did not get so chilled.

Even later in its history, further wings were added as the building became a home for “difficult” women and then a hospital for the chronically sick.

Now the whole area has been turned into housing, with some houses converted from the original building and others built either free-standing or adjoining the existing buildings. I visited the place once, when it was a hospital, but have only very vague memories of it. It’s not a tall building – only two storeys – but sprawls over a large area, and looks very peaceful and pleasant – a far cry from when the sewage flowed freely only yards from the windows!

From the other side of the old entrance

From the other side of the old entrance

I really want to find out more about the building and the people who lived in it, so I think the next stage for me is to start looking at the notes from the Guardians’ meetings. I’ve no idea how specific or detailed they are: at worst there’ll be very brief summaries of each meeting, and at best detailed accounts of issues arising from specific inmates.

That’s when I get settled with income again and can justify the expense of the petrol to get there. In the meantime, it’s writing up the notes I have about each family and carrying out general research.