History, Second Row on the Left

The Navigator has set sail onto the sea of books. Rather fortunately, just as one would wish, people have asked me how far the stories are rooted in historical fact. Well, it is a fair enough question. Utterly understandable that people might ask it. However, I am not going to answer it.


Setting fiction in the past requires at least a modicum of scene setting. We tend to make assumptions about people, places and almost everything about the past, but in reality, there was enormous variety and many of the things we hold to be true about the past may not have appeared to be so to people at whatever time we chose to look at.


So, when the great authority Thomas Telford stated that the Blisworth Tunnel was a very fine, well-built work, he was not quite right. The tunnel was the final link in the great scheme to create a "grand cross" of canals linking the south, the midland and the north. Its completion in 1805 complete what became known as the Grand Union Canal. Boatmen, bargees whatever you term them, knew that the brick work in the central section was shoddy, though the portals looked grand. Telford was wrong about quality. Mind you, he was a much better judge elsewhere.


The contractors for the tunnel had suffered financial problems, cut corners and not had accurate geological knowledge. The first two could have been foreseen, but the deep dip of clay above the tunnel could not, nor could they have known about it. Had a band of saboteurs successfully detonated a charge of explosives in the tunnel, it may have, literally, brought the roof down. On the other hand the explosion could have turned the tunnel into double-ended cannon.


The story of Old Moey and the sale of his wife in some Black Country market square is actually well attested to, though the back-story is not. Then most famous wife sale in literature is that in the Mayor of Casterbidge. Thomas Hardy, we were always told at school, was a master observer of rural custom. In truth he was, but the wife sale he describes is far from what we can learn about the reality of them.


To be honest, we have only examples which were reported in the press. Most followed a pattern and the reporter generally added a lot of disapproving comments to suit the taste and sensibilities of his audience. The masters were writing for the masters, with little understanding or empathy with the objects of their distaste.


EP Thompson, in his set of essays, "Customs in Common", analysed the descriptions we have of real "wife sales". He revealed several similar characteristics;


1. The "marriage" had generally come to a crisis.

2. Neither party was unwilling to go through with the "sale", though it was clearly not a happy experience in many cases.

3. The "purchaser" was generally known to both parties, in a number of cases they had been a lodger or close acquaintance. Generally, they were younger, too.

4. Though there was a bidding process at the "sale" things quickly moved to the pre-arranged deal.

5. The woman, in throughly derogatory fashion, was lead to market, or some public market, in a halter - much as a farmer would lead his cattle. Throughly degrading, humiliating and demonstrative of the fact that the man was divesting himself of property.

6. The "sale" continued in front of a crowd, most of whom knew exactly what was about to happen. An announcement of the sale and a description of the "goods" (often a ribald exchange between the man and the woman) and some bidding, soon resolved by the new husband.

7. Hands were shaken and the "deal" celebrated in a nearby tavern, some of the purchase price being returned to the buyer. Note to Hardy, the drinking came during and after the event, not before.


One does not need to be much of a feminist to note that there are not, as far as I am aware, any cases of husbands being "sold". The woman was always the "goods". Humiliating and degrading as this doubtless was, it was certainly not a "sale" in any real sense of the word.


The Church of England, policing, civic authorities and all other forms of social control and regulate created by the state, were bamboozled by the pace of industrialisation and the growth of population into places where they had not lived before. this was especially the case in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, before the creation of county constabularies and the massive Church building programme, development of new town an city authorities. Needless to say, ordinary folk were left to their own means. Often illiterate or semi-literate, symbolic actions, witnessed in public in a format that all on-lookers (except those who pontificated about them in newspapers or sniffed disapprovingly or laughed out loud at such primitive behaviour) could understand, gave one way of giving force of law, at least in the court of public understanding, amongst people who had no access to formal legal proceedings, unless they were on the receiving end.


Lecture over.


One bit of inspiration that is absolutely true is the letter from the Guardians of the Towcester Union Workhouse in Northamptonshire, in which they demand money from a local family and, should it not be paid, threaten to send their aged mother back home. I discovered this note whilst seeking material for use with a class at Sponne School in Towcester. I recall looking at it and glancing up to see one of the descendants of the family sitting second row back.


I could go on, and on, and on. You'd not want that, would you?

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