In 2015, having completed the research, writing, and publication of my last book on the Red Barn murder, I decided to resurrect a narrative my father wrote in the 1960s but which was never published. His genealogical researches had uncovered a previously unknown judicial enquiry into the death of a crippled and consumptive orphan boy at the Amesbury workhouse. The master had been accused of flinging the boy against a flint wall where he cut his head. Five weeks later, the boy was dead. The enquiry had taken place in 1844, and Father decided to write it up as a historical novel.
Casting around for something to do, I read Father’s manuscript, and decided to have a look at the files on which he based his account. These now resided in the National Archives at Kew.
The files contained the correspondence that had taken place between the Poor Law Commissioners, the guardians of the Amesbury Union, and the Reverend Edward Duke. Duke was a local landowner, antiquarian, JP, and ex officio guardian at the workhouse. It was Edward Duke who had made the original charges against the workhouse master in a letter to the Home Secretary. And for the previous nine years he had inundated the Poor Law Commissioners with letters complaining about the conduct of the Amesbury Union.
When I started the process, I realized that I would have to read every piece of relevant correspondence in order that no clue as to the background of this extraordinary affair should be lost. Even now, I’m not sure that had I known the labour that would be involved, I would have started it. Edward Duke wrote to the commissioners around seventy times between 1837 and 1844; his letters were always of four pages or more, and his handwriting was very challenging to read. Other correspondence was of greater or lesser length. The original evidence from the enquiry was on 100 pages of foolscap in handwriting that was truly appalling. Of the latter, my mother had transcribed around 30% of the text; she was a shorthand typist, and well versed in reading difficult script. She was also able to decipher a number of shorthand symbols that were used, and thus she provided me with a sort of ‘Rosetta Stone’. This made the transcribing of the remaining 70% of the evidence much easier that it would otherwise have been.
In all, around 270 individual pieces of relevant correspondence, each one containing an average of four pages or thereabouts, had to be read. Fortunately, the National Archives allows cameras to be used, and I was able to photograph the documents, and enlarge them on a computer screen to aid decipherment.
The next job was to make transcripts of the important documents. This done, the writing could commence, and early in June of this year I finally submitted a manuscript for laying out. I have been updating, editing, checking, and fettling ever since. Finally yesterday, I gave the go-ahead to print the thing.
The last six months have been a nightmare. I had a punctuation melt-down from which I have yet to fully recover, and despite numerous read-throughs by several other persons, typos kept appearing with monotonous regularity. I continued to find instances where I had made an error of interpretation. Almost the final straw, barely two weeks ago, was to discover by a chance remark from a correspondent that I had been calling the master of the workhouse ‘The Governor’, when that was his informal title bestowed upon him by the paupers.
Anyway, it is done, and from January the book will be available from the usual online retailers and all good bookshops. Also, it can be obtained directly from me via this website. Residents of Chelmsford and the surrounding area can have the book delivered COD.
I doubt that this new work will make the smallest ripple in the book world, but I have at least succeeded in bringing before the public what I think is an extraordinary story, one that my father discovered so many years ago.
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Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs