My grandmother died two weeks short of her 101st birthday, having been born in 1890. My grandfather was injured and blinded in one eye during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Consequently, this era of history has a particular fascination for me. It is with great pleasure, therefore, that today I have a guest post from Clare Flynn, whose latest novel The Green Ribbons, opens in 1900. Clare explores how the North-South divide has evolved. The Green Ribbons was published by Cranbrook Press on 19th May 2016 and is available for purchase here.
The Green Ribbons
‘Two men will love you. Both will pay the price for it’
When, in 1900, Hephzibah Wildman loses both parents in a tragic accident, she is forced to build a new life for herself. Penniless and only eighteen, she must leave the security of the Oxford college where her stepfather was Dean, and earn her living as a governess. On the recommendation of a man she has never met, the parson of Nettlestock, Merritt Nightingale, Hephzibah finds herself at the forbiddingly impressive Ingleton Hall. She is the latest in a long line of governesses to arrive there, and soon learns why; her employer, Sir Richard Egdon has a roving eye and turns his unwanted attentions to her.
Hephzibah is forced to leave when a chance encounter with Thomas, the squire’s handsome son, leads to him persuading her to elope with him. Marriage to Thomas proves less than idyllic. Away all the time, and more interested in training his racehorses and gambling than he appears to be in her, Hephzibah becomes fearful that Thomas is having an affair. And something else is missing: a child. When Sir Richard tells her that he plans to disinherit his son if he fails to produce the necessary heir, Hephzibah becomes fearful for the husband she loves. She concocts an audacious scheme for Merritt to help her conceive a baby to pass off as Thomas’s. It is a plan that will put the lives of the two men she cares for most on the line but which will ultimately lead her to discover an unexpected love.
The North-South Divide
A Guest Post by Clare Flynn
There is much talk in the English media and among politicians and estate agents, of the North-South Divide, with a wealthy prosperous South experiencing soaring house prices, higher employment and affluent middle classes dominating. The countryside is a chosen place for “the haves” to set up a second home – or to flee London with substantial equity in hand to buy a bigger property for less money and enjoy a new life. Meanwhile “up North” there are large areas blighted by unemployment, stagnant or falling house prices and a general air of deprivation. Whilst there are pockets in both North and South that are exceptions, this pattern, while something of a cliché, is broadly true.
What may surprise the occupants of high priced cottages and country houses in the shires, is that until the middle of the twentieth century the North-South Divide was the other way around. The former occupants of their Farrow and Balled houses may well have been living in desperate straits and struggling to make a living in a changing world.
Southern England in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was more or less entirely dependent on agriculture – increasingly becoming subject to competition from America and Russia. Meanwhile the dramatic growth and prosperity of the Industrial Revolution was focused on the new cities and towns of the North.
I’ve explored this phenomenon in my two most recent novels. Letters from a Patchwork Quilt is partly set in Middlesbrough, a town now with serious problems – recently made more acute with the closure of the steel industry. In the nineteenth century it was a very different story.
From its origins as a tiny settlement next to salt marshes, where the few occupants subsisted on salt-panning, fishing and a bit of sheep farming, Middlesbough underwent the most explosive growth of any town in Britain. It was described by Gladstone in 1862 as:
‘This remarkable place, the youngest child of England’s enterprise. It is an infant, gentlemen, but an infant Hercules’
The arrival of the blast furnaces and the insatiable demand for iron, and later steel, meant that the town became responsible for a third of the country’s iron ore output and was a shining example of Britain’s industrial progress.
While this led to untold riches for the industrialists, the wealth did not trickle down to their workers, who lived in sordid cramped houses without sanitation.
‘The stench of sulphur and smoke clogged in his throat. He saw it as a metaphor for the life that was ahead of him. He was a soul condemned to eternal damnation among the blast furnaces of this god-forsaken town. As he neared the waterfront to look across at the foundries, he saw white-capped waves lapping below: the rough sea indifferent to the ugly beauty of this manmade colossus of industrial might.
In The Green Ribbons I explore the other side of the divide. The setting is 1900 in the village of Nettlestock, based loosely on Kintbury in Berkshire. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century the place had everything going for it – the Kennet and Avon Canal passed through the village, there was a thriving whiting mill, supplying chalk powder for wigs, and a silk mill and then the railway arrived. But the investment in industrial facilities in the North, combined with the increasing uncompetitiveness of British grain, in what had become a world market, led to depopulation of southern towns and villages like Nettlestock, as agricultural workers moved north to share in the opportunities offered by the cotton, wool, iron and steel industries.
The occupants of Nettlestock at the time of The Green Ribbons – the first decade of the twentieth century – struggle to eke out a living. This extract follows a visit to the local workhouse.
‘She took off her hat, held it arm’s length and shook off the raindrops. ‘What drives a person to accept living like that, Merritt? What makes them so desperate that they’re prepared to dress in an ugly uniform and tear old ropes apart for hours until their fingers bleed? Did you see the quantity of meat that went into the stew? A bit of tough old mutton gristle cut into tiny pieces and mixed in with a lot of turnips. It was turnip soup but the matron called it mutton stew!’
Merritt placed his hand on her arm. ‘I know. And the numbers are growing. Times are hard and getting harder. One of the farmers told me the other day that it’s cheaper to ship a sack of grain all the way from the prairies of America than from here to London.’
Whether the divide is in favour of North or South, one thing is clear, whatever prosperity exists was only enjoyed by the wealthy, not by their employees. And although the north offered employment and bread on the table, it offered little else. Whether a starving former agricultural worker in Nettlestock forced to throw oneself on the charity of the parish or into the drudgery of the workhouse, or an employee at the iron foundry in Middlesbrough, secure in a job but living in a slum, life was no picnic.
About Clare Flynn
Award-winning author, Clare Flynn is a former global marketing director. She now runs a successful strategic management company, although most of her time these days is spent writing her novels.
Her first novel, A Greater World, is set in the Blue Mountains of Australia in the 1920s and was awarded an Indie BRAG Medallion in 2015.
Clare’s second book, Kurinji Flowers, is a gripping story of love and loss set in colonial India on a tea plantation in the 1930s and 40s.
Clare’s novels feature places she knows well and she does extensive research to build the period and geographic flavour of her books.
You’ll find all Clare’s books here.