The story (the story of the writing of the Blincoe books that is) began in 2001 when we bought a rundown terraced cottage at Littonslack. According to the estate agents literature the cottage was over 200 years old (although the pink tin bath under the stairs was clearly a more recent addition) but when we moved in and asked our neighbours about the history, no one really knew any more than that.
My wife and I began digging about, there was nothing much on the internet and so a trip to Derbyshire Records Office and the Local Studies Library was planned. We looked at the censuses and that got us back to 1841, when over 80 people were living in the 10 cottages, and sharing the 10 outside toilets!
But we were still well short of the quoted 200 years, and so further visits to the Records Office got us back in time to 1797 and then a little earlier to 1777 where Littonslack (or The Slack) is mentioned in The Reliquary.
We also came across some documentation showing that Ellis Needham, the owner of Litton mill, owned the cottages up to around 1820. The research then took a turn, and Cotton mills were on the agenda. It turned out that Ellis Needham was a monster – cruelly treating his employees and especially the children. At Cressbrook mill, less than a mile downstream, William Newton (Needham’s opposite number if you like) apparently treated his children much better.
Living at the same time and socialising and having dealings with Needham and Newton was Parson Brown, the Tideswell vicar. He kindly left about 9 years of his diaries – now deposited in Sheffield Archives. They give a picture of life and in particular his life at that time. It turned out that he was quite a character – supplementing his church salary with measuring hay, sign writing, being a school teacher, and gambling! He was clever, greedy and careful with his money, and left a massive £4000 when he died, which is equivalent to over a million pounds today!
A fourth person: Robert Blincoe, provided an even more exciting tale. As a child, he was apprenticed to Ellis Needham at Litton cotton mill and his story was told in 1828 by a journalist called John Brown. Initially the story was printed as 5 weekly pamphlets, and it was subsequently published a few times in the following few years as a book. The book describes how Blincoe was treated – which was not very well. Here is Blincoe’s description of the food the apprentices were given:
… rusty, half putrid, fish-fed bacon, and unpaired turnips were boiled. A portion of this broth, with coarse oaten-cake was served out. … There was generally, a large quantity of broth to spare, which often became very fetid before it was cold. Into this stuff, no better than hog-wash, a few pails more of water were poured and some meal stirred in, and the disgusting mess was served out for supper or the next day’s breakfast.
Since the publication of Blincoe’s story, A memoir of Robert Blincoe, doubts have been cast as to its reliability, as the journalist, John Brown, wrote with a political agenda in mind – that being to improve the working conditions that young people had to put up with.
There was now four very interesting characters: A cruel employer. A benevolent employer, a selfish vicar, and a young mistreated apprentice – and quite a lot of information about all of them. Add to this the changes brought in by the Industrial Revolution, and specifically the cotton spinning factories along the rivers Wye and Derwent.. and the idea of a novel was forming. A novel was the perfect way to connect these fragments of historical facts together – by joining them together, filling the gaps in the history with a fiction. It allowed connections between all of the above characters and brought in the history of the early industrial revolution and the change that was happening politically, economically and socially.
The novel, became Blincoe’s Progress. A second book, Robert Blincoe and the Cotton Trade, contains detailed historical notes, and places the 1828 memoir, in its local and global context, and also includes the full text of the original 1828 memoir. I hope that Robert Blincoe and the Cotton Trade will enhance the reading of both the 1828 memoir, and the novel, Blincoe’s Progress.
The books took some time to write, and below is what I was doing, in front of the cosy fire, on November 9th 2009!