Kate Ellis, author of the Wesley Peterson mysteries, had an interesting newsletter this week. It focused on Devon and textile mills, and her descriptions seemed to work perfectly with the Agatha Christie and English country house focus this week. Here’s what she had to say in her newsletter.
“As I live in the north of England I’m familiar with textile mills and their archaeology. I’m also fortunate enough to live near a large cotton mill lovingly restored by the National Trust and visiting the property has given me an insight into the noise and atmosphere of a working mill. I’ve watched the large water wheel go round and thought “˜what if a body was to get caught up in that?’ Many crime novels, I find, are triggered by the question “˜what if?’
“You might wonder what all this has to do with the beautiful county in the south west of England where my Wesley Peterson novels are set, but Devon also has an impressive industrial history. The cloth trade thrived there until the nineteenth century and the fine houses built by many wealthy cloth merchants can still be seen in the county’s historic towns. Woollen mills, however, eventually fell into decline although some survive today as heritage attractions (rather like Petherham Mill in The Burial Circle) ““ although without my fictional mill’s murderous history. I couldn’t resist including a supernatural element in the story because of the Victorian interest in spiritualism and contacting the “˜other side’. This fascination with death became quite an obsession and ostentatious mourning was made fashionable by Queen Victoria herself who spent many years grieving for her late husband, Prince Albert. In the nineteenth century people saw death as a constant companion and if you walk around any old churchyard (I love visiting historic churches) you will see elaborate memorials to the dear departed. One thing, however, we would definitely find macabre today is the fashion for photographing the dead, alone or posed with living relatives. Of course I was very tempted to include this in The Burial Circle (with an added twist of course) ““ and I can resist everything except temptation, as a great man once said!
“Queen Victoria’s reign saw the rise of the Burial Club. As a crime writer, the very name “˜Burial Club’ whetted my curiosity and my research told me that they were set up for poor families who feared they wouldn’t be able to give their loved ones a decent funeral at a time when death rates (particularly for children) were high. For a weekly payment the club covered funeral expenses, regardless of how long the person had been a member, relieving people of the fear of seeing their loved ones buried in a pauper’s grave. However, human nature being what it is, the system was sometimes abused. Knowing a sick child was unlikely to survive for long, some people enrolled them in several clubs at once, all of which would pay out with no questions asked. One man was said to have put his child in nineteen clubs, thus making a large profit when the unfortunate infant died. This gave rise to the suspicion that people were enrolled in clubs before being murdered. Perhaps my imaginary “˜secret’ burial circle in Petherham might not be so far fetched after all.”
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