I would like to welcome this week an author who I first met (in a virtual sense) when we published her at Bridge House in both the Spooked collection and Devils, Demons and Werewolves and whose career I have followed through becoming Facebook friends. she is a prolific writer writing under two names — both fiction and non fiction. When I heard about her latest booksl it seemed only right I now introduce her to you … you’re in for a treat …
So big warm welcome please to the talented Sophie Jackson …
Hi, I’m Sophie Jackson. I usually introduce myself as a writer and historian, but that doesn’t reveal half of the things I have done or am doing. I am mad about history and telling a good story, be it non-fiction or fiction. I suppose, to put it more simply, I am a story-teller (in other words I’m a chatterbox!) I have written six non-fiction books, several about WW2 which confuses people as they wonder why a small blond is busily describing gestapo torture techniques or the inner workings of a V1 rocket. My two newest books are Churchill’s White Rabbit: The True Story of a Real Life James Bond and Death by Chocolate: The Serial Poisoning of Victorian Brighton. Both came out last year via different publishers and were good fun to write. Churchill’s White Rabbit coincided (by accident) with the 50th anniversary of James Bond and everyone was all over the fact I had discovered a previously unknown model for James Bond. I was interviewed by Russians, Germans, and Ukrainians, which was very bizarre, particularly as the British media hardly took any notice!
Have you always wanted to be a published writer? Tell us something about your path to having your first book/story published.
I always liked to write, but I was in my teens before I considered it seriously as a career. Before then I had toyed with being an actress, vet or animal behaviourist. Then one day I decided I would be a writer and started my first novel, it was really as simple as that. Once the idea clicked there was no turning back. My first three novels were utter tripe! Written when I was 15 they were typical teen stuff and very immature. The fact I actually sent them to publishers still makes me cringe. For a few years exams and work got in the way of serious writing, then I had a turning point when I lost my job. I decided to take time out to write and see if I could get something published. My first article was printed a couple of months later and the rest is history, I suppose. My first published book was through a local small press. It was a fantasy novel and I’ll never forget the day my author copies arrived in a big sealed cardboard box. It was a race between me and my nan as to who would open it first. Seeing my books there, with my name on the cover was the best moment ever. Since then, no matter how many books and short stories I have had published, I still find that moment when I pick up a new book with my name on it special – and yes I still get ridiculously excited when I see my book on a shelf in a shop! Last Christmas I had to take a picture of my books on a shelf in Waterstones, I used to dream about that. My brother was with me and quickly disappeared out of embarrassment.
Do you have an agent? If not did you try to get one? Any advice about that?
I don’t have an agent, but I would like one for my fiction. At the moment I am looking for an agent for my first historical novel set in WW2. Finding an agent is definitely not easy and can be highly frustrating. I’ve been lucky as when I began writing, a decade ago, there were more direct routes to publishers, which was how I managed to get my first book commissioned. Since then I have stuck with my publisher and even been asked to join a new one as well. I do feel it is getting harder and harder these days for writers to get their foot in the door of traditional publishing, however I am a big fan (convert!) to e-publishing, as a means of getting new writers recognised. Also it is good for readers as e-books are usually inexpensive in comparison to printed books. I do think traditional books are over-priced, £8 or £9 for a paperback novel is too much, it discourages people from buying a book, especially in the current climate. I think e-books will be the way to get people back into reading, once costs of Kindles, etc, go down.
Do or did you ever belong to a writing group? Crit group? Did you ever have someone professionally critique your work before first submitting? Or do you have friends or anyone else who sees it before you send it off? Has that changed since you became a ‘successful author’?
My best critic has always been my mum. She pulls no punches and more than one novel has been completely scrapped because she has said “not your usual standard”. She always reads my books before they are sent off and I trust her judgement. I am fortunate in that I rarely get told to do any heavy editing of my work, I do try and make sure spellings, grammar, etc. is perfect before anything is sent off. Simple errors in books, such as bad spelling, really bug me.
Who did you first tell when you heard your first book had been accepted?
My nan was always the first person I showed a new book to. Sadly she only ever properly saw my first novel. When my first non-fiction book came out in late 2005 my nan was terminally ill and suffering the after-effects of two bad strokes. I still miss her a lot, she encouraged me through everything and she was so excited when she saw my first book.
What happened next? Can you tell us something about working with an editor? How important is that to you now – is there a lot of discussion and does the editor make a real difference to your work?
I’ve worked with several editors over the years and they are all different. Some I talk to easily and seem to understand exactly where I am going with my work, others can feel like I am banging my head against a brick wall! Of course, whether you agree with your editor or not, they have a vital role to play in producing a good book. As you get more books behind you editors start to leave you to your own devices, expecting you to know what you are doing. I’m not sure that is the best thing, sometimes you need someone to come along and say ‘this could be better’. As for whether I take criticism well… erm, no, I fume over it, I sulk and spit feathers, and then a day passes and I go, ‘actually, they have a point’. It’s best not to be in earshot when I get told to re-write something.
Tell us something about your writing day, routine.
I work 9 – 5, Monday to Thursday. Mornings is non-fiction, afternoons is fiction. Except it is never as simple as that. I work on local community projects and I’ll suddenly get called into a meeting, or half-way through a book someone is on the phone wanting me to give a talk at the Rotary club. Then there are the articles to somehow fit around book writing and the emails to answer. Pretty soon a day is gone and I am pulling my hair out about all the things I didn’t do. Not to mention all the new ideas buzzing in my head that want me to work on them NOW! I try to make sure I have the weekend to chill, but I only occasionally succeed. I’ll have some research I need to finish or a person to visit and talk to. 24 hours in a day is just not enough! But I enjoy almost every minute of it and I couldn’t bear to not be busy.
What or who inspires you most, people, authors, books?
I’m inspired by two nineteenth century authors, Alexandre Dumas and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Both authors worked incredibly hard to pursue their careers as writers, often rushed off their feet with deadlines. Dumas made himself a millionaire with his writing, just because of the amount he did. He never turned down work. Braddon supported herself on her writing income at a time when it was difficult for women to earn money. I admire their tenacity and determination.
As a Christian I am also inspired by God, He gives me strength and courage when I am feeling scared or stressed.
Why do you write? (Now that’s the question!) What do you want your stories to do?
I write because I have to! It is as simple as that. If I didn’t write down what is bouncing around my head it would drive me insane! I don’t have any particular goal when I compose a story, no world-message, or protest or trying to open peoples’ eyes, I leave that to others better equipped to do that. I just want to write a good story that people want to read.
How much marketing have you had to do, even with a big publisher? How comfortable are you with self-promotion?
When I first started to write a decade ago publicity was a lot about book signings and talks, it still is, but there is this whole new aspect with the internet and social media. My Facebook Fanpage has been one of the best things for attracting readers, I get all sorts of questions sent to it, some from abroad. I’ve had plenty of people wanting to talk about my work come through that way.
I actually loathe book signings and talks, which is awful! But I hate being in the limelight, that’s why I write, not perform on stage, it is all about the book, not about me. Over the years my nerves have actually gotten worse when it comes to giving talks. I’m not entirely convinced how productive they are either. I think if you have written a local history book and pay a visit to the local history society to discuss it, that is one thing. But with a national history book or novel, it is far harder to grab people’s interest unless they have some connection. That being said book signings can be quite good if you pick the right time and place. Unfortunately marketing/promotion are part and parcel of being a writer, like it or not!
Tell us about the latest published book …
My last history book was Death by Chocolate, which is a fabulous true story about a women who set out to poison Victorian Brighton because she was spurned in love. It is a bizarre tale that opens a door onto life for women at that time as well as the attitudes towards mental health problems. It is published by Fonthill Media and available at Amazon: LINK
Also, I have just started writing a series of historical crime novels set in 1920s Brighton revolving around the private detective Clara Fitzgerald. They are available as ebooks — LINK
What next? Tell us about work in progress and aspirations. Where do you see yourself in ten years time?
I currently have four books in the pipeline for 2013, that is stretching me to the limit I must say! They are four history books concerning WW1 and WW2. I am also working on more Clara Fitzgerald novels and a supernatural novel, which I have just finished. When I have any spare time (hah!) I like to write short stories for competitions. I think it is safe to say I am rather busy!
Any advice for writers who are trying to get their work published?
Never give up! Never stop writing! You will improve with every word you pen. If you really want to write make time for it and don’t let other stuff get in the way. When you seek a publisher be prepared for rejection, it happens to us all, but don’t let it stop you. I love the line “never give up, never surrender” which is from a comedy space movie, but is so true!
Tell us something random about you for the pure hell of it
When I am not writing I am out walking and training my two dogs. I do competitive agility (yes, that is my hobby!) and also trick training. I call that my relaxation, though some people do look at me goggle-eyed when I explain. Strange how people think spending a wintry Saturday in a freezing horse shed waiting for hours for a chance to run for 30 seconds is not a good use of a day…
Can we read some of your work?
Yes of course.
(And — says Debz you are treated to excerpts of Sophie’s work — fiction and non fiction)
Memories of the Dead Excerpt
It was an icy January day and there was a woman huddled in the doorway of the office. Clara noticed that she wasn’t wearing gloves and wondered why someone, so otherwise well-dressed, would miss such a necessity in this weather. She approached closer and the woman looked up.
“May I help you?” Clara offered.
“Oh no dear, I am waiting for Mr C. Fitzgerald.”
Clara resisted the temptation to look affronted.
“I am Miss C. Fitzgerald and this is my office.”
“You are a private investigator?” The woman looked flustered.
“Indeed and I take it you are waiting for me?”
The woman was still stunned and then her face fell.
“I do apologise, I assumed you were something to do with that establishment.” She motioned with her eyes to the next doorway which led into a haberdasher’s. Clara rented the rooms above the shop for her office space, which usually worked very well, especially as it had its own private entrance. But sometimes it caused confusion, as was happening right now with the strange woman in the doorway who was beginning to look quite distressed.
“Shall we go upstairs and discuss whatever you came to see me about?” Clara was feeling grumpy that morning, Tommy had had another bad night, and she didn’t feel in the mood to explain her unusual career choice on the cold doorstep, “I can pop the kettle on as soon as we get up there and warm us up a bit. Your hands look frozen.”
“Oh, yes.” The woman seemed to notice her hands for the first time as she moved aside to let Clara unlock the door, “I was in such a hurry to get here that I must have forgotten my gloves. It’s urgent, you see.”
Clara refrained from saying that rarely people visited her with problems that were not urgent and motioned for her to go inside.
The staircase was dark in the narrow hall, no one had seen the need to furnish it with gas lighting when the other rooms were modernised, so Clara kept a stubby candle on a shelf by the door to light her way. Clara drew some matches from her pocket and lit the candle before ushering her guest ahead of her. The woman began to talk nervously as they climbed the stairs.
“I am Mrs Wilton, forgive my poor introduction, I have never visited a detective before and didn’t expect a woman, though these days, I suppose, one should be quite prepared for such events. I found the name in the classifieds, it said you had done some good service for the Mayor of Brighton and I thought to myself that must count for something.”
“You would think, Mrs Wilton.” Clara opened the first door on the landing which led to the front of the apartment and was arranged as her office.
There was a big old desk in front of the window, rather dominating the room, and a small chair before it for clients. At the back of the room, just behind the door, was a grand old sofa which Clara termed her ‘thinking spot’ but which equally served as a day-bed to catch up on her sleep when Tommy was going through one of his bad spells with the night terrors. Close to hand was a bookcase, mostly used as a rudimentary filing system and an old fireplace, with a small stove tucked in one corner where Clara could boil a kettle if she wished.
Clara pulled off her mackintosh and her grey hat and hung them on a hook on the wall. She attempted to take Mrs Wilton’s coat but the woman was too distracted to notice.
“Please take a seat.” Clara indicated the chair before the desk and left Mrs Wilton hovering by it while she lit the stove and went to the back room to fill the kettle with water. When she returned the stove was just beginning to generate some warmth and she left the kettle standing on it before taking her own seat behind the desk. She noticed Mrs Wilton was studying the only painting on the otherwise barren walls.
“My father’s portrait. He was a doctor.” Clara explained.
“I would think you would keep such a sentimental piece at home.” Mrs Wilton asked curiously.
“My brother prefers it here, we lost both our parents during the war and he finds it hard to have pictures around.”
“I understand.” Mrs Wilton suddenly looked serious, “I lost my husband and son in the war.”
“I am sorry.”
“Oh, it’s not exactly novel these days, is it? You are more unique not to have lost someone.”
“Still, it is hard.” Both ladies were silent for an instant contemplating their own losses.
“I suppose that is why I came here.” Mrs Wilton broke the mood, “It is all to do with my husband.”
“I’m afraid I have had little success trying to trace what happened to men who died in action, though I am often asked.”
“It’s not that. I may not know where the bodies of my husband and son lie but I know their souls are safely in Glory, that doesn’t concern me.”
“That is good.” Clara gave her best sympathetic smile, “Too many women feel they cannot rest until they know where a loved one died and is buried. It can quite destroy them. So, what is your situation?”
“Well… may I take it that whatever I say is confidential?”
“As if it was said in a confessional, though I don’t offer absolution.”
Mrs Wilton smirked.
“I find I am not the confessing type, normally anyway, I don’t go in for all that Catholic stuff. I’m a Spiritualist. Have you heard of us?”
“You believe it is possible to communicate with the dead.”
“As a crude assessment of our beliefs, yes. Look Miss Fitzgerald I need to know you will listen to what I have to say with an open mind.”
Clara felt her suspicions rising, she was not in the mood for games and was starting to think Mrs Wilton was wasting her time.
“I am reasonably open-minded, Mrs Wilton, though I would not make the mistake of taking that to mean I am gullible.”
“Of course not! It’s just some people will laugh at one when you talk about the afterlife and so forth.”
“I would not laugh, but I do need a physical case to work on. Spiritual problems are out of my area of expertise.”
“I’m not so foolish.” Mrs Wilton bristled a little, then visibly deflated, “It’s about money, which, I am sure, is perfectly in your area of expertise.”
Clara was offended but prudently held her tongue.
“If you explain your situation I shall see what I can do.”
“It is simple really. My husband was old-fashioned in his thinking and could not abide banks, he promised me before he went to the Front that he had left me a sizeable sum of money, should the worst happen, to safeguard my future.” Mrs Wilton paused and fiddled nervously with the clutch on her bag, “Only it seems he didn’t.”
“Leave me any money.”
“He left no will?”
“Not to my knowledge and I have hunted for it. He didn’t trust solicitors either, you see. So life has been rather difficult for me as you can imagine I have had to dismiss most of the servants and I have been making ends meet by selling whatever I can, but even that has been hard in this day and age.”
“I quite understand, Mrs Wilton.” Clara said, and she did too, many families had been left destitute by the loss of a bread winner in the war. She, herself, only just made ends meet with her ‘little detective business’, as some critics were cruel enough to call it, “But I am still not clear on what you want from me?”
“It has been very hard,” Mrs Wilton continued, as though she had not quite heard Clara, “And after a while you can’t mask things. People notice. Even you.”
“Me? Mrs Wilton.”
“You spotted my gloves were missing. I simply don’t have a pair without holes in them to wear and I suppose my pride got the better of me, so I would rather freeze my fingers off in the middle of winter then let you see me wearing shabby gloves.”
Clara unconsciously glanced at her own worn mackintosh, how she wished she could buy a new one, but at least her pride had not moved her to discard it entirely in favour of freezing to death.
“Pride is cheap, my mother used to say.” Mrs Wilton sighed heavily, “I think she meant that everyone could afford to have some in themselves, but I wonder now if she was really quite wrong. Pride can actually cost a person quite a lot.”
“Would you like a cup of tea?” Clara interrupted as the kettle started to faintly whistle. She decided it was time to move the conversation on before Mrs Wilton became too maudlin. She was beginning to feel rather sorry for the woman and knew that was not a good sign as she would be tempted to drop her rates sympathetically, or worse, offer to do the work for free. Tommy would never let her hear the end of it if she did.
“Yes please.” Mrs Wilton nodded.
Clara fidgeted with the boiling water and an old brown teapot which had a spout half-clogged with old tea leaves. Nestling it in a striped knitted cosy, she brought it to the table and spent a while longer finding a matching pair of cups and saucers. The whole procedure perhaps took a little under ten minutes, enough time, as Clara poured out the tea, for Mrs Wilton to gather herself together and remember what she was there for. Clara slipped a cup of weak tea in front of her.
“Ignore the tea leaves, I can’t remember where I left the strainer.”
“Thank you.” Mrs Wilton warmed her hands on the cup.
“So,” Clara said sipping her tea thoughtfully, “Let’s get to the gist of this problem. Why are you here?”
Mrs Wilton dragged her teaspoon around her cup as though the action could help her summon up the strength to talk.
“I explained that people begin to notice these things and servants, especially dismissed servants, talk. I was taken to one side at a church service by a dear lady in her nineties who is a very ardent spiritualist and, well, I suppose I was just so unhappy that a kind word or two had me sobbing on her shoulder. I told her what I told you and she felt I would benefit from a private reading, and then the following week she brought me this card.” Mrs Wilton withdrew a thin slip of white cardboard from her purse and anxiously passed it to Clara.
The card simply read: Mrs Martha Greengage, Spiritualist Medium, 261 Chestnut Grove, Brighton. Clara read the card and then looked at her client.
“I know what you must think, a gullible old woman desperate for answers and clutching at straws.” Mrs Wilton’s voice trembled, “But, believe me I was sceptical too. Going to a Spiritualist church is one thing, but I have always been a little suspicious of private clairvoyants. It really was only because of this dear old lady that I was convinced to go at all. She told me that Mrs Greengage specialised in lost property and had even helped someone in the nobility to retrieve a small lost fortune, and I really was at the end of my tether by that point, actually I still am.”
Mrs Wilton gave a painful laugh. Clara laid down the card, her heart even more drawn to the poor woman who had put her last hopes in a charlatan (Clara had no doubts that was exactly what Mrs Greengage was) – who almost certainly charged a fortune. She took a moment to think through what she should say next and kept her expression carefully neutral as she spoke.
“What was Mrs Greengage like?”
“Old and,” Mrs Wilton hesitated, “A bit ‘witchy’ for my likes. She wears a lot of black though I believe Mr Greengage is alive and well, and she keeps a white parrot that she claims is also sensitive and is sometimes possessed by visiting spirits. She didn’t inspire confidence on my first visit to be honest.”
“You don’t strike me as a foolish woman Mrs Wilton, but I take from your tone you have visited this woman more than once?”
“Oh yes, at least five times.”
“And because of these visits you are now here?”
Mrs Wilton blinked.
“Oh dear, I don’t think I have made myself very clear. You see, I was sceptical on that first visit but after what I saw I could hardly remain so. Mrs Greengage really does have a gift.”
“I seem to be no closer to understanding how I may help you?”
Mrs Wilton sighed.
“I have to explain this a little more logically. I went to visit Mrs Greengage on a Friday night about a month ago with the dear lady who gave me the card. To her credit Mrs Greengage did not charge me anything for that first visit which is more than can be said for most businesses.”
“My consultations are free also.” Clara interrupted gently.
“Well that is because you are a woman, dear, and women understand that not everything requires money up-front. A little chat should always be free.” Mrs Wilton took a sip of her tea, “Where was I? Oh yes, Mrs Greengage opened her door looking like some sort of witch out of a pantomime and I was quite astounded. Did I mention she had a red carnation in her hair?”
“No.” Clara said having a hard time keeping a straight face as the image of Mrs Greengage began to form in her mind.
“Really it is ridiculous in a woman that age. I suppose it is all for show.” Mrs Wilton tutted, “As you can imagine I wondered what sort of a place I had been brought to, but she was polite enough and it seemed churlish to walk away when I had been invited.”
Mrs Wilton leaned forward in her chair.
“She escorted us into her front parlour the likes of which I have not seen since my grandmother was alive. Not a modern thing in sight and all the furniture dark and heavy and all these statues everywhere of classical figures. Some were so indiscreet in their apparel I hardly knew where to look.” Mrs Wilton’s eyes went wide, “And then there was the parrot, sitting on a perch in the middle of this green-draped table with these awful beady eyes peering at you. I was quite unnerved, the thing looked possessed.”
“I fear that is a common state with parrots.” Clara answered, before her client continued.
“Mrs Greengage had us sit at the table and for my benefit explained she was a medium and the parrot sometimes channelled spirits. Just as she said that the awful bird looked straight at me and went ‘Dorothy!’ Well that’s my Christian name and I was so stunned to hear it I nearly fell out of my seat. Mrs Greengage looked at me then and said ‘There is a spirit wants to speak to you, Mrs Wilton, it’s a man and his name is Geoffrey’.”
“Your husband.” Clara concluded.
“Oh no, I don’t know any Geoffreys. Well except the baker’s little boy, but he was hardly likely to be channelling himself through a parrot!”
Clara felt the realm of things ‘hardly likely’ to happen had already been seriously breached.
“No, no, Geoffrey was some sort of spirit mediator – a go-between.” Mrs Wilton continued, “It seems Geoffrey had been in contact with my husband in the afterlife. I’m still a bit hazy about how it all came about, perhaps there is some sort of giant meeting place up there. Anyway Geoffrey had spoken with Arthur, my husband, and promised that if I stuck with Mrs Greengage Arthur would eventually be able to come through in person, but in the meantime Geoffrey would relay the messages.”
“Ah,” Said Clara beginning to see the game unfold, “So you ‘stuck’ with Mrs Greengage?”
“I had to! Geoffrey said Arthur was desperate to speak with me but was gathering his strength. Apparently it takes a while for a spirit to properly disengage itself from the corporeal world and, until it does, communication is very difficult.”
© Sophie Jackson, Memories of the Dead, reproduced with kind permission of the author and publisher
Death by Chocolate
Chapter One – The Accidental Murder
Four-year-old Sidney Barker writhed in agony, tormented by violent convulsions that hooked his body into all manner of hideous contortions. His back arched in another horrific spasm, almost throwing him from the arms of his distraught mother, Leticia. Only half-an-hour before he had been a happy, playful child, enjoying his holiday in Brighton with his parents and uncles. Now he was quite clearly dying.
“Call for a doctor!” Leticia begged her brother, Charles Miller.
He started to his feet, then fell back sharply as though all strength had gone from his body, he had begun to feel queer too.
“I feel as if all my body is without joints.”
He cried out, struggling to stand yet again. Despite his own illness he managed to send a message to the nearest medical man and surgeon Mr Rugg came rushing to the scene.
It was twenty minutes since Sidney had first begun to cry and had been swept up in his mother’s arms, only to start his violent fitting. Leticia was beside herself. Mr Rugg barely had the chance to examine the boy – the convulsions making his job almost impossible – when Sidney suddenly went still. A moment passed. Dr Rugg stood back from his patient knowing, that at least for the child, the worst was over. Sidney was dead.
For the family the suffering continued. Charles Miller was obviously deeply unwell, another medical man, Mr Tuke, was called to see him.
“I felt at first a coppery taste in my throat, then my eyes became dim, my legs became rigid.” Charles explained to Tuke, “As I attempted to move from my chair I fell backwards.”(2)
Mr Tuke was not able to offer much in the way of aid, except to ensure that his patient remained as comfortable as possible. He had the nasty suspicion in his mind that he was witnessing the effects of poison. Mr Rugg was thinking along the same lines and already planned to perform a post-mortem on Sidney the next morning. Something very odd was going on.
Left alone in their lodging house Leticia was torn by grief for her only son and fear that her younger brother might succumb too. Charles tried to appear as calm as he could, his other brother Ernest was looking on anxiously and trying to do his best to comfort Leticia.
As evening came on they heard the door of their lodging house open and close. Albert Barker, Sidney’s father, appeared. He took in the scene with an expression of confusion; the joyful house he had left that morning had suddenly become sombre and grim. Leticia didn’t have the words to explain, so Charles spoke;
“Sidney just started crying. Leticia took him up and asked what was the matter with him. He did not reply but his limbs became stiff and he died within 20 minutes.”(3)
Albert was stunned. There was no logic to what he was witnessing and while he knew children did die, the sudden affliction that had swept away Sidney beggared belief. The little boy was to have one last night with his family before going for his official post-mortem. The Barkers and Millers spent a lonely night wrapped in grief, privately mourning a life cut abruptly short for no obvious reason.
When the Millers visited Brighton in 1871 it was a relatively new resort; its popularity had arisen in the previous century thanks to Dr Richard Russell of Lewes publishing his claims that seawater was good for the health. In those early days it had been the exclusive holiday destination of the wealthy, but by the 1870s the railways had opened it up to all classes of the public. It was even possible to have a day trip from London on the train.
Albert had a fondness for the resort with its strange amalgamation of Georgian architecture and tourist novelties. There was a grand pier for promenading and, of course, the famous Royal Pavilion that stood like an Indian palace overlooking the sea. Brighton had accepted its role as a tourist hotspot with open arms. Lodging houses sprang up everywhere; from cheap rooms for the working class masses, to the palatial hotels that still welcomed the richer echelons of Victorian society.
Most visitors were drawn by one thing – the notion that Brighton could cure all that ailed them. The town had been a triumph of early advertising which proclaimed not only that the water had medicinal properties, but that the very air of the resort was good for the health. Being just a short train ride from London boosted the appeal of Brighton, meaning anyone could pop down for a restorative visit. Doctors recommended a little Brighton air for their chronic patients, many of whom were suffering from the smog of industrial London. The clear, unpolluted skies of the coast could indeed provide a welcome relief to clogged lungs and even the working classes would try to make an annual trip to the health-giving town.
For the more adventurous there was the great expanse of ocean. Water therapy was surging in popularity and taking to the sea was seen as a definitive remedy for most modern ills. Of course sea bathing came with all the Victorian trappings, from horse-drawn bathing huts, to rented bathing suits for those too poor to afford their own. While children and men could splash in the waters naked without anyone raising a disapproving eye, women had to be draped head-to-foot in clothing that made a mockery of any actual swimming. The slightest flash of skin could raise a scornful outcry among the more delicate Brighton residents.
This was the world Albert Barker had stepped into from his thriving silver and dressing case business, bringing his wife and young family to test the therapeutic properties of Brighton. The Barkers had only been married five years but already had two children, 4-year-old Sidney and 2-year-old Florence. Leticia was still recovering from her last pregnancy and the change of scenery was a welcome respite. The children, however, were excited by the prospect of a holiday and to complete the family arrangements uncles Charles and Ernest (Leticia’s brothers) were included in the excursion.
Charles Miller was only 18 and learning the trade of coachbuilder from his father in Hammersmith, London. Ernest Miller was just 17 and still described by his parents as a scholar. All in all they were a close family and Charles doted on little Sidney, which only made his death harder to bear. He blamed himself for the boy’s demise.
On 13 June, the day after the Barker tragedy, Mr Rugg collected the Sidney’s small copse and took it back to his surgery. There he performed a rudimentary post-mortem to the best of his abilities. He could find nothing obvious about the body to give a cause of death. The brain was ‘congested but no more so than he would expect in a child that had died of violent convulsions. He was effectively stumped.
Had the case been left to Mr Rugg he would have had to leave the cause of death unknown or made a best guess, perhaps offering one of the catch all terms the Victorians fondly used on death certificates when they really had no idea what had killed a person. Fortunately he had reported Sidney’s death to the coroner who had made it explicit that Rugg should remove the boy’s stomach intact for further examination.
Partly this was due to a new presence on the scene; Inspector Gibbs. Gibbs was a quiet, discreet figure in the Brighton precincts. Sharp-witted and a conscientious evidence gatherer who held a great deal of faith in the new forensic methods for solving crime, he was a formidable policeman. Sidney’s death had raised alarm bells in Rugg and the suspicious nature of the boy’s demise had filtered down to Gibbs who now stood present at the post-mortem. When Rugg removed the stomach, careful not to spill its contents, he placed it in a jar and handed it straight to Gibbs. The jar was sealed and Gibbs bid him good-day as he set out with his strange gift to the chemist Dr Letheby.
Professor Letheby was a well-regarded medical expert known for his talents at criminal forensics. Born 1816 in Plymouth, he had been an adept medical student and had quickly shown a talent for chemistry. In 1846 he became the London Chair of chemistry and toxicology and was soon an avid campaigner for legislation against the adulteration of food and drugs; an illegal business practice which had caused many accidental poisonings. In 1855 Letheby was elected to the post of the City of London’s medical officer (he was already serving as its gas examiner), a post he would hold until 1874. He caused a spasm of controversy as it was said he was in the pay of the water companies and gave optimistic analyses of pumps during the Victorian Cholera scare.But his real interests lay elsewhere, namely forensic chemistry and toxicology. He was a natural choice to send Sidney’s stomach contents to for analysis. Clearly Mr Rugg and Inspector Gibbs were severely worried by the death.
Letheby opened the child’s stomach and inspected the contents. There was not much inside and his first reaction was that the organ appeared healthy. He could smell a faint odour of chocolate, but no food matter remained. Tests for a mineral poison (such as arsenic) proved negative, but a test for strychnine, another common poison, proved that Sidney’s stomach contained a quarter of a gram. Though an adult might have survived such a dose, for a small child it was enough to kill, besides, that was what remained of the strychnine, the body would have absorbed some of the poison before death, so the actual dose Sidney consumed must have been higher. Letheby was satisfied. Rugg’s report on Sidney’s symptoms had all the hallmarks of strychnine poisoning and he had not been disappointed by his discovery.
I couldn’t resist posting two extracts as Sophie is such a prolific writer. A real treat. So many many thanks for agreeing to be In The Spotlight, and I do hope this inspires some of my followers to get copies of these and her many other titles.
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