February 21, 2014
Editorial - Random House Children's Publishers
By Nick Ward
“Please could you write about any family secrets that have influenced or featured in your work?”
I try not to deal in the real world too much, either in my stories or in life if I can get away with it! And family secrets are usually secret for a very good reason, so even if I discover any recent ones they might be too close to be used in a book. Apart from the fact that I suppose everything we write is a result of who we are and what has happened to us, I don’t think I have used a specific event from family life in one of my books.
Historical family secrets are a different matter, though. The passage of time already lends them the air of a story, a fiction, and one feels freer to play around with events, alter relationships and enhance things. Again, I don’t think I’ve used specific events, but having done a lot of research into my family history (I know, yawn!) I’m certainly spoiled for a choice of eccentric characters and their involvement in tragic and comic situations.
Take my great-great grandfather, Charlie. He must have been very a very popular chap, as he had at least eleven children with various ‘House Servants’ who were in the service of his parents, before he finally deigned to marry one of them, my great-great grandmother, at the age of sixty. Quite scandalous for the time, I should think! Charlie was also hauled up in front of the magistrate on a number of occasions for poaching, being drunk and assaulting a policeman. His brother William on the other hand, suffered from despondency and, to the great consternation of the town, blew his own brains out with a gun in the family Ironmongers shop in the Market Square one afternoon in 1835.
Charlie was also unknowingly involved on the fringes of a tragic historical ‘first’. In the late 1820’s a nineteen year-old lad, William Hawkins, called into the family shop and tried to sell Charlie 20 shillings worth of lead. It quickly became apparent that he had just stolen the lead from the roof of a brewery around the corner. Charlie was called as a main witness at the subsequent trial and, it being Hawkins’ second appearance before the beak, he was sentenced to fourteen years transportation to Australia! The boy was led from the court in tears, only to be caught a few days later climbing the prison wall in the company of a hardened criminal, in an attempt to escape.
After a short time aboard the prison hulk Justitia at Sheerness, he went to Sydney on the Albion alongside 187 other prisoners. The voyage took six months and four convicts died on the journey. William Hawkins survived, served his time and ten years later earned a ticket of leave. Then, almost immediately, he got involved in what has gone down in Australian history as the Myall Creek Massacre, a horrific and unprovoked slaughter of innocent aboriginal women and children.
The gang of seven were caught and tried and, despite their obvious guilt, found innocent. Due to public pressure there was another trial, the gang were found guilty and William Hawkins and his cronies became the first white men in Australia to be hanged for the murder of Aborigines.
Myall Creek massacre as published in ‘Chronicles of Crime’, 1841
One of Charlie’s daughters, my great-great aunt, married the mad Squire of Rawcliffe Hall in the 1870’s, and he was up in front of the magistrate on countless occasions for, among other things, setting fire to an occupied windmill to celebrate bonfire night; being accused of stealing vast quantities of jewellery; throwing his solicitor in a water trough; dog fighting, badger baiting and riding horses to death, for which he was finally given three months well-deserved hard labour. These are just a handful of the Squire’s many escapades, some awful, some rather comic.
So, my research has uncovered plenty of family secrets that I could choose to use in my stories, and certainly names and characters have definitely made appearances. The Mad Squire deserves a book of his own, though! One day . . .