Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Old Photographs:the Good, the Bad and the Naughty!!

More about the joys of research !!
When you're writing historical fiction, particularly Victorian and Edwardian novels, you rely heavily on a variety of sources, but old photographs are a great way to check out the way people lived many, many years ago. They're also a great way to discover characters and help you with details related to clothing, hairstyles, eccentricities etc.
In my research for A Proper Lady, I've come across some wonderful pictures and discovered some groundbreaking photographers whose work has given us a lasting record of ways of life long gone.

I found some incredible pictures by British photographer, Frank Sutcliffe (1853-1941) who came to live in Whitby after being a portrait photographer in Kent. He fell in love with the quaint fishing village on the Yorkshire coast and, refusing to prostitute his art by taking tourist photographs began taking pictures of the real Whitby and the local people. In doing this he created a revealing record of this North Yorkshire town. You can find a selection of his work at The Sutcliffe Gallery. Check out these amazing pictures of Whitby fisherfolk.
And old salt and his wife

Fish gutters on the pier at Whitby
And since we're on a nautical theme, how about this photograph that came up when I was looking for images of "handsome Victorian men". Looks to me like styles haven't changed too much. Beards and short hair for men were also fashionable over a century ago! I think this guy has quite a modern look!
Vintage sailor portrait

Speaking of handsome men, another great source of inspiration for historical novels can be your own family pictures. While working on another project (set in 1930's and 1940's Durham) I came across a terrific family picture that gave me many ideas for this story. The suave young man on the far left is my father, Bob Horn, pictured here with one of the earliest bands he played with at the Gaiety rooms in Houghton-le-Spring, County Durham. I believe this was probably taken in the early 1930's.
The boys in the band
While researching Victorian photographs, I discovered that photoshopping has been around for longer than we think. Check out this 19th century trick photograph:
 Victorians also had a fascination with those who were different, and while our modern sensibilities might disapprove of the old "freak show" mentality, this picture of bearded lady, Jean Carroll, tenderly depicts a woman who seems at ease with her appearance. She went on the shave the beard off for love, and also acquire at least 700 tattoos!

 Finally, this little picture sums up the secretive Victorian approach to sexuality. It portrays the titillating idea of peeping through the keyhole to spy on a lady as she undressed. Men were also able to attend "live shows" at establishments that masqueraded as respectable private bath houses, but were in fact places where men paid to spy the female bathers through a "judas hole".

Tuesday, 17 June 2014


When you're writing historical fiction, a great deal of time is spent doing research, and in the course of this reading and viewing, you come across some weird and wonderful characters. Some of them find their way into your stories, while some remain as fascinating discoveries. Here are a few I found while researching my novel, A Proper Lady.
JACK BLACK, rat catcher :
Yes, you read it correctly! Jack Black! Official rat-catcher and mole-destroyer to Her Majesty Queen Victoria. The heroic Mr. Black used trained dogs and ferrets to exterminate rats by the thousands in the heavily infested filth of Victorian London. He also had quite a taste for cooked rats and professed them to be, "Moist as rabbits and quite as nice," and also that,"Sewer rats were just as good as barn rats if you gave them a few days' chase before killing them." Rat exterminations were done on a cash-only basis, and were a profitable enterprise for those who'd grown up in poverty. Though Mr. Black and his sons suffered numerous serious infections from rat bites, to the point where their fingers often turned "black and putrid-like", he survived and even made money from selling rats to public house owners who used them for rat-baiting, a bloody sport in which men competed to see whose dogs could kill the most rats in a set time period. Some dogs became celebrities, killing a rat every 2.7 seconds! Luckily the sport was eventually banned for its cruelty to dogs!

MADAM RACHEL of Bond Street
Madam Rachel or Sarah Rachel Leverson was an illiterate woman living in a London slum. When her husband ran off and left her, she became a fish-fryer, a second-hand clothes dealer and eventually entered the beauty business after discovering a hair restoring cream. She eventually opened a store in London's Bond Street and was able to charge exorbitant fees for her products as well as her lucrative enamelling business. As much as $2700 (in today's money) for her "Jordan Water"! Customers flocked to her, and business would have prospered for a long time, had she not resorted to some shady practices in which she conned vulnerable women and extorted large sums of money from them. She was eventually imprisoned twice and died in jail in 1880.
These are just two of the characters I've come across on my travels back in time. I'll share some other ones in a later blog! Promise!!


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