The Whispering Road

A long time ago, on a farm near where I live, a farmer and his wife took two children, boy and girl, from the workhouse, to help with the work of the farm. As the years passed, people began to notice that the two children never got any older. And eventually it was discovered that the farmer and his wife had been working the children to death, and replacing them with similar looking children from different workhouses.

As soon as I heard this dark history I knew I wanted to write about it. It became the factual basis for my fictional story – though in the course of researching it I discovered that it was not so unusual as I had initially supposed. Charles Dickens himself became involved in an enquiry into the deaths of workhouse children who had been placed in apprenticeships in the 1830’s.

There are other factual elements in this story. Manchester was granted a Charter for Incorporation in 1838. Until that time it had been run as a feudal village by the manorial lords. Rapid expansion and industrialisation meant that the struggle for political representation came to the fore in the 1830’s. Until that time, the Mosley family had total control of the town. As Joe discovers, it was a Nicholas Mosley who bought the township and surrounding lands in 1596 for around £3000. At the time of this story, Sir Oswald Mosley was the manorial lord, and he was well regarded and philanthropic, helping to fund the new hospital in Ancoats and subsidizing Poor Relief. His cousin, Sheridan Mosley, is a fictitious creation, though Mosley Street and the Portico Library still exist.

John Sanderson was a weaver who injured his hand while weaving and stayed on to work at the hospital, eventually becoming governor. He was known for his humane administration, especially of the so-called ‘lunatic wards’. At the time treatment of those judged to be insane was often hair-raisingly brutal, involving beatings, bleeding, blistering, whips and chains. John Sanderson focused more on diet and exercise.

Dr James Phillips Kay (1804-1877) was one of a small but energetic group of doctors who devoted themselves to the urban poor. He worked in Ancoats, where life expectancy was only fourteen, and in 1832, at the height of the cholera epidemic, published a book – Moral and Physical Conditions of the Working Classes, which is still one of our main guides to living conditions in Manchester in the 1830’s.

What was Manchester like in the 1830’s?

In 1835 the population of Manchester was approximately 300,000. It was the world’s first industrial city, though it had no member of Parliament, and no council to take care of refuse, drainage, road repairs and public facilities. All tenants and homeowners paid rent or rates to the Mosley family, but were supposed to be responsible for pavements, street cleaning, drainage, and other aspects of maintenance themselves. Conditions in the town were unimaginably poor, with water from burst drains and sewage flooding the houses, no street lighting except in the richer areas, the pavements filthy and collapsed. In Parliament Street there was one public toilet to 387 people. Housing conditions were particularly shocking, with an average of over thirty people per house. Dr Kay wrote that it was not unusual to find sixteen people living together with their pigs and dogs in a single, flooded cellar room. And also that ‘in any large block of tenements you would find a thousand children with no names, or nicknames like dogs.’ And because of the window tax, only one seventh of the houses had enough windows.

At the same time there were the problems of pollution from burgeoning industry – over a hundred factories mainly involved in the weaving, spinning and dyeing of wool. The air was full of dust and fibres. Seen through the permanent smoke that hung over the city, the sun was like a flat disc without rays. Solid particles formed a crust so thick over the river that birds walked over it pecking at them, and from time to time great bubbles of noxious gas burst out of it.

One of the poorest areas was Angel Meadow, home to the street gang known as the ‘Little Angels’ in the story. Described by one writer as a ‘living hell’ the narrow streets and courts were permanently suffused with the stench from the rivers Irk and Irwell, the tannery, the gasworks, the tripeworks, the dyeworks and rotting vegetation from the Smithfield market, all mixing with the smell of the neighbourhood fried fish!

Many people were therefore concerned with the problems of poverty and overcrowding. Some felt that the answer was philanthropy and charitable relief, whereas others campaigned for more radical change.

One of the key figures in this struggle was Abel Heywood, (1810-93). The oldest son of a weaver, Abel Heywood was born in Prestwich, about four miles from Manchester. He was very young when his father died, and at the age of nine he came to work in a warehouse in the town centre for 18d a week (approximately 7p!). He was educated at a Sunday School in Bennett Street, and in 1828 started the radical paper The Poor Man’s Guardian. On different occasions he was imprisoned and fined for distributing it cheaply, i.e. without the official Government Stamp, or Stamp Tax, which would have made it too expensive for the working people he wanted to reach. Instead of the Government Stamp, each copy of the paper bore the words Knowledge is Power and the paper was distributed around the city secretly in boxes of biscuits or chests of tea. The Stamp Act was repealed in 1836, the year in which this story is set, and Abel Heywood went on to have a long and illustrious career, becoming Alderman of the city in 1853 and mayor in 1862. He refused other titles, remaining devoted to the cause of the urban poor. The firm of Abel Heywood and Son went on to produce many more radical newspapers, including Ben Brierley’s Journal, The Lancashire Beacon and The Manchester Specator. His association with Joe, Annie and Nell in this story is entirely fictitious.

Abel came to Manchester in 1819, the year of the famous ‘Peterloo Massacre’. I do not know that he was actually present at this event, but since the vast majority of working people in Manchester were present, it seemed reasonable to assume that he might have been there. The massacre had a huge impact on the life of the city, and many factual and fictional accounts were written of it, but one of the best was written by one of the speakers that day, Samuel Bamford, a Chartist writer who was imprisoned many times for his political activities.

In his Passages in the Life of a Radical, he wrote that ‘from first light’ on August 16th thousands of men, women and children walked from the villages surrounding Manchester to the town centre, where they gathered on St Peter’s Field (now St Peter’s Square) to hear Orator Henry Hunt speak about political reform. They wore their best clothes and clutched packets of food. It was a hot day, music played and banners waved in the sun. Samuel Bamford addressed the crowd at around 8 am. But a group of magistrates watching from a house on nearby Mount Street became alarmed, ironically enough, by the orderliness and absence of chaos that was usually a feature of radical meetings. They sent for the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry and the 15th Hussars, who rode into the crowd slashing at them with sabres. A Mrs Ann Fildes, who was carrying her two year old son, was one of the first casualties. She was knocked over by a horse, slashed by a sabre, and though she survived, her little boy was killed outright.

Samuel Bamford wrote a famous description of the scene when the soldiers had finished.

“The sun looked down through a sultry and motionless air… over the whole field were stained caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, trampled, torn and bloody. The yeomanry had dismounted…wiping their sabres. Several mounds of human beings remained where they had fallen, crushed and smothered, some of these still groaning, others with staring eyes, some gasping for breath, others would never breathe more. All was silent save for these low sounds and the occasional snorting and pawing of steeds.”

It is generally accepted that there were over 60,000 people gathered on the field. By some miracle, there were at most only 15 deaths that day, though a further 420 people died later. There were no investigations into the tragedy, until some radical campaigners managed to raise the money for an inquest into the death of John Lees, a young spinner from Oldham who had fought at Waterloo. But the coroner consistently blocked all evidence, saying “I will not receive this testimony” and “This is not evidence and I will not hear it.”

This is the background to The Whispering Road. There was a lot of research, and in the end much of it couldn’t go in because the book was becoming far too long. Originally, for instance, there was a chapter in which Joe meets Charles Dickens at Mr Mosley’s house. Dickens was the great inspiration behind the novel, and I wrote it in part because I felt that if Manchester had had a great writer like Dickens, it would now be at least as famous as London!

The Whispering Road


Published by:
Puffin Books

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