Part I – The mission to Manchester
February 2020 is the month that my novel, All the People, gets published (February 28 2020 by Troubador Publishing). It was more than ten years in the making: spent researching and writing, then more research and re-writing to result in a book on which my editor’s commented as follows:
“All the People is an absorbing tale of a city, the people who lived in it, and the often unforgiving spirit of the times…it successfully marries political conflict with human drama, delivering a plot that is both compelling and moving. You bring the setting to life with great eloquence and convincing authenticity, and your characters are intricately and thoughtfully constructed.”
I was compelled to write this novel because the stories of a family that I had unearthed were so fascinating and completely unknown. Students are given the histories of kings and prime ministers, army generals and those other leaders that reach the pinnacle of one definition or other of success. How little we learn of those who fight their battles just as hard, within the toughest of environments, but who do so to survive in the supposedly lower reaches of a society that effects to ignore them, despite their extraordinary achievements.
I will write about the journey on which I discovered the stories shortly, but, for now, I want to tell a little about the story , the characters and places that dominate All the People.
‘Our Lives are Harsh‘ – the natural order of England in 1832
All the People contrasts the rural life of James Hull, a farmer in Bedfordshire, to the harsh conditions he would face in the depths of a ‘nether world’: the slums of Manchester, under the rule of mill owners. Here, most of the people existed on the edge of starvation, with illnesses that killed many at childbirth and sought them out throughout the short length of the lives. They subsisted in houses that shook violently when the winds blew and collapsed when it blew hard, close to the River Medlock into which the mills and factories discharged their waste, transforming it into a solid waterway, foul-smelling, with a viscosity of unrefined oil.
This contrast is between the farming world and the new existence he would be plunged into as a missionary. As one of the characters says towards the end:
“Our lives are harsh for there is starvation and intolerance of us, of all the people here as if we were a different race or wild animals.”
England had hardly been altered by the Reform Act of 1832, which only gave the business owners better representation in Parliament. For most, like those that All the People describes jeering at the building owned by Hugh Hornby Birley, the man that led the deathly charge of the yeomanry at Peterloo in 1819, on the anniversary of that event, life was a relentless struggle for survival. Many worked for Birley, whose family had bought the Chorlton Mill. The mill forms the cover of my book (shown above) and it exists to this day, on the corner of Cambridge Street and Hulme Street, where it remains as an apartment block that also houses The International Anthony Burgess Foundation.
When James came to Manchester, living in Granby Row, later the home of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, he was shocked by the poverty and deprivation. Imagine the change of life he and his family would experience. James and Elizabeth had lost their eldest daughter just a few years before. Elizabeth had, in the book, refused the call to move north, but, when her daughter died, she relented. She suffered from what we would now call depression until her death in 1842. Her husband wrote of her at her funeral: “She had a bad nervous attack in May 1820 from the effects of which she never recovered. …..she could never bear to hear even good things…and she would never comfortably enjoy the singing at our (church) and other meetings.” In the book, it is the death of their daughter, Mary, that causes her depression, but, whatever the cause, she was clearly a very troubled soul.
James’s sanctuary from the relentless horrors of Little Ireland, the location in Manchester that was his mission and one that Friedrich Engels later called “the most disgusting spot of all” (The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844), was the Fairfield Settlement. This was a settlement of the United Brethren (the Moravians), an evangelical Protestant religion that James had joined when John King Martyn, a wealthy landowner in Pertenhall, Bedfordshire, had espoused the cause locally. In All the People, it is John that proposes James as a missionary.
Fairfield was a glorious testament to the way of life that the Moravians embraced. They built Fairfield to be a self-contained village (near Droylsden, six miles east of Manchester). It had everything needed including a farm, schools, factories for embroidered linen and even a tavern. Several of the buildings remain today under the auspices of the United Brethren. I was welcomed there to carry out a good deal of my research. It is where Elizabeth was buried in 1842 and James in 1856.
James lived as a missionary near Little Ireland. It was the home, as its name suggests, of many Irish immigrants. Bringing evangelical Moravian protestantism to Catholics must have been quite a mission and All the People surmises that James, when he saw the evils that befell the inhabitants of Little Ireland, paid more attention to their survival in this world rather than the next. This set him against a society that viewed the natural order as God-given.
Those that God appeared to have given most included the mill owners like Hugh Hornby Birley. In 1832, he was the most hated man in Manchester because of his deeds 13 years before at Peterloo. That there has never been a biography of Hugh Hornby Birley is perplexing. He was a man that was viewed as a successful businessman and civic leader but All the People suggests that, deep down, he was a very troubled man.
Part II – Hugh Hornby Birley……