Beautiful dresses. Stately homes. Titled aristocrats. Wealthy yearly incomes. Those are usually the things that readers love to fantasize about when they read historical romance.
The best-selling books on the market are not about the miserable lives in the Regency or Victorian era. Readers would rather not think about the squalor 90% of the population in nineteenth-century England experienced. Nevertheless, the authors who lived in those eras – like Dickens and Gaskell – had no qualms about penning reality in their stories because they were important social issues.
Toil Under the Sun is a historical fiction book I wrote loosely based on my ancestors who were from Manchester. It’s somewhat Dickenish in a few chapters for which I make no apology. There are no beautiful dresses, stately homes, or wealthy characters. Instead of dukes in canopy beds, most people slept on hard, lumpy horse-hair mattresses set on a platform or the floor. Those with no home slumped over a rope in a doss house to get some shut-eye or paid a few shillings a night to share a wooden hay-filled box with a lice-ridden individual.
There was no running water, so people bathed at washhouses if they could afford to pay the price. Public fountains were around town to fill up your buckets for water and carry them home but were a cesspool of germs. I’ll spare you the gory details about where and how people relieved themselves because you’ll die from the stench alone or some related disease. Some parts of Manchester were called hell on earth in those days. (Read More Here) I was shocked to learn that my third great-grandfather, Henry Holland, lived two blocks away from the slum area in this article during 1851, and he was a journeyman bricklayer that could make a wage. It broke my heart.
“The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality in Manchester is called, singularly enough, ‘Angel-meadow.’ It is full of cellars and inhabited by prostitutes, their bullies, thieves, cadgers, vagrants, tramps and, in the very worst sties of filth and darkness…” (Angus Reach, a London Journalist 1849)
When Elizabeth Gaskell wrote North & South, she lived in Manchester. (I’ve visited her home and you can read about here on my author blog.) Even though she chose Milton as the make-believe town where Mr. Thornton had his cotton mill, the hell as penned by Margaret to her friend was described as, “I’ve seen hell and it’s white.” Perhaps that was true inside, but outside the air filled with smoke from the chimneys of factories, and the brick buildings were blackened with soot.
The idea of children being cared for by nannies and brought up by governesses is a far cry from the reality of young children who worked in factories to help with family finances. Rarely, did a child have the opportunity to learn to read or write. The boys were taught more often than the girls even in the middle class. Quite a few of my ancestors, including my second great-grandfather, merely put an “X” on the marriage bann because he couldn’t scribble his own name.
Nevertheless, out of poverty, one person can rise above and build an empire of wealth for his family and descendants. My second great uncle, Robert Holland, in Manchester came home to find his mother had hung herself using a nail in the wall. In 1862, the newspapers reported the incident. “Suicide of a Female. On Thursday morning, a woman resident in Bamber Street, named Phoebe Holland, was found dead, hanging from a nail in the wall of the house. An inquest was held on the body the same day before J. Taylor, Esq., and a verdict of Self-hanging, whilst in a state of unsound mind, was returned.” Phoebe is my third great-grandmother, and mother to Robert Holland. At the time of her death, she lived with Robert in his household.
A few years later Robert married and somehow managed to drag himself from the slums of Manchester to become a wealthy brickmaking and construction company by 1920. He was also a political success, having run and won, serving many terms as Alderman for the City of Salford (just outside of Manchester). He died a rich man, but his sons squandered their inheritance. (Certainly a story to be told there).
How my second great uncle accomplished the task of making a success of his life in the world described above is beyond my comprehension. The one ability he possessed was to read and write, which certainly worked in his favor. He is undoubtedly what they call a self-made man. In my ancestral research, I have had the pleasure of meeting a few of his descendants and visiting his twelve-bedroom home from 1882 that still stands today.
It is because of him that I use the name of Red Brick Media as my acknowledgment of his accomplishments and success in spite of the poverty to which he was born into.
Historical Romance Books