Wednesday 25 May 2022

WWI special : by Joe Lamb author of The God of All Small Boys


Can you imagine life without TV?

With no computers, or mobile phones and instant messaging?

What about the internet? Or even the radio?

These things have all become so ordinary to us, that it is difficult to imagine what life must have been like before they were invented. But the truth is, most of them have not been around for very long at all. As I write this, the first Samsung Galaxies ever made are only 12 years old!

Even in my own lifetime, colour television did not exist until I was 6 years old, and I remember my friends and I being chased off by annoyed neighbours; as we peered through their windows and into their living rooms, trying to catch a glimpse of the strange boxes which threw bright and vivid colour onto the walls, making it look as if there was a rainbow indoors!

Today, it seems that the internet is so huge you can find out almost anything, about almost any subject, and have immediate notifications about breaking news. But a little over 100 years ago, the only way for news to be known was either by a very slow mail service, or by newsreels shown in cinemas – and even they were never quite up to date.

This is the world—our own world—where The God of All Small Boys is set, during the last years of World War 1.

Can you imagine how awful it must have been, for children (such as James, in the book) whose fathers were sent off to countries they barely knew the names of, while they fought in a war they didn’t quite understand?

The remarkable thing is, that some of those same children grew up to be your parents’ Grans and Grandads! So, who knows—maybe your mums and dads have stories of their own, all about your very own Great Grandparents!

In the same way, The God of All Small Boys is based around a lot of things which did actually happen; in a time when the world was quite a different place from the one that it is now.

Dundee, Land o’ Jute
In the early 1900s, and Dundee in particular, the UK was a world powerhouse for something called Jute! (Dundee itself is still known as the centre for “Jute, Jam and Journalism” – despite the fact that neither Jute nor Jam are made there anymore.)

The God of All Small Boys is set mainly in a part of Dundee called Lochee, which was almost a city within the city.

Camperdown Mill, Lochee in the early 1900s:
The tower (Called Cox’s Stack) still exists to this day

James is taken from his well-off home in Broughty Ferry and sent to live with his Aunt, Uncle and their five children. It’s an entirely different world for him as Lochee is crammed with what were known as Tenement Blocks, where large families lived in only a few rooms.

James is shocked to learn that he will be sleeping in the same bed as his 3 male cousins.

World War 1 1914-1918

World War 1 was a terrible time in World History.

These days, all experts agree it was a war that should never have been fought, and the military tactics were such that men simply lined up and walked towards the guns of their enemy, shooting as they went.

Over all casualties for the war were around 40 million. There were 20 million deaths and 21 million wounded, and of the 20 million who died, more than half were civilians and not soldiers engaged in battle.

In the book, James’ Father, an officer in Dundee’s “Black Watch” battalion, is sent over to Europe and is involved in the Battle of Passchendaele, which raged for for around three and a half months from 31st Jul 1917 to 10th Nov 1917 and during which around half a million soldiers died or were seriously wounded.

“Black Watch”— 4th Battalion – “Dundee’s Own”

Just reading about the battle, the amount of time it took, and the casualties involved, is hard going, and when the soldiers who made it through came home very few ever spoke of their time during the war, preferring to try and forget all about it.

For those left back at home, as mentioned above, there was no way of knowing what was happening in the war and their days were spent in limbo, ignorant to what was happening to those off fighting the war for weeks or months at a time.

The Men in Black

For many, the only message they ever received was in the form of a letter or a telegraph, often by Men in Black, riding motorbikes, called Despatch Riders, who travelled with satchels full of these messages, telling worried relatives of the deaths of their fathers, sons, uncles and grandfathers.

The family of Ben, one of the boys who James eventually is befriended by, receives such a letter after his father is killed in battle.

Army form B 104 – 82 – used to notify families of the death of a relative

As the war progressed battles like The Somme and Passchendaele saw many such letters and telegrams being sent – and Dundee was hit particularly badly. On the same day that Ben’s family were informed of his father’s death, dozens more were delivered to houses in Lochee and a special commemoration service was held in St Mary’s church, another building which still stands today. The whole community is joined in grief, and after the services the bells of all the surrounding churches sounded. For once, the giant mill closed down, leaving an unusual quiet all across Lochee.

The Mill worked almost around the clock, bringing employment to the surrounding areas, and in fact making it grow, with immigrants from Ireland heading over for work. Lochee had so many Irish immigrants that it gained the nickname of “Little Tipperary”, and they started their own football team called Dundee Hibernian.

To work in the mill meant that your family would at least gain some income, but one of the best paid jobs in the entire place was that of a specialist weaver. These women were seen as something special and were paid more than normal workers. Alice, another of James’ cousins, starts working in the mill and, by the oddest of accidents, ends up being trained to be a weaver.

James has to go through his own journey during his time in Lochee, from initially being hated by Billy, his cousin, to gaining respect for standing up to a bully and eventually becoming great friends with Billy and his pals… and noticing a girl named Tenny Robbins…

In a terrible accident, one of his friends is killed, and after his funeral service a Man In Black returns to Lochee, with what looks like a satchel of letters and telegrams.

And he stops outside James’ Aunt’s house.

War. What is it good for?

The God of All Small Boys is full of items, movies and events from 1917, and researching them was very time consuming, not only because the details of some things were hard to find, but also because the subject is so fascinating, that life just a little more than 100 years ago, was so different in many ways, but exactly the same in many others.

It is a time that should never be forgotten, if not only to remind us of how futile and pointless wars are.

One Day from the Battle of Passchendaele.
Mud filled shell craters littered a vast plain of mud and unexploded shells
– with enemy soldiers always ready to snipe across no-man’s land.

Writing Challenge(s!)

War is a difficult subject to write about, but those who were left back home had their own problems to deal with. For a writing challenge, I would like you to imagine what it would be like to see a telegram delivered to your, or one of your friend’s houses.

If that subject is too difficult, then imagine it is your first day working in one of the huge Jute mills of the time. There were dozens of jobs to be had, each with their own challenges – and it will lead you to some interesting research should you choose that one!

Tuesday 17 May 2022

Take a Jaunt to the Jacobites

I have a new book out this week. Yes, right now. It is an exciting and terrifying time for any author – exciting for all the obvious reasons: (excited voice) The book is out there! But terrifying too. All that scrutiny: (squeaky, quivering voice) The book is out there!
The Reluctant Rebel

This time, my time travel takes me to the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 – a topic often taught in Scottish schools. Who hasn’t heard of Flora MacDonald and her daring rescue of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart figurehead of the campaign who spent more than five months on the run across the Scottish Highlands and Islands in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden. Information leading to his capture was to be rewarded with 30,000 – an absolutely insane amount of money at that time. And yet, in all that time, he was not betrayed. Despite the comprehensive defeat at Culloden and the disbanding of the Jacobite army, and despite the terrible reprisals which washed over the North of Scotland in particular, the supporters of the Prince remained loyal. Hundreds of them must have known where he was at one time or another – and many risked their lives all over again for the Stuart Prince.
The Battle of Culloden

I wanted to write about that – the aftermath of the campaign. It really was a deadly game of hide-and-seek in which the stakes could not have been higher – most prominent Jacobites were executed. The Prince’s companions changed frequently, but he did pass through one house on several occasions. That’s where I would base my child protagonists, I decided – Borrodale in Lochaber, home of Angus MacDonald and his three sons, all involved in the Jacobite campaign. It was where it all started at the beginning of the campaign in July 1745, and it would be where the Prince would turn for shelter at his hour of greatest need. In addition, the last sea battle in British waters took place in the loch beside the house – and the government forces burnt Borrodale down in revenge too. What a story.
Borrodale House in Moidart, rebuilt after the original house was burned down in retribution

Here are three jaunts which inspired this tale. 1. National Trust for Scotland, Culloden Battlefield.

The bothy on Culloden Battlefield

We have lived in Inverness for most of the last two decades. Every time we have visitors, we take them to the nearest tourist attraction of note. The battlefield is beautiful in summer, but it is atmospheric and full of tragic history. The battle which was fought between government forces representing the Hanoverian King George’s protestant government and the Jacobites who favoured the catholic Stuart royal family was the last land battle on British soil. The terrain was unsuitable, the Jacobite army was heavily outnumbered and outgunned – and to add insult to injury, they had spent the night on a misguided failed attempt to surprise the enemy. They never stood a chance. I have visited countless times. 2. Finlay, an elderly friend from my church invited us to spend a day driving to the West Coast with him, the area of his birth. Halfway, somewhere in Glen Moriston, he made us stop the car. Walk with me a minute,’ he said and led us to the hidden memorial to a little known Jacobite called Roderick Mackenzie.

Roderick Mackenzie’s memorial at Glenmoriston

While the Prince was on the run, Roderick, bearing a strong resemblance to the famous Bonnie Prince Charlie, acted as a decoy. It is said that even as the government forces shot him, he exclaimed ‘You’ve killed your Prince!’, buying the real Charles Edward Stuart precious time to escape. A short drive later, he made us pull in again, this time to the house of an acquaintance. ‘Show her your collection, Donald,’ he urged his friend. The man produced several jam jars of Jacobite musket balls, all found in the stream behind his croft. I will never forget it. History was here, right beneath our feet. 3. The third trip was intentional – I had stumbled across the story, but by now I was determined to research my tale. My other half has long been used to my ulterior motives when I suggest family trips. Our romantic weekend in Lochaber was no more than a list of places I needed to check out – the lie of the land, yes – but also the research riches in local museums. The weather was dubious – but who cares – my head I was firmly located in 1746, and the here and now was practically irrelevant. We tiptoed around Borrodale, played tourist at Glenfinnan, explored the beaches along Loch nan Uamh and speculated which of the many caves had played host to the Prince all those years ago.

Glenfinnan where the ’45 rebellion began

My hope is my readers of The Reluctant Rebel may not have to visit the area – perhaps I have evoked enough of that world in the pages that they can picture Archie’s and Meg’s life: Gaelic, beremeal bannocks, horses, and yes, secrets. But perhaps the story will whet their appetite to visit too. Then they can tread the ground where the fugitive Prince Charles Edward Stuart ran for his life.

The statue of Flora MacDonald overlooking the River Ness in Inverness

Barbara on the day she first received copies of the Reluctant Rebel

More about the book: There it is again, hope. The defeat and the despair I can stand, but it’s the hope that kills me, as if the Cause wasn’t lost, as if Father hadn’t died in vain. As if any one of us could possibly come out of this alive… Following the death of his father, 13-year-old Archie MacDonald has lost faith in the Jacobite Cause. Having witnessed their clan’s terrible defeat at the Battle of Culloden, Archie and his feisty cousin Meg flee back to Lochaber to lie low. Or so they think. Until the fugitive Prince’s life depends on them. When Prince Charles Edward Stuart looks to the people of Borrodale for help, will the young stable boy support the rebellion that has cost him so dearly? With enemies closing in, the Prince’s fate now rests in the hands of a stable boy and a maid with a white cockade. Who will survive this deadly game of hide-and-seek? Praise for The Reluctant Rebel 'I loved it! It's a rip-roaring adventure. Meg and Archie are great characters.' – Maggie Craig Order:

Thursday 12 May 2022

Of burnt cakes and chronicles by Ally Sherrick

This week marks the anniversary of a key event in English history – a turning point which decided the fate of Anglo-Saxon England and if it’s not too grand a claim, the future of the English language too.

In May 878, Alfred, King of the West Saxons – the epithet ‘the Great’ was bestowed on him by admirers in the 16th century – fought Guthrum, the pagan leader of the invading Danish army at what became known as the Battle of Ethandun (modern day Edington in Wiltshire). It was a battle for the survival of both Alfred and his kingdom of Wessex.


King Alfred the Great as portrayed in later times

At the beginning of the same year, he had been beaten back by the Vikings in his own lands and forced to hide out in the marshes of the Somerset Levels. Here, while he considered what to do next so the story goes, a peasant woman, not recognising him as the king, asked him to mind some wheaten cakes she was cooking over a fire. Distracted by the slightly more pressing concern of how to hold on to his kingdom, Alfred took his eye off them and they burnt to a cinder, much to the annoyance of their maker. 

But clearly the thinking time paid off. The win at Ethandun just a few months later allowed Alfred to demand both the baptism of Guthrum as a Christian and more crucially the retreat of the Vikings from the Kingdom of Wessex back to East Anglia.  It was an important victory and one that gave Alfred the breathing space to regroup and live to fight another day.

Many of the things for which Alfred is now rightly celebrated stem from the many years he spent battling the Danes – improvements to the way his army – or fyrd – fought; the introduction of Viking-style long-ships to meet the enemy on their own terms, and the creation of a system of fortified towns or burhs which allowed for better protection of his people in the face of further attacks.

But equally significant was the work Alfred did to encourage the spread of learning through the translation of some key works of religion and philosophy from Latin into English. He even translated some of these texts himself including Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care – a guide to help bishops and priests lead their congregations and to live a moral life – and which he sent out copies of with a specially crafted aestel or bookmark. It’s believed by historians that the beautiful Alfred Jewel, discovered near Athelney Abbey in Somerset, the site of Alfred’s marshland hiding place, is one of these.


The beautiful Alfred Jewel, now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The words, in Old English, round the side spell out: 'Aelfred Mec Heht Gewyrcan' – or, ‘Alfred ordered me made'

As part of this work to develop a culture of greater literacy, Alfred may also have encouraged the creation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was first set down during his reign and most likely at his court.

The Chronicle was a combination of history and diary – a record of all the most significant things that had happened in Britain since the first attempted conquest by the Romans under the leadership of Julius Caesar leading up to – and beyond – Alfred’s own reign. It was written in the Anglo-Saxon vernacular – now referred to as Old English – and for the historical element of the text, relied on other earlier sources, including Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People).


 A page from one of the versions of the Chronicle showing an entry from the year 871

It is not one single text but rather a collection of separate but related ones. Alfred ordered copies to be made of the original Chronicle and then had them sent out to monasteries across his lands. Updates were issued at future points in time, but scribes working in the individual monasteries added their own entries too. In certain parts of the country, entries continued to be made until well beyond the Norman Conquest, as in the case of the Peterborough Chronicle kept by the monks of Peterborough Abbey in Cambridgeshire.

The Chronicle provides a shared history which historians suggest Alfred hoped would help unite his people in spirit against further Viking attacks – another weapon in his armoury. Entries vary from the record of deaths of well-known people – including kings and queens – to battles and also, in more detailed entries, to whole military campaigns. The majority are written in prose, but there are poems too, including The Battle of Brunanburh, an account of the real-life battle between King Aethelstan, Alfred’s grandson and an alliance of the Kings of Dublin, Scotland and Strathclyde – a conflict regarded as pivotal in the founding of a unified England.

This, one of the more colourful entries, relates to the earlier Viking raids, when bands of Danes and Norwegians came to the shores of Northumbria looking for treasure and slaves:

Year 793

Here were dreadful forewarnings come over the land of Northumbria, and woefully terrified the people: these were amazing sheets of lightning and whirlwinds, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. A great famine soon followed these signs, and shortly after in the same year, on the sixth day before the ides of January, the woeful inroads of heathen men destroyed god’s church in Lindisfarne island by fierce robbery and slaughter.


 As with all documents that claim to be historical records of events, the Chronicle should be handled with care – as every historical novelist will know. Events are often reinterpreted and re-presented to suit the needs of those commissioning or keeping the records. But to my mind, it’s all the more fascinating because of that.

Writing Prompt

If you were tasked with writing a modern-day version of the Chronicle, how would you seek to record key events and happenings? Would you try to make them as factual as possible, or would you indulge in a spot of embellishment and perhaps include one or two ‘fiery dragons’ of your own.

Ally Sherrick is the author of books full of history, mystery and adventure including Black Powder, winner of the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2017, The Buried Crown and Tudor-Set adventure, The Queen’s Fool. She is published by 
Chicken House Books and her books are widely available in bookshops and online. You can find out more about her and her books at and follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick

Wednesday 4 May 2022

Bletchley Park special by guest author Alison Weatherby


We all have them. Some are small – when you’ve eaten your little brother or sister’s sweets or bought a surprise for your mum’s upcoming birthday. Others are so big they involve tons of people and sit at the back of your mind always. When I was young, I blurted out my sister’s birthday gift casually, a coveted doll my mother had driven miles away to buy. I’ve always been lousy at secrets, especially when they’re juicy. Thankfully, most people know that and don’t ask me to keep them for very long.

But what if you had to keep a secret for decades, one that was so big, it involved secret codes and massive machines, life-saving decryptions and even spies? Could you do it? 

Bletchley Park

That was one of the first questions I had when I visited Bletchley Park, Britain’s headquarters for codebreaking during WW2. Workers from the Government Code and Cipher School moved to Bletchley before the war started with the primary goal of assembling a team to break the cipher the Germans were using to keep their radio communications secret. This cipher, called Enigma, had many variations and was considered “unbreakable.” Bletchley recruited some of the top minds -- including linguists and mathematicians, chess champions and historians, students from Oxford and Cambridge – to help break Enigma. But before any person could start work at Bletchley, they had to sign something called the Official Secrets Act.

The Official Secrets Act stated, essentially, that no one could tell anyone anything about what they did at Bletchley. This meant workers couldn’t tell their parents what they did all day, or chat with their co-workers about what they were doing over lunch in the canteen. And because no one knew what other people at Bletchley did, they never knew if their decrypts were successful or what part their work played in the war effort. Very few photographs were taken and, when Bletchley closed its doors after the war, buildings were left to ruin and records were destroyed. People still had to keep their lips sealed for decades after. In spite of this, the workers at Bletchley helped immensely with the war effort. It’s said that their efforts shortened WW2 by at least two years. 

 Decoded messages

But in spite of this great secret, the employees at Bletchley worked hard. Whether it was trying to figure out clues to the encoded messages, operating the loud, hot machines that helped decode messages, or archiving information to for future messages. Thankfully, the workers at Bletchley also had time off, where they were able to relax. They certainly had a lot of fun – putting on plays, cycling through the countryside, taking the train into London – because they needed the relief from their high-pressure jobs.

When I set out to write The Secrets Act (and yes, the title is inspired by the Official Secrets Act), I knew I wanted the book to focus on two things – friendship and secrets. I was fascinated by the idea of two friends working together, yet not able to tell each other anything about what they did or saw or heard. Most of the workers were women – 75% of wartime employees were young women – and they worked long hours, around the clock. And because Bletchley grew so quickly, the hastily constructed huts where they worked were draughty, cold, and damp, with heaters that often smelled or spat out smoke. I couldn’t imagine working in such a place and being alone and away from home for the first time, as it was for many of the girls. 

The radio used in the wireless listening stations.

I realized rather quickly, though, that if everyone obeyed the Official Secrets Act and kept mum about what they did, my story would be rather boring. That’s why I based my character, Pearl, on a real worker at Bletchley, the youngest employee at the Park. Pearl was based on a 14-year-old messenger who took memos and communications from office to office, hut to hut. And while I’m sure the real messenger at Bletchley didn’t spill any secrets, I knew Pearl would not be so careful. I needed her to hear and see things, to be unable to resist the eavesdropping so that she knew the bigger picture of what was happening at Bletchley. Ellen took shape from a few accounts of girls who had been recruited to the Park because of their academic achievements. 


The lake at Bletchley Park

Many girls were interviewed or given puzzles and quizzes before being asked to join the war effort, then sent to Bletchley with no idea what they’d be doing or what Bletchley was. Though I couldn’t imagine getting on a train to some unknown destination, girls like Ellen were excited by the opportunity to help their country through employment that was previously reserved for men.

But as I put all these characters together against the fascinating backdrop of Bletchley Park, I wondered, what secrets would I keep? What would you do if ordered to keep your entire life a secret? Would you tell? Even one person?

Alison grew up all over the USA as a child, moving to five different states before she was 13. Now she lives south of Dublin with her husband, two daughters and very naughty dog. Alison has worked in computers and technology her entire life, but has always loved writing stories for children, mostly because her favorite books are those she remembers from her childhood.


After being discovered in Chicken House’s Open Coop competition in 2020, The Secrets Act was published by Chicken House in January 2022. A historical mystery for teens, The Secrets Act follows two friends and workers at Bletchley Park during WW2, whose lives are turned upside down after a tragic incident that uncovers many dangerous secrets.

Instagram @alisonweatherbyauthor

twitter @aliwea

Find out more about Bletchley Park at

Your sister, brother, mother and grandmother have confessed to witchcraft - and you must give evidence against them! That's what happene...