Tuesday, 14 February 2023

The Victorian Can-Do Spirit


What a can-do bunch the Victorians were!

Queen Victoria

I decided to return to the Victorian age in my latest book Rivet Boy for a whole lot of reasons. It was the age of reason, of invention, of engineering, of science and arguably, the age of the novel, too. Imagine a world without Dickens or Darwin, Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, John Ruskin, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Gustave Eiffel, The Bronte sisters, Florence Nightingale, Ada Lovelace, Alexander Graham Bell…. And that’s just off the top off my head.

I have been privileged to indulge my love of all things Victorian in my latest book, Rivet Boy. As the daughter of an engineer, I have been around machinery all my life. While my father never worked in construction, I am well used to asking myself the questions: how does that work? How did they do that? We visited the iconic Forth Bridge when I was a child in the early eighties.

Barbara with her sister, brother-in-law and mother, visiting the Forth Bridge as a child. 

While browsing through a photography book of Victorian Scotland, I came across a chapter on the building of the iconic Forth Bridge. I was staggered by the images. How did that work? How did they do that? I was interested in the architects and engineers who built the structure, yes – but I was even more interested in the blurred faces of the people who worked on the site, day in and day out. I looked for a book on the subject (my usual go-to next step if something captures my interest) and bingo! The Briggers, written by Elspeth Wills with a team of South Queensferry-based researchers features details and often even images of the long-forgotten workers who helped to achieve one of the greatest engineering feats in history. These jobs were dangerous!

 For many years the figure of deaths quoted was 57 nameless casualties. However, more recent research has revealed the figure to be considerably greater: 73 confirmed – with more than 30 other related deaths. Not exactly a cheering basis for a children’s book. And then I struck gold: A newspaper article:

Here was a 12-year-old boy who survived.

He was to form the basis for my main character. With the help of local researchers I was able to find out where he lived – around the corner of the brand-new Carnegie Library in Dunfermline – the very first in the world. How could I not include it as a setting to contrast with the noise and danger of the building site. In my book, John is a rivet boy, heating and throwing rivets which his team will insert and hammer into place on the giant steel structure. It was skilled and dangerous work, often at great height and without much safety equipment.

A Forth Bridge rivet, with my hand for scale. It's HEAVY!

John may have been one of thousands of ‘Briggers’, but in my book he takes centre stage, alongside his friend Cora, who longs to become an engineer herself. John is at best ambivalent, and often terrified of the structure, but when the Crown Prince’s life is in danger he does not hesitate: knowing the structure like the back of his hand enables him to overcome his fear at the very moment when courage is needed most.

The Victorians loved engineering, and they were exceedingly good at it. William Arrol, in charge of the Forth Bridge construction, went on to build Tower Bridge in London – as far as they were concerned, the sky was the limit. In my opinion, there are not nearly enough books celebrating science and engineering.

We’d do well to channel our inner Victorians, don’t you think?

You can buy Rivet Boy at https://www.cranachanpublishing.co.uk/product/rivet-boy-by-barbara-henderson/

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