Wednesday 24 May 2023

Museum of London Docklands by Jeannie Waudby

I grew up in a sea port (Hong Kong) on an island, so travelling by boat was a weekly part of my childhood. I’m still fascinated by rivers and the sea, boats and ships. In fact my first sight of London was from a big ship making its way into the Thames estuary. I love standing by the Thames and being able to smell the sea and feel the sense of connection with the whole world that it gives me.
I visited the Museum of London Docklands at West India Docks. But the river here holds a terrible history. The museum is housed in the sugar warehouse that was built in 1802 to store sugar and rum from the West Indian plantations where enslaved Africans worked.
I decided to focus on the building itself and the London, Sugar and Slavery gallery. This warehouse is only here because by the end of the eighteenth century the system of slavery had become so profitable. The gallery begins with an huge list of trans-Atlantic slave ships cleared by the Port of London in the 1780s and 90s, listing the names of the ships and their owners and captains, the African ports where enslaved Africans embarked, the number of enslaved Africans and their destination in the Carribean. It’s powerful and horrifying to look at that long list of ships and understand that each of them represents hundreds of stolen African lives.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade is sometimes known as the Triangular Trade. Ships sailed from London to West Africa with manufactured goods which they traded for human beings. The middle passage was the journey to the Americas and the Caribbean, in which so many African men, women and children died. Finally the ships returned to London with sugar, molasses and rum and other goods grown by the labour of enslaved people.
The gallery presented me with some stark statistics. London was the fourth biggest slave port in the world, behind the Brazilian ports of Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, and Liverpool. Over 3,100 ships left London to carry almost a million Africans into slavery. By the 1790s a quarter of Britain’s income came from imports from the West Indies and in 1781 sugar trade profits for that year came to £1,405,102 which is equivalent to £126,000,000. From this genocide came the wealth of London, and Britain as a whole. Here are some words by Ignatius Sancho:
I found that there was too much even in this one gallery to take in on just one visit. It also covers resistance in the Caribbean, the struggle for abolition and the writings of Africans with first-hand experience. It was their words that informed and led to the abolition of slavery – writers including Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, Phyllis Wheatley, Ottobah Cugoano, Robert Wedderburn and Ignatius Sancho..
I will go back to this museum, because there is so much still to see. It also shows how the docks worked in the 20th century, the lives of riverside Londoners, docklands at war and Sailortown, a recreated labyrinth of alleys and shops. This museum, housed in the original building so central to the slave trade, allows us to take a painful look at this history. When I was at school, we didn’t learn about Britain’s pivotal involvement in this crime against humanity – only about the abolitionists. That’s changing now. I think that this museum is fulfilling an important role in shining a light into London’s history.
This chart from 1802 by David Steele shows the West India Dock spanning the Isle of Dogs.

Writing Challenge

The Museum of London Docklands shows what happened when some people’s freedom – a right that every human being should have – was stolen from them. Can you write an acrostic poem for the word ‘FREEDOM’? Or if you love drawing, you could write the word with a beautifully designed first letter. Long ago, when books had to be written by hand, scribes highlighted the importance of their words by taking the first letter, making it larger and illustrating, or ‘illuminating’ it.
You can link to the video here

Some other museums covering the history of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade:

International Slavery Museum, Liverpool

The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Bristol

Bristol City’s Museums, Galleries and Archives

Hull City Museums and Art Gallery

The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Jeannie Waudby is the author of YA thriller/love story One of Us. She has recently completed a YA novel set in Victorian times.

Wednesday 17 May 2023

Writing Historical Heists with Laura Noakes

A heist story follows the planning, completion and aftermath of a theft of an item or items from a place. It often involves a group of heisters, who each have a specific skillset that will help them to pull off the caper. 

The Italian Job is a classic heist film

When I sat down to write my heist, I was inspired a lot by the films I watched as a kid. I think my introduction to heists was the classic film The Italian Job, which stars Michael Caine and is set in Italy in the 1960s. I was blown away by the clever ways the characters sought to outwit the security measures to get their hands on some valuable gold, as well as the literal cliffhanger ending! I fell in love with heists watching the Oceans Eleven series, which is far more modern. I loved the cool gadgets and tech the gang used as they closed in on the vault.

So quite a lot of my ‘research’ into the different types of heists was actually just rewatching a lot of my favourite heist films, which was a lot of fun! From these rewatches, I noticed that there are a few elements common in many heists, and I turned these elements into questions to help plot my heist story:

1)      Who is the mastermind behind the heist?

2)     Who makes up the heist team?

3)     What are the team trying to steal?

4)     Why are they trying to steal it?

5)     What’s the plan?

6)     What’s the twist?

Having answers to these questions meant that whenever I got writer’s block, I was able to unstick myself pretty quickly.

Laura's archival research on life in Victorian London

As I wrote my own heist, which is set in 1899 in London, I had to be really aware of the time period and how the historical setting would impact on my heist. In 1899, Queen Victoria was on the throne, women didn’t have the vote and much of the technology we take for granted today didn’t exist yet! I really wanted readers to feel as though they were in late-Victorian London, so I did a lot of research on what living during that time would have been like.

This research came in many forms. I read a lot of non-fiction books about the Victorian era and Victorian London—one my favourites is How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman, which told me a lot about everyday life. I also read fiction books set during the Victorian era, and books written by Victorians, like Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.

Websites were also a huge research tool. My main character, Cosima, lives in a group home for disabled children run by a matron. These homes really did exist during the Victorian era, and thinking about these institutions served as the spark which inspired my story. A brilliant website created by Peter Higginbotham formed the core component of my research into these homes: Peter is also the author of several excellent books which I wholeheartedly recommend.

I have the same disability as Cos—Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder—so I thought a lot about how different my life would have been if I’d have been brought up in a Home and being disabled during the Victorian era. There isn’t a tonne of information on how disabled people lived in the past, so I turned to a thoroughly modern research tool: the internet!

Finally, I also watched a lot of films and TV shows set in the Victorian era and I also watched many historical documentaries. One of my favourite movies that I saw during research was Enola Holmes, starring Millie Bobby Brown.

Laura's plot takes shape!

When it came to the heist itself, setting my story in the past actually helped in some respects. In 1899, there are no motion detectors, CCTV cameras or complicated security systems to bypass. However, this doesn’t mean that pulling off a heist was easy—Victorians were just as security conscious as we are! Cos and her friends still have to navigate guards, seemingly impenetrable walls, and complicated safes to reach the jewels they’re after.

Heists are full of twists and turns that readers don’t see coming, and I hope I’ve managed to sneak a few into my story. Creating an unexpected twist was really difficult—and I think what helped me to make my twist surprising was that I was also surprised by it.

Bringing the two components of my story together, the historical and the heist, was probably my favourite part of writing my book!

Writing Challenge

I challenge you to plot a historical heist story. This story can be set in any historical period!

Think about how the era will impact on your heist. For example, if your story is set in the pre-historic era, its unlikely that cave-people would want steal a million pounds, because that form of currency didn’t exist then. Maybe instead your cave-people’s target is a Woolley Mammoth! If your heist happens during World War II, what impact will an unexpected air raid have on your characters?

Laura Noakes grew up in Bedfordshire in a home full of books. She loved books so much she went to three universities after school, and graduated with a PhD in Legal History in 2021. Writing stories is her first love. She has Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder, a disability that she shares with her main character, Cosima. Laura now lives in beautiful Cumbria with her husband, Connor, and their two mischievous cats, Scout & Sunny. 

Laura's debut book, Cosima Unfortunate Steals a Star, will be published by Harper Collins on May 25th 2023. Buy a copy online at

Learn more about Laura and her writing at her website and follow her on twitter Facebook and Instagram

Thursday 11 May 2023

#NationalTechnologyDay: Sir William Arrol

For National Technology day, I thought I would give you all an insight into the life of Forth Bridge Engineer William Arrol, one of the most innovative and respected bridge builders of the Victorian era. His name deserves to be much better known than it is, considering his huge contribution to engineering and technology. I was lucky enough to visit an exhibition about him and his legacy earlier this spring, to do a couple of author events to accompany the exhibition, but the best bit, surely, was to see the exhibits for myself. This is William Arrol:
It's a fair hike from my home in the Highlands to the exhibition at Ayr's Rozelle House - to my great shame, I had only passed through the town so far, so I jumped at the chance to visit, courtesy of the Scottish Book Trust's Live Literature funding. I was picked up by Kirsty Menzies, the researcher behind the Arrol exhibition and part of Friends of Seafield House, William Arrol's residence currently undergoing ambitious refurbishment. With a personal family connection to the Arrols, she is a fountain of knowledge and was the ideal companion for my visit.
My workshops were fun, and I loved reading some of the Arrol sections from Rivet Boy in the place where he had lived. However, most memorable of all was the time spent browsing the handful of rooms devoted to the great Victorian engineer. Not only did he build iconic landmarks like the Forth Bridge, the replacement Tay Bridge (following the Tay Bridge disaster), Tower Bridge in London and even a bridge across the River Nile in Cairo. No, he also invented tools and practices to make metal work more efficient, such as the hydraulic riveting machine. In addition, his company built gantries, cranes and workshops, including the one on which the Titanic and her sister ship the Olympia were built in Belfast.
Workmen using the Arrol riveting machine on a construction site

It is clear that Arrol was a workaholic. However, isn't it surprising that a man of his achievements didn't go to university? Imagine: he didn't even attend secondary school!
I was particularly struck by his demeanour in this photograph where he is on the right, pictured alongside Forth Bridge designer Sir John Fowler and Fowler's wife. Look at the contrast! The Fowlers are wealthy and self-assured, well-dressed and comfortable. Perhaps they are used to having their photograph taken. Arrol, on the other hand, retains the slightly awkward air of an imposter. Born in Houston near Paisley, Arrol left school before the age of 10 to become a piecer in a cotton mill - he was a working man, and remained a working man all his life, despite his considerable wealth and success. Look at the size of those hands! Arrol's personal life, like our own lives, was far from straightforward. In the exhibition, the ups and downs of complicated family dynamics are hinted at, but here was clearly a man who appreciated the beauty of a job well done or a thing well made.
We visitors could inspect the cranes and tools he invented, but I was most impressed by the traces of the man himself - for example, I was moved to see his actual signature, and to spot his initials in the metalwork around his personal home. Most contemporary accounts seem to agree that as well as a technological pioneer, he was a genuine, considerate and immensely talented man who commanded respect from all sections of the Victorian society he inhabited. I am honoured to have met him here. Well, sort of anyway! If you want, do check out the video I made for the Time Tunnellers' YouTube channel:
Writing Challenge: When Sir William Arrol spotted a problem, he often used technology to solve it. Your turn! Think of a problem. Then invent a fictional machine which could solve that problem and write a ten-step instruction leaflet to use your invention. You can have fun illustrating it too!
Barbara with her book Rivet Boy, in front of the Arrol-built Forth Bridge. William Arrol is a character in the novel which is set during the Bridge's construction in 1888-1890 Buy the book here. Find out more about Barbara on her website.

Wednesday 3 May 2023

The Mary Rose: Ship of Stories

In my Tudor-set adventure, The Queen’s Fool, my heroes, young orphan girl, Cat Sparrow and her new-found friend, French boy, Jacques Bonhomme find themselves voyaging across the English Channel to Calais as part of King Henry VIII’s entourage bound for the grand Anglo-French peace celebrations at the Field of Cloth of Gold in June 1520.

Painting of The Mary Rose

Contemporary painting of Henry VIII's flagship, 'The Mary Rose'

The sea journey presented a brilliant opportunity to include an exciting chase scene with the villain which results in poor Jacques falling overboard and which leads on to a dramatic ‘reveal’ that hopefully young readers won’t see coming.

To write these shipboard scenes meant that I needed to understand the layout and construction of Tudor ships, how you might have boarded them – by small boats and a set of ropes, ladders and nets as it turns out – and what life both above and below deck was like for passengers and crew.

A key primary resource proved to be an ‘old friend’ – the wreck of King Henry’s favourite warship and flagship, The Mary Rosewhich had been part of the king’s escort of ships that day on the journey across to France.  I’m fortunate enough to live within an hour’s drive of Portsmouth Harbour where, over four centuries after her dramatic sinking at the end of Henry’s reign, the remains of The Mary Rose were discovered and, in 1982, brought to the surface in an event broadcast across the world.

A miraculous resurrection 

In fact it was as a teenager that I paid my first ever visit to see what was left of The Mary Rose, not long after she first went on public display in the mid 1980s in a covered dry dock

at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard – though at the time the surviving timbers of the wreck were heavily veiled in plastic and being sprayed with water to keep them from drying out. I returned several times over the years as they were further treated with preserving chemicals and then, finally, air-dried. 

'The Mary Rose' today - showing the preserved timbers and decks of the ship

'The Mary Rose' as she looks today on display at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

I was also keen to see the amazing artefacts which had been excavated from the wreck and put on display after conservation, in a new, purpose-built museum on the site. So in a small way I got personally caught up, like so many other visitors over the years, in the story of the exciting discovery, ground-breaking excavation and conservation of the ship.  

But the wreck of The Mary Rose harbours other, equally fascinating stories. These include the part the ship played in the history of the early English navy, how she came to sink on that fateful day back in 1545 and the lives – and deaths – of the men who formed her crew.

Pride of a king

For 34 years after her construction and launch in Portsmouth in 1511, The Mary Rose was the pride of King Henry VIII’s navy. A 600 ton carrack and one of the earliest known examples of a purpose-built sailing warship, she was reputedly built to the young king’s own design. She saw a number of actions over the years in battles and skirmishes against the French navy and in the defence against King James IV of Scotland’s attempted invasion of England. And records also show that she underwent a substantial refit during the 1530s with the addition of a number of extra, heavy guns.

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein

 Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein

Her final action took place on 19th July 1545, when she was part of an English fleet of 80 vessels involved in a face-off against over 200 ships of the French navy gathered in the Solent – the stretch of water between Portsmouth Harbour and the Isle of Wight. The French were on a mission of revenge for Henry VIII’s capture of the French town of Boulogne the previous year, and Henry himself came down to watch the action from nearby Southsea Castle.

But what actually caused The Mary Rose to sink? A surviving eye-witness reported that, seeking to engage the enemy, she fired first from her starboard side, then turned about to fire from her port side. But as she made the turn, her sails were caught by a gust of wind and she was blown over. This resulted in her still-open starboard gun-ports taking on water as they dipped below the waterline.

The sinking of the Mary Rose in the Solent (detail from The Cowdray Engraving)

Alternative theories emerged over time including that there had been too many guns and soldiers on board, or that the earlier refit of the vessel had resulted in some fundamental design flaws. There was even the suggestion that the officers or crew might not have been up to the job. The French themselves maintained they had holed the ship with a cannonball, though none of these claims has ever been convincingly substantiated.

Whatever the full story, it took no more than a handful of minutes for The Mary Rose to disappear beneath the waves with the loss of almost the entire crew. Estimates vary but it is believed over 450 men drowned that day with around only 35 survivors. 

A porthole into the past

For me the most intriguing stories are to be found in the huge haul of archaeological treasures painstakingly excavated from the mud of the seabed. These represent a sort of Tudor time-capsule, illuminating both the operation of a ship of Henry VIII’s navy and the day-to-day lives of the mariners, soldiers, gunners and servants on board. Stand-out items include the ship’s bell; the cannon bearing the King’s personal Tudor rose symbol; the chests of Yew longbows and thousands of arrows for use by the archers in battle; the two great brick ovens and cauldrons and the eating utensils used to serve the crew their food, not forgetting the detachable mast-top which crowned the ship’s main mast.

The ship's bell from the wreck of 'The Mary Rose'One of the cannons and gun carriages from the wreck of 'The Mary Rose'

Museum case showing a selection of yew archery bows and other weapons from 'The Mary Rose' museum

Just some  of the archery bows, arrows and other weapons salvaged from the wreck

Other highlights are the more personal items belonging to individual crew members, all of them male, most young adults and some just boys. These range from leather shoes, jerkins and hats to dice, gaming boards and musical instruments including something called a shawm – an early type of oboe. Also writing materials including ink pots, quill pens and even leather book covers, though the pages have long since rotted away. 

Display showing the remains of a leather jerkin recovered from the wreck of 'The Mary Rose'Museum display case showing items recovered from the wreck of 'The Mary Rose' including a fiddle, a home-made gaming board and a bundle of needles and thread

A leather jerkin (left), and a home-made gaming board, fiddle and bundle of needles and thread (right)

Display case showing brown leather book cover
 Leather book cover 

And then there are tools of the trade belonging to men of the ship’s company such as the carpenter – including his mallet, planes and rulers – and the surgeon, whose belongings – his canisters  of ointments, metal syringes and a bowl to collect the patient’s blood during blood-letting – I found particularly intriguing because of a crucial scene I set in the surgeon’s cabin on board ship in The Queen’s Fool. 

Display case showing syringe, blood-letting bowl and other implements from the surgeon's chest

 Items from the surgeon's chest     

Finally, there are the remains – human and animal – which tell their own tales. For example the bones of men believed to have been archers, which show the stress caused to arm and shoulder muscles and joints by the regular shooting of many arrows. And the isotope analysis of teeth which has allowed historians to demonstrate that the crew were not only of English origin but that some of them came from places as far afield as the Mediterranean and North Africa.

Display case showing skeleton of small dog believed to be the ship's dog

'Hatch', the ship's dog

And perhaps my favourite find of all – the skeleton of a small dog discovered outside the carpenter’s cabin.  Nicknamed Hatch by the museum team and identified from his bones as a sort of terrier, similar to a modern day Jack Russell, he is believed to have been the ship’s ratter. And as relatively few rat bones were found in the wreck, the museum staff reckon he must have been pretty good at his job!

Scarcely any personal information is known about the individuals who went down with King Henry VIII’s great flagship that day nearly 500 years ago. But through the treasure-trove of objects rescued from the deep, we are part way at least to bringing them and their stories back to life.

Model of 'The Mary Rose'

 More information about the fascinating and inspirational artefacts and stories connected with The Mary Rose is available from the museum website here.

View Ally’s video on The Mary Rose on YouTube Kids here.

Photo of Ally Sherrick at Portsmouth Harbour with The Solent in the background'The Queen's Fool' book cover

Ally Sherrick is the award-winning author of stories full of history, mystery and adventure.

BLACK  POWDER, her debut novel about a boy caught up in the Gunpowder Plot, won the  Historical Association’s Young Quills Award. Other titles include THE BURIED CROWN, a wartime tale with a whiff of Anglo-Saxon myth and magic and THE QUEEN’S FOOL, a story of treachery and treason set at the court of King Henry VIII. Ally’s latest book, published in February 2023 with Chicken House Books, is VITA AND THE GLADIATOR, the story of a young girl’s fight for justice in the high-stakes world of London’s gladiatorial arena.

Ally’s books are available from and all good high street bookshops

For more information visit Ally's website. You can also follow her on Twitter @ally_sherrick

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