Thursday, 21 October 2021

Our book recommendations for Black History Month

This week on our blog, the Time Tunnellers are celebrating Black History Month by sharing some of our favourite historical reads by Black authors and/or featuring Black protagonists.

Jeannie Waudby

DIVER’S DAUGHTER by Patrice Lawrence
12 year old Eve and her mother scrape by in dangerous 16th century Southwark. Eve’s mother Joan learnt to dive as a child in Mozambique, before she was kidnapped and taken to Portugal. Although she escaped, she and Eve are not safe from the greedy eyes of those who wish them harm.
When they travel to Southampton to dive for gold from a wreck, they find friends both false and true and dodge multiple dangers in their cruel and unstable country. The terror of the slave trade runs through this story like the dark London river, but Eve is brave and resourceful – a true adventurer.
I stayed up late to finish this gripping book.

100 GREAT BLACK BRITONS by Patrick Vernon and Angelina Osborne

This is an update of the 2003 campaign to find the most admired Black Britons: people who have overcome racial barriers to make an exceptional contribution. Although not specifically for children, I think many young people will enjoy this book. Each biography is 2 or 3 pages long and the style is vivid and engaging.
Entries from previous centuries include actor Ira Aldridge, nurse and war heroine Mary Seacole, anti-slavery campaigner and author Mary Prince, leader of the London Chartist movement William Cuffay and George III’s wife and consort Queen Charlotte – her cottage is featured in an earlier Timetunnellers video. It is a fascinating read.

Ally Sherrick

My first pick is a non-fiction book – Black Tudors – the Untold Story by the historian and academic, Miranda Kaufmann. It’s written for an adult audience, but many of the stories could also be used as prompts for discussions in the classroom too.
It shines a light on the lives of ten men and women of African descent who lived and worked in England during the reigns of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs. From Jacques Francis, salvage diver (see Jeannie’s picks for a fantastic fictional story inspired by him) at the wreck of the Mary Rose and Diego the circumnavigator, manservant to Sir Francis Drake to Cattelena of Almondsbury, a woman of independent means who sold milk and cheese from the cow she owned to her neighbours in her village in rural Gloucestershire. Each portrait combines to provide a vivid picture of Black lives lived free in Renaissance England, and the attitudes to race and slavery of the wider society in which they moved, before the English became heavily involved in the slave trade. My own personal favourite, is John Blanke, royal trumpeter, who played at King Henry VIII’s coronation and who received a wedding gift from the king when he married. 
For a brilliant article including a summary of each of the individuals featured visit:        

The second book I’ve chosen is Empire’s End – A Roman Story by Leila Rasheed in the excellent ‘Voices’ series published by Scholastic. This is the story of Camilla who travels with her family to Britannica from her home on the coast of North Africa as part of the Emperor’s entourage. But when the journey goes terribly wrong, Camilla is forced to fall back on her own resources to survive in a world very different from the privileged one she was brought up in. A tense and thrilling read packed full of fascinating details about life in the Roman provinces when the Empire was still at its height.

Catherine Randall

Son of the Circus: A Victorian Story by E. L. Norry

Based on the life of Britain’s first Black circus owner, Pablo Fanque, Son of the Circus tells the story of Fanque’s son Ted as he struggles to adapt to circus life when he joins his father at the age of 12. Full of vivid, authentic details about the Victorian circus, the story highlights the bravery needed to survive and flourish in a society both fascinated by and scared of difference. Inspiring and empathetic. E. L. Norry has done a great job of resurrecting a Black hero of the Victorian age.

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, written and illustrated by Vashti Harrison

In Little Leaders, Vashti Harrison has brought together forty beautiful, stylised portraits of outstanding Black women in history, accompanied by text explaining why each woman is important. Starting with Mary Prince, born into slavery over 200 years ago and ending with Lorna Simpson, a ground-breaking photographer working today, Harrison explains each woman’s impact on the world, introducing us to many fascinating, lesser-known characters along the way. Because the book combines appealing illustrations with informative text, this is an excellent book for all ages.

Susan Brownrigg

A Nest of Vipers by Catherine Johnson

This is a thrilling adventure set in London during the Stuart era, for children aged 8+. The story bookends with a gripping first person narrative from Cato Hopkins a boy criminal.
Cato is locked up in Newgate Prison, a notoriously vile institution, awaiting his execution.
The story then rewinds a year and switches to third person. Where we learn that Cato is part of a team of con artists and pickpockets under the tuition of ‘Mother Hopkins.’
This time their target is a cruel slave owner.
The story has lots of twists and turns, and I was on the edge of my seat as I turned the pages to find out if Cato would escape prison.
Johnson brings the period vividly to life. I especially enjoyed the mention of the Frost Fair and the Russian with a bear and squirmed at the depictions of squalor. The book shows the contrast between those who have money and those who do not. I also really liked the characters, especially Cato and Prince Quarmy.

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis.

I absolutely adored this wonderful award-winning book set in Gary, Indiana, in the U.S during the Great Depression.
The story is told by Deza Malone – a fabulously chatty, ambitious 12-year-old whose family is uprooted and torn apart after a terrible accident. The Malones face a run of bad luck and one character’s down spiral really brings home the mental health impact on families in the 30s. There are several very moving scenes, and the ending had me in tears.
I am in awe at Curtis's skill in creating voice, and Deza is a character you won't forget.

Barbara Henderson

The first book I would like to recommend is Windrush Child by Benjamin Zephaniah, a writer I have long admired for his poetry and his contemporary books for young people. The novel is about Leonard, a boy from Jamaica whose father sailed to Britain on the famous ship Empire Windrush after the end of the Second World War. Leonard and his mother reluctantly follow, leaving the boy’s beloved Grandma behind. Leonard is unprepared for the cold, both in the British weather and the hostile attitudes he encounters in so many aspects of everyday life. Leonard’s character gives us a real glimpse into the injustices faced by the Windrush generation and, unforgivably, their children, and I so admired their resilience. Historical fiction at its best, making us think about the country we were, the country we are, and the country we hope to be.

My second recommendation is Oliver Twisted by Jasmine Richards, written under her pen-name JD Sharpe. This one is a teen horror-mash-up of the classic Victorian novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, which is both a lovely original idea, and perfect for Halloween – and it is October after all! Vampyres, ghastly orphans, a shadowy Dodger and a soul-eating Fagin – perfect if you like your fun a little scary.

Thursday, 14 October 2021

How music can help historical writers to create authentic worlds

My Gracie Fairshaw mystery series is set in the 1930s so I am always looking for ways to bring historical authenticity to my scenes. One of the ways I have found bring verisimilitude to my writing is through music.

In my new book Gracie Fairshaw and the Trouble at the Tower there were plenty opportunities to be inspired by music from the past. The story takes place in the Blackpool Tower – known then as The Wonderland of the World because of the many attractions it offered.

Blackpool Tower (author's photo)

There was the Tower Ascent (the lift that took you to the top of the tower), stunning roof gardens, a menagerie, ballroom, circus and aquarium as well as fabulous places to eat including the Oriental lounge. 

The Tower Ascent, ballroom and circus still exist, and if you look carefully on your next visit you might spot architectural details from the oriental lounge where the dino golf now is!


Evidence of the Oriental lounge still survives (author's photo)

Music was an important part of the Tower’s entertainment offer. Although I haven’t used it in a story yet, I am really interested in the Orchestrion – that used to be in the entrance to the aquarium. 


The Orchestrion (ThinkTank)

Orchestrions were mechanical organs, usually made by clockmakers – the one in the Tower was made by Imhof and Mukle in Germany in 1879. It was in a 13ft high wooden cabinet. The orchestrion was originally bought for £3,000! originally worked by pin cyclinders, like in a muscial box! After 35 years the machine was converted so it used Wurlitzer paper rolls. I'm sure Violet, from my Gracie books, would love working out how it operated!

The Orchestrion was removed from the tower and is now in storage at ThinkTank, Birmingham.

Orchestrion 10" record (Decca, 1958) (lp, author's collection)

Live music was also an important attraction in the Tower.

The Roof Gardens were used for dance band concerts – in the 1930s dance band music was incredibly popular – live broadcasts from hotels and the Tower could be heard on the radio and played at home on shellac 78s.

The Tower employed their own dance band leader – Bertini. He sounds Italian but he was actually a Londoner called Bert!

Bertini and the Radio Boys (postcard, author's collection)

The roof gardens, Blackpool Tower

I am lucky to have a lot of original dance bands 78s at home as well as some vinyl and CDs. I listened to these while writing my book and it definitely helps me get into the 1930s world. Bertini records are hard to find, I have one 78 and a CD – but I did find a postcard complete with a collection of band autographs on ebay – which was thrilling.

I also have some sheet music featuring Bertini – sheet music sold really well in the 1930s giving music lovers a chance to play the most popular songs at home on the piano. The sheets included the notes and lyrics and often had a photograph on the cover.


Bertini, The Touch of your Lips song sheet (author's collection.)

I wanted to include a dance band in Trouble at the Tower – so I created the character Fredini. I had great fun making up song titles for his band to perform.

Of course the music most associated with Blackpool Tower is the Wurlitzer. This fantastic white organ has been an attraction in the ballroom since 1929 - with the current organ being installed in1935. I couldn't resist including it in both Gracie Fairshaw books. I absolutely adore the sound!

Reg Dixon at the Wurlitzer

What you might not know, is that the Blackpool Tower ballroom was host to a professional children’s ballet between 1902 and 1972. The ballet was extremely popular with audiences - and some of the young dancers went on to stardom. 

The Blackpool Tower Children's Ballet

The most famous dancer was Little Emmie – real name Emma Tweesdale – she started dancing with the ballet when she was just 8 years old. She was nicknamed the La Petite Pavlova (after the famous ballerina Anna Pavlova.) 


Madame Pauline Rivers (left) and Little Emmie (postcard, author's collection)

She and the ballet’s director – Madame Pauline Rivers – also feature on sheet music and postcards. I discovered that Madame Rivers went on to adopt Emmie.

 Song sheets featuring Little Emmie

For Trouble at the Tower, I wanted to create my own Christmas ballet. In my book the ballet has been taken over by a new director – Madame Petrova – who is a former Russian ballerina. 

Gracie Fairshaw and the Trouble at the Tower (cover design Jenny Czerwonka)

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to ballet music by the famous Russian composer – Tchaikovsky, and because trouble at the Tower is set in Christmas 1935, I also enjoyed researching which Christmas songs and carols were popular in the 1930s.

My favourite piece which features in the show is Troika by Prokofiev Рalso known as the Sleigh Song. The song was composed as part of a soundtrack for a Russian film - Lieutenant Kijé - in 1934.


A traditional sleigh ride

It makes me feel so Christmassy when I hear it! It really helped to get me in the mood for writing my festive mystery!

I hope you have been encouraged to seek out some of the music I've mentioned and will have a listen yourself!


Find some paper and a pen or pencil. Turn on the radio and tune into a station you wouldn’t normally listen to that is playing music! 

Start to write any words or images that it makes you think of. If you struggle to imagine things copy down some of the lyrics – if there are any – and see if that suggests a story to you! Or perhaps if there are no lyrics you could make up some that seem to fit the music.

Discussion points for teachers/parents 

Music often reflects the tastes of people at any given time - what music is popular now? Is it different to the music enjoyed by your family when they were children? Why do you think different generations may not like the same time of music?

Music can make us feel happy or sad, it can even make us laugh! It has been used to lift people's spirits in times of war or when times were hard - such as during the depression of the 1930s. If you were to create and bury a time capsule containing objects from now for people to find in the future - what music would you include. 

There have been many different ways to listen to pre-recorded music such as wax cyclinders, 78s, vinyl records, 78s, CDs, minidiscs, MP3s and streaming. Some formats have had a revival in recent times.

How do you think people will listen to music in the future? Will there be nostalgia for old methods?

Author Susan Brownrigg

Gracie Fairshaw and the Trouble at the Tower by Susan Brownrigg is an historical novel for 9-12 year olds set in Blackpool, 1935.

Susan's books are published by Uclan Publishing. They are available from bookshops and online retailers.


Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Finding the story in old objects

Do you ever feel like writing a story, but don’t know where to start? Maybe you keep promising yourself you’re going to make time to write, but when you finally manage to sit down at the keyboard, or with a pen and paper, your mind suddenly goes as blank as the paper.

You need something to write about. But don’t worry, you don’t need to have a plot or a fully developed character to start writing. All you need is an object. And if you want to write historical fiction, then the most useful thing to start off with is an object from the past.

I have recently inherited some old things from my parents. My favourite is this little clockwork pig. 


When you wind up the key in its back, it starts to play its drum in a lovely rhythm – Ta Ta Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, Ta Ta Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta – and turn round in a circle. As you can see from the photo, the pig’s clothes are badly in need of repair now, but that’s not surprising because he is nearly 100 years old. He belonged to my dad when he was a child, back in the 1930s. He must have been a very special toy because my father kept him safely all his life.

If you want to use the clockwork pig to inspire a story, you just start asking questions. Why was he so special? Who gave him to my dad? Imagine you were a child in the 1930s and the clockwork pig was yours. Where would you keep him? Would you keep him on display or would you hide him away because he was so precious? What if you took him to school and he got lost? Who would mend him if he was broken?

You could even write a story from the point of view of the clockwork pig. There’s a classic book by Russell Hoban called The Mouse and His Child, written from the point of view of a clockwork mouse, so you would be in good company if you decided to do this. 

The Mouse and his Child by Russall Hoban

 Another thing that my father left me is this model Spitfire.


This is a very special model because it is made from the same materials that were used to make real Spitfires. My grandpa worked in a Spitfire factory during World War II, and someone there must have made it for Dad. I imagine that this would also have been a very precious toy, maybe something that other children would have liked to own themselves. But the great thing is that you don’t need to know anything about my dad to use his model Spitfire to start building a story. You can completely make up the person it belonged to. How had they come by it? Why was it special to them? Maybe they had seen real Spitfires flying overhead? Maybe their dad was a pilot who flew Spitfires? Maybe their mum had an important job in an aircraft factory?

My mum also left me some treasures, including this box with her name on it. 


Inside the box I found some of her costume jewellery, but also this Victorian locket with a very old photograph in it. 


The sad thing is, I have no idea who it is! But this is another ideal starting point for a story. Who could this lady be? Why did a picture of her end up in Mum’s jewellery box? Of course, there could be a simple explanation, but as writers looking for a story we are not interested in simple explanations. She is quite hard to see, but if you look carefully you can see that she is very elegant and well dressed. I particularly like her hairstyle. Photographs were usually only taken on special occasions in those days, so I wonder what she is dressed up for?

So, this week’s writing challenge is simply to find an object – you can use either a real object or a picture of something – and start asking lots of questions about it. Before you know it, you will have the makings of a story. Don’t worry if the story turns out to be nothing to do with the original object – the point is to use it as inspiration and see where your imagination takes you.

And if you want to hear Dad’s clockwork pig drumming, go to the Time Tunnellers’ YouTube channel, where you can see him in action!

Catherine Randall's debut novel, The White Phoenix, is a thrilling adventure story set during the Great Fire of London for 9-12 year olds. It was shortlisted for the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2021. The White Phoenix is published by the Book Guild, it is available from bookshops and online retailers including Waterstones, and Amazon.

For more information visit

Thursday, 30 September 2021

How to grow a time-tunneller - by Ally Sherrick

Physics and I have never got on. It’s a lot to do with the maths. But also because the laws of physics say time-travel isn’t possible – at least not in the way I’ve always wanted it to be. But I decided early on that it wouldn’t stop me from trying. If you’ve got a few spare minutes, why not hop on board my trusty time-machine and let me take you back to where my adventures in time-travel first began ...

The Tardis

First up there were all those brilliant time-travelling TV programmes I used to watch. Doctor Who was the first, though I probably saw more of the back of our sofa than what was happening on the small screen, especially when the dreaded daleks arrived on the scene. Of course, The Doctor is the ultimate time-traveller – a Time Lord who uses an amazing police-box tardis to travel through space and time. 

But other intrepid explorers who also flirted with a spot of time-travel were Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. In the original series, they did a lot of travelling back to the 1960s – no prizes for guessing why! But the episode called ‘The City On The Edge Of Forever', where a temporarily insane Dr. McCoy beams down to a planet and accidentally changes history by travelling back in time through a mysterious archway called The Guardian of Forever, is a bit of a classic. It even has its own Wiki page!


Star Trek

And then there were was The Time Tunnel, the story of the top secret Project Tic-Toc, a time-travelling experiment gone disastrously wrong. I thrilled as brave scientists Doctors Tony Newman and Doug Phillips were pitched into a new time, place and set of perils each episode, while the team back at base battled to snatch them back from the spiralling vortex that was the Time Tunnel of the title.

The Time Tunnel

Their itinerary was a history-fest of seminal moments in the past – the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the eruption of the Indonesian island of Krakatoa in 1883 and a fictitious Viking-infested Cornwall of 544 where they meet a young man called Arthur Pendragon and a magician by the name of Merlin. Sometimes characters from history got caught up in the Time-Tunnel too – the Renaissance writer and scholar Machiavelli joined Tony and Doug at the American Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg. And there were cliff-hanger endings aplenty. For a young Time-Tunneller in the making, what was not to love?

And of course, as an author, how can I not talk about the books? A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley about a young girl called Penelope Taberner who travels back to Tudor England and gets caught up in the infamous Babington Plot to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots from imprisonment by her great rival and cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively (who also wrote the classic A Stitch in Time). Not a time-travel story in the traditional sense – but it features a 17th century apothecary poltergeist, the Thomas Kempe of the title, who haunts a young boy, James in a bid to make him his apprentice.  And The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by the superlative Joan Aiken, which transports the reader to an ‘alternate history’ and the time of King James III of England, when courageous young cousins Bonnie and Sylvie must do battle with their wicked new governess, Miss Slighcarp in a country prowled by packs of ravenous, wild wolves.

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
and A Traveller in Time

With all those brilliant time-travelling tales to feed my imagination, it was only a matter of time before I took the plunge and began digging back into the past to create my own stories. So far I’ve travelled to London in 1605 and the events surrounding the infamous Gunpowder Plot in Black Powder; wartime Suffolk in 1940, a year after the discovery of the famous Sutton Hoo Ship Burial in The Buried Crown, and 1520 and the court of King Henry VIII and his first queen, Katherine of Aragon, in The Queen’s Fool. As for my next stop? Well, I can’t say too much about that right now! But if you’re planning to join me, you might need to bring one of these with you to help light the way ...

A lamp to cast light on the past!


Build your own time-machine

Calling all Time-Tunnellers big and small! You’ve been invited by a top secret research project to design and build a time-machine for the 21st century. What materials will you use? Maybe you’ll decide to repurpose it from an existing object like Dr Who’s police-box tardis? Or will you assemble it from recycled or ‘found’ bits and pieces? Or you could build it using revolutionary new materials that have yet to be invented. When you’re ready, put your design down on paper, using labels and a description to explain how it all works. Then give it a name and let your time-travelling adventures begin!

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. She is published by Chicken House Books


You can find out more about Ally and her books at and follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick


Monday, 20 September 2021

Finding stories in old places - tips from author Jeannie Waudby

For as long as I can remember, old buildings have filled me with a longing to know who lived there before. Very often, there is no way of knowing, and for me this meant trying to think up their story for myself.

I grew up on a little island in Hong Kong. It had been taken to be a leprosy treatment centre and most of the buildings were built in the 1950s. But the old ones, from hundreds of years ago, always fascinated me. As a child, I thought that the people had left long ago – whereas in fact they had to leave not long before the hospital was built.

Jetty valley

One of the oldest buildings was a little temple. It’s the tiniest building at the bottom of this picture in the middle, near the steps.

Then there were the graves. These were beautiful white tombs, shaped like the moon, always on a hillside. I wondered whose graves they were, and what their lives had been like on this island that was home to us now. The tombs made a deep impression on me so that years later, when I was studying art, they slipped into my pictures.

Moon grave

This woodcut shows a tomb with some burial pots. Most of the tombs were in the emptier part of the island where it was wild and grassy.

And in this watercolour the tomb is on the left, looking over the sea towards a neighbouring island.

Hillside tomb

Although we lived in Hong Kong, every few years we visited the UK, which to me was a huge exciting foreign land. On my first visit we travelled by ocean liner because planes were still very expensive. I remember the journey well even though I was little. It took one month, and one of the places we visited was Pompei. I recall arches, painted walls and the fact that life had stopped suddenly and tragically here because of a volcano.

When we went to the Highlands, where my mother came from, I felt at home straight away. To me, the mountains and sea felt just like the ones back home in Hong Kong. Even the rocks on the shore had the same yellow lichen and green seaweed, like hair. But I did get to see something I had never seen before: castles.

Eilean Donan

This aquatint shows Eilean Donan Castle and the Five Sisters of Kintail, with my impression of the light beaming onto the loch. A house where we often stayed had a cannon ball in the fireplace, from a battle long ago that left the castle in ruins.

Later, when I was older, my dad, who was English, would take us to visit famous historical places in England: the Tower of London, a Roman villa, the Victory warship and the wonderful Roman baths which you could still have a warm dip in if it was allowed. Inside the Victory, I smelt for the first time the sharp tang of centuries-old wood. To me it felt as if stories were humming just below the surface of the walls.


I started writing novels when I was a child, although I didn’t ever finish them. This is the first page of one I started when I was 11. It was set in England in the nineteenth century because we had just come back from the UK and while we were there, we stayed in a flat in a Victorian house.

For me, old places have always been doorways to stories.


Writing Prompt

When I am somewhere old, I can never shake off the possibility that it might turn out to be a time machine… and where would it take me? Think of an old building or place that you know. If it was a time machine, where would it take you? Who would you be? What would you be doing there? Would there be a hidden danger? 


One Of Us by Jeannie Waudby is a YA thriller/love story, published by Chicken House. It was shortlisted for the Bolton Children's Fiction Award and the Lancashire Book of the Year 2016 and has been adapted by Mike Kenny as a play in the Oxford Playscripts series.
One Of Us is published by Chicken House
The Oxford Playscripts play is published by Oxford University Press


For more information about Jeannie and her books visit her website.


A Victorian Christmas Tree

  I’ll say this for Prince Albert of  Saxe-Coburg and Gotha : He was an enthusiast. Steam Power, engineering, plumbing, Scotland, Christmas ...