About Me

Sept 2013 052

I’m an author of historical fiction and non-fiction based in the beautiful county of Lancashire from where I draw many of my stories. On this site you’ll find the first chapters of my novels and some short stories to read for free. If you delve a little deeper, you’ll discover all sorts of interesting things that I’ve come across in my research – especially about the history of the de Lacys, Lords of Blackburnshire. Just click on the links to get started.


James Brindley

It’s ten years since Champion Lancastrians was Champion Lancastrians coverpublished. One of the people I wrote about was Francis Egerton, the third Duke of Bridgewater, and his canal building exploits. I also briefly mentioned James Brindley, who was the engineer who assisted him. This year marks 300 years since the birth of James Brindley so it seems appropriate to say a little more about him.

21947Brindley was born in 1716 at Tunstead, near Buxton in Derbyshire. In 1733 he was apprenticed to the millwright, Abraham Bennett at Sutton, near Macclesfield, and later founded his own millwright business in Leek.  In 1752 he designed and built an engine for draining coalpits at Clifton in Lancashire and in 1755 he built a machine for a silk mill at Congleton in Cheshire.

It was in 1759 that the Duke of Bridgewater commissioned him as an engineer to help build the Bridgewater Canal. Egerton’s idea was to build a canal that would transport coal from his mines at Worsley directly to his customers in Manchester. He planned a canal that would cross the River Irwell with locks on both sides of the river, but Brindley suggested carrying the canal over the river and when it opened in 1761 it included the Barton Aqueduct, the first navigable aqueduct to be built in England. This engineering success brought Brindley more clients. In 1762 Brindley began surveying for his ‘Grand Trunk’ scheme to link the four great rivers of England – the Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames. In 1766 the Trent and Mersey Canal was authorised by an Act of Parliament and Brindley was appointed as the principal engineer for the project. The first sod was cut by Josiah Wedgwood. Work on the canal included the construction of the 2,633 metre long Harecastle Tunnel, once said to be the longest man-made tunnel on earth. 

Four of James Brindley’s notebooks are currently on display at the National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port.

Although James Brindley was a clever engineer he lacked formal education and in a letter a relative of the Duke wrote that he could not read or write. This became accepted fact over the years. However, four of James Brindley’s notebooks, currently on display at the National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port, shed doubt on his illiteracy.

He tended to solve problems in his head and when he was seeking a solution would retire to his bed to think the problem through. He also, famously, took a cheese to a meeting of a parliamentary committee to explain his plans for the Barton Aqueduct. He also invented ‘puddled’ clay to provide the canals with a watertight lining.

His reputation as an engineer led to other projects. He was commissioned to build several canals around the Midlands, including the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. In 1767 Droitwich Council asked Brindley to survey a route from the town to the River Severn and the following year an Act of Parliament authorised the Droitwich Canal Navigation, with Brindley appointed as ‘Inspector of the Works’. In 1768 the Coventry Canal Company was formed and Brindley was commissioned to build the waterway. Also in 1768 an Act of Parliament authorised a canal to be built from Birmingham, through the coalfields of the Black Country, to join up with the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. This was followed by the Oxford Canal and the Chesterfield Canal.

James Brindley was a ‘hands on’ engineer who went out in all weathers to survey the routes of these canals. Whilst working on a new branch of the Trent and Mersey Canal, between Froghall and Leek, he was drenched in a severe storm and contracted pneumonia. He died eleven days later at the age of 56 and is buried at the church of St James in Newchapel, Staffordshire.

He left a widow, Anne Henshall, who he had married in 1765, at the age of almost 50. They had two daughters, Anne and Susannah, and Brindley also had an illegitimate son, John Bennett.











The Voynich Manuscript

In my new novel, The Merlin’s Wife, I based the manuscript that John Dee is determined Voynich Manuscriptto decipher on The Voynich Manuscript. This book is hand written on vellum. It has no title and no author is credited. It contains over 200 pages and is divided into sections, apparently dealing with herbs, astronomy/astrology, biology and medicine.  Almost all the pages are illustrated with many detailed drawings of plants, stars and possibly alchemical secrets, but the neat text is in a language that no one understands. It has been described as the most mysterious manuscript in the world.

It was bought by an antique book dealer named Wilfrid Voynich in 1912, although his acquisition of it is clouded in secrecy. Voynich said that it had been found amongst other illustrated manuscripts in a chest in a castle in southern Europe, but a letter written by his widow, Ethel Lilian Voynich, in 1930 mentions that it was once the property of the Vatican.

Voynich 2One clue to its history is a letter discovered inside the book. It is from Georgius Barschius of Prague, to the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher in Rome, telling him that he owned a mysterious book that was written in an unknown script. He hoped that Kircher might be able to translate the book and sent him copies of some of the pages.

The Prague physician and scientist Johannes Marcus Marci was also a correspondent of Kircher and before his death he sent the full manuscript to him, explaining that he had inherited it from a close friend, who had tried to decipher it until the end of his life. He also says that he learned from one ‘Dr. Raphael’ that the manuscript had been bought by Rudolf II of Bohemia (1552-1612) for 600 ducats, and it was believed that it was written by Roger Bacon (the Franciscan friar who lived from 1214 to 1294).

John DeeThe vellum the manuscript is written on has been carbon dated to the 15th century and so that rules out authorship by Roger Bacon. However, the story that it was once owned by the Emperor Rudolf has given rise to a theory that the manuscript is actually a hoax and that it was written either by John Dee or, more plausibly, by his assistant and medium, Edward Kelley, when they were living in Prague, working on their alchemical experiments.

Kelley is a major suspect, as many regard him as a charlatan who tricked John Dee, Emperor Rudolph and many others with claims of his abilities.

But what if the manuscript is not a hoax? This article from the BBC claims that it could be genuine Mysterious Voynich Manuscript has genuine message

Stephen Bax, whi is a Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics at the Open University in the UK  also thinks he may be able to tease out some meaning. His website has a wealth of information: https://stephenbax.net  

Lots of interesting details here too:  The Voynich Manuscript

If you would like to see the manuscript there are scanned pages of it at this link: https://www.jasondavies.com/voynich/#f2r/0.588/0.413/1.90

The Voynich Manuscript is preserved as MS 408 in the Beinecke Rare Book and MS Library of Yale University in the USA, where it is described as a Cipher Manuscript: http://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Record/3519597

So, who wrote it? Does it have meaning? Will anyone ever manage to decipher it? These DIGITAL_BOOK_THUMBNAIL The Merlin's Wifequestions still have no clear answer and the meaning of the manuscript remains as elusive as ever. In The Merlin’s Wife, John Dee believes that the manuscript is written in the lost language of Enoch and he and Kelley attempt to solve the riddle through their conversations with the angels. I won’t spoil the story by revealing any more! You’ll have to read the book.



The Merlin’s Wife Chapter One

DIGITAL_BOOK_THUMBNAIL The Merlin's WifeThe Merlin’s Wife


Chapter One


“When were you born?” asks Lady Howard.

“Born, my lady?” asks Jane as she comes in with the clean under-linen.

“Yes. What day, and what time?” Lady Howard looks up. “I need to know. Dr Dee has consented to cast our horoscopes.”

Jane feels a flutter of apprehension at the thought of it. Dr Dee is the queen’s astronomer, but she has heard other things about him – that he is a conjuror who practises unnatural magic.

She opens the lid of the coffer to fold away the linen and an aroma of sweet basil rises to tickle the back of her throat. She sneezes discreetly into the sleeve of her gown.

“What day?” insists Lady Howard.

“It was the twenty-second day of April.”

“What year?”

She deducts her age from the present date. “Fifteen fifty-five.”

“And I need to know the hour!” Lady Howard’s pen hovers over the paper spread on her table and the ink begins to pool into a droplet that will surely fall. Jane feels pressured to make an answer before the neat writing is spoiled.

She wrinkles her forehead and gazes at the leaping flames in the grate, as if they will give her an answer. “I think I was born at midday.” She knows it is important to be precise if her horoscope is to be meaningful. And in truth, she would like to know what the future holds.

 The next day, as she follows Lady Howard and her two daughters across the courtyard to Dr Dee’s chamber, she looks up at the star that has lately appeared in the skies. It blazes so brightly that it can be seen during the daylight hours. There has been an air of unease around the court since its sudden appearance. After a summer spent at Greenwich to avoid the plague and yet another plot to kill the queen, they are all fearful of what it portends. It defies the accepted knowledge about the heavens, causing everyone to question what they know about God’s creation. The astronomers have always taught that the stars are fixed on the canopy beyond the seven planets. They are not supposed to move from their constellations. But this one has. And some are saying that it is the Star of Bethlehem, come again as a sign of Judgement Day. Jane hopes they are wrong. She is afraid of being judged by God and besides, she would feel cheated if the end of days were to come when her life has barely begun.

A door is opened and a man ushers them into the presence of the magus. Jane feels her heart pounding beneath her laced bodies as Dr Dee gets up from his seat at the large table. He is a tall man, and slender. His long beard is dark and so are his eyes. He wears a black gown and his hair is covered by a close fitting cap. He looks stern, but his face softens into a smile as he greets Lady Howard. Then his gaze turns on Jane as she hesitates in the shadows.  

“Jane Fromonds,” says Lady Howard. Jane curtseys on trembling legs as Dr Dee nods then turns his attention back to his principal guest. He bids Lady Howard come closer and pulls out a chair at his table for her to sit down. Her daughters, Margaret and Elizabeth, stand behind her, whispering into their hands and glancing at the great man as if they are afraid he might make them disappear in a waft of smoke.

“Tell us about the star,” says Lady Howard. “What is its meaning?”

“It is a sign of a cosmic re-alignment,” he says as he takes a seat beside her and reaches for his charts. “It will bring changes, but not disasters. It is nothing to be afraid of.”

He seems calm as he explains the birth chart that he has drawn for her, meeting her eyes now and again to be sure that she understands him. Her moon sign is Leo, he explains. It makes her decisive, but she must guard against a tendency to force her will onto others. Her daughters nod their heads. They know their mother.

Jane waits until last, wondering what Dr Dee will say about her. When she is summoned to the table, Dr Dee smiles and invites her to sit down. The chair is still warm from Margaret’s body.

As he reaches for her chart, his trailing sleeve brushes the back of her hand and she feels a jolt surge through her body as if she has touched a hot dish that has lately been taken from the oven. He sets the chart where she can see it and she stares at the symbols and lines that he has drawn. They mean little to her, although she recognises the images of the sun and the moon. He points out the positions of the planets as they were in the sky at her birth. Saturn in Aries; Venus in Pisces. His fingers are long and slender like the rest of him. His nails are trimmed and clean although there are mysterious colours stained onto the skin of his hands.

“Both the sun and moon are in Taurus,” he tells her. “It gives you strength of character.” She agrees. Her father tells her she is stubborn. “But the sun is only just out of Aries. You have a fiery quality too.” She knows that. There are times when she finds it difficult to curb her temper and her mother has warned that she will need a strong husband to rule her. “Jupiter in Scorpio is in retrograde. There will be obstacles to overcome.” His voice has a musical quality that she finds soothing. When she meets his eyes she sees that she is important to him, as if she is the only person in the room. It surprises her. She had not expected to find him so kind. “Mercury in Gemini gives you a quick mind. But you have a tendency to be idealistic.”

She suspects this is also true − especially in the matter of a husband. Several young men have been suggested to her, but she has wrinkled her nose at all of them. He is too short. He has a poor complexion. He is too stupid. Lady Howard has sighed and reminded her that the longer she takes the less choice there will be. But she has determined to wait until the right husband presents himself.

“Can you see my future?” she whispers as she stares at the intricate chart spread across the dark polished wood of the table.

The magus shakes his head. “I can only tell you what your future could be. What it will be depends on what you choose. These planets…” He waves a hand above the chart and Jane feels the flutter of air from his sleeve. “They influence us, but they do not govern us. We have free will, given by God. We must use it wisely.”

“Will I marry?” she asks him.

“Yes. You will marry,” he tells her. “You will marry soon. 

When they are settled once again in Lady Howard’s chamber they discuss what Dr Dee has told them. They are excited and they repeat to one another what he said lest they forget the words. Margaret has been told to curb her pride. Elizabeth must rein in her temper. And Jane will marry.

“You must not be so choosy,” says Margaret. “What about Tom Lewis?”

“His bottom is too fat.”

Elizabeth laughs. The fashion for short doublets flatters only those with the most muscular figures. Nothing is left to the imagination, and the ladies like to look and compare.

“What did you think of Dr Dee?” asks Lady Howard. The chamber falls silent as the Howards wait for Jane to reply.

“He was kind,” she says.

“And a widower,” Lady Howard tells her. “He is looking for another wife.”

“She does not want to marry an old man!” protests Margaret.

Her mother frowns at her. “He is not so old and it would be a good match.”

Now Jane knows why Lady Howard included her in the readings. She wants her to be married to the magus.

“Did you like him, Jane?” she asks.

Jane does not reply straight away. Dr Dee was not so frightening as she had imagined, but his nose is overlarge and she would not welcome those stained hands on her body.

“I had thought to marry a younger man,” she says.

“You have refused all the ones I have suggested.”

This is true. She would like to refuse Dr Dee as well, but she owes a debt of gratitude to Lady Howard, who has taken her under her wing and treated her as a daughter and she does not want to appear ungrateful.

 Even though it is cold, Jane has agreed to walk in the gardens with the magus. Lady Howard has chosen her gown – a bold green that is cut to reveal the rose-coloured kirtle beneath – although not much of it can be seen now that she has wrapped herself in her dark coat. On her head she wears a little high-brimmed hat with a feather, although she thinks it is too fussy for the magus and that he will want a wife with a linen apron and a plain coif.

He is standing in the doorway that leads to the garden. The leaves are almost gone from the trees. Just a few still hang there, reluctant to relinquish their hold. The ones that have fallen form a damp carpet beneath her boots and, as they walk, the leather darkens with moisture. Above them, the blazing star can still be seen.

“Does it trouble you?” he asks as she looks up.

“I do not understand where it has come from,” she says.

“There are many things in heaven and on earth that we do not understand,” he tells her. “The challenge is to decipher such puzzles.” Jane has heard that deciphering puzzles is something he does well. She has heard that there is no one more skilled than Dr Dee at breaking codes and it is the reason that he is tolerated by the queen’s ministers, who need to read the cryptic messages exchanged by Catholic spies in this country and abroad.

He holds out his arm and she puts her hand on it as he leads her down the steps into the knot garden. Pallid sunshine illuminates a spider’s web in all its detail and they spend a moment studying it, wondering at the skill that has gone into its making.

Jane knows that the magus wants her for his wife, but even though he is pleasant and courteous towards her, his is not the image that she has carried of a husband. He does not dress as the fashionable young men do. His beard is long, his hair is hidden beneath his cap. But his gravitas pleases her more than the flippancy of her other suitors with their overlarge ruffs and slashed sleeves in which they parade before her like peacocks. She finds that she likes him despite her fears.

“Are you cold?” he asks as she pulls her coat more tightly around herself. “Perhaps we should go inside.”

“Not yet,” she says. She feels safer in the garden. “It is so dismal indoors at this time of the year.”

 “I have a house at Mortlake, overlooking the church,” he tells her as they resume their walk. “I have a library there, with many books. Perhaps you would like to see it when the court returns to the city, if books interest you.”

Books do interest Jane. She can read and she enjoys stories – in particular the legends of long-gone heroes like King Arthur Pendragon. She would be happy to marry a man like Arthur. Instead it seems that she is to be wife to the merlin.


“Yes,” she agrees. “I would like to see your library.”


Dr Dee sends a man to escort her. His name is Bartholomew Hickman. He brings a bay gelding that she is to ride whilst he walks beside her. He helps her into the saddle and keeps a hand on the rein as they go, as if she is a child. She finds it irritating. Her mood has not been good for days and she knows that it is caused by her uncertainty. Lady Howard has nagged her for a firm answer, her father has written to say that it would be a good match, but Jane cannot commit herself. She cannot dismiss the rumours that Dr Dee uses unnatural magic although she can find no evidence that he is a bad man. Besides, she worries that as soon as she marries him someone else will come along whom she could truly love. Lady Howard has accused her of talking nonsense and become impatient. Jane has been told that after her visit to the house at Mortlake she must make her decision.

The magus is waiting for her at the gate to his garden. He smiles and reaches up his arms to lift her down. His touch is firm and she puts her gloved hand on his arm as he walks her to his door, past the well-trimmed hedges of box and the herbs in the knot garden that are dying back with the frosts.

“Welcome,” he says and ushers her inside. It is an ancient house. The main hall has a beaten earth floor beneath the thresh and the roof is shaped as if there was once a central hearth. He leads her through another door that must have once opened into the pantry or buttery. She sees that building work has been done and what lies behind the frontage is newer. They cross a courtyard where a few stray chickens are pecking at some spilled grain and he opens the door of an adjacent building. “Here is my library,” he says.

Several pairs of eyes glance up before the boys return to the texts that they are studying at the oak desks. There is the scratching of a pen as one student resumes his copying. The walls are lined with shelves and Jane has never seen so many books in one place. She looks at the titles. They are on every subject from astrology to zoology. Dr Dee takes down a volume and opens it for her. It is about botany and the drawings of the plants are so exquisite that Jane wants to put her nose to the pages to see if she can smell them.

“This is my reading room,” he tells her, leading her through another door. “And over here is the globe that was given to me by Gerard Mercator.”  Jane walks over to the sphere, cradled in a wooden stand, and peers at the images of all the countries on the earth. She finds it hard to imagine that the ground where she is standing is on a ball that hangs in space like the moon she sees in the sky. What holds it there, she wonders. “Here is England,” says Dr Dee. He points to a tiny island and Jane is surprised that it looks so small.

“Where is the New World?” she asks. Dr Dee points to a much larger mass of land on the far side an ocean. Jane can hardly believe that men have sailed their ships so far.

“And here,” he says, pointing to a place near the top of the globe, “is where I believe there is a passage that will allow ships to sail to China and the east.

“Yet, if that is true, they will be sailing west,” she observes.

Dr Dee nods. “If you sail in either direction you will arrive back where you began,” he says, “as the Spanish have proved.”

“If I began to walk,” says Jane, “and I walked on and on, would I arrive back here?”

“If you could find a way to cross the oceans.” He smiles. “And you would need these.” He shows her a quadrant, a cross-staff and a sea compass. “And this…” He smiles as he lifts a metal tube from its quilted box. “Look through it,” he tells her and Jane takes its weight in both her hands and raises the end to her eye.

“Oh!” She cries out in alarm as the books on the shelves at the far side of the room seem to fly towards her. She can read the lettering on their spines and she lowers the instrument to see if some trick has been played on her. But nothing has moved.

“Look through the window,” says the magus. Delighted with her incredulity he unlatches it and draws her towards the sill. She puts the glass to her eye again and sees the chickens as if she could reach out and touch each feather on their plump backs. He takes the glass from her and explains that the curved lenses can magnify the light’s rays so that objects appear to increase in size. It seems like magic, she thinks, and although it has a logical explanation it is one that she is struggling to comprehend.          

He shows her more of the treasures he has collected on his travels and a mirror that appears to distort her reflection so that she seems to be standing beside her own twin. Then he takes her into another chamber where several stills are bubbling. It smells bad and there is a bucket of horse dung in the corner. It is essential to experiments in alchemy he tells her.

They pass a double door that is closed. He tells her that it is his private study and chapel. She wonders if she will be allowed in there when she is his wife. The thought takes her by surprise. At what moment, she wonders, did she decide that she would marry him?


“Well?” demands Lady Howard as soon as she returns. Jane has not had time to take off her coat and hat, so she does so slowly, forcing her mistress to wait for an answer. “I hope you agreed,” she adds, watching from her cushioned bench beside the hearth.

Jane runs the fronds of the soft feather through her fingers. “I agreed,” she says. She notices that the feather is trembling as she continues to hold the hat. She is reluctant to put it down, as if doing so will sever the last connection with the girl who rode to Mortlake unbetrothed. Has she made the right decision? She hopes she will not regret it.

“Her Majesty will be pleased!” beams Lady Howard.

Jane is astonished. She had no clue that the queen herself had expressed any interest. But she ought not to be surprised, she thinks. Her Majesty, who will make no choice concerning a marriage of her own, is always interested in the marital status of her courtiers. It troubles her to see a man unwed and she is fond of Dr Dee.

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John Dee’s Protestant Calendar and the search for God’s Longitude

When is Easter this year? It’s a question that vexes us and causes all sorts of problems with holidays and school terms.

Unlike Christmas, which always falls on the 25th December, Easter is a moveable feast that can occur any time between the 22nd March and the 25th April.

In 325, the Council of Nicaea decreed that Easter should fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. In 725, Bede wrote ‘The Sunday following the full moon which falls on or after the equinox will give the lawful Easter’. The flaw in this arrangement was that when the Gregorian Calendar replaced the flawed Julian Calendar in October 1582, famously robbing people of ten days of their lives, it was still not perfect and although the Catholic church presumed that the vernal equinox would fall on the 21st March, in reality, the vernal equinox doesn’t always fall on the same date. It can be on the 19th, 20th or 21st, and this year it is on the 20th March because it is a Leap Year and we have gained a day.

The problem for both these calendars is that there aren’t exactly 365 days in the year. There are six spare hours. It’s why we have a Leap Year every four years, although even that is not strictly true because there are some times when we don’t need to have one. The rule is that a year whose number is divisible by four is a Leap Year, unless it is divisible by 100 but not 400. This means that although 1600 and 2000 were Leap Years, 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not and 2100 won’t be either.

When the Gregorian Calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory VIII in 1582, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I refused to adopt it. Instead, the Tudor magus, John Dee, came up with an alternative – a new Protestant Calendar.

John Dee, who was amongst other things an astrologer, proposed the use of a calendar

John Dee
John Dee

that was based on a 33 year cycle (the number of years in Jesus’s life).  Dee’s calendar has seven four year periods, in which the fourth is a leap year, followed by a five year period in which the fourth year is a leap year. He also calculated that this calendar would ensure that the vernal equinox always fell on the 21st March, provided that it was used at the correct longitude. The snag was that Dee’s calculations placed God’s Longitude somewhere on the east coast of America, in places that were already being colonised by the Spanish Catholics. Dee advised the queen that an expedition should set out to North America to take possession of at least some of the land through which this longitude ran and it has been suggested that the scientific mission to Roanoke Island was to take measurements to try to establish the exact position of God’s Longitude.

It also seems possible that one of the main reasons for the colonisation of Roanoke Island was so that this superior Protestant calendar could be implemented, showing the pope in Rome that his calendar wasn’t quite good enough. It never happened though. What happened to the Roanoke Colonists remains a mystery, and in 1752, England lost 11 days and the Gregorian Calendar we still use today brought us into line with much of the rest of the western world. Then, in 1884, Greenwich became the Prime Meridian, the place where the day would be deemed to begin. God’s Longitude was forgotten and now lingers unobserved somewhere on a line that includes New York and Guantanamo Bay. John Dee also fell from grace and was side-lined from the court, ending his days in poverty at his home in Mortlake.

And in case you’re still wondering about Easter 2016, the moon is full on the 23rd March this year, so the following Sunday, the 27th is Easter Day.

If you want to read about Dee’s proposed calendar in more depth these are a couple of excellent articles:

John Dee’s Calendar and God’s Longitude

The Non-implemented 33-Year English Protestant Calendar

And watch out for my next novel, The Merlin’s Wife, which will follow the story of John Dee’s wife, Jane Fromonds, as she travels with him across Europe in the company of Edward Kelley. Does it include the infamous wife swapping incident? You’ll have to read it to find out.



The builders of the Ribblehead Viaduct

If you have been following the television drama series Jericho, you may be aware that it is loosely based on the building of the railway viaduct near Ribblehead in North Yorkshire.

Ribble source to sea pics (Yorkshire) 012The magnificent Batty Moss viaduct, 1320 feet long and 104 feet high with its 24 arches which span the valley has been heralded as one of the great achievements of Victorian engineering.  It was built by the Midland Railway between 1870 and 1874 and it crosses some of the most difficult terrain in the country.


At one time 7000 men, known as navvies, were employed on the railway project, with 2000 of them in the Ribblehead area.  They laboured in horrendous conditions and lived, many with their families, up on the moors in shanty towns during its construction.  The towns were complete communities with post offices and schools. Some were given supposedly inspiring names such as the Crimean victories at Inkerman, Sebastopol and others, like Jericho, had biblical names. The remains of one of these camps, Batty Green, where over 2000 people lived and worked can still be seen near Ribblehead.

Life was brutal. The work was hard and difficult and performed mostly without the aid of mechanisation. The boggy ground meant that piers had to be sunk to a depth of 25 feet below the peat and set in concrete to provide foundations.

Death and disease were common.  Smallpox as well as accidents took many lives.  Eighty people died at Batty Green alone following a smallpox epidemic and the victims were buried in local graveyards in unmarked graves.

Memorial to railway workers St Leonard Chapel le Dale
Memorial to railway workers St Leonard Chapel le Dale

To mark the millennium in the year 2000 a memorial was placed in the graveyard at the church of St Leonard in nearby Chapel-le Dale.  A large stone, part of a redundant gatepost from a local farm, has a memorial plaque which is inscribed: The church community of Chapel le Dale erected this plaque To the Memory of the many men, women and children resident in this Parish between 1870 and 1877 who died through accident or disease during the construction of the Settle to Carlisle Railway and who were buried in this churchyard.

The memorial in the church at Chapel-le-Dale.
The memorial in the church at Chapel-le-Dale.




The churchyard, which had to be extended to accommodate the hundreds of deaths,  also has other graves connected to the building of the viaduct.  One is the grave of James Mather, to be found near the church porch. He was the popular host of the Welcome Home – a drinking place frequented by the navvies.  He was visiting Ingleton when a horse and cart ran out of control.  James bravely tried to grab the reins of the startled horse but was dragged under its hooves and died.  He was aged 45 years.


The grave of Ribblehead viaduct subcontractor Job Hirst.
The grave of Ribblehead viaduct subcontractor Job Hirst.

Another grave, near the lych gate, is that of Job Hirst. The inscribed tombstone records that he was a sub-contractor of the Batty Moss viaduct.  He was mugged by unknown persons whilst riding a horse towards Ingleton.

It would seem that the true stories of these workers is at least as sensational as their fictional counterparts. Ans although the viaduct is very picturesque  those who lost their lives during its building should never be forgotten.

First Footers

A first footer is the first person to cross the threshold of a house on New Year’s Day and who that person is will dictate the luck you will have in the following year. In Lancashire, a tall, dark-haired man will bring you the best luck, especially if he also brings a gift. My uncle, who was dark-haired, was often asked by his neighbours to visit their homes just after midnight and ‘bring in’ the New Year for them. He would take with him a lump of coal which symbolises warmth and comfort in the home. The neighbours were then assured of good fortune for the coming year and did not have to fear the bad luck that would be brought in by a fair-haired man or woman being the first to enter their house on New Year’s Day.

Another tradition associated with the New Year is mummers. They would come to the house wearing a scarf and flat cap and with blackened faces to disguise themselves. They would bring with them a dustpan and brush and were not allowed to speak, only to ‘mmm’ (to frighten away any evil spirits) until they had swept away the bad luck from the doorstep.

The New Year was also closely associated with the art of divination. If a girl wanted to know more about her future husband she would pour some melted lead into a glass of water and watch to see what image would be formed as it cooled. If it resembled scissors then she would marry a tailor, if she could see a hammer then she would marry a carpenter and so on.

The New Year was also a time to watch the weather carefully. If New Year’s Day dawns with dusky red clouds there will be much strife and debate during the coming year as well as many robberies.