Researching a two hundred year old mystery…
In August 2004, we made an amazing discovery. I was chatting on a genealogy message board when a very helpful stranger gave us the following extract about hubby’s Great-great-great-great- Grandmother:
“In Heddon on the Wall baptism register there is recorded the baptism on 27th of July 1815 of Mary, the daughter of Priscilla Charlton. A note in the register says “mother a married woman: her husband transported.”
We were stunned. Transported? If hubby’s 4x great- Grandfather had been a convicted felon, what had he done?
I was also amused. My mild-mannered husband was descended from a notorious criminal. It was good to know his ‘respectable’ family had a skeleton in the closet.
Being eternal optimists, our first instinct was to Google ‘James Charlton, Kirkley Hall.’ Unbelievably, it paid off.
There is an article called ‘Liberty is Sweet’ on wearside.online which tells a potted version of the story. James Charlton was controversially convicted of stealing over £1,157 from Kirkley Hall in 1810. However, our surprise quickly turned to indignation: James was found guilty mainly on the testimony of a condemned horse-thief with whom he shared a prison cell in Morpeth gaol. This treacherous cad gained his own freedom and escaped hanging as a result of turning King’s Evidence against his cell mate. Our ancestor was framed. The mystery of the burglary at Kirkley Hall had never been properly solved.
I had always dreamed about writing an historical novel and now the perfect plot had just fallen into my lap. But how to uncover the rest of the story?
Our first attempt at research was a failure. We contacted wearsideonline.com and politely asked them where they obtained their information. The foreign owners of the website replied, quite rudely, by telling us to: “go and read some books.”
However, since this shaky start we have been bowled over by the kindness of strangers. People have gone out of their way to help us gather what information there still remains about this two hundred year old mystery. A woman I had never met found us the records of the prosecution case at The National Archives. A professional genealogist, who was also researching shady Regency criminals, contacted us and helped us solve the mystery of what ultimately happened to James Charlton.
We made several visits down to The National Archives ourselves; gleaned valuable information from the helpful folks at the Ponteland Local History society and spent hours trawling through two hundred year old newspapers in the Gateshead Central Library.
Sometimes the research was fun and formed part of an amusing family day out. Although, after a few years, the kids started complaining about the number of graveyards we visited. My son also recently informed me that our trip to see the ‘family pile’ – Morpeth Gaol – was a sobering experience for an eight year old.
We enjoyed a drink and toasted hubby’s beleaguered ancestor in every public house mentioned in the court case documents. As James Charlton sipped brandy and gambled away his meagre wages in most of the pubs in Ponteland, the pub crawl took quite some time... ;)
Bit by bit, the story came together. By January 2009, I decided I had enough information to start writing the novel – and then the hard work began. A Literature degree and a lifetime of teaching English is not a guarantee that you can turn into an author overnight. It has been a steep learning curve and I am still learning. Turning this Regency miscarriage of justice into a historical ‘who-dunnit’ quickly became an obsession. For twenty months I spent every spare minute hammering away at my keyboard. By the summer of 2010 I finally completed Catching the Eagle.
Or so I thought. The editing and revising process has been gruelling.
I posted the first 20,000 words on ‘Authonomy’ in November 2010 and again, thanks to the helpfulness of strangers, the revision and the editing continued - and will do so until I find an agent/publisher for Catching the Eagle.