Half a Sixpence is Catherine’s story, the first in a series of three Victorian sagas, loosely based on my family tree. It follows the fortunes of three generations of women from the hop gardens and orchards of East Kent to the squalid slums of Canterbury and brickfields of Faversham.
I was born in Kent and spent many happy summer holidays there with my grandparents who took me out and about to many places that had been important to my family in the past. I got to throw stones into the river Stour in Canterbury, and pick apples in the orchards near Selling, just as my ancestors had, so it seemed natural that one day I would write about my family tree.
I was fortunate that my father kept much of our family history, including paperwork, newspaper clippings and faded sepia photographs, archived in boxes in the loft. He used this, along with further research into births, deaths and marriages, and the online UK Census records, to create a detailed family tree.
I was then able to utilise the information, along with anecdotes passed down the family by word of mouth, and knowledge of the different trades that my ancestors were involved in and where they lived, as inspiration for my characters and their stories.
I have to confess I was a little disappointed at first that the family legend that I was descended from Sir Christopher Wren turned out not to be true, but I was soon caught up in admiration for the way that my ancestors fought to survive as farm labourers, tanners and domestic servants.
One poor young man went to prison, undergoing months of hard labour on the treadmill, for stealing bread and butter for his starving brothers and sisters. His story diverted me into researching crime and punishment, and the history of Canterbury gaol in the nineteenth century. Another died from consumption as a result of handling infected hides at the tannery in Canterbury. Yet another worked on the land until he was one hundred years old, his achievement being recognised in an article in a local newspaper.
One of my great-grandmothers had a reputation for being a particularly feisty and fiery lady. She and her husband lived in a tiny terraced house with two bedrooms and an outside privy, and could make a meal from almost anything: ox tongue; stuffed hearts; turnips and onions. She brought up seven children who slept top to tail in one bed. She kept the front room of the house clean, tidy and unused except for special occasions such as when the vicar came to call. However, her background was tainted by rumours of illegitimacy, the consequences of which I have introduced into the saga.
Half a Sixpence is fiction. The characters are not real-life members of my family, but I have given them the same resilience and resourcefulness that I have found in the true stories from my family tree. I hope that I have done them proud.