Easter Monday, 1809: Kirkley Hall manor house is mysteriously burgled. When suspicion falls on Jamie Charlton, he and his family face a desperate battle to save him from the gallows.
Catching The Eagle is published by Knox Robinson Publishing and is available from Amazon, Book Depository.com and
the Knox Robionson Publishing website: www.knoxrobinsonpublishing.com
Karen's own website is:
Interview with Karen Chal
Tell us a bit about yourself before you started writing your novel and what lead you to write.
I’m a teacher and a mother of teenagers. I live in a North East fishing village. I have always wanted to write fiction – especially historical fiction, a genre I love, but I just never seemed to be able to get around to it before ‘Catching the Eagle.’
As a little girl I read voraciously and was always scribbling down stories in exercise books. When I was eight years old, I announced that I was going to be a writer when I grew up. My family were rather startled I think, and I can remember Aunty Maureen suggesting that perhaps I should find a ‘proper job’ first. Well, I followed her advice and did just that. I studied English at the University in Hull, took a PGCE at Durham University and for the last fourteen years, I have been teaching English at a Secondary School in Stockton 0n Tees.
Finding the time to write is always difficult when you have a young family and a full time job. I have started various novels over the years but never finished any of them. I had more success with getting a bit of poetry and some theatre reviews published and for several years I wrote the scripts for Murder Mystery Weekends which were performed at a hotel in North Yorkshire.
However, in 2005, the perfect plot for a historical novel literally fell into my lap. While we were conducting some family history research we found the proverbial skeleton in the closet; we shook our family tree – and a convict fell out.
How did you come to learn about Jamie Charlton and the robbery at Kirkley Hall?
Through an incredible piece of good luck. In August 2005, I was chatting on a genealogy message board with a wonderful man (whom I’ve never met) and he directed me to an online document about Priscilla, Jamie Charlton’s wife. This document told us that Cilla’s husband, James Charlton, had been sent for transportation.
I was stunned. Transportation? What had he done? I remember I burst out laughing, reached for another Bacardi and coke and called my husband into the study. Chris had always been very proud of his respectable Victorian ancestors, who were stationmasters and rail freight managers – and it was quite a shock for him to find out about this regency convict in his family tree.
But an even bigger shock lay in store. You see, Jamie Charlton was not just any old criminal, the more we uncovered the more it became obvious that his ultimate conviction was unsound – even by the dodgy legal standards of 1810. Not only could we sense a miscarriage of justice – but further research revealed that most of the middle-classes citizens of the North East had a problem with his conviction as well. A public subscription had been raised for his appeal and to help his family and he had been called ‘the wronged man in Morpeth gaol’ in a pamphlet published by the local newspaper. It really did look like Jamie Charlton had been framed.
So that one short post on a genealogy website back in 2005, sent my husband and I on a fascinating journey of discovery, which eventually resulted in this novel.
How did you prepare to write an historical fiction work?
We spent years researching the events surrounding the robbery and Jamie’s conviction. I knew way back in 2005, that I eventually wanted to write this story up as a novel but I also knew that I needed to find out as much as possible about what actually happened before I began writing.
Fortunately, British criminals have always been as well documented as the aristocratic end of the social spectrum; both the famous and the infamous have a lot written about them. Our trips to The National Archives in Kew produced page after page, of fascinating detail about Jamie’s arrest, trial, conviction and his life in general. These events along with information about the subscription raised for his appeal, were also vividly described by the local newspaper: The Newcastle Courant. The Ponteland Local History Society was also able to provide me with a pamphlet written in 1890 - the controversy surrounding Jamie’s conviction was still rumbling on 80 years later.
All these sources gave me a fascinating insight into rural life in the north east in 1809.
But the research was not all about poring over ancient dusty books. Sometimes the research was fun and formed part of an amusing family day out. I like to wander around the places I am writing about to get a feeling for them and a sense of their light and space. However, after a few years, the kids started complaining. My son informed us that our trip to see the ‘family pile’ – which is what we nicknamed Morpeth Gaol – was a sobering experience for an eight year old.
Once we all turned up on Open Day at Kirkley Hall (now an Agricultural College.) The staff happily gave us access to their own information about the burglary in 1809 but strangely enough, they were unwilling to let us roam freely around the hall. We can imagine the frantic whispering: ‘Quick – lock up the silver! The Charltons are back!’
How did you plan the novel?
I laid out all the information we had discovered on a grid. I chose the points in history where ‘Catching the Eagle’ was to start and finish and then began to write chronologically. I hoped to move seamlessly from one event to another. However, some hard decisions had to be made before I started – and mid-stream during the writing – this process was not as easy as it sounds.
For some of the events – like the court scenes – I had far more information than I needed for this novel. Dozens of witnesses gave evidence at Jamie’s trial and I had to make some tough decisions about whom to include and whom to leave out. Many of statements were very similar but one or two voices and accounts really stood out as truly distinctive, entertaining and fascinating; gardener, Ralph Spoors for example and Rob Wilson the Ponteland Toll Gate Keeper. Conscious all the time, that I was writing a novel - and not a factual account of the trial - including these entertaining characters became a priority.
For other significant events – like Jamie’s arrest – I had nothing to go on and I had to delve deep into my imagination to fill in the gaps.
How did you research your setting?
All these sources I have mentioned – especially the court case notes and the newspaper reports - gave me a fascinating insight into rural life in the north east of England in 1809. I discovered what agricultural labourers actually did for a living, how much they were paid, and what they did in their spare time. I learnt about the brandy they drank in the taverns, what they talked about amongst themselves while they were there and the gambling and dice games they enjoyed in the public houses. I discovered the extent of the debts they ran up during the hardship of a bad winter and the kind of shops they had. I know how much they were prepared to pay for a new cow, or a new coat, and how much reward they were prepared to offer if one of their highly-prized sheep dogs went missing.
I was also quite surprised to learn about the high level of literacy which abounded in Ponteland in 1809 – and presumably across the rest of rural England. All the Charlton brothers were literate and had been educated at either the Coates School in Ponteland or at the school in nearby Stamfordham. Cilla, Jamie’s wife could not read or write – but an amazing number of the other witnesses at the trial all signed their own names beneath their statements. I learnt about their chapel going, the committees they set up to stamp out crime, the pubs where they held these meetings, their trips to local markets and how much they paid for butter, flour, bedding and new boots.
Did the research continue while you were writing?
Oh, yes. I would get to a certain point and think – what really went on during the lambing season in Regency England? How different was this experience compared to what happens on modern farms today? Or I would need to check a legal point, to help my understanding about the Assizes and Regency law. On most of these occasions I found that google was my best friend. A classic example was my decision to set Jamie’s arrest in the middle of the bustling meat market at Morpeth. This was one of those times when I had hardly any historical detail to base the novel upon. I had a date for his arrest - but nothing else - so I decided that to create drama, he was going to be arrested in the most public place I could think of – the Wednesday Meat Market at nearby Morpeth.
Fortunately for me, there is plenty of information about this historical market online – including several nineteenth century documents which describe this event in fascinating detail. The bartering and sale of thousands of head of sheep and cattle would start at dawn and would be mostly complete by nine or ten o’clock in the morning. This would then give the farmers and their wives, chance to spend their money at dozens of different market stalls before heading for one of the twenty-four taverns which thrived in this market town during the regency period. Morpeth was noisy, stank to high heaven because of the animals and was heaving with crowds of farmers, drovers, shoppers, prostitutes and beggars. Drunkeness and fighting were common. Frequently befuddled farmers would end up taking home the wrong herd of cattle or flock of sheep – and the desperate beadles would set a curfew at 8 o’ clock to try and limit the damage inflicted to property and health. It sounds early of course, but we have to remember that their working day started at dawn in 1809 and that even the hardest drinkers would probably have been ready to sleep it off by 8 o’clock on a night. I would have loved to have been there in 1809 and seen and heard all of this!
So how much of this story is factual?
What happened to Jamie Charlton, his wife and children is based on the facts we have uncovered but William’s story makes up a good half of the novel and not all of this is connected with the mystery of the Kirkley Hall robbery. Where William’s story overlaps with Jamie’s, there is factual truth but his move to Corbridge, his friendship with Archie and his troubled relationships with the women in his life, are all figments of my imagination.
Not every family would want it known that one of their ancestors was infamous, did you meet with any resistance from the Charlton family in bringing this story to light?
No, everyone was wonderful and really supportive. Bit boring, aren’t we? I think that after two hundred years no one was going to get upset about our skeleton in the closet – everyone was just as fascinated about Jamie Charlton as we were. I think that the decades of Victorian respectability which characterised the next three generations in our family tree after Jamie, also helped to soften the blow of his notoriety.
One of Jamie’s grandsons, another William Charlton, was the stationmaster at Stanhope, in County Durham for over twenty years. According to his orbituary, the Bishop of Ripon spoke at his funeral. This just goes to show, I think, how families can rise and fall in status and respect in their local community from one generation to another.
St. Gobnait's statue
This week and next are very times for feast days in the village and the area. This past week, besides being my birthday was also the feast day of St. Brigid (Lá Bríd), or St. Bríd as she’s known in Irish. She’s the patron saint of Ireland in many ways (sorry St. Patrick), being the Irish equivalent of Mary and the subject of veneration at many wells and other sites around the country. Her feast day (also Imbolc in the pre-Christian calendar) signals the beginning of spring, the time of lambing as well as the time to ask for health and prosperity in the coming agricultural year.
In this area there are still many customs associated with St. Brigid. In schools and other places and in some homes many make the St. Brigid’s cross out of rushes. Since I have rushes in my meadow I just step out the door and cut 16 lengths and have a go. Some years though, I’ve made them down at the library with a local woman who taught the cross making.
Besides making crosses, many older people around here hang out a bit of
cloth or ribbon the night before the feast day so that when St. Brigid passes
overhead she will bless the cloth. The next day, the feast day, the cloth is brought in and kept for when it might be needed for healing.
Even more important in the village is the feast day of St. Gobnait or St. Abbey as she’s known in English. She is the patron saint of the parish and the area. She arrived in the mid 6th century, travelling through on the look out for a sign that would tell her where she should settle and start her religious community. When she arrived in this area she saw 9 white harts knew that was the sign and she should settle here. In the religious community she started she had beehives and became famous for the healing the honey from those hives provided. Legend has it that she sent her army of bees to defeat enemies who threatened the area.
St. Gobnait's Well
Her grave is in the old churchyard cemetery, as is a statue and a heavy iron? ball inserted in the church wall ruins. Just down from the church ruins is a well dedicated to St. Gobnait that is full of clouties and other items invoking her blessing and healing.
Each of these sites feature in various
religious “rounds” or ritual circling while saying certain prayers that is done throughout the year to any devout person who wants to do it.
In the new church in the village itself resides an ancient statue of St. Gobnait. It’s about a 15 inches tall I think and is only taken out twice a year:
on the feast day and in July when they have the mass at the cemetery for
her. St. Gobnait’s feastday is 11 February. Many will descend on the village church to the three masses and the ritual measuring of the ancient statue. People line up and with a ribbon provided “measure” the statue in various places. The ribbon, blessed by this action, is to be kept for healing. It’s a ritual that many look forward to.
Measuring took on another meaning for me this past week too. My husband and I called down to our neighbour to return a book and take them some muffins. One of the family hasn’t been that well so we thought we would look in on them. We were discussing various stories about the person, Peter, who lived here and his many siblings (11 altogether who were now all dead and gone. The last one, a daughter died last year. I had some books that
originally had been in the house given to me from the neighbour. He’d found them when he was cleaning out the place after Peter died. In the course of our discussion he brought out something else he’d found while cleaning the place. It was a beaten metal box with a few holes (rust/rats?) chewed in the side. He opened it up and withdrew this massive measuring chain that had a handle on the end and little brass tags hanging down and certain intervals. “Backalong” apparently it was illegal too take drink in a pub on a Sunday if you were a local. You were permitted if you were a "traveller." To be classed as a traveller you had to live at least 3 miles from the pub. This chain was used by the guards (the police) to measure the distance from the pub to a home of anyone caught with liquor on their breath. As Peter was one for the drink (as they say) he seemed to have his own measuring chain to show he lived 3 miles from the village pub (only just I’d say).
“Chains” were an official form of measurement my husband assured me along with my neighbour. They both recalled there were something like 22 “chains” to a mile and a “chain” was so much standard length. I can’t remember the exact number, but I know it wasn’t on my American copybook at school like it was on both of theirs.
I found it an amazing piece of history there in that beat up metal box and thinking of the various ways we’ve measured things in the past. Measuring distance to be free to take a drink, “measuring” a statue to receive a healing blessing. No doubt Peter would have felt the drink a blessing on a wet Sunday afternoon.
Statue of St. Gobnait.
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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