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I mentioned in my earlier post Victoria and I had come across contemporary records of Mary Ann at the female factory in Hobart. We had also seen some of these records beforehand too. The first thing that struck us both was what appeared to be her fiercely independent, rebellious nature. She had her sentence extended and served several periods of solitary confinement during her various stages in the Launceston gaol, clearly not one to be cowed by authority.
With quite a bit of research I established that she was born within the sound of Bow bells, which would make her a cockney – that breed of Londoner that has produced the Pearly Kings and Queens and an unquenchable spirit that was perhaps displayed at its best during the Blitz in the Second World War.
I was born in the north of London, although my father drummed into me that I was conceived in Scotland! I grew up in London too, during the 1950s and 60s; early enough to remember the bombed-out buildings and building sites yet to be repaired and the smog fuelled by thousands of coal-burning fires in the homes of Londoners that spewed their toxic smoke and regularly enshrouded the city and its surrounds, so I felt a certain affinity with Mary Ann and I coloured the opening chapter of The Helots’ Tale with personal recollections of walking home at night in a ‘pea-souper’.
It is hard to credit these days just how thick the smog could be. It was bad, indeed lethal in Mary Ann’s days but it had not improved much in the 1960s. I recall quite clearly one particular event. I was driving back from London (my parents were living in Brentwood to the east of London at that time) and the smog was so thick that I could not see beyond the bonnet of the car.
The windshield wipers were working hard, I had my fog lights on and my passenger had wound down the window and was looking at the kerbstone to make sure that I was not going off the road. Another car struggled on in front of me. I could just make out its red rear lights and figured that if anything was going to go wrong it would happen to him not me!
We crawled along so slowly for several miles, as if attached by a rubber band, and then, eventually, the car in front stopped. I stopped too and when his lights went out, I left my car to see what was happening. It was only then, after groping around and looking up close that I realised my guide had been driving home and he was now parked on his driveway! Another time, I recall driving straight over a roundabout and the only reason I knew that I had done this was because of the bump as I mounted the kerb, the shaking as we ploughed through the flower beds and the bump as we drove off the roundabout back onto the road.
There is much of London that still carries the atmosphere and emotions of the 19th century and it was not difficult to picture Mary Ann and her family living in the slums of East London. But I also spent a lot of time digging through records of the era and I read several non-fiction books and articles describing the life and times to set the scene. I even created my own map of London because, of course, streets and buildings change. For example, the place where Mary Ann was arrested is today a bustling hub alongside Bond Street Station – see photo above taken in pre-COVID-19 days of course.
Enough for today. I’m sure you have things to do so I’ll continue tomorrow. Stay safe.