The nineteenth century world of The Daylight Thief

My novel The Daylight Thief inhabits two distinct worlds. It dons both the t-shirt and trainers of the present day and the corseted and behatted attire of the nineteenth century. As the story unfolds though, we learn that the distance between these two worlds is smaller than we think.

So just how different is that earlier world ... the world of Jack Follows?

Nottingham in 1848, when we first meet Jack, was a town on the verge. The industrial revolution, driven by the twin engines of lace and hosiery manufacture, was feeding rapid population growth - but disease and unsanitary conditions were the constant bedfellows of progress. Cholera was a persistent fear after 330 people had died in a single epidemic in the previous decade. Mechanisation meant that many hundreds of the old 'frameworkers' (largely men who made knitted stockings on frames in their own homes) were beginning to fall on hard times, but the factories, and their owners, prospered. Fuel was poured on this industrial growth when the railway arrived in 1839. The railway could get goods to market and people to jobs more quickly than the canal, which was the old commercial artery of the town, cutting through the wood-yards at its southern edge before joining the River Trent.

Nottingham in 1831, showing the tightly packed town boundary with the meadows to the south:

The town had long been creaking at the seams of its ancient boundaries and this was epitomised by the crowded slums of Broad Marsh and Leenside. It is from these squalid streets that the tumultuous journey of The Daylight Thief's main protagonist begins.

Jack's personality mirrors to some extent the contradictions of the town. He is close to his family, especially his older sister Becky, and they provide a necessary cocoon for him. Yet whilst he takes comfort from what is familiar and homely, he feels the claustrophobia of the town keenly and in a desperately visceral way. The relief he feels when he escapes out into the vast meadows which run away from Nottingham's southern edge takes physical form, although it is only temporary. It is bittersweet too, Jack prophetically senses that things are about to change... and indeed they are. Within a few years the enclosure acts will open up the meadows for building and they, together with the purple crocuses that decorate them in the spring, will soon disappear forever. Within just a few years Nottingham and its industry will break away from its shackles and turn the green vista running down to the River Trent into a sea of brick and concrete. This is the landscape of the modern city today, but the old town boundaries are still discernible if you look closely; the castle, the market square, Bromley House and much of the inner street layout has changed very little and the Goose Fair is still held in Nottingham every October.

Below: A 17th Century painting of Notitngham by Jan Siberechts, showing the meadows to the south of the town. They (if not the town) would have looked similar at the time The Daylight Thief is set:


Like many of us, Jack believes that he is destined to break the mould of inevitability and stifling ordinariness. He is sure that he will not let himself slip quietly into a clone of one the desperate lives lived by many of those existing around him. It was the poor law, or more specifically the workhouse, that threatened all of Jack's ilk during those years. One of the recurring minor characters in the story, Petronelle, lives in fear of it. She appears three times, once as a symbol of all that Jack finds abhorrent, once as a symbol of hope and finally... perhaps... as a portent of things to come, or at least of forlorn hope. Petronelle is loosely based on a real person, or more precisely two newspaper snippets that appeared in the Nottingham Review on the 12th and 19th January 1849:

12th January 1849: "Vagrancy - Petronello Huddlestone, a native of France, was brought up by p.c. Raynor, for being destitute at half past eleven o'clock, in Balloon-Court, on Monday night. She was committed to prison for three months , to hard labour."

19th January 1849: "Frederick Huddlestone was charged with allowing his wife and two children to become chargeable to St. Mary's parish, on the 25th November last".

Jack's older brother George, who eventually inherits the family business, carries a palpable fear of the workhouse and we later learn that he was eventually consumed by it. Was this fear at the heart of what Jack was running from... as much as he was seeking other things?

Perhaps it is this fear too that creates a final impenetrable barrier between Jack and the tough-but-vulnerable Hannah Vernon? Hannah is also native of the slums who had made good, like Jack she benefits from the patronage of the attorney John Brewster. In Jack's thinking, perhaps, a housekeeper and a shoemaker with similar back-stories would keep the status quo intact and deny him his chance of escape? If you follow this line of thinking then perhaps Freda Deverick can be seen ultimately in the role of Jack's saviour?

Jack wants to rebel against this status quo, but he is largely a silent revolutionary. His artistic talent is his way out, but he does not possess the drive or know-how to exploit it. Without an unintended nudge from his father and the guiding hands of benefactors, like John Brewster and the photographer Sylvanus Redgate, he would, no doubt, have disappeared into a life as a hard-working shoemaker. Because of this need for a helping hand he often appears to be a pawn in other peoples games... not least Freda's, as we later find out.

The characters of Redgate and Davis are also based on real people. They were two of the many occupants of the photographic studio in Bromley House, which is still a subscription library today. My Redgate and Davis are of course heavily fictionalised. The rapid turnover of occupants of the studio, however, demonstrates what a cut-throat business it was. The popularity of photography benefitted from the easy availability of the technology and materials and the burgeoning spending power of the new middle classes emerging from the business community. Competition was fierce, and only the strong survived. Redgate emphatically knows what he wants and you sense that he will be a success at whatever he turns his hand to. He exudes a calculating air. The question still remains in my mind as to whether Redgate was really acting in Jack's best interests when he steered him on the course to become a travelling photographer. Perhaps the arrangement conveniently enabled Jack to be 'moved on' without breaking the promise he made to Frederick Davis? What do you think?

The photograph below shows a small attic room in the Bromley House Library, Angel Row, Nottingham. Note the old box camera by the window,

© Copyright Peter Barr and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons license:

The attic rooms in Bromley House today.

You can find out more about the early Nottingham photographers in Bernard and Pauline Heathcote's excellent publication Pioneers of Photography in Nottinghamshire 1841-1910.

The new art of photography, exciting though it was, challenged the old guard and would, no doubt, have been a mystery to some. Others - like some of the Cambridge students Jack takes on in the bar-room debate - have a snooty resentment of new ideas that challenge their particular aesthetic.

There is also an unspoken distance between old John Follows, Jack's father, and his youngest son. The old man had grafted hard to keep his business going and as a result his physical body and his trade had become as one. Competition was hard for men such as he as the threat of industrialisation loomed over their shoulders. Unlike Brewster, who assumed perhaps a more important father-figure role for Jack, there could be no relaxation or diversion into trivial pastimes. For the old man hard work was the means of keeping himself and his family out of the clutches of the poor law guardians. Jack's interests and abilities are a mystery to him, however much he tries to understand them.

During the course of his subsequent odyssey Jack encounters, amongst other things, the Victorian penal system. If he was going to fall foul of the law, the 1870s was a good a time as any to do it. By then British prisons were becoming more professional institutions. They were leaving behind the images of crowded, corrupt and insanitary places that we conjure up from the drawings of Hogarth and other contemporary sources of the late 18th and early 19th century. Convict transportation to the new world was no longer in vogue and more people were being committed to gaol. As a result those years saw not only the first state prison, but also a new prison commission which was instituted in 1877. Prison reformers of an earlier time such as John Howard, Jeremy Bentham and Elizabeth Fry had left their mark, a fact not on lost on Mr. Farquerson, the prison governor, in the opening chapter of the story.

Whilst prisons were becoming more professional and the new police forces more organised, the days of part-time amateur policemen had still not been left behind entirely. P.C. Jeffs, in the story, represents a new generation of professional uniformed Policeman. The Northamptonshire Police Force had been in existence since 1840, but despite this the old world had not disappeared completely by the 1870s. The parish constable - epitomised by Mr. Coy, who held the office in Whittleham in the novel - was an unpaid part-time post dating back to the reign of King Edward I. Their duties were being taken over by the new Police Forces, but they still persisted in some places. Coy combined the role with that of the village blacksmith and his other duties might have included anti-poaching patrols, policing the orchards, assisting with the raising of local militia's, dealing with vermin and no doubt also fighting off a myriad of other complaints from villagers.

As well as Police forces and aspects of Nottingham's life and buildings there are other remnants of the world of The Daylight Thief that survive in some form today: the Northamptonshire hunts, the popularity of horse racing and Newmarket's place at the heart of that world, not to mention British military excursions abroad (it is chastening to think that Turkey is literally bordering on conflict with Russia as I write this, as it was in 1853 in The Crimea). Other things have thankfully passed into history. You might count hiring fairs and open air boxing events in this category, although perhaps you might also argue that job fairs (and job centres?) might be the modern day equivalent of the former. As Jack's journey progressed bare knuckle boxing started to become more and more a thing of the past as regulated events became popular, this paved the way towards some of the rules of the sport that we might recognise today - and yes, there really was a fighter called Wolf Bendorf!

And what of the class system? It still exists today, of course, albeit perhaps less openly. During the years of the nineteenth century covered by The Daylight Thief the aristocracy were being challenged by a new middle and upper class who were products of the new industries. These self made men - such as Trevithick, Cadbury, Fry, Rowntree, Burberry, Boot and others - became the new aristocracy. Although many of these men were philanthropists, their workers still had little hope of climbing the social ladder themselves.

Below: Nottingham's very own self-made man, Jesse Boot, who was later created Baron Trent. Photograph by Clem Rutter ( .


Jack might also have looked at some of his artistic heroes as a sign of hope, as some of these men too rose into these starred ranks from nowhere - Turner, the son of a wig-maker, makes a fleeting appearance in the story. Edwin Landseer, the son of an engraver, rose to the knighthood. As we agonise as a society today about social mobility, it was certainly possible to better yourself in the 19th Century, but there were limits... particularly when it came to inter-class relationships.

Freda Deverick came from a colonial aristocracy; a family which, as we later discover, also made its name from trade - albeit in India. Unlike Jack - the silent rebel - Freda rebels more demonstrably against her class when we first meet her. You might say this rebellion is a physical one - and it has consequences for Jack, but that class divide between the son of a shoemaker and the daughter of an upper class colonial official cannot so easily be overcome. A hundred or so years later we find that this particular divide can still exist today as the story of our modern day protagonist, Simon Smith, unfolds.

The Victorian world of The Daylight Thief might seem at first encounter to be the same 'foreign country', experienced by L.P. Hartley's Leo in The Go-Between, but if you dig deeper you can find that the ghosts and shadows of our nineteenth century forbears linger still. You might pick out the opening up of some limited social mobility, the shift of populations into the big urban centres, the consequent changes to town planning or the embracing of new technologies to highlight this. However, I believe that it is in the genes, social standing, relationships and aspirations that are passed down between generations where this is most manifest . This is - at least in part - what The Daylight Thief is about.

... oh, yes... before I forget ... there really was an aurora borealis visible in Southern England in October 1870!
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