On The House
By Helen Maskew
A tale of murder, suicide and the treatment of inmates in a small Suffolk workhouse in 1838
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1838 and the new Poor Law has been in existence for four years and the destitute are now housed in union workhouses run under stringent regulations laid down by Poor Law Commissioners and overseen by locally-elected guardians. Two young men coincidentally seek to uncover, by different means, the suspected mistreatment of inmates in the small union in Seddon, Suffolk. Edgar Lawes is a local land owner and lawyer; Ambrose Hudson a London investigative journalist. Establishing himself on the board Edgar Lawes is immediately disturbed by the inhumanity he finds. Ambrose Hudson becomes an inmate and covertly keeps a journal which follows chronologically those of Edgar Lawes. The guardians’ complacency is shattered by the suicide of one of the male inmates, followed by the brutal murder of a workhouse official. The two unexplained deaths feature heavily in Ambrose Hudson’s account and the ensuing investigations cause the paths of the two men to cross. Nothing is settled until the final pages, but unlikely friendships are forged and lives changed.
Set against the radical movements springing from new Enlightenment thought, the story incorporates the pressure for social change coming from many directions in the new Victorian society and also contrasts those ideas with the staunch and age-old conservative views pursued by a pertinacious ruling class. While violent deaths and inhumane treatment of the very young may be less of a feature in institutions in our time, the judgemental attitudes towards the poor which prevailed in the past among the majority of land-owners, professional men and those of the middling-sort are not strange to us today. The fundamental problem of who among the poor deserves help is one with which we continue to struggle. On The House is the first in a trilogy.
When she retired she decided to have a twenty-year exit strategy which would see her through to old age. She would complete all the tasks she’d never finished and try to achieve things which she had put on hold while raising a large family and working full time. One of these projects was to try her hand at a novel. In the past her writing experience had been academic, as a professional in the education world.
She began writing On the House in December 2012. This book came about following extensive research into her family history where she made a sad discovery. One of her ancestors volunteered himself for Wandsworth workhouse where he hung himself in 1863. What could have prompted such a desperate act? This led her to fascinating research about living conditions, regulation and control in nineteenth century workhouses. She discovered that the fractious issues surrounding the provision of welfare to the poor was very much in existence – a political obsession which still continues to divide opinion. But, while those issues are integral to the story, the events which unfold in this Suffolk workhouse in the early months of 1838 are considerably more graphic, as her synopsis describes.
Helen enjoys all aspects of historical writing: developing the strands of ideas, researching for evidence and discovering different perspectives of her characters. The Lawes and Hudson trilogy is now complete and she has grown to like her two protagonists. She hopes you will too.
‘Edgar, you know there’s nothing sentimental about me. As a practical man I’ve always tried to live out my morality in actions not words.’
I sat by my father’s bed and watched as the man of whom I was fondest in all the world peered at me over his spectacles as he lay propped up by numerous pillows. His face was grey, although his breathing was regular and still strong enough for him to form his words coherently. But the doctor had already told me it would only be a matter of days before there would be no more conversations.
‘I’ve been privileged to live in an age of wise men – the new prophets who aren’t frightened to express enlightened ideas – even against established and embedded prejudices. Men like the Scotsman David Hume who was convinced that our knowledge of existence can only come from our experiences, something with which I fully agree – any man of logic must.’
‘I know you do, father, but why don’t you rest and take your ease for a while. Besides, perhaps it’s not the time for philosophical debate. There’ll be plenty of opportunity later for that when you’re well.’
‘You and I both know that’s not the case – I’ve spoken to the doctor and he’s been mercifully frank with me – no placatory bedside nonsense. No, there are things I want you to know. What better time for a man to be reflective than on his deathbed? I want to be certain you understand the precepts on which I’ve tried to live my life. I’m not necessarily expecting you to adopt them all but I do encourage you to consider some of them as options.’
‘A few minutes, then I insist you sleep for a while.’ He leaned forward and took my hand with his thin pale one.
- 31st May 2016 'On the House' progress report
The final total has been achieved. Thanks to everyone who has contributed. The book is finished and awaiting editing which I've been told will be sometime in July. I'll keep you all updated as the process goes along. It will be an interesting experience to discuss the story line with an editor at last!26th April 2016 Approaching the last hurdle
it seems as though the final total will be achievable, so thanks to everyone. 'On the House is ready and waiting to be published and I'm sure you will all be pleased with the resulting publication. I certainly hope so since you have all been so supportive. It's been difficult to know quite how often I should post a blog as there was little to report on the book's progress since it…24th February 2016 'On the House' the story so far...
This novel came out of research into my family history which I completed three years ago. Through his death certificate I discovered one of my ancestors hung himself in Wandsworth Workhouse in 1863 at the age of 73. I asked myself what could have made him do it and then thought this had the beginnings of an interesting story which could be woven into a novel. In the book (s) I have used all the old…
These people are helping to fund On The House.
Bruce & Lesley Budd