Crime and Punishment – Dead to Sin

The early nineteenth century in England was a harsh time of poverty for many. When soldiers and sailors were no longer needed to fight the wars that had dogged England from the end of the previous century, many men returned victorious having fought for their King (or Prince Regent) and country only to face unemployment. With little or no social support they often turned to crime to feed themselves and their families. With the increase in crimes, came new laws and harsher sentences.
Ripon Museum
I recently stopped by one of North Yorkshire’s finest museums in the little city of Ripon. Ripon is an unspoilt cathedral city that has maintained its characteristics of a delightful market town with plenty of historical places of interest to visit. It is also an excellent base for venturing into the Yorkshire Dales or the North Yorkshire Moors!

Ripon Museum comprises of three museums, all to do with the city’s historic law and order buildings that have been lovingly maintained. The photos below were taken in the Prison & Police Museum in St Marygate. It was a prison from 1686-1879 and a police station from 1880-1959.

When I first visited the prison I was writing Dead to Sin. Although the existing building was Victorian, the cells hold exhibits which relate to its earlier history and the development of crime and punishment, cruel and harsh as it was. Nowadays, the museum is clean, whitewashed and immaculately presented. Obviously in the time of Nicholas Penn it would be far from this.

The first chapter of Dead to Sin begins with Nicholas Penn bracing himself as he enters this dark, fettered world.


Nicholas Penn took one last deep breath of fresh air outside the high stone walls of the Gorebeck lock up. He glanced back at the cobbled square of the market town; wagons rattled, farmers haggled, women bartered, children’s laughter melted into the animals’ pitiful cries, the noise of which was in turn drowned out by the banter of the bidders. All was chaotic, all stank, yet there was colour and life here amongst the continuous whirl of people trading their wares.

             A heavy lock was turned in the barrier in front of him. Nicholas breathed deeply, his broad chest glad of what fresh air there was as his mind dreaded the prospect of seeing what he would find within the cold walls – and who. The reinforced wooden door creaked and groaned as the warder pulled it open, grating the edge against the stone.

             He pulled the high collar of his coat close, covering the ends of his shoulder length locks. ‘Trapped sunshine’ his mother had poetically described his wayward curls when he was a cosseted child. Now straighter, they had matured and grown like Nicholas himself. No sunshine would filter through behind this door. The rain started to pour down. Nicholas was silently led inside along a narrow stone corridor; he was taken further into the building’s bowels, down a spiral metal staircase to an airless chasm where six bolted black doors lined the dimly lit passage. Disembodied coughs could be heard even through the iron-wood barriers, which incarcerated their prey. Nicholas intuitively pulled out his kerchief and held it over his mouth. Gaol fever was to be avoided by the wise man who had the option to, but the inmates of this place had little chance to do that. The warder turned another key in the door lock at the end of the narrow corridor.

             “Ten minutes!” he growled back at Nicholas. The man had a curvature of the spine and did not look up at Nicholas’s straight frame. Instead, he shuffled back.

             Nicholas grunted what could have been his agreement or a simple acknowledgement. The turnkey gestured for Nicholas to enter.

             With some reluctance, Nicholas stepped into the small dank cell, ducking slightly so that his round hat did not contact the top of the door’s stone frame. What light and fresh air there was from the open grate that served as a window, was lost to the rain water, which now poured in, bringing with it the filth washed down from the market street above. The cell’s air stank of damp and excrement. Nicholas stood equidistant from the slime covered walls, not wanting his new riding coat to touch anything in the place.

             The cell was putrid. Under his highly polished boots was a stone-flagged floor strewn with soiled hay. Nicholas fought back memories, bleak, barefooted memories, as he glared at the figure in front of him. Like the cell, the man locked within it was unwashed, unshaven and unkempt. His appearance was in stark contrast to the man’s usually immaculate presence. The figure was seated on a small stool, wrapped in a flea-infested woollen blanket, leaning against the edge of the moist wall. Even in such discomfiture he seemed to be calm in manner, resigned perhaps to his fate. Nicholas wondered if this was true. To most people in his circumstance it would have been the case, or a near breakdown of spirits, but not Wilson. Nicholas knew the man too well. He was as hard as the stone walls which held him, to the depth of the heart that beat strong within his chest.

             Ebony eyes looked up at him as the door lock was slammed shut behind Nicholas who was trying hard not to show his inner fear, or his loathing of small airless spaces as much as his abhorrence for the pathetic looking creature in front of him.

             “You came, Nick!” the voice announced, louder than Nicholas had expected it to. That tone was almost as if he was annoyed at his late appearance. This was not the whispered breathy word of a dispirited soul. The confidence, the strength and the defiance were still there in his comments even if he looked to be in a physically weakened state.

An Interview with Freda Lightfoot

Freda L-close up 6My very special guest for Christmas is prolifically successful historical author, Freda Lightfoot, with an insight into her career and sharing with us how she now enjoys the best of two worlds.

You have served a very interesting writing apprenticeship in order to attain the success you now enjoy. Could you share some of the key moments with us?

My first published piece was called An Elizabethan Toothache, published by Today’s Guide in 1972. I followed this small success with pieces on how to pass various badges, how-to’s, crosswords, quizzes and puzzles, then short stories and a serial, all of which sold to Guide and Brownie magazines and annuals. Fiction was what I really wanted to write but amidst all the child rearing and running a book shop, time to write was hard to come by. It wasn’t until I sold the business and moved out into the country that I started writing articles and short stories for adult magazines. My first success with a novel was a historical romance for Mills & Boon called Madeiran Legacy. I went on to write four more before my plot lines were becoming far too complicated and I wanted to write about real women.

Polly Pride-webYour Lancashire routes have provided a strong background for your Sagas. Have you used some of your own family’s historical experiences within the fiction?

Indeed I have, many times. My grandmother was the spark for Big Flo in Polly Pride. She’d had a hard life but was a real stoic, as Lancashire women were in those days. And the idea for the story came from my Great Aunt Hannah, who did exactly as Polly did and sold or pawned her furniture in order to buy a piece of carpet from a ship in Liverpool. Then she cut it up and sold the squares on the market. But her husband didn’t object as Polly’s did. Family stories may be the inspiration, but the story is fiction.

I often advise new writers that in order to succeed you need to be determined and dedicated. You seem to have these attributes in abundance as you have owned a small holding and a bookshop as well as becoming a successful writer and now live in an olive grove in Spain. Do you have a strong work-ethic, which you apply to your writing routine? 

I dare say that is true, maybe I inherited it from my grandmother, and a long line of Lancashire and Yorkshire weavers. But then I love my work so it is no hardship to spend hours each day at the job. I put my heart and soul into my stories, which is absolutely essential. You must lose your inhibitions and be entirely sincere, but yes, it does take hard work and dedication. I’d say it demands the three p’s, which stand for practise, persistence, and passion for your craft.

Lady of PassionYour fictionalised biographies must need meticulous research, even more so than historical sagas. How long do you spend researching a new project? Roughly how long do you take to write a completed first draft? 

When I reach a certain stage with my work in progress, I start a little preliminary research on the next book, which gradually builds, taking several months altogether. All my books demand a good deal of research, for which I have a substantial library, plus interviews for my sagas. I’ve met some marvellous old folk who share their working lives and memories with me. The biographical historicals do take longer though, as you can’t make it up, and I like to be as accurate as possible. It’s rather like detective work trying to build the character and life of a real person. Fascinating.

Breaking into the eBook market was another bold move, which has certainly worked. Could you share any tips on how you made this a success? 

I entered the digital market back in 2010, which were pioneering days for ebooks but I taught myself how to do the necessary formatting and put them up by way of experiment to see what would happen. Nothing much did at first but when the UK came on board in December 2011 and Santa Claus delivered a load of Kindles, they really took off. The more books you publish, the more you sell. But they must be good, page-turning stories, well-written and not rushed, error-free and properly edited with good commercial covers.

You now live in Spain. How did this move come about? 

It all began back in 1997 when we bought a holiday home here, a little village house high in the mountains 20 kilometres from the coast. We fell in love with the village and found we were spending more and more time here, so finally bought a piece of land with an olive grove on it and built ourselves a house for our so-called retirement. Of course, writers don’t retire, but we love spending our winters here, and summers in the UK.

Will Spain feature more in your future novels?

I do have one or two ideas, so watch this space. It could happen.

You have the best of both worlds – Would you share a couple of things that you love most about your home country and your new one?

We do have the best of both worlds as here in Spain we can avoid the British winter. Almeria is the last designated desert in mainland Europe so in the daytime we can enjoy some sunshine and gardening, and as the nights grow cold we can light a fire and be cosy. The Spanish people are very friendly and we have a good life here with many friends of all nationalities. In the UK I love taking part in writer’s events, talks and conferences, visiting stately homes, and enjoying all things British.

Could you give a seasonal insight as to how Christmas in Spain varies to our traditional one in England?

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One of the joys of living in Spain is that there isn’t the same commercial fuss made. Feliz Navidad will be up there in twinkling lights, and pontsettias everywhere, the Nativity scene ‘Nacimiento’ can be seen in plazas as well as many Spanish homes and shop windows, but Christmas itself is fairly low key.

Christmas Eve, Nochebuena, is when the main Christmas meal is taken, often roast lamb or suckling pig, a feast that takes place quite late, as do all Spanish fiestas, starting around 10 p.m. and going on until the small hours. Some families will sing carols around the nativity scene which remains without the baby until the stroke of midnight. Others go to midnight Mass ‘La misa del Gallo’, Rooster Mass, named after the bird who announced the birth of Christ. Many people, of course, like the rest of us, just watch the Christmas programme’s on TV while enjoying the traditional Turrón (nougat), or mantecas (a range of butter-based biscuits) with cava.

The big celebration for the Spanish is Fiesta de Los Reyes, Three Kings Day on January 6th. What we would call Epiphany. Traditionally, this is when Spanish children get their presents, not on Christmas Day from Papa Noel, although these days some enjoy gifts on both days. By then we’re packing our Christmas decorations away, but the Spanish are still partying.

What is next for Freda?

I’m currently working on another saga, which I never talk about until it is done. After that I plan to write a sequel for Polly Pride, and also another biographical historical in my royal mistresses series about Sarah Lennox, who had the chance to marry George III, but blew it. I do like to have lots to look forward to.

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