The Crime Readers' Association

HOLD THE FRONT PAGE! (While I take a few notes…) – tips on historical research from Karen Charlton

14th February 2020

Although the Internet is still the first port of call for historical crime writers who want to research an era, many of us still glean a wealth of knowledge and inspiration from the old newspapers of our chosen time period. Most British and Irish newspapers have been digitised – or are in the process of being digitised. But there’s nothing as satisfying as donning the white gloves at the National Archives – or in your local library – and browsing through the fragile, musty pages of a two-hundred-year-old newspaper.

A family scandal

I first became fascinated with these ancient documents while researching our criminal ancestor whose turbulent story I later retold in my debut novel, Catching the Eagle. Jamie Charlton was convicted of stealing £1,057 of newly-collected rent money from Kirkley Hall in Ponteland in 1809. His case caused a public outcry which was sensationalised on the front page of the local newspaper, the Newcastle Courant.

Reading these old copies of the Courant gave me far more than just the story of a historic miscarriage of justice. Because newspapers are so eclectic and each article and advert leaps randomly from one topic to another, you soon build up a wonderful background picture of the time and place. Newspapers are a great resource if you want a snapshot of how people really lived and entertained themselves at a certain point in history. And they highlight what mattered to them the most to that society, whether it was gambling in the taverns; opening a Temperance Hotel or forming a committee to help stamp out local crime. I was startled by the huge rewards they offered for the return of lost sheepdogs in rural Northumberland and surprised to find twenty-four bookshops in the region.

These titbits of background information were useful when I later wrote my Detective Lavender Series. These books are loosely based on the cases of Stephen Lavender, a real-life Principal Officer with the Bow Street runners who arrives in Northumberland for his first case in The Heiress of Linn Hagh.

The real Stephen Lavender

The London newspapers, The Times in particular, adored the real Stephen Lavender and provided valuable insight into his career. They zealously – and sometimes inaccurately – reported his cases in the crime-ridden capital and followed his exploits out into the provinces where he was hired by local magistrates to solve difficult crimes.

Some of Lavender’s cases resonated with me more than others. I found the story of a poor woman murdered by her lover and dropped head-first down a well particularly disturbing. They had to use butcher’s hooks on the end of ropes to haul out the corpse. This grisly tale lingered at the back of my mind for years until I finally used it as the opening crime in The Willow Marsh Murder, the sixth Detective Lavender Mystery which will be published on 1st February 2020.

Gruesome details

I made another gruesome discovery while researching for my third Lavender novel. I came across the description of a vicious attack in Northamptonshire on eighty-seven-year-old, William Sculthorpe, in his own home. Both The Times and The Morning Chronicle reported the assault in great detail but it was The Times who lingered over the salacious, blood-thirsty details and described how ‘a large quantity of clotted blood had settled in his [the victims’] mouth’. This is the blood-thirsty sensational style of writing we now associate with tabloid reporting rather than broadsheets. Once again, Lavender solved the case and I fictionalised the event in The Sculthorpe Murder

Another real – but more amusing – incident I read about and developed for my novels was the occasion in 1806 when constables hauled a naked madman out of the River Serpentine in Hyde Park just as the Royal princesses arrived for their morning stroll. Nudity is not something we associate with the prim and gentle world of Regency England and I was quite tickled. I recreated this incident in Plague Pits & River Bones complete with blushes and a suitable amount of outrage.

Shocking discoveries

Ten years ago, I made an uncomfortable discovery while browsing through a series of nineteenth century court reports in a major County Durham newspaper. I was shocked to see that over half of the court cases involved bigamists or men (and women) charged with abandoning their families. Both crimes were imprisonable offences back then. But these harsh punishments and the censure of the established church clearly didn’t deter those desperate souls trapped in unhappy marriages. If those County Durham newspapers were anything to go by, both bigamy and marital desertion were rife.

This gave me the idea for the shady character of David MacAdam in ‘Murder in Park Lane’. MacAdam’s job as a commercial traveller for the burgeoning off-the-peg menswear industry made it easy for him to lead a double life in London and propose marriage to a young heiress while he still had a spouse back in Chelmsford, Essex.

A mine of useful (and useless) information

Old newspapers are a mine of useful – and sometimes useless – information. They fill in the gaps in your knowledge that the history books don’t mention and can be a fascinating way to while away an hour or two.

But don’t just take my word for it. Go online and discover for yourself the addictive hobby that is browsing the old newspapers. The Times has its own online archives and a small monthly fee paid to The British Newspaper Archive gives you online access to 35 million pages of other British and Irish newspapers dating back to early 1800s. These websites can be accessed for free at most libraries.

You’ll be surprised at what you learn.

Karen Charlton is the author of the best-selling Detective Lavender Mysteries, published by Thomas & Mercer. Her latest novel in the series, The Willow Marsh Murder is available from 1st February 2020.

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