Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Award-winning author Katharine Quarmby shares her inspiration for her moving novel, The Low Road #HistoricalFiction #BlogTour @KatharineQ @cathiedunn

The Low Road

by Katharine Quarmby

In 1828, two young women were torn apart as they were sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay. Will they ever meet again?

Norfolk, 1813. In the quiet Waveney Valley, the body of a woman – Mary Tyrell – is staked through the heart after her death by suicide. She had been under arrest for the suspected murder of her newborn child. Mary leaves behind a young daughter, Hannah, who is later sent away to the Refuge for the Destitute in London, where she will be trained for a life of domestic service.

It is at the Refuge that Hannah meets Annie Simpkins, a fellow resident, and together they forge a friendship that deepens into passionate love. But the strength of this bond is put to the test when the girls are caught stealing from the Refuge's laundry, and they are sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay, setting them on separate paths that may never cross again.

Drawing on real events, The Low Road is a gripping, atmospheric tale that brings to life the forgotten voices of the past – convicts, servants, the rural poor – as well as a moving evocation of love that blossomed in the face of prejudice and ill fortune.

Finding the story behind The Low Road in my Norfolk Hometown

by Katharine Quarmby

A person attended from Mr Fox, attending Ann Tyrrell, who stated that the mother had destroyed herself, that the Girl had then given herself to all kinds of pilfering. The mother had murdered one of her children and in the face of apprehension destroyed herself. The girl stated to the Committee that she was now sensible that her mother had committed an Iniquity and that she begged to be admitted. The girl is illegitimate. Admitted.

This was an entry of a Committee Meeting in the Minute Book for the Refuge for the Destitute, April 1817, and I can remember sitting in the Hackney Archives, the great leather bound book in front of me in 2017, and making out these sentences which showed that I had found the girl I was looking for, and the tragic tale of a family torn apart by the judgement of the authorities - criminalised, really, for their poverty.

Finding her led to me writing The Low Road (Unbound Publishing, 2023) a novel about her, the mother she truly mourned - and the girl she fell in love with at the Hackney Refuge for the Destitute. (As they were called Ann and Anne in real life, I’ve changed their names to Hannah and Annie.) Ann Tyrrell had come from my hometown, a small market town called Harleston in Norfolk, after the townspeople had taken up a collection for her and sent her to the Refuge in the hopes she would be admitted.

Four years before she arrived, her mother had apparently poisoned herself after being accused of killing her newly-born daughter. This story horrified and fascinated me and I knew when I found it that I had to trace what happened to Ann after her mother died. An entry in Harleston parish records, from 1828, revealed more.

The Superintendent of the Refuge, Joseph Hoskin, wrote to Harleston attorney, Henry Fox, that “A.T. had been prevented by the Laws of her Country from producing the fruits of gratitude” - meaning that she had been transported to Botany Bay. So what happened to Ann in between, before she was exiled?

The Refuges (one Male, one Female) were built by philanthropists, many of whom were Quakers, who wanted to reform boys and girls who had been involved in criminal activity. It wasn't - at least when Ann was admitted, in 1817 - hugely focussed on punishment. The food was good, although reports from the Refuge to its patrons suggested it was very repetitive.

Some of the Objects resisted, stealing clothes, refusing to wash them, and even escaping from service when they were sent to unsuitable homes. Ann Tyrrell was dismissed by her mistress, Mrs Harding, and sent back to the Refuge only weeks after starting as a maid, for being "idle, impertinent and dishonest", according to the Superintendent, Joseph Hoskin, in another Minute entry that I found.

Small wonder that the two young Objects absconded with a whole bundle of laundry on a winter's night, to the fury of the Superintendent, Mr Hoskin. He and the Refuge Committee decided to press for their case to be heard at the Old Bailey, and so they stood trial there, on January 10, 1822. Later, Ann was transported, and so this small Norfolk family was lost to history, until I uncovered it two hundred years later.

I hope I have done the story justice, restored the Tyrells to the story of my hometown and given both Mary and Ann back some posthumous dignity, in The Low Road.

Katharine Quarmby

Katharine Quarmby has written non-fiction, short stories and books for children and her debut novel, The Low Road, is published by Unbound in 2023. Her non-fiction works include Scapegoat: Why We Are Failing Disabled People (Portobello Books, 2011) and No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers (Oneworld, 2013). She has also written picture books and shorter e-books.

She is an investigative journalist and editor, with particular interests in disability, the environment, race and ethnicity, and the care system. Her reporting has appeared in outlets including the Guardian, The Economist, The Atlantic, The Times of London, the Telegraph, New Statesman and The Spectator. Katharine lives in London.

Katharine also works as an editor for investigative journalism outlets, including Investigative Reporting Denmark and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Connect with Katharine:

Website • Twitter • Facebook • LinkedIn • Instagram •
Amazon Author Page • Goodreads

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