Monday 18 July 2016

Guest Post: Anna Mazzola on researching place for historical fiction - The Unseeing and London

TITLE: The Unseeing
AUTHOR: Anna Mazzola
PUBLISHER: Tinder Press


Amazon - Goodreads

Set in London in 1837, Anna Mazzola's THE UNSEEING is the story of Sarah Gale, a seamstress and mother, sentenced to hang for her role in the murder of Hannah Brown on the eve of her wedding. Perfect for any reader of Sarah Waters or Antonia Hodgson.

After Sarah petitions for mercy, Edmund Fleetwood is appointed to investigate and consider whether justice has been done. Idealistic, but struggling with his own demons, Edmund is determined to seek out the truth. Yet Sarah refuses to help him, neither lying nor adding anything to the evidence gathered in court. Edmund knows she's hiding something, but needs to discover just why she's maintaining her silence. For how can it be that someone would willingly go to their own death?

Researching place for historical fiction – The Unseeing and London
by Anna Mazzola

In February 1837, a labourer working on the Coldharbour Lane made a gruesome discovery: in a ditch he found a sack, and in that sack were two human legs.

This was the final clue in a grisly treasure hunt that had begun in December 1836 when a bricklayer found a woman’s torso under a paving slab on the Edgware Road. The head had been retrieved from a canal at Stepney, pronounced a match with the torso, and placed in spirits to preserve it. In March, the head was at long last identified as belonging to Hannah Brown, a washerwoman.

Camberwell Green

The ‘Edgeware Road Murder’, as it became known, took place at the dawn of detective policing, but officers of the Metropolitan Police followed several pieces of evidence that led a clear path to James Greenacre, a cabinet-maker from Camberwell. Hannah Brown had been due to marry Greenacre on Christmas Day, but had disappeared on Christmas Eve. When officers arrived to arrest Greenacre, they found a woman sitting up in his bed: his lover, Sarah Gale. They noticed that she was trying to hide some jewelry. Jewelry that was later said to belong to Hannah Brown.


Several years after I first read about it, Sarah Gale’s story has become a novel – The Unseeing. The book begins with Sarah’s conviction for aiding and abetting the murder and with the appointment of the lawyer who will investigate her petition for mercy. Much of the novel is set in Newgate in central London, where Sarah Gale was imprisoned, and I read prison diaries, parliamentary commissions and studied plans of Newgate to get a sense of what that prison might have been like. The short answer is: horrific. An 1835 Committee referred to Newgate as a ‘stain’ on the character of the City of London; an institution ‘which outrages the rights and feelings of humanity.’ By 1837, thanks largely to the work of social reformer Elizabeth Fry, conditions on the women’s side of the prison were less squalid than they had been earlier in the century. However, prisoners were still cold, ill, and underfed, and many female prisoners had children with them, from babies to girls of 11 and 12.

Newgate Cell

Although much of the action takes place in Newgate and the surrounding area (Old Bailey, Fleet Street, Inner Temple) key scenes take place in Camberwell, South London. Indeed, it was because the crime took place in Camberwell that I first started reading about it: the murder took place not far from where I live. The research is the most fun part of historical fiction and I had a wonderful time looking at old maps, reports, newspapers and books to try and glean a sense of what Camberwell might have been like in the early 19th century. It was at that time a small village surrounded by fields, populated mainly by upper middle class families who considered the area healthier and more pleasant than the City, and who commuted to London by horse and carriage. However, there were also poorer areas, notably the slums off Bowyer Lane in Walworth. James Greenacre lived nearby with Sarah Gale, on Windmill Street (now Wyndham Road). It was here that Hannah Brown was killed. After the murder, the landlord gave guided tours of the house, which proved so popular that the police had to be brought in to stop visitors removing relics of the crime – tables, chairs, even the door.

Map of Camberwell

Even more popular was the hanging of James Greenacre. His execution attracted an enormous crowd, over a thousand of whom waited overnight outside Newgate to secure a place in the morning. Pie-men made their way through the throng selling Greenacre tarts while ballad-singers hawked the ‘confessions’ of Greencare and Gale. The confessions, however, were pure fiction. Neither Gale nor Greenacre ever revealed what really happened on Christmas Eve in Camberwell, 1836.

The Unseeing is out now.

You can connect with Anna on her website, on Facebook or over on Twitter.

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