Judith Allnatt on the ghosts of history and the inspiration behind her book, The Silk Factory.
When a friend told me that she was hearing strange sounds in her house accompanied by a strong smell of soot, despite there being no open fires, it set me wondering what the site had been used for in the past. I found out that it had been a silk factory during the industrial revolution and my thoughts turned to old buildings as the holders of many generations’ secrets.
I began to read about the process of making silk: ideas as weird as wafting coal embers above the beds of silk worms during a thunderstorm in order to keep them alive, the practice of ‘kissing the shuttle’ – threading it with your mouth – that spread disease like wildfire through the work force, and nineteenth century children forced to work such long hours that, too exhausted to walk home, they hid themselves in storerooms to sleep. I discovered that the village silk master had been hated for his cruelty and was described, intriguingly, as having ‘a seafaring and weather-beaten appearance with many wounds upon his head’. With this, my character, Septimus Fowler was born: a man so obsessed with building his business that he plans to farm silkworms (despite the unsuitable climate) and import sophisticated looms so that he can sack his workers and replace them with paupers for whom he will only have to provide bread and slops.
What events might have taken place at the silk factory and what spirits might haunt it? Two stories – of a modern heroine, Rosie, who witnesses the appearance of a strange lost child, and of a silk-weaving family living in desperate times – began to thread together in my mind, like bright tight-woven ribbons.
Still dominating the skyline above the village is a huge Georgian garrison from which arms were sent out in the Napoleonic wars. Locally, it is reputed to have been built as a colossal retreat for George III, should Napoleon invade, but research suggests otherwise. In the centre of the Midlands, an area where textile workers were starving and turning to violence and rebellion, blast houses full of gunpowder and barracks full of soldiers are likely to have served quite a different purpose – to quell insurrection. Writing ‘on location’ in the shadow of the huge buildings of the garrison, helped me to capture the sense of the might and authority of the Establishment over the populace.
The Frame Breaking Act of 1812 made it a hanging offence to damage an employer’s looms, yet poverty was so extreme that the crime was almost commonplace. Lord Byron, prompted by pity for the weavers, spoke in Parliament against the bill, saying: ‘Can you commit a whole country to their own prisons? Will you erect a gibbet in every field and hang up men like scarecrows?’ For me, his anger over the exploitation of the many by the few still has a resonance today.
So, what are ghosts? Rosie, bereft and confused by the discovery of a traumatic family secret, is haunted by memories that seem to tip over into queer perceptions and strange visions. A community’s shadowy awareness of past wrongdoing manifests itself in reports of oddities and apparitions. The past just won’t lie down.
Judith Allnatt is an acclaimed short story writer and novelist. Her first novel, A Mile of River, was a Radio Five Live Book of the Month and was shortlisted for the Portico Prize for Literature; her second novel, The Poet’s Wife, was shortlisted for the East Midlands Book Award. Her latest book, The Silk Factory, is out now.
- The Silk Factory © Weedon Bec History Society
- The Gatehouse, Weedon Barracks © Weedon Bec History Society