Top critical review
An Historical Odyessy
3 August 2017
'In 1664 and 1667 Samuel Pepys visited Chipping Barnet and on each occasion he drank some of the water from the Old Physic Well.'
Thomas Priestley and Joseph Sefton were teenagers who had been indentured as child apprentices at Quarry Bank cotton mill in Styal, Cheshire. This horrific practice effectively enslaved the children of the poor for the period of their 'apprenticeship' which was nothing more than hard labour. Some, like the heroes of this book, were lucky and received some care and education alongside their daily grind. The book was inspired by a real court record of how the two boys left the Cheshire mill and went to London to find their mothers in 1806.
This book comes over as a genuine labour of love - a sort of literary 'docudrama'. The author clearly has a passion for telling the history of the period. The boys and the people they encounter are very vivid characters. The research is excellent and the writing is generally good, but the effect of inserting passages about events unrelated to the story but of historical interest, ruins the flow and breaks the reader's immersion. It is as if the author really wanted to write a non-fiction book in places, or just could not resist shoe-horning little nuggets of historical fact into the narrative, like the example in the quote above. I found it very irritating, but another reader might not.
To my mind, this would have been a much stronger book - and made its point more powerfully - if the historical anecdotes were banished to an appendix - or maybe put in text boxes isolated visually from the main narrative -and the children's story allowed to stand on its own. The author has a great story to tell but buries it under a sense of 'preaching' about the evils of the past and those heavy-chunks of historical fact dropped in on the reader from a great height.
All that said, if you are after an introduction to what life was like in early 19th Century England for those born into poverty, this little book would be a very good place to start.