Saturday, 17 November 2012

Behind the Sun: Harriet Clarke - London's semptresses

What I'm Reading: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach; Here Comes Everybody: the story of the Pogues by James Fearnley; and The Secret Keeper, by Kate Morton. I love Kate Morton's books.

Yes, I do read a lot. Last weekend I went to Rookwood Necropolis in Sydney. What an awesome place. It's huge - 283 hectares containing over a million resting places, and one of the largest cemeteries in the world, according to the website. The older monumental masonry in particular is stunning, and so are the grounds themselves. I was particularly fascinated by the family vaults, which you don't often see in New Zealand cemeteries. Really worth a visit. Easy to get lost, though. Download the map from the website (under Links). Below is the Maher Cross.

In my last blog I talked a little about prostitute Friday Woolfe, one of the main characters in my latest book Behind the Sun. Harrie Clarke, aged 16, is another main character. Harrie is an accomplished sempstress and designs embroidery patterns. Her father is dead, she has three much younger siblings and her ill mother is unable to work, so Harrie is the only breadwinner.

She's kind, trusting and generous, and knows how fortunate she is to work for deeply unpleasant Mrs Lynch, who has a private business making gowns for wealthy women. Some London seamstresses of the era found themselves working in crowded, poorly-lit rooms heated by gas fires that blasted out heat (hence the term 'sweatshop', which came into common use after around 1830), making only pieces of garments (skirt, bodice, sleeves), which were then assembled by the wholesaler and sold. Hours could be excessively long, especially during the 'season' and the pay extremely low. Long-term workers could develop serious eye-sight problems, and permanent back injuries.

Other women worked from home doing 'piece-' or 'slopwork', sewing shirts and handkerchiefs, and hemming skirts for very little money. But perhaps this suited women with small children to care for? There were very few state benefits then - essentially only 'outdoor relief' and the utterly dreaded workhouse.

Harrie, however, loses her relatively privileged job when, on the spur of the moment and completely uncharacteristically, she pinches a bolt of cloth from a draper's shop. While awaiting trial in Newgate gaol she meets Friday Woolfe.

Watch for an introduction to Sarah Morgan next time.


  1. I love the name Friday Woolfe. I can just picture the type of character she must be.

    Thanks for sharing your photo's of the cemetery, it looks like a fascinating place.

  2. Definitely need to plan a field trip to that cemetery :)

  3. Rookwood sounds fascinating, definitely a must visit place.
    We whinge about how hard we have it nowadays, really, most of us would have folded if we had to endure what women lived through and survived in a different century. Am looking forward to reading Harrie's story.

  4. Deb, your blogs are very interesting. As a great fan of your writing, I am looking forward to this new series.

  5. Deborah Challinor20 November 2012 at 20:22

    Hi Stacey, Kez, S.E. Gilchrist and Erin - thanks very much for your comments. Much appreciated.

  6. WOW,interesting facts here Deb. Funny how something so wonderfully mysterious can be in one's own back yard.
    Cant wait to read your New release

  7. Hi Marianne, thanks for your nice comment.2349


Comment here