Street Child – continuing the tale – Far From Home
Since Street Child was published in 2009 it has sold thousands of copies in its two HarperCollins editions. I have received thousands of letters from children – mostly in class bundles from schools, who, by lucky chance, are studying the Victorians. By far the most commonly asked question has been: Will you write a sequel? For years my answer has always been the same, you write the sequel. It’s in your head! The next most frequently asked question is: what happened to Emily and Lizzie? My response to that has always been that although Jim Jarvis was based on a real child, I've no idea whether he had sisters or not. They’re completely made up, as are most of the other characters. And I turn the question round – what do you think happened to them? Children send me their ideas, and they are so imaginative and so varied that I then say, well, you see, I would never be able to get a sequel right for everybody!
But then came a suggestion from HarperCollins that I might consider writing a companion book to Street Child. To my surprise, I responded immediately that I would love to do that, and that I would like to write about Emily and Lizzie. After all this time!
I decided not to start Far From Home from the point where Street Child ended, but to go back almost to the beginning, to the point where Emily and Lizzie are left behind by their dying mother. I felt I needed to get the girls away from London and put them into a new environment, and so as soon as possible I packed them into a wagon and sent them up north, to a valley very like the one where I live now. I called it Bleakdale. I found them work in a cotton mill, and waited to see what might happen to them.
I then embarked on my reading research. I was searching for accounts of working conditions in 19th century mills and came across a book called A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, written in 1832. It was an account of a man who had worked in mills since childhood. His story was written up for him by John Brown and there is no knowing whether the accounts of Blincoe or the retelling were strictly accurate, but it gave me many clues about the harshness of the living and working conditions of children during the Industrial Revolution, and of the cruelty of many mill-owners and overseers. If Blincoe’s accounts are true, and there’s no reason to believe that they aren’t, then many workers, particularly women and children, were treated as slaves, fettered to the mill-owner for years and with no hope of release or betterment. Although Far From Home is set some years later, and many reforms had been created by then, it is likely that they were only gradually and perhaps rarely fully implemented, especially in rural areas.
When I came across references to Jim Jarvis, my heart went out to the plight of destitute children and I felt I had to write Street Child. It was the same when I came across Robert Blincoe and the unbearable situation of labouring children. I knew that in Far From Home I had a difficult and painful story to write.
I live in a seven mile valley, and half way down it is a now converted cotton mill. When I first came here local people would tell me their memories of workers coming over the hill from the neighbouring village, running down the steep tracks with their lanterns held high. Most valleys in this area and throughout Yorkshire and Lancashire had a mill, and many of them still remain and have been converted to residences. Some, however, are still working. I took my references from several of these, and learnt about the different kinds of machinery by visiting working and educational mills such as the one at Cromford in Derbyshire. I based the apprentice house in Bleakdale on the one at Quarry Bank Mill in Styal, Cheshire.