Posted in Book Reviews, Uncategorized

The Mauricewood Devils

Book Review: The Mauricewood Devils shines light on a dark chapter in mining history

ON the September 5, 1889, at the Mauricewood Colliery, near Penicuik, Midlothian, 65 men and boys were working in the mine. Around lunchtime, some wooden boards caught fire and the flames quickly spread to a coal seam, creating a smoky inferno.

Two men survived and 63 died, including a 12-year-old boy. It devastated the lives of their dependents, many relying on the miners to keep their families from the poor house. Outside of the immediate area, the disaster is little-known today.

Drawing on her own family history, Dorothy Alexander has fictionalised the events of 1889-1890, telling the story through the eyes of Martha, the daughter of a miner, and her step-mother, Jess, both having lost the man they loved. She intersperses their narratives with contemporary, factual reports, which demonstrate how differently the authorities assessed the events. Alexander has arranged these in 50-word paragraphs in traditional ballad metre. These blunt reports, which concentrate on the financial losses, provide a callous counterpoint to the grief and despair of the families left behind.

The key to the story working as a novel is making Martha’s seven-year-old voice convincing and Alexander achieves this with aplomb. In order to relate the story, Martha must impart facts that most children wouldn’t know or understand but Alexander seamlessly slips them into the child’s narration. Martha is a bright and endearing character who has lived with her grandparents and sister Helen since the death of her mother shortly after her birth. Her grandmother is a hard woman who never fails to let Martha know that she “killed” her mother. The two girls are always hungry and spend most of their time out of school doing chores. They always look forward to their father’s visits with his second wife, Jess, knowing there will be ample food on offer.

Jess is a no less sympathetic character, waiting anxiously until March 1890 for her husband’s body to be brought up from the mine. She works at the nearby paper mill which affords her more choices than many women of the time. She has always wanted her husband’s two girls to live with them but their grandparents want to keep them close at hand. Jess tries to support the women whose men have already been brought up for burial knowing she must face that traumatic day herself.

Through Jess, we see the women who became known as the Mauricewood Devils in a different light from that which is recorded. When the authorities decided to cap the still burning mine, only 30 or so bodies had been recovered. Many families were left in limbo, grieving but without a body or a grave to mark their loss. Several women got together to demonstrate against the mine owners, demanding the mine should be opened and the remaining bodies recovered. Many were taken aback by the women’s courage in taking on such powerful figures; many were horrified that women should behave in such a manner.

The mine was finally reopened in March 1890, and the rest of the miners were recovered. It soon became clear that several men were still alive when the mine shaft was capped, which compounded the families’ horror.

Alexander has used the memories and stories related by members of her own family to add colour and authenticity to her story. The monologues bring a sharp focus to 19th-century life in small mining communities, through the eyes of both a child and an adult. The work was backbreaking with very few health and safety measures, and it wasn’t so long before this period that women and girls worked in the mines too. The social conventions of an underprivileged, working-class community are revealed as people try to pull together and survive the disaster. There was a fund set up to assist the dependents of the Mauricewood miners but the rules as to who qualified were strict. A woman who remarried was immediately cut off and once children reached 14 years they too were left to fend for themselves.

This is an engrossing story about a vital piece of social history. If that sounds dull, be assured that Alexander’s finely wrought characters are anything but. Martha and Jess sparkle amongst the poverty and coal dust, their voices ringing out down the years that have seen too many people lost in industrial disasters. It is an important tale, beautifully told, and deserves to be better known.

Published by Freight Books.

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Posted in Book Reviews, Uncategorized

The Button Box – Independent on Sunday Review

Lynn Knight, The Button Box: Lifting the lid on Women’s Lives: ‘The past is all buttoned up’, book review

The reader can dip in and out at any point, but reading chronologically offers a sweeping look at how women’s clothing has developed

There was a time, it seems, when everyone’s grandma owned a button box with a glorious assortment of colours and shapes that dazzled many a child. Lynn Knight remembers her own gran’s precious button box, an old Quality Street tin, and being allowed to use the buttons as money in her pretend shop.

She takes inspiration from these treasure troves to explore the social history of women’s lives in a book of 28 chapters, each dealing with a specific type of button and explaining how and why it was used.

And Knight raids her own button box – which includes donations from her grandmother, Aunt Eva, and mother.

She begins by looking at jet buttons and their journey from Victorian mourning wear to glamorous evening gowns. Real jet, a form of fossilised wood that can be polished to a brilliant shine, is fragile and prone to damage. Most are actually pressed glass, which is cheaper and more durable but still bears a striking resemblance to the real thing. It is such little-known facts that make Knight’s book such a delight.

Linen buttons, “the lowliest button of all”, were cheap and had myriad uses from basic baby clothes to men’s working shirts. They also had one important quality; they could survive the mangle intact. Three pearl buttons, which graced a home-made dress that Knight’s mother wore after being adopted, lead to an examination of the hand-made clothes and tokens that women made for babies before giving them up for adoption. Knowing they would never see their child again, they poured a lifetime of love into a small memento.

The suffragettes used buttons and clothes to indicate their support for women’s votes, with the WSPU colours of purple, white and green becoming very popular and on sale in upmarket shops.

The Button Box: Lifting the lid on Women’s Lives, by Lynn Knight. Chatto & Windus £15.99