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Squalid Slums and Stately Homes: Inspiration for The Button Maker

Benthall Hall: Inspiration for Wallingham Hall

This novel was inspired by the nursery rhyme, Ding Dong Bell.

Ding dong bell

Pussy's in the well

Who put her in?

Little Johnny Flynn

Who pulled her out?

Little Tommy Stout

What a naughty boy was that

Try to drown poor Pussycat,

Who ne'er did any harm

But killed all the mice

In the Farmer's barn!

I took the names of the three main characters literally from the rhyme: Cat Davies; Osborne Tomkins; Jonathon Murphy. It was a great challenge to invent a mystery-thriller from something as small as a nursery rhyme, but I started one step at a time. Letting my imagination roam freely, I re-enacted this rhyme in my first chapter, putting my own spin on it as you will see in next week’s newsletter. From there, it was a case of developing the characters, plot, and setting. A series of questions helped this development. Why would Jonathon Murphy want to drown Cat Davies? How did Osborne Tomkins save Cat and why was he there in the first place? Did Cat really never do any harm? The novel answers these questions and many more.

I decided to set this novel close to my home. It flicks between the grand country house, Wallingham Hall, and the heavily industrialised city of Birmingham.

Nineteenth century Birmingham was a hub of manufacturing – the workshop of the world. As well as being famous for gun making and for ‘toys’ (small items with a high skill content), the city was also responsible for producing nearly all buttons sold in Britain. It was through this research that I knew Cat had to be just one cog in this vast wheel, and I hope I convey just how arduous this work would have been in the novel.

There are some fascinating articles available online, one in particular being ‘An extract from Household Words, a weekly journal, conducted by Charles Dickens’ called What is there in a Button. Here is an extract about what a button factory was like:

“[In the factory rooms] we see range beyond range of machines—the punching, drilling, stamping machines, the polishing wheels, and all the bright and compact, and never-tiring apparatus which is so familiar a spectacle in Birmingham work-rooms. We see hundreds of women, scores of children, and a few men…

First, rows of women sit, each at her machine, with its handle in her right hand, and a sheet of thin iron, brass, or copper, in the other. Shifting the sheet, she punches out circles many times faster than the cook cuts out shapes from a sheet of pastry. The number cut out and pushed aside in a minute is beyond belief to those who have not seen it done…

Very young children gather up the cut circles. Little boys, "just out of the cradle," range the pasteboard circles, and pack them close, on edge, in boxes or trays; and girls, as young, arrange on a table the linen circles, small and larger.”

(To read more of this account by Dickens, click here.)

This, to any modern reader, would not have been a nice place to work. Neither would Birmingham have been a nice place to live. As the population increased with industrialisation, cramped back-to-backs and squalid slums were where the poor had to make their homes. Again, I hope I have conveyed the dire qualities of the city in The Button Maker.

From another website, I found this excerpt from a series of articles called Scenes in Slumland, which were published in the Birmingham Daily Gazette by J Cuming Walters:

"The air is heavy with a sooty smoke and with acid vapours, and here it is that the poor live - and wither away and die. How do they live? Look at the houses, the alleys, the courts, the ill-lit, ill-paved, walled-in squares, with last night's rain still trickling down from the roofs and making pools in the ill-sluiced yards.Look at the begrimed windows, the broken glass, the apertures stopped with yellow paper or filthy rags; glance in at the rooms where large families eat and sleep every day and every night, amid rags and vermin, within dank and mildewed walls from which the blistered paper is drooping, or the bit of discoloration called 'paint' is peeling away."

Another excerpt, this time from the poet Robert Southey at the beginning of the nineteenth century, depicts the kind of Birmingham we might see on the BBC’s Peaky Blinders:

"I am still giddy, dizzied with the hammering of presses, the clatter of engines, and the whirling of wheels; my head aches with the multiplicity of infernal noises, and my eyes with the light of infernal fires,- I may add, my heart also, at the sight of so many human beings employed in infernal occupations, and looking as if they were never destined for any thing better."

But Cat is destined for something better: Wallingham Hall. The grand and idyllic country home of Osborne Tomkins is based on a National Trust property near me called Benthall Hall. The open green spaces and the luxury inside the walls juxtapose with the city of Birmingham alarmingly, and it is this great divide between rich and poor which I also explore in the novel.


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About the author

Delphine Woods

Delphine Woods

Delphine Woods is an author who loves to write historical mysteries and thrillers. 

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