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Cambridge author Pippa Goodhart’s new twist on Dickens

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Author Pippa Goodhart’s inspiration for her latest historical novel for children has taken the same source material Charles Dickens used to inspire his Oliver Twist – but that was just a starting point.

In The Twisted Threads of Polly Freeman we meet a young girl living in a London workhouse after the seamstress aunt who brought her up was caught stealing. Polly is then sent – as many were – to work in a cotton mill in the north.

There she faces a life-or-death adventure trying to escape from a place where she is owned.

We follow her story as she tries to find her way back to the aunt who brought her up as well as learning the truth about her own identity.

Author Pippa Goodhart . Picture: Keith Heppell. (43349081)
Author Pippa Goodhart . Picture: Keith Heppell. (43349081)

Pippa, who lives in Grantchester and is the author of many children’s books including the Winnie the Witch series and You Choose, said: “Part of the fun of writing history is doing the research. I did a history degree a long time ago and at last I’m using it.

“Charles Dickens based Oliver Twist on this same account written by a young boy in a London workhouse. The boy wrote the account a bit before my story as evidence that led to the Factory Act in 1833 that made it illegal to employ children under the age of nine. Mine is set in 1838, the year that Queen Victoria came to the throne.

“The heroine, Polly, starts off in London and very quickly she’s put into St Pancras workhouse. I read a very wonderful historical account of a boy who had been sent from St Pancras workhouse to a cotton mill in Nottingham. In it, he said how they were told there would be roast beef and plum pudding and rides in the master’s carriage if they went and of course it wasn’t like that; he was snuffling in a pig trough for turnips.

“Quarry Bank in Manchester, where my book is set, is a real place that is now owned by the National Trust. It was set up in a more humanitarian way than many factories because the owners were non-conformists and believed in looking after people. Having said that, the cotton came from America where it was grown by slaves and the mill was built with money given by the government to slave owners after slavery was abolished here. A lot of the industrial revolution was based on that type of funding.

“So Polly is sent to Quarry Bank where she is very much an outsider coming from London because most of the children were from workhouses in Liverpool.”

Polly plans to escape after a tragic accident happens to her only friend at the mill.

Pippa was also interested in the history of the mills as her father, Robbie Jennings, who became a professor of international law at the University of Cambridge and eventually the president of the International Court of Justice, was born just outside Bradford into a family of woollen mill workers.

Pippa Goodhart: The Twisted Threads of Polly Freeman. (43325533)
Pippa Goodhart: The Twisted Threads of Polly Freeman. (43325533)

Pippa says: “My father’s parents met in a woollen mill and his aunts and everyone worked there. He would have been a hundred and something now, he was born in 1913.

“What I got from my father’s reminiscences about the woollen mills in Idle, near Bradford, was the sense community and, of course, he was a Yorkshire Methodist and the mill I’m writing about was run by non-conformists. His advantage was he was an only child so all the family’s resources were placed on him, but he grew up assuming he would work in the woollen mills.”

She added: “My father was the one who escaped as he got a scholarship to Cambridge. He didn’t get to Bradford Grammar School, his was a school where no one had been to Oxbridge. But there was one teacher who had been to Oxford and was immensely proud of it and showed them photographs of a lime avenue there. So he set his heart on this idea and didn’t get into Oxford but got to Downing in Cambridge who offered him a scholarship.”

Pippa had been hoping to take her novel to the children’s book festival at Quarry Bank this year, but unfortunately it was cancelled due to the pandemic. However, the book does offer visitors an idea about what life was like in the mill.

“I also wanted to write a story about the north as not many children’s books are set there,” says Pippa. “I’d already chosen to write about a girl when I found out that at the Quarry Bank there were twice as many girls. The workhouses actually paid factories to take the children to get them off their books.

“A lot of them were not even orphans but were separated from their families in the workhouse.

“It’s important to remember this is not the ancient past. The 1960s was the last time that children from care homes were sent to Australia as labour. People who are very much alive now had this done to them.”

The Twisted Threads of Polly Freeman by Pippa Goodhart is out now priced £6.99.

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