Authors: Tim Jeal
In 1973 I went to America to publicise my biography of David Livingstone, which would be well received and attract far more attention than any of my novels had done. It would have made sense (commercially at least) for me to have started work at once on another biography, building on that earlier success; and indeed I rapidly signed a contract to write Charles Darwin’s life. But my heart was never in this new venture and when I met the head of one of America’s biggest paperback houses in New York, and he enthused about historical novels, I listened with interest. With my skills as a historian and a novelist, he asked, had it never occurred to me to put the two together? As a matter of fact it had, and in the days following this conversation, the idea became increasingly attractive. With considerable difficulty I cancelled the Darwin contract, returned the advance, and during the next year or so wrote
Until the Colours Fade
instead. Eager to try something entirely new (to me at any rate), I had conceived of the panoramic idea for the book several days after that meeting in New York, while I was still in America.
My mother’s great-great grandfather had been flag-captain to the Admiral of the Fleet in the Crimea, and her possession of his diaries, drawings and other papers had fascinated me for years. My ancestor came from a longish line of naval officers and had a great pride in the professionalism of the navy (naval commissions could not be bought as they could in the army) and an unshakable belief in its importance to the nation. I imagined how members of a family like his might have behaved towards those of a self-made factory owner, and of a pleasure-seeking aristocrat, all of them living near to one of the rapidly expanding English mill towns. Might the rivalries, alliances and open conflicts inevitable between them in peace-time in their provincial ambience, pursue them overseas in war-time when the Crimean campaign started and some were drawn into the fighting?
So when I’d finally decided what I wanted to do with them all, did this new type of fiction live up to my sanguine expectations? I’d anticipated escaping the overwhelming, almost crushing load of research involved in writing a major biography, and, yes, I did
to a large extent avoid it. Nevertheless, digging out the elusive atmospheric facts that give verisimilitude to vanished Victorian lives would not prove as easy as I’d imagined. Yet every hard-won detail unearthed – such as the fact that male aristocrats often had a manservant break in their new boots and shoes, and that straw on the road in front of a town house usually meant that there was a sick person inside (the straw being there to deaden the sound of passing carriage wheels) – gave me a thrill. Such details are essential in the recreation of vanished milieus, whether life in the mid-Victorian navy or in an artist’s studio or in the backstreets of a northern mill town. To keep the human story going, while setting the gritty scene as vividly as I knew how, was a challenge that soon fascinated me.
A stranger visiting Rigton Bridge in the early 1850s would have been surprised to learn, as he sniffed the smoke in the air, that so large a manufacturing town had been little more than a
village thirty years before. Only the main street, with its two inns, church and market-place, remained as evidence of the days when the butcher’s stock-in-trade was a half-sheep and the solitary hardware shop kept such rural oddities as sheep nets and gunpowder. Now these countrified shops had gone; there was no grocer selling bread, and the tailor, who had proudly displayed bonnets and stays alongside swallow-tail coats, had lost his
custom to three smart London milliners’ shops with wide plate-glass windows. Even the market cross had vanished – demolished to make way for the new ‘classical’ Town Hall. But more remarkable than these changes, stranger even than the construction of an entirely new suburb of neat villas west of the town, was the disappearance of the water-meadows. Here, the once deserted banks of the river were lined with coal wharfs and timber yards, and on the blackened water floated strings of barges filled with raw cotton in sacks and square bales of woven calico. Close at hand, vast barrack-like mills imposed their many-windowed cliffs of blackened brick upon the surrounding houses.
Behind the mills, the streets were cobbled and faultlessly regular: row upon parallel row of small back-to-back houses all gently sloping down towards the factories as though deliberately lined up to draw attention to the source of the town’s wealth. Only on the far side of the river had the victorious march of bricks and mortar been temporarily checked by stubborn pockets of undeveloped countryside, where dunghills and cowsheds stood their ground against the advancing tile yards and brick fields, and in half-finished streets an unyielding mixture of cinders and frozen mud hampered the efforts of the builders.
The most arresting symbol of the new era – more noticeable even than the twenty or so tall factory chimneys – was the
railway viaduct with its wide arches etched hard and black against the sky. The elegantly gabled railway station, built in a style bizarrely combining medieval and Tudor elements, was not
to be found in the centre of the town but two miles to the
; a position dictated partly by the height of the hills
the low-lying town, and partly by the refusal of a local landowner to sell the railway company the only other feasible site.
From this station, in the late afternoon of 7 November 1852, a batch of strikers convicted of riot and arson were to be conveyed by train to Wakefield. Rigton Bridge also had its prison, but,
of the explosive situation in the town, the authorities had thought it advisable to accommodate the prisoners elsewhere.
The present trouble followed a pattern which had been
throughout the previous decade, when large fluctuations in the demand for finished cotton had led periodically to lower wages and sackings. Now in Rigton Bridge a reduction in wages had been answered by a concerted strike at three mills; an action the masters had countered with dismissals and then with the
of those discharged by Irishmen from Belfast and Liverpool. There had been riots at one mill; the gates had been broken down, the fires put out and the boilers destroyed. The yeomanry had been called out and arrests made. Those
were the men about to be transferred by rail to
In normal circumstances such incidents, while deplored, were frequent enough not to excite undue alarm. But industrial unrest with a parliamentary election pending was another matter; and when, furthermore, as was the case, one of the
were also the owner of the very mill where the worst violence had taken place, the situation was considered potentially disastrous. Because of the strike, now backed by the Spinners’ Union, every cotton operative in the town could be expected to be on the streets on polling day, and since every one of them was barred from voting by the property qualification, the chances of them watching peacefully while the small
and other ten pound householders elected the
manufacturer in the town to parliament, were thought exceptionally remote, even given the dampening influence which regular cavalry might provide.
The light was fading and a porter had already lit the gaslamps outside the ticket hall, when half-a-dozen yeomanry troopers under a sergeant rode into the station yard, dismounted and formed up in line, grumbling about the cold. When the sergeant
had checked with the station-master that the train was not due for another half-hour, they went into the waiting room to sit by the small coal fire. Not many minutes later a pale young man with dark curling hair, and wearing a brown caped overcoat, pulled up his horse a hundred yards from the station, jumped down from the saddle and led the animal into a turnip field where he tethered him. Then he walked on across country until he reached the railway track, which he did not cross, but,
in the shadow of the embankment, followed until he reached the end of the station platform. Here he paused to see that he was not observed and then clambered up onto the platform and
himself behind some milk churns, from which position he could see much of the station yard and platform.
There could not be many occasions, Tom Strickland reflected, on which an artist must need feel obliged to conceal himself in order to witness a scene he might later wish to paint from memory, but today was undoubtedly one of them. Should news of his presence on the platform reach the ears of his current patron, there would be some embarrassing questions asked, not least because Joseph Braithwaite, whose portrait Strickland was working on, was the mill-owner whose property had suffered at the hands of the prisoners expected at the station. Caution was especially called for since George, Joseph Braithwaite’s only son, was the officer in command of the convicts’ yeomanry escort. Although Tom did not like George, who viewed artists as no better than superior tradesmen, he felt some sympathy with him for being obliged to perform the invidious task of guarding the men who had damaged one of his father’s mills; but, with his commanding officer out of town, George, as the only captain in Rigton Bridge, had had no choice. Tom’s interest in George’s predicament was nonetheless limited, nor did he feel any
for how the part-timers of the yeomanry – mostly the sons of tenant farmers and local shopkeepers – would deal with a situation out of the usual run of field-days, church parades and other social functions, which, occasional disturbances apart, formed their only experience of soldiering.
Tom’s reason for crouching behind some milk churns on a cold November evening would have been viewed as madness by the Braithwaites: he wanted to see and memorise the faces of men who had risked so much and would now have to pay so heavily for their despairing attack on the cotton masters’
of the town. In Paris, two years before, Tom had been overwhelmed by the power of Daumier’s and Meissonier’s
of the 1848 revolution and, on his return to London, he had deserted the realms of idealised historical painting for
pictures of everyday life. Not only had this work been brutally criticised as squalid and devoid of all beauty and moral content, but he had failed to sell more than two large canvases in the following year. Heavily in debt he had been obliged to seek portrait commissions, and at the time had thought himself lucky to be employed by a manufacturer as wealthy as Joseph
. But with the right theme, he still hoped to achieve the force of the best work he had seen at the Salon in 1850. These men, on their way to a decade of imprisonment for an hour’s
to blind rage, might provide just such a theme. While slightly uncomfortable at the idea of using their misery, Tom was encouraged by the thought that, by preparing to paint them, he was defying Joseph Braithwaite whose fury could be well imagined should he ever discover that his protégé considered convicted criminals a fitter subject for art than his noble face.
Fifteen minutes before the train was expected, Tom noticed the soldiers leave the waiting-room and take up positions outside the ticket-hall. Shortly afterwards he heard the clatter of
hoofs and saw a dozen mounted troopers sweep into the station yard just ahead of two horse-drawn omnibuses with shuttered windows. On each side of these vehicles rode six
and behind them came the main body of the troop, with George Braithwaite, resplendent in a dark green Light Dragoon uniform, in front of them and immediately behind the second omnibus. At George’s word of command the leading riders
and Tom saw them disappear into the station and then emerge on the platform. Two came towards him but stopped
yards short of his hiding place. Two others made for the other end of the platform and the rest jumped down onto the track and fanned out on the opposite side to cut off any prisoner who might try to make a break. In the yard the gates had been closed and men were being placed at intervals around the fence, the remaining forty or so dismounting and forming up on each side of the omnibuses.
Hearing a faint whistle, Tom gazed away towards the distant grey smudge of Rigton Bridge and the arches of the viaduct, on which he saw silhouetted a squat black engine with a tall
and behind it the yellow and green carriages strung out like toys: small against the darkening sky.
When the train clanked and sighed to a halt in the station, no move was made to remove the prisoners from the omnibuses
until the passengers getting out had left the platform. Just over a dozen people stepped down from the open-sided second class
; only one left the single first class coach. Tom watched this tall elegant man indicating to the porter with his gold-topped cane which boxes and portmanteaux to get down from the roof. Catching sight of the soldiers, this stranger showed no marked interest, but buttoned his fashionable dark green pilot coat, pulled on his kid gloves and adjusted his top hat before
out into the yard where he engaged the only ‘fly’ in sight. The other passengers settled themselves in the station omnibus, which like the ‘fly’ was prevented from leaving the yard by the closed gates.
Once the shuttered omnibuses were unlocked, Tom was
by the speed and brutality with which the soldiers used the butts of their carbines to push and buffet their twenty odd handcuffed prisoners to the train. So sudden was their
and so rapid their progress to the two extra mail coaches set aside for their reception that Tom caught sight of little more than a few haggard unshaven faces and some worn fustian coats. Because he had expected cursing and defiant jeers, the
silence of these men, driven like cattle across the
, shocked Tom deeply. The only facial expressions he saw were not of anger or outraged dignity, but conveyed more the hunted fear and suspicion of trapped animals waiting for blows. Only one or two looked sullen. For the most part their eyes were fixed and expressionless, making them seem remote and
anonymous. Shaken by what he had seen and ashamed that he had expected more, Strickland crept down from behind the churns and retraced his steps beside the track.
It was much darker now and it took him longer than he had expected to find the field leading into the one where he had left his hired hack; but in spite of the delay he still calculated that the yeomanry would not have left the station yet and that there would therefore be no danger of blundering into George on the road back into Rigton Bridge. He had been riding little more than two minutes when he heard a crash followed by terrified screams coming from the road ahead. Overcoming a powerful urge to leave the road at once and ride as hard as he could across country in the opposite direction, he pressed on at a cautious trot, his heart pounding. Rounding a sharp bend he saw barely two hundred yards in front of him a scene of indescribable
. The road at this point cut into the side of a steep hill and was retained by a tall embankment of granite blocks. Beneath
this embankment the two shuttered omnibuses, which had been on their way back to the town, were halted by a barrier across the road. A number of troopers, apparently no more than a quarter of the troop, were desperately struggling to clear away the pile of rocks and branches blocking their path, while above them, on top of the embankment, indistinct shapes of men with burning torches were visible, some of them levering up granite blocks with iron bars and sending them hurtling down onto the roofs of the stationary vehicles. The omnibus full of railway passengers had stopped just short of the most exposed part of the road, but its occupants, taking no chances, were tumbling out and slithering down the slope to the right of the road. Seconds later rioters were leaping down onto the road from the embankment and soon the hopelessly outnumbered troopers were struggling with a formidable mob; their slashing sabres no match for such numbers. One of the troopers’ horses shied and became
with the thrashing hoofs of a fallen omnibus hack, eventually crashing down on its flank. Another horse was hit by a rock as Tom watched. Too stunned to think at first, Tom turned his horse blindly and dug in his heels with all his strength. Half-way to the station he met the ‘fly’, which the well-dressed gentleman had hired, and yelled to the driver to stop; then, without waiting to see whether he did, galloped on to warn the rest of the troop. A minute or so later he saw them riding towards him in the distance. Tom reined in his horse and turned, ready to ride up beside George when he came level.