Faced with a blank sheet of paper or an empty page on Word what do we do for help? Why not pause and look around, inspiration may be closer than you think. For example, the local church yard is not always the dead end we take it to be!
Many years ago I took a class of children on a visit to a local church yard. We were a poor school and couldn't afford trips to leisure parks!
Children took rubbings of old headstones and we learnt much about our past from what was inscribed upon them. One headstone in particular caught our eye.
John Williams (Formerly of Cowbridge)
Served 24 years in the Regiment of Life Guards
Accidentally killed in Rhondda Valley Railway
15th Feb 1865
Aged 50 years
1815 immediately evoked images of the Battle of Waterloo where amid the bloody chaos of battle Napoleon's dreams of Empire were finally shattered. It was as he surveyed the carnage of the aftermath that Wellington uttered those famously desolate words:
"The only thing worse than a battle lost is a battle won."
We decided we wanted to find out more about John Williams so I wrote to the headquarters of the Life Guards and forwarded the officer in charge his details. They duly responded and John began to emerge from the shadows.
"Joined Ist Regiment of Life Guards 23rd January 1839. Alloted Regtl. No. 680(1st series)
On enlistment he stated he was 23 years and 4 months old. Born at Cowbridge in Glamorgan.
Height 6' 3", fair complexion, grey eyes, brown hair - was trained as a clerk. . .
21st January 1848 married Susan Howard at Trinity Church Marlebone, London, but we have no record of the birth of any children during service with the regiment.
Did not serve overseas - discharged in the rank of private at his own request with a character assessment of very good on 8th April 1863 and received a pension for life of 1s 1d per day.
Would have been stationed with the Regiment in either London or Windsor. At the time the 1st Life Guards, 2nd Life Guards and Royal Horse Guards served at Cavalry Barracks, Windsor, Hyde Park Barracks, and Regent Park Barracks, London. The three regiments changed stations between these three Barracks each year."
Questions now began to flood our minds:
"Why did John move from rural South Wales to London? Had he heard stories from the drovers of a city paved with gold? What did John make of Victorian London with its filth and squalor? What was it like serving in the Life Guards? How did he meet Susan Howard? Why did he leave the army and return home? What exactly happened to cause his death on the Rhondda Valley railway in 1865? Why is there no mention of any relative on his gravestone?
Questions lead to speculation and research. Did John leave the army because Mary had died? Had she left him for someone else? Why did he make his way to the Rhondda instead of Cowbridge? Speculation and research evolves into story.
We undertook a considerable amount of research and with funding from the Gulbenkian Foundation actually made a film approximately thirty minutes long filmed in various locations including the Welsh Folk Museum at St Fagan's.
The London that Charles Dickens brought so vividly to life was the London John inhabited. Public hangings took place throughout John's period of service. The last public hanging was on 26 May, 1868, outside Newgate prison, five years after John's discharge. The hangman's victim was Michael Barrett, the Fenian convicted of bombing Clerkenwell Prison, central London. A law banning the hanging of children under the age of sixteen was not passed until 1908. Could John have witnessed one of these events or even been assigned to help control the crowds?
Headlines that might have featured in the London press during the twenty four years John spent in London included:
"British Army Massacred On The Road From Kabul! The Worst Disaster In British Military History."
"Welsh Robin Hood Sentenced To Transportation. Rebbecca Rioters Caught At Last."
"Potato Famine Sweeps Ireland. Thousands Dead."
"Gold Found In California. Gold Fever Sweeps America."
"Great Exhibition Opens At Crystal Palace. The Eighth Wonder Of The World."
"Livingstone Discovers Great River In The Heart Of The Dark Continent."
"Crimea Sensation. Gallant Light Brigade Charge Russian Cannon."
"Florence Nightingale Takes Nurses To Crimea."
This is the London John left behind in the Spring of 1863. The Wales he returned to was a far different place. The Rhondda Valleys, once described as 'the gem of Glamorganshire', were being transformed into industrial communities almost overnight on a scale that rivalled events in the Klondike. Men desperate for work streamed to the Rhondda from all over the United Kingdom and Ireland submerging this once rural community in a rising tide of humanity. John became one of them.
As an ex soldier he would not necessarily have been welcomed with open arms. Certainly not by any Irish with nationalist leanings or by many of his countrymen who had faced transportation and, in the case of the Chartists, death at the hands of the military. While his death is declared to be an accident we can always speculate that it might well have been worth further investigation given the prevailing mood of the time.
Quite an interesting journey from a visit to a local churchyard - I've already started on the novel!. The next time you feel in need of inspiration why not get up stretch your legs and go for a walk. We are surrounded by stories if only we would take time to 'stand and stare'.
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This weeks featured ebook is The Quigley Rescue
Even after Danny becomes a civilian, the nail-biting action never lets up when he receives a mysterious message from an old friend, long believed dead. He journeys into the deep woods of British Columbia in Canada, with a select group, to find him, and there discovers a threat against the U.S. that would make 9/11 look like a picnic."
About the author:
Latterly he enjoyed a successful career in the life insurance industry in Ireland and the UK, and earned a reputation as an industry writer, coach and motivational speaker, winning the Irish and British toastmasters awards. He has appeared on Irish and Canadian TV, now lives in Canada with his wife Marie and has 6 children.
More books by Russ:
Next week I'll be featuring some of my Twitter Followers and their books and asking "Do You Have Pontius Pilate Syndrome?"