It’s no secret that historical newspaper reports inspire my books. After all, there’s nothing quite as strange as the truth. In fact, the first book in the Lawrence Harpham series came from an article only a few paragraphs long. In short, I collect interesting stories from which books evolve. I haven’t done anything with the account below – yet. But as the fire occurred in my ancestral village of Northrepps and George Woodhouse is in my family tree, it has all the components for one of my novels. That said, it’s important to acknowledge the real tragedies behind these stories. Many writers use famous historical characters, but I like to write about people seldom known outside their family and friendship groups. Yet there’s a fine balancing act between a good story, and treating our ancestors with respect, especially with the current popularity for genealogy. And it’s worth considering that people who lived their lives quietly and unobtrusively might be horrified to find themselves the subject of fiction if only they had known.
Norfolk News 17th December 1881
Northrepps – a sad case of burning.
A painful case of burning happened in this village on Tuesday night last, resulting in the death of Mrs F Golden. The facts in connection with the sad occurrence, as they came before the deputy coroner Mr W H Scott, at an inquest held on Wednesday at the White Horse Overstrand, are as follows. On the night in question, sparks were seen going up from Mr Golden’s chimney by several persons, and an alarm was raised that the house was on fire. Two men, Henry Jarvis and George Woodhouse entered by the back door and saw a fire on the hearth in the sitting room.
Woodhouse obtained three pails of water and threw upon the burning matter, which was found to be the body of the deceased. The flames had devoured all the clothing, leaving the body completely charred. A chair was found near the fireplace very much burnt. Jane Bane, a domestic servant, said she last saw the deceased at about half-past seven when she had to leave to go out. Mr Golden was away from home, and the deceased was left alone seated on a chair before the fire in the sitting room. She was in her usual health. There was no lamp of any kind, but one candle burning on the table, and a small coal fire.
Deceased was in front of the fire with her feet, as witness believed resting on the fender. She did not appear either tired or sleepy. The jury returned a verdict of “Accidental death by burning.” Deceased was 57 years of age.
As a fiction writer, I can’t take this article at face value and my default position is to suspect foul play. Why was Mrs Golden unable to get to safety? Did she try to escape? And if not, why not? Could supernatural forces be at work? Perhaps she was a victim of spontaneous combustion. There are so many why’s in this small piece.
I haven’t written the story yet, but I will. And that’s how my books begin, one news story at a time.