Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Garrow's Law

In writing the novel A Canopy of Stars, I wanted to write something that I had not seen done before. It was to be the second novel in a Georgian trilogy and as part of the research I visited the Old Bailey site (www.oldbaileyonline.org/. - see blog of 17/11/2010). I used the facts and the proceedings taken from the Old Bailey record of the trial of Peter Shalley, Ref: t17900113-17 that took place in 1790. But it was much more than that: that case opened up much of the plot line for me – this man was terribly wronged, terribly let down by the judicial system. The thought occurred to me that this man had a life, and a story to tell; the real life story would never be known of course, never be told, but it could be a novel, a drama.

And so the hard part began, two years of writing the book, then rewriting, polishing the diamond, proof reading, copy editing until the final version was ready. A front story -  the Georgian courtroom drama, the back story -  the story of the past life of the lead character. The novel was published in October 2010.

And then what do I discover. The BBC have launched a series called, Garrow’s Law:  A Georgian courtroom drama. Well so much for writing something totally original.

After saying that I absolutely love the programme. This is not documentary it is drama.  Like me the writer has taken transcripts of real Old Bailey cases as the inspiration for his stories. There is a real flavour of the period and for the cruel, to our eyes, sentences. The death penalty commonly handed down for the most minor of offences - hanging for men, burning for women. Transportation, where a husband and father could be sent to the other side of the world, never to see his wife and children again, who were then left to starve in his absence. Bewildered children who themselves were transported never to see their parents again.

For those who are interested in reading more about Garrow’s Law I recommend the blog by the Guardian’s Mark Pallis at http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2010/nov/12/garrows-law-court-dramas

A Canopy of Stars by Stephen Taylor, published by DSC Publications. Available from Amazon and all good bookshops or direct from the publisher.


Sunday, 28 November 2010

The most famous man in England

The most famous man in England.

Does the name Daniel Mendoza mean anything to you – No! What if I was to tell you that he was the most famous man in England – still no? What if I was to tell you that he was a national hero – still no?

Well you haven’t heard of him because he was the most famous man in England around the year 1800. Well, you say; that’s why I have never heard of him, it was such a long time ago. That was in the Georgian period. But have you ever stopped to consider why somebody who was so famous is now totally forgotten. Lord Byron was a Georgian celebrity probably our first celebrity superstar, the rock singer of his day– but we haven’t forgotten about him. His exploits (he was a bit of a lad was old Byron) as well as his poetry are remembered today. So what did this guy Mendoza do then?

Well he was a pugilist, a boxer: the champion boxer of all England. Oh that’s all right then, you say. I’m not interested in that sort of thing. But this guy Mendoza was much more than that; he was a published author, a poet. When the Bank of England first issued paper money it was not for the populous – with an average income of less that £20 a years the ordinary people never saw them and small traders wouldn’t take them for fear it was counterfeit – that could represent the major part of a trader’s yearly profit. Mendoza issued his own money, notes for one penny, 3 pence and six pence (in old money there were 240 pence to the pound) with his own facsimile on it and used his fame and wealth to guarantee them. This was a man of intellect and commerce as well as fighting.

So why was he so famous: to our modern eyes these bare-knuckle fights were savage and bloodthirsty, but this was a time of cockfights, bear-bating and the stocks? Families enjoyed a holiday at public hangings, taking their children along to enjoy the spectacle; the condemned man’s writhing as the rope slowly strangled him did not distress such a crowd. There was clearly a bloodlust at these pugilistic encounters yet it was still considered a sport and the noblest of all sports at that. Pugilists were men who reflected what it was to be English: men who would stand up for what they believed was right and who followed a noble pastime. They mirrored what their contemporaries believed was a sort of honour: a man’s right to stand and fight for what was his, or what he believed to be right. All classes, although on the edge of the law, followed pugilism, from the king downwards. It had its own magazines, the most famous being Boxiana, and its own journalists such as Pierce Egan – they were widely read.

It had its own unofficial championship contested by Britain toughest men. These boxing stars took on enormous status – all young boys read about them and knew their statistics their height their weight their reach. They took on names such as the gravedigger – the jawbreaker – they were heroes that fought for honour and big money. To the authorities these rowdy gatherings spelt trouble but the pull of a prize-fight was hard to control.

So what made Mendoza different? He was a Jew in London at time when being Jewish was enough to be accosted in the street with little protection from the Law. In fact ‘Jew Bating’ verged on a national sport. So in reality he was not an obvious candidate for superstardom. The answer probably lay in his stature. He stood only 5 feet 7 inches and weighed approximately eleven and half stone; he was the epitome of the small man standing up to the big man to fight for what was right. In doing so he had to introduce a totally new style of boxing, to use his athleticism rather than stand toe to toe in the traditional manner. He is now regarded as the father of modern boxing.

His fame was enormous; he was presented to King George III, and had the Prince of Wales, later George IV as a patron. His achievements had a considerable effect outside the ring, raising the respectability of boxing and the social status of Jews. This was a remarkable man and there was obviously a fantastic story to be told.
My novel, No Quarter Asked No Quarter Given, is loosely based on the events in his life. Mendoza himself was such a complex character, so in developing the story, I have split his character into two separate people, one the honourable pugilist Samuel Medina, and the other the roguish Captain John Campbell-John, who has the personality of a charming con artist.

Daniel Mendoza (1764 – 1836).

If the reader is interested in learning more about Mendoza then I can recommend his autobiography – The Memoirs of Daniel Mendoza. He was a man of letters as well as fists.

No Quarter Asked No Quarter Given by Stephen Taylor, published by DSC Publications. Available from Amazon and all good bookshops or direct from the publisher. Short listed for the 2010 Britwriters Award

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Old Bailey

Did you know that you can view reports of criminal cases going back hundreds of years by logging onto the Old Bailey website? www.oldbaileyonline.org/.

In writing the novel A Canopy of Stars, I used the facts and the proceedings taken from the Old Bailey record of the trial of Peter Shalley, REF: T17900113-17 that took place in 1790. It is therefore actually 30 years before the date of David Neander’s trial and the proceedings may have changed in that period. I have sacrificed some accuracy in period to maintain the accuracy of those proceedings.

In 1790 there were over 200 crimes carrying the death penalty because the system was designed to protect the property of the rich and powerful. The concept of gaol is actually a Victorian invention – before then only the aristocracy (the Tower) or debtors were sent to prison.

There were reforms to the judicial system in the 1820’s when the number of crimes punishable by death was reduced. In addition in 1827 the threshold of the 40-shilling theft rule requiring a mandatory death sentence was raised to 100 shillings. By setting David’s trial in 1823 it would predate these reforms and he would indeed have been on trial for his life.

It is interesting looking at Peter Shalley's case that he was charged with steeling half a sheep that was valued at exactly 40s so making it a felony (not a misdemeanour) punishable by death. 40-shilling (or £2) converts now to £194 (using RPI) or a massive £2370 (using average earnings index) so from our modern perspective there seems to be a contrivance by the court and the prosecution to manufacture a death penalty – surely a half a sheep’s carcass could not have been worth such an amount. The jury in Peter Shalley’s case did not bring in a lesser verdict, but a guilty verdict with a recommendation for the kings mercy.