One advantage of the COVID Christmas of 2020 having being compressed to just one day is the extra time freed up for reading the books that Santa delivered.
Top of the heap for me, ahead of a talk by its author to Darlington Historical Society, has been The Horsekeeper’s Daughter. Author Jane Gulliford Lowes tells the true story of a 19th century woman’s journey from the mining villages of County Durham to the Queensland rainforest as she builds a new life in Australia.
I grew up with tales of the hardship of life in the mining communities around Fishburn and Trimdon in the early part of the 20th century, which I heard from family members. Almost a lifetime later there was still deep resentment of the gulf between the lifestyles and security of those who worked in the mines and of those who owned them. While the early chapters of the book are emersed in the pit village communities further to the north and a few decades earlier, the themes were familiar to me. I was however, fascinated by the detail of the industrial unrest of the period and the horror of the Seaham Colliery disaster of September 1880 in which 164 men and boys were killed, about which I knew nothing.
The book follows the story of Sarah Marshall, the daughter of horsekeeper Thomas Marshall, who worked with the pit ponies in the mines of County Durham. It explores her early working life in domestic service, and her decision to grasp the opportunities of a new life in Australia through the Single Female Migrant Scheme.
Throughout the book Jane paints colourful pictures of the life that Sarah lived. The depth of her research brings to life the historical facts of the hardships endured on the long sea journey to Australia. Richly recounted episodes, such as the escape of a Bengal tiger from a menagerie into the streets of Brisbane, add colour to the story of the new arrivals in the developing country. Documents and records are brought together to trace the life that Sarah and her family built in Queensland.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, which has given me a New Year’s resolution to pick up the threads of some of my own research which has been gathering dust for too long. Jane will be giving a talk on The Horsekeeper’s Daughter via Zoom on Wednesday 20th January 2021 as part of the Darlington Historical Society season. Their web site gives details of how to get access to the talk.