#MyrtleMondays: Talking to Victorian Britain about Racial Violence in America

Americans are talking about lynching, while overseas, people are protesting in solidarity for what’s happening in the United States. We’re seeing this today, in 2020—but this was also the case in the late 19th century, when anti-lynching activist Ida Wells went on her lecture tour of England and Ireland. (more…)

#MyrtleMondays: Demonstrating Against Injustice in the Victorian Age


I generally keep things light over here, but as an author of murder mysteries for kids, I try never to forget that the reality of murder is always an ugly, dirty, painful business. And while we want our police to be the heroes in the pursuit of justice, that’s not always the case.

Protests against injustice are a time-honored method of encouraging social change—large and small. Indeed, they form the foundation of some of our most significant historical events. The killing of several anti-British protestors, including eleven-year-old Christopher Seider and a mixed-race man, Crispus Attucks, during demonstrations in Boston in the winter of 1770 helped spark the Revolutionary War—which, in turn, led the framers of the Constitution to include protections for the right of Americans to peaceably assemble for the redress of grievances.

Paul Revere’s incendiary engraving of British troops firing on colonial protesters during the Boston Massacre helped build support for the American Revolution

This right was secured in part because of England’s Riot Act of 1714 – 1967, which permitted authorities to disperse any groups of twelve or more people, if local officials determined that they were “unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together.” Violating the Riot Act was a felony, subject to the death penalty (more than 200 offences were capital crimes in England in the 18th century—everything from murder to shoplifting to cutting down somebody else’s trees). There was a catch, however. Officials had to publicly invoke the riot act before the assembled crowd in order for the law to be enforced (“reading the riot act”).

The English government felt such a law was warranted because the 18th and 19th centuries saw so many spirited demonstrations against all sorts of injustice, including religious strife in the 1710s (during which the law was enacted), voting rights in the 1860s (during the Hyde Park riots), and 1887’s Bloody Sunday, in which years of economic depression boiled over among London’s working class, and an organized march turned into a violent clash with the police.

The Hyde Park suffrage riots of 1866, from Illustrated London News

Some demonstrations were more locally focused.  Just like we’re seeing today, it was not unusual for people to gather to protest miscarriages of justice. In 1871, after the man accused of the brutal murder of sixteen-year old Jane Clouson was acquitted, protests broke out among supporters of both sides of the issue: those who felt justice was served demonstrated near the Old Bailey courthouse, and those who did not marched, chanted, and carried effigies outside the home of defendant Edmund Pook for five consecutive nights.

Newspapers printed pictures of the Pook family home, so protesters could easily locate the target of their rage

What had so enraged the public following the trial? Pook was the more privileged son of Clouson’s employers (she was a maid-of-all-work in the Pook household), and the locals, the working-class folk of her neighborhood, considered Jane Clouson a part of their community. In their eyes, this was yet another example of the rich and privileged getting away with injustice at the expense of the poor. Those protesting at the courthouse felt that the acquittal was the result of shoddy and malicious police work: believing police had framed the innocent Pook, they considered his acquittal a victory of jurisprudence.

In the second Myrtle Hardcastle Mystery, How to Get Away with Myrtle, Myrtle encounters protesters outside the local police station, demanding justice for a murder victim. This was one aspect of the 19th century justice system I wanted to illustrate—proof that it’s not always the powers that be that must secure our most treasured freedoms, but we the people. Such demonstrations have historically served as the final recourse of people who feel their concerns have too long gone unheard.

For more historical perspective on the current events, here are some useful links:

Protests and Riots at History.com

Lesson Plans on Civil Disobedience at PBS.org

Articles and Essays on the Civil Rights Movement at the Library of Congress


#MyrtleMondays: Fun at the Victorian Seaside, Caught on Film!

Memorial Day, although a solemn holiday of remembrance since its post-Civil War origins (read more about the observance and its history at History.com), has long been considered the unofficial kickoff of the summer holidays in America. And though we’re all hopefully still staying safely away from crowded beaches this year, spending a sunny (or chilly) summer day at the seaside was just as popular in the Victorian age. In fact, thanks to the railroads and the development of the modern workweek (and the modern middle class), you could say the Victorian English invented the modern seaside vacation!

image by Jenn at Centuries Sewing | Doll costume made by ecb

The second Myrtle Hardcastle Mystery, How to Get Away with Myrtle (October 6), takes place in an English seaside holiday town in 1893, and today I’d like to share some wonderful early films that capture all the fun of this enduring pastime.

Motion pictures weren’t quite available yet in 1893, but they were coming—and swiftly. These films span the earliest days of the movie industry, and cover all the amenities a holidaymaker could ask for, then and now: promenading on the pier, taking a paddle steamer out to sea, frolicking on the beach, and enjoying musical entertainments. Technology and fashion might advance a bit, but fun stays the same. (Their notion of sun protection was far ahead of ours, however!)

A fashion magazine’s idealized image of the beach in the 1880s

So fix yourself a glass of lemonade or an ice cream soda, kick back, and enjoy these first viral videos of families enjoying the beach! (While you stay well away from any viral beach activities.)

First up, the earliest piece is by the Lumiere Brothers, pioneers of French filmmaking, and features the arrival of a train at the French seaside village of La Ciotat in 1895.  From the oncoming locomotive to the bustling platform and the travelling clothes (and bundles! What do they all have in those bundles?!) of the waiting passengers, this colorized version brings this everyday event vividly to life, 124 years later.

Next up is a lovely afternoon (or a couple) at Blackpool, a resort town in northwest England. By the time this film was shot in 1904, Blackpool was already famous for its Tower, completed ten years earlier: a metal monument inspired by the Eiffel Tower in France. It still stands today, and was—and remains—a major attraction. You can catch a glimpse of it—and much more—in this film featuring the Blackpool Pier (ambient sound effects and music have been added). I keep thinking how cold everyone looks!

Finally, we have some great footage from 1900 of the paddle steamer Brighton Queen pulling into a jetty in Sussex to allow the passengers to disembark. These steam-powered vessels carried holidaymakers from larger towns with railway termini to smaller seaside villages where the trains didn’t run. Such a ship plays a pivotal role in How to Get Away with Myrtle

Living in the landlocked Midwest, it will be some time before I see a beach again, but Myrtle’s seaside holiday begins on October 6.

Cover artist Brett Helquist perfectly captured the spirit of 19th century travel posters

Happy Summer, everyone! Stay safe!


ps: For more information on the doll ensemble shown above, click here.