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Thursday, 10 November 2016

The rewards of research, guest blog from Dawn Harris

Welcome to Regency mystery writer, Dawn Harris, who is my guest today.  Needless to say, her books are on my wishlist!  

                            THE REWARDS OF RESEARCH.

My favourite period in history is from 1789-1820, inspired by the works of Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, Baroness Orczy (Scarlet Pimpernel), and Winston Graham (Poldark). So, naturally, that was the era in which I set my first book, a mystery thriller, and when I discovered the joys of research.
I started with newspapers published in 1793, eager to see how people lived through the French Revolution and the war with France. And what I read took my breath away.
It brought to life the very real fears of a French invasion, and that some émigrés fleeing from the revolution in France, were in fact spies. There was turmoil over the Corresponding Societies, who were campaigning for all working men to be given the vote, as the Government feared these societies were using this as a cover for starting a French style revolution in Britain.
Smuggling was a huge problem then too, and as this was going to play a big part in my story, I concentrated on researching that first. On the Isle of Wight, (where I set my book), there were so many inlets and beaches where contraband could be taken ashore, that the men whose job it was to catch the smugglers must have had a tough time of it. One of the first things I came across in my search for facts was a memorial tablet in Whippingham church, which read,

 'Sacred to the memory of Wm Arnold, Esq, late Collector of HM Customs in the Port of Cowes, Isle of Wight. A man who by his amiable as well as faithful discharge, justly entitled him to the warmest esteem and affection of all who were permanently or occasionally associated with him in business, society or domestic ties. The public, his friends and his family feel and deplore the loss sustained by his death on March 5, 1801, aged 55.'

I was aware that some officials took bribes from smugglers, but this memorial, and other details I discovered about William Arnold, suggested he had not done so. That made me eager to find out more about him, and his efforts to curb the activities of the large number of smugglers on the Island. And I finally struck gold in a second-hand book shop on the Island. I found a book on his life. Another breathtaking moment.
It told me how he came to be the Collector of Customs at Cowes in 1777, and in the following year was made deputy Postmaster for the Island too. Appointments that meant he was often the first to hear news from the outside world.  Some of the letters he wrote are included in the book, and help to show the kind of caring man he was.
I learnt too that he was the father of Thomas Arnold, the famous headmaster of Rugby school, and grandfather of Matthew Arnold, the poet.
The book made clear that William Arnold was a highly respected, well-liked, honest official, who believed in doing his duty. He had a number of men to assist him, including  Riding Officers and Boatmen, but what he didn’t have at Cowes was a Revenue cutter to help him and his men catch smugglers. The Commissioners of Customs in London repeatedly turned down his appeals for such a boat, and in the end he, and one of his brothers-in-law, used their own money to purchase a cutter.
 Sadly, disaster struck within a month, when the boat, the ’Swan,’ was lost in a terrible gale, when chasing smugglers. Worse still, it had not yet been insured. That was a dreadful blow for him, but it persuaded the Commissioners of Customs to replace the boat. The letters he wrote to his wife’s brother in New York, eloquently showed his feelings at the time.
In those days much of the population either helped the smugglers, or were happy for a keg of brandy to be left by a rear door. A labourer working on the land could earn more in one night’s smuggling than in a week on a farm.
Smugglers needed to be good seamen too, especially if they planned to land their contraband on the Back of the Island. This was one of the quietest areas, but the underwater ledges here caused many a ship to come to grief over the centuries. As they still can.
The wily ways smugglers used to avoid being caught said much for their ingenuity! Some  sunk their illegal goods off-shore and collected them later when the coast was clear. Others hauled the stuff up cliffs with ropes. Or hid goods in ditches, under barn floors, in hayricks, or buried them in sand on the beach. Getting contraband off the beaches to a safe spot could be difficult, but some used ponies, covering their hooves with sacking so that they wouldn’t leave a trail. While a false trail was left in the opposite direction by using a horseshoe stuck on the end of a stick. Smugglers also made excellent spies, for they knew how to keep their mouths shut.
      Finding that book was a great piece of luck and was definitely one of the rewards of research. 

I put William Arnold into my first book. I like to use real people in with my own characters as I think it strengthens the book and makes it more authentic. The fact that he wrote letters to his brother-in-law in New York is also woven into my plot, giving crucial, but (I hope) inconspicuous clues to the identity of the murderer. William Arnold plays a vital role in the story and particularly in the ‘race against time,’ ending.

Sources “At War with the Smugglers,” by Rear-Admiral D. Arnold-Forster C.M.G.
“Smuggling on Wight Island,” by R.F.W. Dowling.

Potted Biography: 
I was born in Gosport, Hampshire, but have lived in North Yorkshire most of my life. I had a lot of short stories published in women’s magazines before I tried books, and still write the occasional one.

My Drusilla Davanish mysteries are:
“Letter From a Dead Man.” available here
“The Fat Badger Society.” available here
And I’m working on a third.

I’ve also written a 1930s thriller, The Ebenezer Papers, and  two volumes of short stories, ,Dinosaur Island and .The Case of the Missing Bridegroom

All books available at as well, and other Amazon outlets. 


  1. Research is my favourite part of working on a story too. How did you get hold of those early newspapers - in the library or online? Our National Library has newspapers dating back to 1805, digitised so you can find them online. And isn't it wonderful to find "that" book in a secondhand shop?

    I can certainly see why local farmhands and fishermen would want to supplement their income with a bit of tax-free import. ;-)

    1. I subscribe to The Times Archive, which has newspapers online from 1785 to 1985. It costs me around £100 a year, and is well worth it. It tells you so many fascinating things. During the French Revolution there were often lists of those who had been guillotined on a certain day, complete with their ages and occupations. One day there was a woman of 80 and another 78. I saw a man of 85 too. I've often wanted to know the whereabouts of Mr. Pitt, or the King, on a certain day, and you can usually find that out too. There's screeds of stuff about Robespierre, and reading about his downfall, as it happened is fascinating too. I used it for my 1930s book too, so useful for the Mrs. Simpson and Edward V111 crisis, and what people thought of the Nazis at the time. The adverts are so interesting too. I could go on and on..............!!

  2. I'll answer as well as waiting for Dawn, I use the British Newspapers Online site and consider it well worthwhile paying £80 a year for it.

  3. and it's worth looking out because certainly the British Archive Online often offers discounts

  4. Thanks for the recommendation! I read Letter from a Dead Man and it's a lovely mystery with a very likeable protagonist. I love Regency spying and smuggling stories, although I haven't yet encountered a spying story set in the pre-Napoleonic era. It's interesting to know that Mr. Arnold is a real historical character. I'm going to read the second book as well.

  5. Thanks for letting us both know, Agnes, I am glad you enjoyed it! I haven't had time to read lately, but you have reminded me that I should maybe make time ...