GUEST BLOG: Murder, he wrote
25th June 2012 - 12 Midnight Peter Moore
Peter Moore explains how a chance discovery in the parish records of a small Worcestershire village led to his writing Damn His Blood, the story of a 19th-century murder that gripped the nation 24 years after it was committed.
To borrow a phrase from a friend: the best things in life happen when you don't get what you think you want. And so it was with Damn His Blood.
Back in the spring of 2008 I was newly enrolled on an MA course in Creative Writing at City University in Islington. It was the first year that the non-fiction branch of the course had run and I was one of a group of ten or so, all of us busily plotting ideas for the 60,000-word book we each had to produce.
By now I'd already spent six months thinking and writing about shell shock, and was trying to tease out the opaque biography of a distant relative who'd fought and suffered badly in the First World War.
But circumstances had played against me. Letters and medical reports had been lost or didn't exist, army records were too breezily laconic to offer any real help and as a result I'd be forced to start combing through school books, registers and parish histories to help me find any trace of this man who was swiftly becoming more of a shadow than a personality - like a man who didn't want to be found.
This pursuit brought me to a parish history of his childhood village in Worcestershire. And though there was no sign of him here either, at the back of the pamphlet was this compelling feature about a local murder story - a murder that had been committed just after the turn of the nineteenth century in a thinly populated village, just two miles away.
The article told that on Midsummer Day, 1806, a clergyman, Reverend George Parker, had been shot and clubbed to death as he collected his cows from his glebe meadows. A querulous, hard-headed man, Parker had become a figure of hate to some in the village because of his vicious collection of the tithe - the church tax. There had been little doubt at the time that his execution had been planned and commissioned by those farmers he had confronted and embarrassed.
But this was not the immediate draw of the story, though: that came from what happened next. A jobbing wheelwright and carpenter, known as the local rogue, had been disturbed at the scene and pursued into the fields until he had disappeared. Thereafter he was never seen again, and one gone he left behind him a mystery that was not solved for more than two decades. This mystery had come to define the village, leaving it damned or wretched in the minds of many.
Over the next few months I was drawn back to this story again and again, and it slowly began to fill my imagination. I travelled to Worcester Records' Office and read a fascinating unpublished brief for the prosecution which included almost a hundred witness statements, and to Kew to sift through assize documents, letters and memoranda. At the British Library Archive in Colindale I found the story had been reported in vast detail in newspapers across the United Kingdom; that two Home Secretaries had been involved and that it had come to be regarded as one of the highlights of 1830 - the year the case erupted.
I researched and wrote Damn His Blood over the three years that followed, trying to use the case as a prism for the history that was happening around it - and trying above all to tell the story of a rural Georgian parish at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
And in the funny ways that books work, four years after beginning I find that I don't mention shell shock once.
© 2012 Peter Moore
Comments via Facebook