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  • Wendy Percival

Truth, fiction and an unbelievable coincidence

Imagine you’ve settled down to read a novel when you suddenly spot the name of one of your ancestors in the text. And not just any ancestor but one who’d always been a mystery, hidden behind a brick wall. In an amazing coincidence, this happened a few days ago to someone reading the second Esme Quentin book, The Indelible Stain.


In The Indelible Stain, Esme has to delve into the dark history of 19th century convict transportation to solve the mystery of fictional character Sarah Baker who's found guilty of theft and is transported to Australia for her crime.


I always like to weave true historical facts into my books to put them into context and to add interest to the stories.


As The Indelible Stain is set in North Devon, I visited the North Devon Records Office (as Esme would do as part of her investigation) to browse the records for court cases of real people convicted in Devon at the time my fictional character would have gone on trial.


Here’s an extract from the novel (the real people's names are shown in bold.)



Esme pencilled her notes on Sarah and browsed the records for other unfortunates who had found themselves the victim of the system; eleven-year-old Mary Ann Cutliffe, transported for seven years for stealing money in Barnstaple market and accomplices Elizabeth Leverton, William Litson and William Morris for blackmailing a ‘respectable inhabitant’ for his alleged homosexuality.


Ruth [Esme's friend] had told her the story of a local girl, Jane Willis, found guilty of stealing a quantity of silk and calico. Jane had railed against her conviction and escaped from Bideford prison with the help of her family. The local paper recounted with relish the tale of her being tracked down by the district’s first policeman and his posse, and returned to custody. From here, she was conveyed, as Sarah Baker would also have been, to the hulks of London’s Woolwich, the fate of all Devon’s female prisoners as they awaited a ship to transport them ‘across the seas’.


Mystery ancestor


Seeing the name William Litson made one US reader sit bolt upright! Surely, this must be her ancestor? She immediately got in touch and we exchanged excited emails, establishing that William Litson was indeed her ancestor. Although she’d known he came from Barnstaple in Devon, she knew little else, other than he was a mysterious figure who was never spoken about, and whose wife and children had emigrated to the US.


It was believed that William had been sent to Australia as a debtor. A letter to William’s son in the family archives reads, "the bad trouble that happened to your father, and no time was allowed to build up a defense."

The case appeared in local newspaper, The North Devon Journal, in October 1841.


A summary of the trial also appears in, More North Devon History, by local historian, Peter Christie.


The blackmail victim was publican Edwin Drake. Elizabeth Leverton had been his servant and claimed to have discovered Drake in a compromising position with a young man. She and her lover, William Litson, demanded Drake pay them the sum of £20 for their silence.


Fearful for his life (homosexuality still being a hanging offence in 1841) Drake paid up but when William Morris got wind of the scam a few days later and demanded a further £5, Drake obviously decided enough was enough and brought in the police.


Banished


The jury took little time in finding all three guilty of blackmail. Elizabeth Leverton was sentenced to 15 years transportation, the men both received 20 years. An order was issued in November 1841 to convey the prisoners to Woolwich, from where they were sent to Van Diemen’s Land (present day Tasmania) to serve their sentence.


Extract from The North Devon Journal, November 1841, courtesy of British Newspaper Archives.

My reader was thrilled by her discovery, especially as it has now given her new leads to follow to add extra information to the family story.


I’m intrigued to learn more about William Litson and plan to see if I can find out what happened to him and his fellow conspirators after their journey "across the seas".


So, watch this space!




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