I never intended to write a novel about Mauricewood. I had started writing about a time in my life when two of my classmates were killed in violent accidents within eighteen months of each other. The trigger was a school photograph of our class taken just before the first one died. Thinking about my life then reminded me of visits to my Granny Robson’s house. She was my great grandmother and much loved in the family because she was a generous, warm-hearted woman. Her name was Martha. I knew that her father had been a victim of the Mauricewood Disaster when she was about the same age as I was when my classmates were killed so I thought that, in the novel, she would be a good person to have explaining how sudden death might affect a child, and help the younger me of the story to come to terms with it.
I had two or three scant details about Mauricewood. Granny Robson had told me that her father was killed in the disaster – it was clear that it had always been referred to as The Disaster – and that they’d found his piece box floating in the water of the flooded mine. The only other snippet I had was that my mother recalled her granny telling her that she’d twiddled the button on the jacket of one of the soldiers who had lined the streets for the main funeral procession of the victims. I also remembered her telling me her most treasured memory of her father – the day he bought her a pair of buttoning boots and how proud she was of them. I wanted to find out more about this tragedy in her life and about the man who’d bought those boots.
The emotional impact of reading accounts of the fire in the pit at Mauricewood and its after-effects was immense. The details of what had happened to those down the mine that day were as horrific as the discovery that they need not have died if recent legislation had been better implemented was enraging. Sixty-three men and boys – the youngest aged twelve were killed. They left 29 widows and 104 orphaned children as well as several mothers whose sons were their only means of financial support. Thirty-six were unaccounted for when they sealed the pit with concrete on the second day of the Disaster to try to put out the fire thus condemning any left alive below to certain death. I discovered that Granny Robson’s father’s name was David – the name she had given to my grandfather and the name I had given my son. I discovered that he was one of those buried alive and whose bodies were not recovered for six months. I found her name and that of her sister on the list of orphans provided for by a Fund set up to relieve financial distress. I discovered that my great-great-grandfather was working as a drawer – pulling cartloads of ironstone – and that he was thirty-two. The contemporary printed list of the dead described him as leaving a widow as well as two daughters. I presumed that this was a mistake – as far as we knew, my great grandmother lived with her grandparents and her father in Penicuik. It also became apparent when they finally got to those who’d been trapped that they had not all died immediately; they had built at least two barriers against the smoke and flames, one of them four feet thick, behind which they had waited in vain for rescue. I wept for them then and was in tears on many subsequent occasions as I wrote the story of Mauricewood.
I started to write little vignettes, possible scenes imagining the child Martha’s childhood. I wrote a sentimental scene showing her birth in which it was obvious that her mother would die. I imagined Martha and her sister interacting with their bad-tempered granny (it was well known in the family that they had had a hard life with her) and their father. I wrote a short scene in which I imagined her father leaving for work that fateful morning and giving Martha the last of his warm milky tea to drink before cuddling her back down to sleep.
But this scenario was blown out of the water when I went to visit my mother’s aunt, Nellie, Granny Robson’s youngest daughter and still sharp as a pin at nearly 100 to see if she knew any more about the Disaster than we did. It became obvious that Granny hadn’t said much about it to the rest of the family either. As with many of her generation, she didn’t wallow in her misfortune; such feelings were a private matter. She just got on with things, worked hard and looked after her family. It was as if it was unseemly to talk so much about personal misfortune when one was born into a generation for whom there was little or no welfare other than the Poor House and who lived through two world wars and a Depression.
But Aunty Nellie did have other information. She told me that Martha and her sister had been sent to Innerleithen to live with their paternal grandparents when Martha was only three weeks old. She told me about the kinds of unpleasantness they’d had to endure at the hands of their grandmother: treated like skivvies and not even allowed up to the table to eat their meals. And their grandmother had been a staunch Salvationist. For the whole of her life, Granny Robson held the Salvation Army in disdain – she’d chase anyone who tried to sell her a War Cry. Aunty Nellie also told me that her mother had loved it when she was sent away to Edinburgh to work for the painter Henry Dobson who was a native of Innerleithen. She helped in the house and with the children. Henry Dobson used her as model in several of his paintings – she was renowned for her beautiful complexion. She also told me that the records were correct in that Martha’s father had married again. She told a story about a memory of a man turning up one day at her mother’s door and him being the son of this second wife. The existence of this second wife proved instrumental in providing me with the character of Jess.
Martha’s story took over at this point. Here was a horrific human tragedy, largely forgotten or unheard of; a story tied in with the contemporary fight for workers’ rights and the beginnings of the Labour Movement; a story of a community’s resilience set against the backdrop of the society wherein that resilience was forged. She lived till she was ninety-one. I was thirteen when she died. The story of her life in the aftermath of Mauricewood was well known in the family as there were people alive to tell it: she’d worked hard; she’d been a loving mother who’d struggled through the Great War with four children; her husband fought in France but was wounded so gravely that he lay for a whole year in a hospital in Cambridge before he could return home, and was never again fit for full-time work. Her family wished for nothing more than that she live her later life at ease. I saw her most weekends when I went to my grandparents’ as she lived one gate down with her oldest son, Uncle Willie. We’d have our lunch and then pop down to say hello. There would be something to take: a piece of apple tart or shortbread that my Nana had baked, something tasty left over from lunch. I’d sit on the black vinyl couch with the red moquette cushions that had been one of the things bought when Uncle Willie won £2000 in a competition in the newspaper. I’d get a drink of juice and a home-made ginger snap or a slice of melon in the summer, and we’d chat. Often as not she’d be knitting socks; I still have some of them. On Sunday afternoons we might play gin rummy.
Hers became one of the main narrative voices of The Mauricewood Devils. Although I didn’t find this easy at first: I agonised over making a fiction of her life. But once I got over this, the overwhelming compunction was towards making her story the basis of an act of restorative justice for all those lost at Mauricewood.