Chapter three of The Spyders of Burslem: what is historically correct?

This is a note on the historical accuracy of “Chapter Three: The Raising of the Zodiac” of the North Staffordshire novel The Spyders of Burslem:—

Brickhouse and the Cock Yard are real, and can still be walked down, although in the 1970s the western side of Brickhouse was marred by modern shop units in the ugly ‘municipal socialism’ style. Below is an old view of the alley and the yard off it. For the purposes of a later chapter of the novel the Cock Yard has to be more enclosed, and so it is envisaged as having a wall and entrance into it from Brickhouse…

The Cock Yard was indeed used for cock-fighting, a sport which had been abolished by 1869.

The portrayal of John Ruskin is accurate. He did have ginger hair, and he was famously worried about the fossil hunters destroying faith in the historical ‘truth’ of the Bible. He was a…

“London art critic and champion of the Pre-Raphaelite school of English painting, and more recently a great practical advocate of the education of girls and young women”

Above: the young Ruskin.

Ruskin also donated his books to the Wedgwood Institute library. It’s not known if he ever visited the Instutute, but he travelled widely inspecting education, so he may have. Ruskin did write one of the first real fantasy novels, The King of the Golden River (1841), and also the second book mentioned, The Queen of the Air (1869) which was “a study of the Greek myths of cloud and storm” rather than a novel. He did not, however, write the latter for little Rudyard Kipling.

Ruskin’s friend William Morris did live in Leek, in the Staffordshire Moorlands — although in reality that was a little later than 1869, between 1875 – 1878. The novel has shifted those dates to imagine him in Leek in 1869, thus giving Ruskin a reason to visit North Staffordshire.

Rudyard Kipling’s father John Lockwood Kipling did design the façade of the Wedgwood Institute in Burslem. The Zodiac frieze is real, and can still be seen today. The bas-reliefs for Cancer and Aries are indeed reversed, which is used in the novel…

In 1869, Rudyard Kipling would have been about four years old, not the seven years old imagined in the novel.

Ruskin’s reference to Horace Walpole and the wider architectural influences that his horror genre spawned is historically correct.

Psychographs (photographics in which human feelings are recorded) are an obvious invention of the novel. They are introduced in the Curiosities Room because they play a crucial part later in the novel.

Some of Thomas Wedgwood’s earliest photographs were indeed of leaves, probably made at the Etruria Hall near Burslem…

The skull of an auroch was indeed found on a gravel bank of the Fowlea — but that was later, in 1877.

The North Staffordshire Field Club was a real organisation, founded in 1865.

Carnivorous “living fossils”, found in the mines and on display in the Curiosities Room, are an obvious invention of the novel.

Priestley did discover oxygen, and his bust is enshrined above the Wedgwood Institute entrance.

The Birmingham “toy trade” was actually something different. But the novel imagines it to be “small clockwork toys”, which are on display in the Institute’s Curiosities Room.

Feeling earth tremors and experiencing earth slippage was indeed common in Burslem in the 20th century. Possibly also in the 19th century, although in 1869 the deep coal mines had only been sunk for a matter of a decade or so.

The comment by a craftsman about an “angel satyr” is an allusion to Kilvert.


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