Browsing the personal columns of old newspapers is one of my guilty pleasures. They are ripe with intrigue, imagery and unfinished stories. Did ‘S.T.’ ever get to say to ‘R.P.’ the ‘three or four words that in all probability will make much difference’ and did the ‘nice quiet gold-cream Bedsitting room in Chelsea’ find the ‘careful tenant’ it desired?
It was on one such rich page from a 1938 edition of the The Times that I spotted, squeezed between adverts for Whitsand Bay Hotel in Cornwall and Miss Oliver’s High Colonic Irrigation, the two-lines that sparked my idea for The Companion:
CHILD COMPANION WANTED age 6-7, for boy
7 – Capt. Hall, M.F.H., St Breward, Bodmin.
Who was this lonely boy who lived on Bodmin Moor? Why had Captain Hall decided he needed a companion? What would be the circumstances of the family who would put forward their own child for the position? Would the boys become bosom friends, or mortal enemies? Was there a Mrs Hall?
I found some likely answers. The boy on Bodmin Moor was probably Robin Hall, son of Captain Robin Henry Edwin Hall, Lord of the Manor and his wife Margaret Hall. Mrs Hall was a founder member of St Breward Women’s Institute in 1928, although she apparently later said the WI was “not really my cup of tea. Dressmaking and cookery are definitely not for me”. They had an older son Samuel who died aged 20 in the Second World War. Of the ‘companion’ I can find no further mention.
But by the time I’d found this out my own version of the story had already started to form. My two boys are Billy and Jasper, aged 11, going on 12, and living not on Bodmin, but on the West Yorkshire Moors between Haworth and Hebden Bridge. Jasper’s guardians are not a Master of the Fox Hounds and his wife, but Edie and Charles Harper, brother and sister novelists who have sought seclusion and inspiration in the wilds of Yorkshire.
I’m pretty sure Edie would be in agreement with Mrs Hall about the lack of appeal of ‘dressmaking and cookery’. An evening of gin-tasting, as recently hosted by my local WI, would be more her style.
If you’re tempted by the thought of historical personal columns, a good place to start is The Times Digital Archive. Editions going right back to 1785 are fully searchable and browsable. Most public libraries offer it as part of their online reference resources, so all you need to get started is your library card. Some libraries also give access to The Guardian from 1821 and The Observer from 1791. If you are very lucky they may also subscribe to ‘British Library Newspapers 1730 – 1950’, which includes local as well as national newspapers and is a wonderful place to lose a few hours! For the fully committed the British Newspaper Archive with over 200 searchable titles is a fantastic resource for research and inquisitiveness, though access is by subscription.