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Travel to Scarlet Town with Leonora Nattrass

  • Submitted: 9th June 2024

Travel to Scarlet Town with Leonora Nattrass

Hop in your time machine as we are off to the time of the French Revolution – With Leonora Nattrass

Helston map (c) Emily Rainsford

Helston map (c) Emily Rainsford

Locations in Scarlet Town

Scarlet Town is the third book in my Laurence Jago series of historical mysteries set at the time of the French Revolution. The British authorities were terrified that a similar revolution would happen here, and were determined to stop it.

The first novel, Black Drop, is set in London and the second, Blue Water, on a Post Office ship bound for America. Scarlet Town sees my hero, Laurence Jago, return to England via the port of Falmouth in Cornwall. He stops off in his Cornish home town of Helston, only to discover the town is plunged into excitement. A general election is in progress!

Locations in Scarlet Town

If the authorities were fearful of revolution, Helston was an example of why that might be so. An important ‘stannary town’ for the Cornish tin trade, it sent two MPs to Parliament.  And yet its entire electorate now consisted of one 80 year old man!

Scarlet Town Leonora Nattrass

In real life this led to a political scandal in 1790, on which the story Scarlet Town is loosely based. I actually doubled the electorate by adding a second, fictional old elector at the start of the novel. But historical accuracy was restored by the end of chapter one with his mysterious murder!

Locations in Scarlet Town

Research was fairly easy, as I live locally and could wander the streets whenever I needed to check a fact or location. I used the first detailed census records from 1840 to repopulate the teeming streets with householders, shopkeepers and servants.

I mapped old shops onto the present buildings and was pleased to find a great deal unchanged. Helston has more listed buildings than any other town in Cornwall, and this has marvellously protected its centre. Nowadays, the town is most famous for its ancient Flora Day festival in May. Large crowds watch as the inhabitants dance in and out of the houses and gardens to a famous tune.

Locations in Scarlet Town

The Angel (c) Leonora Nattrass

The Angel (c) Leonora Nattrass

When Laurence arrives in Helston he finds his old employer, the Duke of Leeds, ensconced in the top storey of the Angel, the main coaching inn for the town, along with the Duke’s family and his protégé Sir James Burgess. The Duke fully expects Burgess to be elected by the two old men, with whom he has a long-standing pecuniary arrangement!

But the mayor of Helston, in his grand house, The Willows, has other ideas. He and the Helston town corporation have set up a rival electorate of thirty-two men. They intend to challenge the Duke’s supremacy and vote for a candidate of their own.

Locations in Scarlet Town

The surgery(c) Leonora Nattrass

The surgery(c) Leonora Nattrass

Also newly arrived in town is Laurence’s cousin, Pythagoras Jago. He is acting as locum for the town’s doctor. His small, shabby surgery stands across the street from the Guildhall at the crossroads. A surviving sketch shows that, at the time of my story, the Guildhall was a quaint old Tudor building. (Sadly the Victorians chose to replace it with something grander which still survives.)

It is here, at the Guildhall, that the old elector is found dead at the start of my novel. The old man has apparently choked on smoke in a small cupboard, while inexplicably burning the parish records. (In Helston’s real history, one of the old electors did indeed burn many records, to the loss of all subsequent town historians!)

Locations in Scarlet Town

John Scorn's House (c) Leonora Nattrass

John Scorn’s House (c) Leonora Nattrass

Not long after this murder, the second old elector, John Scorn, falls dreadfully ill and Pythagoras hurries to treat him. Scorn lives on Meneage Street, in a grand but shabby house next door to the thriving Rodney Inn. The real house (formerly a bank) has in fact been empty for some time. Its present day peeling window paint and air of sad neglect is exactly how I imagine John Scorn’s house. And John Scorn himself, has fallen equally on hard times.

Locations in Scarlet Town

The Angel (c) Leonora Nattrass

The Angel (c) Leonora Nattrass

On election day, Coinagehall Street is a mass of excited bodies, not to mention the presence of a famous performing pig. Can Laurence navigate the crowds to solve the murder? Who will win the vote, the Duke or the mayor? I love Helston even more for spending time in its riotous eighteenth-century streets and hope readers of the novel will do so too!

 

 

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