Put through the mill

Blastburn illustration: Simon Bartram 2014

We continue our explorations (note: with *spoilers*) of Joan Aiken’s Midnight is a Place (1974) by listing those people mentioned as living in Blastburn, the town in the northeast of Albion that features in this alternate history fiction, set in 1842.

Though truly no justification is needed as to why I go into such detail, here is a brief summary, a kind of apologia, of my reasons:

  1. Art for art’s sake — these details are there to be enjoyed for anyone immersing themselves in the narrative.
  2. Personal satisfaction — literary sleuthing, such as digging out influences and parallels, is a deeply pleasing activity.
  3. Education, education, education — discovering the hows and whys, the whos and whats, and the whens and wheres of the plot and characters encourages one to range widely outside the confines of a book’s narrative, revealing gaps in this reader’s (and perhaps others’?) knowledge and understanding. No bad thing, in my book.

In fact all about Exploring the world of ideas through books!

And now, on with the show.


An industrial town in northeast Albion, in the equivalent of our Yorkshire, probably based on the mill town of Halifax in West Yorkshire and the port of Kingston-upon-Hull in East Yorkshire; ‘plentifully supplied with church clocks’ which although striking every quarter hour were not all in agreement (as metaphors go, quite apt)

Joan Aiken will have been familiar with the history of mills that built the industrial base of towns like Halifax, and probably also with literary examples such as Hollow’s Mill and the Stillbro’ works in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, to name just one example

Midnight Mill

Murgatroyd’s Carpet, Rug and Matting Manufactory, Strand Gate, founded by Sir Quincy Murgatroyd, is the largest mill in Blastburn, around which the town was built up.

Sir Randolph Grimsby wins the Mill and Midnight Court dishonestly and continues to gamble, losing money and cutting wages at the Mill

Mr Gammel. Accounts. An Old Norse Viking name meaning ‘old’.
Bertram Smallside. Manager at start of the novel.
Jobson. Appears to have replaced David Scatcherd as foreman when Scatcherd is jailed for agitating better working conditions and fair pay. Chartism, advocating reforms during the period 1837-48, was a movement that aroused suspicion, resentment and antagonism from many landowners and industrialists.
Mr Graveside. Manager, replacing Smallside later in the novel.
Noakes. Mill worker. The name derives from the Old English surname atten Oakes, meaning someone who lived by oak trees or an oak grove and related to the name Aiken.
Goadby. Another mill worker. A Leicestershire placename.
Barth, Stewkley, Danby, Bloggs. Trimmers at the textile mill.
David Scatcherd. Foreman (?) or trimmer (?) who shows Lucas around Midnight Mill. The name Scatcherd is likely to have been inspired by Miss Scatcherd in Jane Eyre, a bullying teacher at Lowood School which Jane attended as a child. However, Davey is a Scatcherd who actually stands up to bullies, whether from management or from intimidatory colleagues. He wears an eyepatch, from a previous injury.

Janey Herdman. Girl who was run down by a truck; Anna-Marie is given her overalls to wear when she’s taken on as a claw-cleaner.
Rose Sproggs. Young woman of indeterminate age (between 18 and 25) who supports Anna-Marie and warns her against the not-so-amiable Friendly Association.
Sam Melkinthorpe. Glue-mixer who is rescued by Lucas after he meets with an ‘accident’ following an inability to pay protection money to Bob Bludward.
Mr Blaydon. In charge of pressing room.
Jinny Braithwaite, killed by the descending press. Her sisters Jean and Nance also deceased, fatalities at the mill.
Martha Dunnett. Another child working in the mill.

Bob Bludward. Inventor whose handsome face hides an ugly heart. Rides in a steam invalid carriage he has devised. Runs the Friendly Association, a vicious protection racket. Challenges Davey Scatcherd to a duel, to take place in the grounds of Midnight Court. Father of Jo Bludward, who runs the Friendly Club at the Blastburn Infirmary.
Newby Shirreff. Bob Bludward’s lieutenant in crime.

The shameful story of child labour in such places as mills and mines is echoed in many of Aiken’s novels in the Wolves Chronicles, here in the Midnight story and later in Is Underground, also set in Blastburn. Anne Lister, who owned Shibden Hall near Halifax and who opened up coal seams on her property, had no compunction in using child labour: “There were three hundred children employed in her wire-drawing mill in Mytholm alone,” Angela Steidele writes, “and children also worked below ground in her mines” (2019: 255).

Emma Braithwaite. Also known as Bess. Despairing mother whom we first meet at the funeral of her daughter Jinny. Jean and Nance have already died at the Mill, leaving just Sue and baby Betsy. Mrs Braithwaite entrusts Betsy with Lady Murgatroyd when she leaves Blastburn for a new life with daughter Sue. Annie is Emma’s only friend in the town. Braithwaite is a common Yorkshire name.

Scatcherd family
Alice Cliff Scatcherd (1842-1906), the wife of a West Yorkshire textile factory owner in Morley, Leeds, donated Scatcherd Park to the town (Morley was known for producing recycled wool cloth known as ‘shoddy’). She was also a pioneer of women’s rights, a suffragist and co-founder of the Women’s Franchise League in 1889.
It’s possible that the author had Alice in mind when creating the character of Lady Murgatroyd; also Aiken includes a discussion about whether a young Scatcherd might “encourage the principle of fair play, start educational groups — inculcate higher principles — that sort of thing…” which sounds the sort of thing Alice Scatcherd might have done.
William. Davey’s grandfather, who feels guilty for his part in the subterfuge which allowed Sir Randolph Grimsby to cheat and take ownership of Midnight Court and Mill; the others were Bertram Smallside (Mill manager), Amos Garridge (head groom at Midnight Court) and Gabriel Towzer, one-time butler at the Court.
Jock. Davey’s brother, helped by Lady Murgatroyd to win a chorister award for which the Scatcherds are eternally grateful. Cathy, Lucy, Percy and Polly are more siblings, William and Martha the parents, with a house in Haddock Street, near where Lucas and Anna-Marie lodge.

Mrs Kezia Tetley. A fierce landlady with lodgings in Haddock Street, where Lucas and Anna-Marie stay. Sister to the untrustworthy Gabriel Towzer; another sister lives in Keighley, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Tetley was a former village in the West Riding, though the name is best known now from a firm producing tea products.

Mrs Kelsey and Geordie Thompson. Other residents in Haddock Street, woken up by the knocker-up “thumping with his iron-shod stick on each door as he passed”.

Mr Throgmorton. Wily, unscrupulous lawyer to Sir Randolph, with offices in Blastburn. His loyal clerk is called Swainby.

Mr Esdras Gobthorpe. Tax office official, with premises off Brass Gate in north Blastburn. Tells Sir Randolph to expect a ‘distraint’ order from the Tax and Revenue Department of His Majesty’s Customs & Excise late in November (probably November 21st), but the fire and consequent death of Sir Randolph put a damper on that.

Doctor Whitaker. Physician at Blastburn Infirmary, in charge of Julian Oakapple’s recovery after the fire at the Court.

Inspector Wedge. A rather thickset police officer who goes to investigate the devastating fire at Midnight Court, interviewing Lucas and Anna-Marie.

Elias Hobday. Stallholder in the market selling ‘tosh’ collected by Gudgeon and others from the Blastburn sewers.
Tosh — “valuables collected from drains” — is London slang of unknown origin, dating from at least 1852.

Tom Gudgeon. Tosh collector who lives in a beached boat off Wharf Lane on the banks of the Tidey. Deeply suspicious of the success of his ‘tosh boys’, all of whom have one by one died in mysterious circumstances in the sewers. Also fanatically religious, prone to coming up with apocalyptic images about impending floods and disasters. Appropriately for someone who scavenges in the sewers and lives by a river, Gudgeon derives his surname from a freshwater fish.

Bugle and Lammas. Two other searchers after tosh in the sewers, Bugle (living up to his name) warning Lucas about the fatalities amongst Gudgeon’s tosh boys.

Thrupp’s Furniture Manufactory
Another Blastburn business mentioned in passing

Lathers & Smothers
Probably a factory making soap

Finally, a mystery. During the fire at Midnight Place, when Julian Oakapple rushes in to try to save Sir Randolph, “several other men, whom [Lucas] had not seen before, had suddenly appeared, running from the direction of the stable wing” to rescue Oakapple. We never do find out who they are.

  • Joan Aiken: Midnight is a Place. Hodder Children’s Books 2014
  • Angela Steidele: Gentleman Jack. Serpent’s Tail 2019

2 thoughts on “Put through the mill

    1. Apparently a sleuth-hound was a kind of bloodhound that followed animal tracks, ‘sleuth’ meaning a trail; kinda describes my modus operandi, Jo, but with words and literary tropes rather than scents!


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