Workshop leader Sarah Dunnakey on writing Yorkshire-set historical mystery The Companion


“CHILD COMPANION WANTED age 6-7, for boy 7
Capt. Hall, M.F.H., St Breward, Bodmin”

The brief notice in a 1938 edition of The Times newspaper was squeezed between adverts for a Cornish hotel and ‘Miss Oliver’s High Colonic Irrigation’. I don’t know to this day how I spotted it. I wasn’t even supposed to be reading the personal columns. I was doing research for my job as a TV quiz question writer and verifier but I’d been tempted away from the article I was supposed to be reading to glance through my favourite part of old newspapers – the notices and adverts that contain snippets of stories and irresistible writing prompts.

I had recently begun what eventually became my debut novel, The Companion. The setting was inspired by a real-life location, Gibson Mill, a nineteenth-century cotton mill sitting in the deep-sided wooded valley of Hardcastle Crags near Hebden Bridge. I have long been fascinated by the huge stone building and its history. Built in 1800, by the end of the century like many other mills in Yorkshire and Lancashire it closed down. The local valleys and towns are studded with tall chimneys, the remnants of the many mills that once drove the area’s economy. Abraham Gibson did not allow his defunct mill to fall into ruin. At the start of the 20th century he reopened it as an ‘entertainment emporium’, complete with a dance hall, dining room, boating, swing-boats and a roller rink. It was very popular. One Whit Monday before the first World War, 10,000 people descended on the valley to visit the mill’s attractions and walk in the woods. Economic decline in the ‘30s led to its closure. In 2005, the mill was re-opened by the National Trust as an interpretation centre.

Looking at the building’s reflection in the millpond on a quiet day, time seems to stand still. Over two hundred years of history – of workers’ labouring at the machinery, day-trippers skating, dancing, boating and courting, ramblers and families walking through – is suspended in a single moment. If you listen carefully you might hear the clatter of clogs across the cobbled yard, the whirr and hum of the machines and with a glance up at the top floor windows, catch a glimpse of Edwardian dancers waltzing past.

It was there that I first heard the voice of my central character, Billy Shaw. His story came quickly and easy, as if he was eager to tell it. He is twelve years old in 1932, and has lived all his life at ‘Potter’s Pleasure Palace’ where his ma runs the tearoom. His dream is to become Mr Potter’s right-hand man, and to one day own a ‘palace’ of his own.

For a while my story stalled there. I had my setting and a strong voice, but I couldn’t just have Billy growing up and realising his dream (lovely though that would have been for Billy).

Then I spotted the advert for a child companion. It immediately conjured up questions – who was the lonely boy who needed a companion? Did he live up on Bodmin Moor with only the severe-sounding Master of the Fox Hounds for company? (My geographical knowledge is poor, I didn’t realise St Breward is a substantial village). Who was sent to be his companion? How did that child fit in at the Captain’s house, as neither family member nor employee? What kind of relationship developed between the two children?

That was when I knew what was going to happen to Billy. Half a day’s walk up the hill from his home lay the West Yorkshire Moors. He was going to be sent up there to an isolated house, to become the companion of a boy he had never met.

Sarah Dunnakey leads our “Getting Personal with Sarah Dunnakey” workshop, where you’ll write fiction based on Historical prompts, on Sunday 2nd June at Carriageworks. Book tickets here.