Wednesday, 18 January 2017

'Emily's Surprising Voyage': how a character came to life - by Sue Purkiss

Some years ago, I wrote a book set on the ss Great Britain. This ship was built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and it was immensely significant: the first iron ship, the first ship to be driven by steam, the biggest ship in the world at the time it was built. For a good part of its early career, it took settlers from Britain to Australia. Its fortunes gradually declined, and it was eventually abandoned off the Falklands; then, many years later, a group of enthusiasts rescued it and brought it back to Bristol, where it was built. When it came home, the banks of the river were lined with Bristolians welcoming it home; some hearts broke at the sight of the rusting hulk which was what Brunel's beautiful ship had become.

My father was a boiler operator in a power station: he knew about steam, and was fascinated by steam engines. So one time when he and mum came down to stay, he asked if we could go to visit this ship which was being restored. By this time, the ship was safe in dry dock, and they'd done a lot of work on the hull and the deck. The insides were pretty empty, but as dad walked round, his face lit up, he could tell us where the engines would have been, and why the ship was so important.

After that, we revisited the ship every so often to see how it was getting on. Now, it's fully restored, and a visit is marvellous; when you walk on to the quay it's easy to imagine that you're about to cast off on the voyage of a lifetime. The museum is full of information about the ship, the men who crewed her and the people who travelled on her; and on the ship itself, you can gaze into cabins and marvel at how tiny the bunks were, and see the contrast between travelling first class and travelling in steerage. (And there's a talking toilet, which is hugely popular with children!)

On those journeys to Australia, people married, they gave birth, they died. Most of the people who went out there never came back to Britain, never saw their families again. One much-loved captain disappeared from his cabin one day, and was presumed to have committed suicide. So much drama, so many stories!
So I wrote a story, featuring a girl called Emily in first class and a boy called Thomas Drew in steerage. (Yes, yes, I know - very Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio, very Titanic.) It was published by Walker, who got James De La Rue to do the most marvellous illustrations, and it even got nominated for the Carnegie. Here it is, on sale in the Great Britain shop.

I'd hoped there might be an appetite for a sequel - children who read it often wanted to know what happened to Emily and Thomas. There could have been lots more adventures on board ship, and I also had some ideas about what would happen to their two families when they reached Australia.

But like so many publishing dreams, it wasn't to be, and Emily and Thomas stayed between the covers of that single book.

Or so I thought.

Until last year, when out of the blue, I received an email from someone I'd never heard of - a photographer in Australia called Dean Gale. This is what he said.

'...this afternoon I came across an excerpt on the Walker book site from your Emily book...The reason I found your book is that I have recently moved to South Australia and purchased an old homestead.

I have been researching the history of the house... whilst researching the history of the families that came here in the 1800's I began researching the Drew family. Thomas Drew from Somerset came to Australia on the SS Great Britain. He became a prominent businessman and it is his family who I purchased the house from.

So of course what I am wondering is how or why you chose to use the character called Thomas Drew in your book?

The funny thing is that one of the young Drew family has just been studying migration at school and she chose me as her subject because I originally emigrated from the UK.

Now her ancestor is in your book? But I suspect that Thomas Drew was a little older than your character?

Anyway please if you have the time maybe you could let me know why you chose Thomas Drew?'

I was astonished - I thought I'd made Thomas Drew up. Yet here he was - a real person, whose life had carried on after his journey on the ss Great Britain, and whose descendants still live in Australia today.

Here is the business - Drew & Crews - which his family owned. And here are three Drew girls - the family aren't sure exactly who they are, but they're certainly related to Thomas.

So I didn't get the chance to carry on Thomas's story - but it carried on regardless, and he did well, just as I thought he would. I do wonder about Emily, though; I hope she was okay too...

(Incidentally, there was another twist. During our correspondence, Dean happened to mention that, though he himself was from the Midlands, he had known a girl whose family moved to Cheddar, and whose father became the headmaster of the local school. She's a friend of ours, and I used to teach at the school where her father was head!)

(The last two photographs are courtesy of Dean Gale and the Drew family.)


Penny Dolan said...

What a wonderful "second" story, Sue, and with its own coincidental link! The ship is definitely on my visit list for 2017.

Susan Price said...

What a small world!
So glad to see your book on sale in the SS Great Britain bookshop, where it should be!
And Penny - do visit the ship. I think it's the best such 'museum' I've ever seen: so much information is presented in such an engaging way and the ship itself is magnificent.
On my first sight of it, as we came through the doors onto the dock, I thought: Isn't it tiny! So strange to think it was once the biggest ship in the world.

Lynne Benton said...

What a great follow-up to Emily's story, Sue. You'll have to write the sequel now - I've always wanted to know what happened to them all next!

Enid Richemont said...

I have often wondered who or what we tap into when we write. I had a similar experience with my Y/A novel WOLFSONG - also Walker - but a much smaller one than yours. Someone in Paris contacted me about an old lady in a nursing home who was very similar to the one I'd dreamed up in the novel. My old lady was in Brittany, and this one was in Paris, but the connection felt very eerie.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks for all your comments, everyone!

Emma Barnes said...

It's a brilliant read - and now the characters are spookily coming to life...

Maya Alexander said...

The characters seem to be coming back to life in this post.

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