Remembering Maggie McIntyre (1860-1877)

Aurora Australis

Aurora Australis. photo by Stephen Voss

On 16 February 1877 Maggie McIntyre started work as a servant to Mrs Reid in Dunedin; on 16 February 2015 I started a new job, also in Dunedin.  The difference between me and Maggie McIntyre is that 16 May finds me alive; Maggie died this day in 1877, starved, beaten, and lying filthy under a thin blanket on a flax-filled half mattress on the floor under a broken window through which a chill wind blew.  Today I have the fire going: it is 9ºC (49ºF), and we are heading into winter.

In my three months in my new job I have been paid 6 times; and I have had 29 days off.  No one has banned me from speaking to people, punched me, kicked me, pulled me by my hair across the floor, nor had me out in my bare feet to pick up stones and drag tree branches through the frosty night.  Maggie was not so lucky.  She was never paid one penny, nor allowed even one half day off.  She suffered and died as a direct result of the treatment received at the hands of Mrs Reid.

Mrs Reid was tried for manslaughter in the Dunedin Supreme Court.  Robert Stout defended her.  The jury acquitted her, and she walked free.  The people of Dunedin were incensed: those who know Maggie McIntyre’s story are still incensed.

Today on the 138th anniversary of her death, I remember Maggie McIntyre.

Your story is not forgotten Maggie; you are not forgotten.

Murder: 1877

Advertisements

writing the weather

Lawyers Bay

Smails Beach & Lawyers Head Dunedin, 29 Jan 2015.  Picture by Paul Le Comte

“It was a dark and stormy night” predisposes a reader to expect dark and stormy action within a story.  As writers, we manipulate the weather – and some might say, the reader – to suit our story.  It’s fiction after all: who is to say what patterns the weather follows in our make-believe world?

But in writing historical fiction, the weather may well be as important to our story as the landscape.  My stories are set in Dunedin in 1877.  Instead of manipulating the weather to suit the story, I made the decision to accommodate the actual weather into the story.  In doing so, I gained an important insight into the spread of Scarlet Fever; evidence to support the charges of cruelty against Martha Reid; and evidence of perjury committed by several individuals in another case before the Supreme Court.

I’d be interested to hear from other writers who have written through the weather rather than dictating it.

to keep women from falling…

42HoweStreet

The Dunedin Servants’ Home: a purpose-built Mason & Wales building of 1876.  Image: Google 2012

In Victorian times, all that stood between a woman and ruin was her character.  Any blemish, actual or imagined, could prevent her securing a situation and achieving financial independence.  Of particular concern in 1870s Dunedin were the young immigrant women arriving without the protection of family or friends to work as domestic servants.  The Otago Daily Times (ODT) Editor wrote in 1874:

We are aware of one case in which the want of such a place of temporary refuge resulted in the loss of all that is dear to women.  Residence in a low public-house was fatal to the character, and added one more to the list of unfortunates that make our streets hideous at night.  We do not doubt that the same result will not infrequently ensue in the case of friendless girls cast adrift in our midst.  A Servants’ Home where board and lodging could be secured by any servant during the interim while changing her situation, is a great want here.

Dunedin ladies formed a committee to provide such a Home, which would incorporate a Registry Office and be a place where servants could meet for tea on their afternoon off.  While no men were involved in the Committee, they were never shy in voicing their opinion.  At a public meeting held to seek public support for their project, men monopolised the discussion, advising the women on what rules they should form and what they should name the institution.  Bishop Nevill was adamant that a good ‘character’ – what we would call a reference – be a condition of entry, so that ‘they should not introduce a black sheep amongst a lot of white ones’.  The ladies must have longed for the founding meeting of the Dunedin Female Refuge, when the gentlemen had given their blessing, and left.   However, it appears the women let the men vent, and got on and did exactly as they had originally planned.  The Servants’ Home was built, opened, and run entirely by the Ladies Committee: another early venture by Dunedin women to improve the lives of their fellow women.

The Servants’ Home did not house the only Registry Office in Dunedin.  Margaret McIntyre, a central character in Murder: 1877 was hired from Mrs Wilson’s Registry Office in the Octagon, and Miss Allan ran a Registry Office in George Street.  Mrs Wilson eventually added accommodation for women to her Registry Office, a practice that became popular until the 1895 Servants Registry Office Act expressly forebade such establishments.

The building at 40 Howe Street, in common with those surrounding it, is now a student flat.  From the newspaper of the day, it has a frontage of 44′, a depth of 34′, and the elevation to the eaves is 23′.  The lower portion is built of stone, and the upper portion of cement.  The lower floor consisted of five rooms: the Committee room, the matron’s room, dining room, store room, and kitchen, while upstairs were nine dormitories with ample accommodation for twenty beds.  The building cost £1,200, and opened with a debt of £500.

It all starts with…

I’m a New Zealand writer – a Dunedin writer.  The books I write are set squarely in Dunedin, and in 1877, and are told from the perspective of those in Dunedin’s Northern Cemetery.

Why the Northern Cemetery?  For the past nine years I’ve been volunteering in Dunedin’s Northern Cemetery, working with roses : planting, pruning, weeding, and most particularly, recording the 1,001 roses Heritage Roses Otago have planted there.  I know the Cemetery.  I know the roses, I know the people on whose graves those roses have been planted, and I know their headstones – the stories they tell in both text and symbol.

They – everyone – says to write about what you know.  It’s sound advice, though little of what you know often constitutes a story.  The story I wanted to tell was one that has haunted me for the past five years.  It is the story of Margaret McIntyre, and how she never received any justice for what happened to her.  In March of 2014 I began to write Maggie’s story, from the perspective of Adeline, a young Scots woman who unexpectedly died at sea off the Catlins coast, and Awakens in the Dunedin Northern Cemetery the day after she was buried there, to begin her New Life in a place where she knows nothing and no one.  At this point the story arced from 16 February 1877, the day that Maggie began working for Mrs Reid, to late November 1877.

By August it was clear that the story was bigger than expected, and the decision was made to split the book in two.  The first book was named Fever: 1877 and the second, Maggie’s story, Murder: 1877.   I began working exclusively on Fever: 1877, completing it in September, 2014.

‘Completing’ is a relative term.  Some people are born with a silver spoon; I swear I was born with a red pen.  In late November it dawned on me that it was possible to solve the problem of excessive word length by again splitting the book into Fever: 1877, covering twelve weeks, and Panic: 1877, taking the storyline to the end of April, 1877.

Murder: 1877 now begins in May 1877, and ends in mid-July, although we will find Maggie’s story continuing through…  Yes, there’s more.  Currently I have Unwanted: 1877 sketched out, which will lead into Outrage: 1877.  I’m hoping that will take us up to the end of 1877.

the Adeline books begin:

Some babies enter the world serenely, and some arrive screaming, full of protest at being expelled from the womb. I fear I was one of the latter, though Mother is not here to tell me. But there are plenty here that tell me that my entry into the world of the Dead was marked by more drama and protests than is deemed seemly in the recently Awakened.

Most of the Dead saw death approaching: some even welcomed it. But none were prepared to Awaken in the Cemetery following their burial. Those who first Awoke had no idea how to live their New Life. Perhaps in the old country there are old Dead to teach you, even as mothers teach babies how to live. But New Zealand is a young country: none have been in this Cemetery above five years. The Dead here are undaunted: they left the old country to build new lives in a new land. In their eyes they’ve done it once already.

But I am daunted. I boarded the Auckland in November. We celebrated Hogmanay at the Southern Tropic, and they tell me the ship berthed at Port Chalmers in February, after a fast voyage of eighty-three days, with a body in the hold that had once been me. The last thing I remember is the ship running along New Zealand’s southern coast. Wild weather whipped the surf and sent it crashing against the shore under an inky sky. The sound of waves and the sting of spray on my face are still fresh and vital memories, and with them comes a visceral memory of excitement coursing through my veins. I was alive – gloriously, wonderfully alive, and the future was all there before me. Pain shattered that moment, exploding through my head. Then came a falling, fresh pain, and then… nothing.

So ended my Life.

This is the story of finding myself Dead, and living in the Dunedin Northern Cemetery in 1877.