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An epic tale of life of early 19th Century life set in set in Norfolk, London, and New South Wales

18th September 2023

The Low Road by Katharine Quarmby, an epic tale of early 19th Century life set in Norfolk, London, and New South Wales.

An epic tale of life of early 19th Century life

The Low Road is a fictionalised rendering of largely true events set in the early 19th Century. Hannah was born in rural Norfolk. While she was still young her mother was wrongly accused of murdering her new born sister and committed suicide while awaiting trial. She was buried, Hannah watching, with a stake driven through her heart. Hannah was brought up in a good home in the village but was eventually found petty thieving and sent to a Refuge for the Destitute in London to ‘mend her ways’ and be trained for service. Here she met Annie who was to become the love of her life. The two escaped from the refuge, were caught, and punished for stealing laundry as they left. They survived life in Newgate prison and were, separately, transported to Australia having fallen out. They lost touch.

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Because the story is based on fact, it becomes so much more real and disturbing. The conditions, particularly in London, were horrific. Poverty and filth were everywhere. We encounter a few good people (such as Quaker and social reformer Elizabeth Fry), a few openly bad people and a few bad people masquerading as good. The hypocrisy and cruelty of some is truly frightening. Reminds me of the Mother and Baby homes, and Laundries, of Ireland in the last century. Ordinary people, if they had ‘strayed’, were seen as beneath redemption. The Church and other institutions have a lot to answer for.

Katharine is also an investigative journalist, and the quality, depth and detail of her research is clear. In reality the trail of the lives of Hannah and Annie dried up when they were in Newgate. But Katharine has surmised (on the basis of what happened to others) that they were transported to Australia. Most transportees were sent for a period of 7 years, but there was never any realistic prospect of them being able to pay for the return voyage. It was a life sentence. And, in practice, a sentence that worked out quite well for several. Some enjoyed a much better life than they had experienced back in England. Punishment and rehabilitation that sometimes worked – even if that was not the intention.

The Low Road is a book from which I learnt a lot. It will make you think.

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