Why is The Conviction of Cora Burns set in Birmingham?
Updated: Jan 29, 2019
My journey started with Sir Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who coined the phrase 'nature versus nurture' and provided the blueprint for Thomas Jerwood. Galton was a fascinating character; a pioneer of genetics and a cousin and near contemporary of Charles Darwin, he was born in Sparkbrook. That seemed good enough reason to locate the book in Birmingham but then, when I started looking at Victorian maps, I saw the amazing potential of the city as a setting.
Cora is born in Birmingham gaol, then taken to be brought up in the nearby workhouse before going to her first job in the laundry at the borough lunatic asylum. When I started to research, I could not quite believe that these three real buildings were all within a few minutes walk of each other on what seemed like a planned campus of human misery. It struck me as tragic that some unfortunate individuals at the bottom of society could spend their whole lives in this same small area moving between these three institutions. At certain key moments, Cora has to walk along the canal that links them and these walks, which you can still take today, are at the very heart of her story.
The Larches is not based on the house where Francis Galton was born (although they share a name). I had to place Thomas Jerwood's house further out of the city as Sparkbrook was already built-up by 1885. Spark Hill (Sparkhill as it is now spelt) was also beginning to turn from countryside into a working-class suburb at that date, hence my invention of a building site on the field opposite the house. I based the look and layout of the fictional house on a property in Warwickshire that was for sale on Rightmove. Here is a tip for writers; just get your internal layout plans from a suitable property that is currently on the market!
Birmingham is a city that is constantly mutating but many of the 19th century buildings mentioned in the book still exist and are worth visiting. The Council House and Town Hall are magnificent and the Botanical Gardens are much as they were in 1885. Birmingham gaol is still, of course, a prison and the Victorian wings with iron staircases and galleries are still in their original use (as you can see inside from illicit footage taken by prisoners during the riot there in 2016). The asylum, a lovely example of Victorian gothic built in 1850, is now also part of HMP Birmingham although it is an administration wing and can be clearly seen from outside the fence. The workhouse was on the site, just across the canal, where Birmingham City Hospital now stands.
I felt very strongly that I did not want Cora's imagined world to be influenced by my impressions of modern Birmingham so I did not visit the city whilst I was writing the book. Instead, I tried to create her world in my mind using Victorian maps and photos. The historic maps were a crucial way-in to the feel of the place and I would urge anyone researching a location to use them.
Anyone who wishes to visit the settings of this novel should consider a walk along Birmingham's waterways. Cora's route to the asylum follows the Soho Loop of the Birmingham Main Canal. Have a look at: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-network/birmingham-canal-navigations