Catherine Czerkawska’s new book explores a tragic family event that took place in 19th century Leeds

Catherine Czerkawskas latest book explores a tragic family event that took place in 19th century Leeds.
Catherine Czerkawskas latest book explores a tragic family event that took place in 19th century Leeds.
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Catherine Czerkawska’s recently published book A Proper Person to be Detained is part family memoir, part true crime, part social history and tells the story of the murder of her immigrant great-great-uncle in Leeds in 1881. Here she tells us a bit more about the book. Czerkawska is an established author usually writing historial fiction and radio drama, so this is a bit of a departure for her.

What prompted you to write A Proper Person to be Detained?

Ever since I was a little girl I had known that my great-great-uncle, John Manley, had been murdered in Leeds on Christmas night. That was pretty much all I knew, apart from a few minor details passed on by my nana, Nora Flynn. She knew that he had curly red-gold hair, he had been stabbed, and the family believed that the murderer had somehow ‘got away with it.’ I had always wanted to know more.

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I’m used to doing in-depth historical research for my fiction writing, but this was more personal, and I knew it was going to be tricky. However, with online access to all kinds of records, it began to seem both possible and intriguing. Added to that, a friend who knows a great deal about genealogy offered her help and advice. When I mentioned the project to my publisher, Sara Hunt of Saraband, she thought it was a good idea as well.

I discovered that my nana had been right about some things –22-year-old John Manley had been stabbed outside the Railway Hotel on York Street, late on December 25 1881, and the murderer had run away. But he didn’t quite get away with it.

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What did you discover and how did it affect you?

I don’t think I had fully understood the sheer poverty of those 19th century Irish migrants who came to Leeds and other cities, fleeing famine. Sometimes it seemed as though every new discovery was more harrowing than the last. What really amazed me was that the story of the murdered man’s younger sister, my great-great-aunt Elizabeth Manley, shifted to Glasgow.

We had moved from Leeds to Scotland when I was 12, but the discovery of what had happened to this young woman in a city I knew quite well, the mystery and tragedy of it, was something that I don’t think I could have invented, even though I write a lot of fiction.

Why is the book important?

I think it’s important in so many ways, and not just for my own satisfaction in finding out what happened. I felt I was giving a voice to people who seldom figure in historical accounts, or – when they do – are only seen as anonymous victims of the appalling conditions of the time. They were exploited, living on the margins and were never far away from complete destitution. Some of my discoveries were heartrending. And yet they were my people, my forebears, with the same kind of hopes and dreams that we all have. I needed to tell their story. And this was especially true of the women in the family.

Writing the book took me back to my Yorkshire roots. It all came flooding back. I think this was just something I needed to write, but I think it will strike a chord with lots of other people too.

A Proper Person to be Detained, Saraband, £9.99.