A Family Secret by Libby Ashworth: Gripping, authentic and emotion-packed - book review -

The Eastwood family from the industrial heartland of 19th century Lancashire have known hardship and struggle… and come through their many challenges against all the odds.

Tuesday, 9th February 2021, 12:30 pm
A Family Secret
A Family Secret

But industrial strife at the mills in Blackburn, and a face from the past, are set to sow bitter domestic division, and bring heartache for a new generation of the hard-working family.

Libby Ashworth – who has written several historical novels and non-fiction books featuring fascinating corners of the county’s rich heritage under the name Elizabeth Ashworth – was born and raised in the Blackburn area and can trace her family back to the village of Whalley in the Middle Ages.

And in the third – and what could be final – book of Ashworth’s hard-hitting and captivating Mill Town Lasses saga series, her inspiration is once again drawn from the lives of her great, great, great, great grandparents, Jennet and Titus Eastwood, who were forced to move from their cottage in the countryside in the early decades of the 19th century to find work in the burgeoning mill town.

We pick up the story of the Eastwoods in 1842 and find that sisters Peggy and Bessie are leading very different working lives. Older sibling Peggy – always the favourite child of her father Titus – is a pupil-teacher at the local girls’ school with her sights set on winning a scholarship to study for a teaching certificate at a college far from home.

As a trainee teacher, Peggy is paid no wages, unlike 16-year-old Bessie who works long hours as a skilled four-loom weaver at Brookhouse Mill alongside her father. All her days, Bessie has lived in her older sister’s shadow, constantly told by Titus that Peggy is ‘the clever one, the quick one, the pretty one.’

When the mill is closed to install a new steam boiler, the workers are laid off and hard times hit again. Titus is eager to follow the Chartists to London to hand in a petition calling for a fair day’s pay every day, and not at the whim of the mill owners.

Meanwhile, Peggy and Bessie are growing to adulthood and increasingly determined to make their own choices rather than having decisions made for them by their parents. Soon they realise that temptation lies in their way, and the girls find that love – or infatuation – could lead them astray.

And when an unexpected, but familiar, face arrives in town, the Eastwood family’s future is threatened. For Bessie and Peggy, a difficult choice must be made… love or family.

A Family Secret delivers the same gripping, authentic and emotion-packed portrait of a Lancashire close-knit mill community facing the challenges of huge industrial, social and political changes which impacted their lives both at home and at work.

On the national stage, the Chartist movement, which in 1842 called for extended voting rights and a secret ballot, was signed by over three million people but it was rejected by Parliament and further unrest and arrests quickly followed.

And on the home front, resilient women mill workers – including several members of Ashworth’s family who were weavers – suffered the grind and privations of work in Lancashire mills whilst raising their families and supporting one another through some grim times.

This new visit to the Eastwoods in Blackburn focuses on the gradual change in family dynamics as Peggy and Bessie grow into determined young women, encountering hardship, disturbing revelations, racial prejudice, and the power of love as they fight to forge their own destinies.

Ashworth’s vast local knowledge and research, her eye for rich period detail, her portrayal of the tough mill-working families, and her love for her home town, shine through in the last in this captivating series… although there is a hint that the Eastwoods may yet return for stories in the future!

(Arrow, paperback, £6.99)