My debut novel, King Oak, was inspired by a delve into ancestry. 

I discovered that some of my ancestors lived in Woodfield on the edge of Ashtead Common in Surrey. Their story was one of close community, where neighbours and friends often became relatives through the marriage of their children.

St. Giles, in Ashtead, holds the records of their unions; promising marriages almost always led to copious baptisms, but also sorrowful burials, some very premature. These families grew and grew, and before long almost everyone in Woodfield was related in some way to everyone else.

Then, in 1859, the railway arrived.

It cut right through their little community. Some of the Woodfield folk got on the train and left to seek a fortune away from the fields. For Croydon, or London. Or the North and beyond. The industrial revolution had finally come to that one-eyed piece of Ashtead on the edge of the vast and ancient Common.

It was not all peace and love, though. Along the way, I found many half told stories. Of heinous crimes, illegitimate children, illicit unions, and workhouse tragedies.

These mysteries are in part the inspiration for my writing.

For example, (and this one is particularly puzzling) why did one of my direct ancestors, in 1806, knock on the door of another and chase the man’s wife up the stairs? When they reached the bedroom, he beat her with a stick as she wrapped herself in the bed-hangings to protect her body from his whacks. Her husband just shouted from the bottom of the stairs and did nothing to help her.

And why did the man go back three months later and attack their daughter? He was discharged without a sentence or a fine or even a slap on the wrist. What had these women done to anger him? Was he drunk? Mad? Or perhaps it was all a complete fabrication?

We will never know, because the court records tell only half the tale. My aim is to give the story an ending, although, of course, it will only be my version, for the truth is well buried in the past.

The names in my book may be real but the characters are entirely fictional. So, if George Hogtrough was your 5x great-grandfather, as he was mine, or you recognise another name should you choose to read the book, please do not take offence, for none is intended. I have used local surnames because these families had such strong connections to the area at that time, so the names are authentic, at least.

And anyway, the characters are not meant to represent the real people who lived there, for how could anyone know what drove them, what inspired them, what feared them, when we only have half-tales to go on?

As well as some completely fictional tales, King Oak is a beginning of the filling-in of all those stories which are incomplete, right up until the close-knit community of Woodfield was demolished by the coming of the iron horse.

I hope you enjoy the first in ‘The Common’ series.

Catherine Arthur
May 2021