Sunday, 4 January 2015

Goatsucker Harvest: Sir William Cubitt & Doncaster Railway Plant Works

Sir William Cubitt (1785 - 1861) Civil Engineer
Most of the characters in "Goatsucker Harvest" are inspired by the author's own ancestors or wholly fictional figures from the mid-century Victorian Yorkshire they inhabit. The sole exception is Sir William Cubitt, a real live figure from England's past. In the book, he appears in the breathtaking breakneck climax of the story, when someone who was once a fan of his engineering talents turns against him in a tidal wave of jealous vengeance and focussed fury.

Sir William, in the plot of the book, returns to Doncaster as an esteemed guest of honour to give a speech at a presentation at the famous railway Plant Works in the town. He little suspects that he is in the cross-hairs of a deadly and death-dealing invention devised by the man who now counts him as his bitterest enemy. Can Bram warn Sir William in time to save his life, the lives of many more innocent citizens and the steam and locomotive heart of Doncaster itself? Only Goatsucker Harvest has the answers!

The historical Sir William, son of a miller in Norfolk, was a man of many talents during the heady days of the Industrial Revolution that transformed Victorian England and which suffuses the novel, always in tension with the natural world.

He designed the patent windmill sails that bore his name. He designed the treadmill widely used in Victorian prisons and on which the author Joyce's great great great grandmother's cousin, the Sheffield Chartist hero Samuel Holberry died in York Castle in 1842.

Known for the accuracy and precision of his patterns for the iron castings of machinery, Cubitt was appointed chief engineer of the world-famous Crystal Palace, erected in London in 1851 and was made president of the Society of Civil Engineers in the years leading up to the action of the novel.

He worked on canals, too, designing bridges and locks, Thirza's heartland and home in "Goatsucker Harvest". His designs for docks and harbours were in demand in the UK and on the continent, including the Oxford Canal and Liverpool Junction Canal and he made improvements to rivers like the Severn.

He left a living monument to his genius in the world of Victorian railways, the South Eastern and the Great Northern. An example of his work, the Welwyn Viaduct, is still standing magnificent in 2015.

He and his equally talented son, Joseph Cubitt, designed and built the original buildings of the Plant Works in Doncaster, birthplace of great locomotives like The Flying Scotsman. This is what draws the fictionalised Sir William into the drama of 'Goatsucker Harvest', towards the end of his illustrious career.

In the world of history we call "real life," Sir William died an old man in 1861. In the world of fiction, in Goatsucker Harvest's 1855 world of shifting shadows, phlogiston, peat, ball lightning, "chemic what-me-nots" as Lucas would put it, steampunk and subterfuge, you'll have to explore and enjoy the story to see if Sir William's fictional alter ego is afforded the same luxury!

Doncaster Plant Works pictured in 1957 (NRM)

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