BRInginG the past to life starts, for North Devon writer Liz Shakespeare, by delving into the records and parish archives, looking at old newspaper articles and court records, writes Sarah Pitt.

Liz prides herself on meticulous research and, only when she is sure she is on to a real gem does she really get her imagination to work on creating her story. Her most recent novel, Song of the Skylark, is set a few miles from where she lives in the parish of Buckland Brewer near Bideford and tells the tale of a brother and sister who in the hard times of the 1840s found themselves effectively sold into slavery as the ‘parish apprentices’ to a farmer.

Liz first stumbled on the story of Mary Mitchell and her brother Thomas in a court record held at Torrington Museum, which in a few bald words stated that Mary, 15 and Thomas, 13, had been sentenced to one month’s hard labour at Exeter Gaol for running away from the farm where they had been parish apprentices for five years.

The poignant snippet set her off on a further path of research to find out more about the children who were ‘apprenticed’ to live on farms because their parents were too poor to keep them. They were taken in by farms where they were expected to work for free, in exchange for their keep, until they were 21.

The practice was still widespread in the Devon of the 1840s, a hard time in agriculture generally and in Devon in particular, with potato blight affecting the crop many poor families relied on to feed themselves.

Liz said: ‘The parish apprenticeship scheme was found in Devon although not in other counties. Here, where families who could not afford to feed and clothe their children adequately, they were often taken away and made to be parish apprentices.

The children would be sent out to work on a farm and the farmer had to take a boy or a girl or face a fine. The children had to go at the age of nine and stay until they were 21, working on a farm.

She added: ‘It was criticised in the local papers at the time and compared to slavery, and it was said that Devon was the only county where this was still going on.

‘Probably the children were treated well on the whole – they worked hard but so did the farmer’s children and they were treated like one of the family. There are some cases though of them being badly treated and there were some children as young a nine having scars from having been beaten. There wre also adverts in local papers from farmers seekng their runaway apprentices, so it is likely that they had reason to run away.

‘My story is about a brother and sister who wre sent out to a farmer at Buckland Brewer. I’m from Littleham, which is just down the road.

‘I found a document which was kept in Torrington Museum in a book of court records which stated that Thomas and Mary Mitchell had absconded from their master and as a result they were being sentenced to one-month’s hard labour. They were 13 and 15 years old.

Liz herself comes from North Devon stock, with her forebears having lived here for generations. Born in Bideford, she has lived in the area all her life, apart from seven years left to study and teach in London. ‘The Song of the Skylark is my sixth book,’ she said. ‘I like to imagine how life was in Devon in earlier centuries and find true stories and bring them back to life.’

Visit to find out more about Liz’s novels or come along and meet her at the Christmas Market at the Butchers’ Hall in Tavistock on Friday, December 2. This is the day of Dickensian Evening, and she will be there all day between 9am and 9pm.