Welcome, Graham. I’ve just read your excellent book, ‘The Iron Masters: An Historical Novel of the Napoleonic Wars’ [Kindle Edition] Graham, what made you choose that particular topic in the first place?
The idea first came to me when I visited Vaynor churchyard with my wife. She’s researching our family history and found a gravestone with the inscription, ‘Watkin Watkins, Farmer, Departed this life 8th June 1730.’ I turned to look at a nearby grave, bigger and more imposing; an eight ton slab of pink granite surrounded by iron railings. The words were simple, ‘Robert Thompson Crawshay, Died May 10th 1789, aged 62 years, God Forgive Me.’ My curiosity took command. Who was the man buried beneath the enormous rock and what terrible wrong did he do that needed God’s forgiveness? Robert Thompson Crawshay’s monument would be my muse. From it would come the idea for my book, The Iron Masters.
What sort of research did you have to carry out for your novel?
It took me two years to research the history of the period and the story of the Merthyr iron masters. Much of it came from the internet but researching the book also took me to Boston to see the USS Constitution, the first American warship. She fought the Royal Navy during the American war of 1812. A war declared by America because the Royal Navy was stopping American merchantmen and pressing the seamen into the service of the king. Like the HMS Victory which we visited in Portsmouth, she’s still a commissioned vessel. A strange fact about the Victory is that many of the cannons on board are now fibreglass replicas. Another trip was to Baltimore to see Fort McHenry, bombarded with mortars cast in the foundries of Merthyr. My wife says they were holidays but a writer never stops looking for ideas. Standing in the information centre at Fort McHenry while American visitors saluted their flag was a surprisingly moving experience but when I told them their national anthem was written by a man on a British warship and he pinched the tune from a popular British song of the day, they weren’t impressed.
Did you get the idea for your lead character of ‘Nye’ from anywhere in particular?
Nye Vaughn is a composite of different iron masters, principally the Crawshays. Richard Crawshay was a Yorkshireman who left home to seek his fortune when he was 18 years old. Nye comes from Llangadog but he also leaves home aged 18. Many of the events featured in the book actually took place. The 500 guinea wager that Trevithick’s engine wouldn’t work for example and Nelson’s visit to Merthyr when a saluting cannon killed a small boy who happened to be standing nearby.
When you were researching this novel were there any facts that surprised you?
I was staggered by the scale and reach of the Napoleonic Wars. It was a brutal period and life was cheap. At Waterloo 75,000 men were killed or wounded during one days fighting. No provision was made for the men lying wounded on the battlefield at the end of the day. No water. No first aid. They were just left to be robbed and die. Later, the corpses were stripped of their teeth which were packed into barrels and shipped back to Britain to be sold as false teeth.
What sort of role did Merthyr Tydfil play during the Napoleonic wars?
Merthyr was the biggest armaments factory in the world. It was key to winning the war with France and defeating Napoleon Bonaparte. Merthyr cannons were aboard HMS Victory at Trafalgar. To get some idea of how many guns were being produced it’s estimated that the Royal Navy’s rearmament programme, after losing the American Colonies, would require about 500 warships to fight the French. That’s something like 50,000 cannons. No wonder, the Iron Masters of Merthyr were making vast fortunes for themselves.
What did you learn by writing this novel?
I learned a great deal about European history of the period and of the importance of South Wales in the scheme of things. On a different scale I learned about the lives of ordinary people in the 18th Century. One of my sources was a book called the Diary of Thomas Jenkins. Jenkins was a carpenter from Llandeilo who kept a diary from 1826 to 1870. It’s a treasure trove of information about daily life. In one entry he describes how his five year old son goes down with a fever. The doctor calls and prescribes that the boys head be shaved and wrapped in cold towels to reduce the head and then attaches leeches to his temples. He dies two days later. Then Jenkins, matter of factly, records that his wife goes down with the same fever. You probably remember a similar scene in my book.
What got you into writing in the first place?
I started writing in 2003 when we moved back to Wales. We live in the Brecon Beacons and inspiration is everywhere. My first books were a series of walking books called ‘Walking with Welsh Legends.’ The idea behind them was to retell each legend and link it to the local geography with a walk. The plan was to investigate each walk when the sun shone and write when it rained. It became a three year project exploring Wales and great fun resulting in five walking books and a compendium book containing eighty Welsh legends.
Where do you write?
I write in my study at home using a desktop computer. Sometimes when I’m struggling with a story line or a plot I move to the kitchen with a laptop where I can try ideas out on my wife. She listens and frequently suggests ways to deal with a particular situation. Writing The Iron Masters is a case in point. Her comments made me redraft the female characters. One in particular needed more work. Delyth started as a minor player but her role in the story grew until I found she was becoming more interesting than some of the men portrayed. Delyth became a murderer, seductress and all round schemer; a thoroughly nasty piece of work. As a result, I discovered, an evil woman is a joy to write about.
Do you have a particular writing routine?
I read somewhere that Enid Blyton wrote about 6000 words a day. It’s a lot but she was writing about Noddy and dictating to a secretary. My average is about 1000 words a day. I write in the morning while I’m fresh. By lunchtime I start to flag and move on to other things that have to be done to complete an historical novel. The Iron Masters storyline was constructed using an excel spreadsheet to create a timeline covering 50 years with dates and details of historical events, notes of when characters are born and die, and links to source material. While writing the book I created more than fifty character profiles so that I could keep track of who was who. So you see, getting the story written was only part of the work in progress.
Do you have any plans to write any more novels set in this time period?
The Iron Masters end with the coming of the railways. The sequel is at the planning stage and will cover the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway using Merthyr iron rails, gun running from Wales to the Confederate States during the American Civil War, the Rebecca Riots and a host of other historical events. At the moment, I’m writing a novel about the Boer War and the siege of Mafeking. The idea came from a recent tour of South African Battlefield of the Zulu and Boer Wars. Colonel Baden Powell was the Commander at Mafeking and there is a very interesting back story to the siege.
Finally, where can people purchase your book, ‘The Iron Masters’?
The Iron Masters is available as an eBook and in paperback form from Amazon. There are links to it and all my books on my website at http://www.grahamwatkins.info/
Fascinating! Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Graham J