Finding voices from the past

One of the challenges in researching historical characters is ascertaining what they were really like. Autobiography is a modern invention, mostly written by the rich and famous. There are no television images, social media comments and, before the nineteenth century, no photographs. When I discovered William Onion, possibly Britain’s most convicted man, I had no idea what he looked like. Descriptions on his prison records helped as did a photograph on his obituary. Press reports on his court appearances called him a deplorable or wretched looking character, and overstated his age by as much as fifteen years.

Subsequently I found, and reprinted, a short account that he wrote for a temperance magazine in later life. Mostly this matched other records, allowing for memory lapses, supporting my impression of his honesty.  I also found a humorous streak in his poetry and crucially benefited from the verbatim court transcripts. Reading the actual words that he used provided a better insight. One interview gave his words in the Yorkshire dialect, revising my opinion that he spoke as a cockney.

I have therefore decided, where possible, to incorporate some of the contemporary accounts word-for-word into my biography of Onion. Hopefully this will help the reader hear his authentic voice and understand my fascination with this extraordinary character.

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