When I was a child – probably around nine or ten – I was obsessed with historical fiction. Stuff that was written for children, usually girls, and about children, usually girls, but set in a historical time and place. Like other girls my age I was into the standard American, Canadian, English and Australian classics, and the one-offs I would get through the Scholastic books catalogue that more than anything gave me reading opportunities in childhood. But I also scoured libraries and second-hand bookshops, and one of the books I picked up was The Bridgeburn Days, by Lucy Sinclair.
The Bridgeburn Days, while badged as a novel, is clearly a semi-autobiographical piece telling the story of Kitty, a young girl growing up in a children’s home in the north of England during the 1920s and 1930s. Kitty doesn’t know how she came to be in the home and nobody ever tells her. She’s brought up in a cottage home, a house for 8-10 girls of various ages looked after by a house mother referred to by her girls as “Our Ma”, in a cluster of such cottage homes. The children are looked after physically but there isn’t much affection to go round and although she’s obviously an outstanding student and very intelligent, Kitty is trained to go “into service” as a servant, as all the Bridgeburn children are.
Burning through the narrative is a desire for people “on the outside” to know about life in Bridgeburn. Towards the end of the book Kitty, looking back on her upbringing and training, is angry at the injustice of the world and sums herself up in one word: hard. “She was harder than anyone could ever think possible; much as she hated the idea, she realised that this was the foundation of her character and the cornerstone of all her thoughts and behaviour. This was what life in Bridgeburn had made her.”
Long after I grew up and grew out of many of my other childhood books, The Bridgeburn Days haunted me. What became of Kitty, after she went into service in London? Did she ever find out where she came from and why she was in a home? Did she manage to find happiness and a better life?
It received some positive reviews when first published in 1956 but now The Bridgeburn Days is largely forgotten, although it has appeared in some academic work where it’s acknowledged as heavily autobiographical and looked to as a valuable depiction of life in institutional care. The author, Lucy Sinclair, likewise seems to be forgotten; I can’t find that she ever wrote anything else, and after some preliminary online genealogical research failed to reveal anyone of the right age and name, I realised that ‘Lucy Sinclair’ was a pseudonym. ‘Kitty Barrowell’, the book’s protagonist, was equally likely to be a fictional name. And there it might have rested. But I am an obsessed weirdo and I wanted to know what happened to Lucy/Kitty later in life.
A year or so ago I looked up the publisher of The Bridgeburn Days, Victor Gollancz Ltd, on Wikipedia. I had an idea of writing to them to see whether they had any information at all about Lucy Sinclair. Instead I discovered that the archives of Victor Gollancz Ltd are held at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick. There was a link to the website catalogue, which was detailed enough that in a short time, I had the name of the real woman I’d been looking for, in the contract ledgers.
‘The Bridgeburn days’ by Lucy Sinclair (Nancy Baty), 12 Mar 1956
What would I discover, now I had a name?