Why I travel for family… and MURDER

Hi! My name is Cassie and I’m Wotif’s copy and content writer. You may remember me (or my puns) from scandalous blog posts like ‘10 reasons NSW is better than QLD‘ or that awesome Wotif email you got the other day. Unless it had a typo. That was someone else.

Someone who doesn’t make typos, waiting for the Tube. London, 2007.

What you don’t know about me – probably because we’ve never met – is that I don’t just write about travel. I’m also working on my first book – a true crime novel about my ancestor, Mary Ann Britland.

Mary Ann Britland was the first woman executed at Strangeways Prison in Manchester, England. In 1886, she was convicted of the poisoning murder of her best friend, Mary Dixon, and strongly suspected of havingalso poisoned her daughter, Elizabeth Hannah Britland, and husband, Thomas Britland. I’m related to Mary Ann Britland through her marriage to Thomas Britland – he was my fifth cousin, six times removed.

Manchester, 2007.

As a writer, true crime fan, and history nut, it’s not surprising that I’d want to write about Mary Ann Britland. It’s an excuse for me look at old death certificates and learn how different poisons work (Wotif team, be warned: I know too much). But what may surprise you is how much researching and writing about my family inspires me to travel.

London, 2007.

By the time you read this, I’ll be in the UK, hopefully enjoying my third or fourth snakebite and black. I’m going on a three-week combined holiday and research trip, which I’m calling a researchiday (that’s trademarked, by the way. It’s going to be bigger than bleisure). I’m spending a bit over a week in London, a week in Manchester, and a few days in Edinburgh, and my itinerary is split 50-50 between Very Important Research and Very Important Fun. Although it’s all fun to me. And how could it not be when the itinerary includes:

  • Five cemeteries
  • Two natural history museums
  • One pathology museum
  • Four historic witchcraft sites
  • Two archives
  • Two caves
  • One maximum security prison
Last time I was in Manchester I met K9 from Dr Who. Who knows what celebs I’ll rub shoulders with this time?

There are some obvious reasons why I’d travel for research. Many of the sources I need – case notes, birth and death certificates, newspaper articles, photographs – are in archives in London and Manchester. One day at an archive in person can be so much more productive than weeks of emails and page checks.

But with the limited time I have, the thing I really want to do is go to the places I’m writing about. Long-distance archival research is hard, but if you’re a writer who wants to make a place come to life for a reader – make it real – there’s no substitute for going there yourself. You need to see, hear, smell, touch, and – yes – even occasionally taste it. It needs to be real to you before you can make it real for someone else. Otherwise you’re just writing adjectives.

(Note: If you’re a copy writer for a travel company, this argument will NOT convince your boss to send you on holidays for “training”. Believe me, I’ve tried.)

The pub where my grandfather used to drink. They didn’t have a proper menu, but made us sandwiches using leftovers from a birthday party the night before.

Murderer or not, another cool thing about researching a distant ancestor is all the weird little parallels you discover between their life and family and your own. In my case:

  • Mary Ann Britland was born in Bolton, Greater Manchester – the same town as my paternal grandmother.
  • She lived in Ashton-under-Lyne (also in Greater Manchester), worked in a cotton mill, and lived in one of the skinny back-to-back terraces the mills rented to their workers. My dad was born in Burnley, Lancashire, just 50km away. His mother worked in a cotton mill too, and his family also rented a back-to-back cottage from the mill – they lived there until they moved to Australia, when my dad was seven.
  • My dad’s childhood home was almost identical to Mary Ann Britland’s, except that it was built in yellow stone instead of red brick. I know because I visited it in 2007, when I was living in London. It’s lucky I went when I did, because it was torn down a few months later.
My dad’s old house in 2007.
All the street numbers were gone, so we weren’t sure which house was which. Then we found this letter (with my dad’s full address) sitting on one of the doorsteps ?

There’s more to travel than just buffet breakfasts and bombarding your Facebook friends with holiday selfies (though I’m a fan of both). Even on the quickest getaway, where you go and what you do is a reflection of who you are and what you love. It’s unique, exciting, and special – just like you. I’ve shared one of my holiday journeys. What’s yours?

Want to read more about Mary Ann Britland and my book? Check out my website or follow @CassieBritland on Twitter.

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