“And now let me tell you about my hobby – murder.”
So began Lucy Worsley’s talk at The Concert Hall in Reading last night. Lucy, who grew up in Reading, was in town as part of Reading Year of Culture’s An Audience With series, to talk all things murder.
In her day job, Lucy is curator at the Historic Royal Palaces, but she’s also one of the UK’s most respected historians, having filmed various television programmes, including BBC4 series, A Very British Murder, which also inspired a bestselling book.
As an expert in the subject, Lucy looked at how murder, and the way it is represented in literature and the media, has changed throughout history. She began with a brief summary of one of Reading’s most notorious serial killers, Amelia Dyer. She was a baby farmer in the Victorian period, who took children into custody when their families couldn’t afford to keep them. Only, she didn’t return them once the family were in better circumstances, she killed them.
It was one of several high-profile murder cases Lucy discussed during the evening, with others including the Red Barn Murder, where a young man killed his lover and buried her underneath the barn floor, and the Ratcliffe Highway murders which saw four people killed in a property in Wapping in a case which shook society in 1811. (Goodness knows what my Google search history is going to be like after looking this lot up to check the names!).
But the most interesting thing was that Lucy wasn’t just telling these stories for grisly effect, she was also exploring how they were told in the media, and how society responds to tales of murder. She had a fantastic analogy, explaining how if you’re in your living room and it’s pouring with rain outside, and you can see someone getting soaked in the garden, a tiny bit of you would break into a grin. And that’s the same kind of ‘enjoyment’ people get about hearing of bad things happening to other people.
It makes humanity seem kind of gross when you think about it too closely, but it is fascinating. Even in the 1800s, when news was told through one page newspapers called broadsides, editors quickly realised that when there was a grisly murder story, they sold more editions. And so remains the case today. It was also interesting to hear Lucy explain how when the broadsides reported the latest hangings, they would record the victim’s last words – although when the papers were printed before the hanging had happened, the journalists just made it up.
All these tiny snippets of history were really, really interesting to hear, and Lucy spoke so vibrantly that we could have easily listened to her all night.
During the Q&A there were some brilliant questions too, including one about Hampton Court Palace, where Lucy’s office is based, and whether it was haunted. Lucy explained how Catherine Howard is rumoured to roam the corridors of the palace after being executed on the orders of Henry VIII.
Lucy really is a fountain of historical knowledge and it was fantastic to hear her speak as part of Reading Year of Culture.
The An Audience With season continues next month with Great British Bake-Off winner Nadia Hussain, and there are some more fantastic speakers and events lined up for later in the year.
Check out www.reading2016.org.uk for all the brilliant things coming up over the next few months.
I was invited to attend An Audience with Lucy Worsley so my ticket was complimentary but all views are my own.