This is the third volume in a thoroughly enjoyable saga in which the story of the Strong family is told against the background of the sugar trade from Barbados and the changes affecting Bristol in the early 19th century. However, close ties between individual family members are not always what they seem and even the most dominant characters have terrible secrets to hide. What is particularly enjoyable about Johnson’s writing is the wealth of detail she introduces: there are few areas of everyday life in the early 19th century that she has not researched thoroughly, from dogs to horses, china, fashion, and sanitary arrangements, to name a few. Moreover, as in the previous books, she also tackles topics of particular interest to Bristol in the age of Brunel, such as the relocation of the sugar refineries from the city docks to Avonmouth, where larger cargo ships could berth more easily.
Another topic that lies at the heart of this book is the conditions in the workhouse, the last desperate refuge for the destitute and a place to dump unwanted babies. The description of the workhouse known as St Peter’s Hospital appears to be based on factual documents, and conditions were truly appalling prior to the Poor Law Amendment act. One of the book’s most interesting themes is race and immigration, and Max Strong’s brave words resonate clearly to our modern society: “These islands have given shelter to people from all over the world since ancient times”. But not everyone agreed and, at the time, mixed blood was seen by many as social blot. Clever plotting and sensitive characterisation make this a great read.