Author: Matt Casbourne

Armed Forces Day: Reflective reads from Duckworth

On 26th June we celebrate Armed Forces Day. A special time for commemorating the wonderful servicemen, women, and their families past, present, and future. 

For those feeling reflective, we’ve rounded up a few of Duckworth’s non-fiction titles that reveal compelling tales of tribulation, transformation, and triumph within service and combat throughout the 20th century. 



An incorrect account of the Abney family

‘Beyond them speckled white cattle dipped their heads into the grass. A wood pigeon cooed drowsily. It was all looking so perfect, yet what a lot of work it all was to maintain.’

Beacon-like in its guidance, the role of Measham Hall does as much as any living individual to set Alethea on a path of transformation. Assured and impressive in status, it wields a power that our protagonist must master if she is to live by her newfound values of liberty.

Author Anna Abney is among the last descendants of the Abney family line, residents of the real Measham Hall, a lost house of Derbyshire from 1730. ‘The Measham Hall’ series is a fictionalised account of her ancestors’ lives, the richness of which she writes of here.

I heard about our ancestral home, Measham Hall, from my grandmother and great uncle. Unfortunately, it was blown up by the coal board in 1959 because the mine activity underground had made it unsafe, so I never got to stay there. It had been sold to the Measham Colliery in the 1920s and was turned into flats after the Second World War. Still, I have a rather charming watercolour of it, painted by Sir William de Wiveleslie Abney (1843-1920), a former director of the Science Museum and President of the Royal Photographic Society. W de W Abney invented the Abney level. He and his brother Charles were also founder members of the Derby Photographic Society.

The Abneys of Measham were originally Norman interlopers; Barons of Aubigny, from the Port of Carteret, who came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066 (one of them was William I’s cousin and cupbearer), settling (or taking land) in Derbyshire. A sir Niel, Baron d’Aubigny married Lady Helena, daughter of Richard II. In the thirteenth century Nicholas D’Albini (spelling was flexible back then) married Cecelia, daughter of William de Meysham.

According to an American Abney descendant, the Abney family can boast of no less than 106 kings, 50 queens, 42 dukes and 10 monks among our forebears. I’m not sure how all this royalty can be accounted for (or why there might be twice as many kings as queens), but there are certainly a few interesting characters and one (quite famous) royal I can account for.

Two Abney brothers, Paul and Dannet, emigrated to Virginia at the end of the seventeenth century. In 1679 Lieutenant Paul Abney was taken prisoner, with his sloop and passengers, by a Spanish man-of-war. Abney produced a pass, which the Vice-Admiral contemptuously wiped his breeches with, before commandeering the vessel.  Paul lived to tell the tale and this branch of the Abneys was granted land in Virginia and later, Carolina. This raises disturbing questions about whether they were slave owners; an area I intend to address in a later sequel to The Master of Measham Hall.

The William Abney who built Measham Hall was born in 1713. He died in 1800 and his obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine partly inspired the idea of ‘the master’ in The Master of Measham Hall. Apparently, he was ‘the last of that old-fashioned race of English proprietors who now only survive amongst the writers of romance.’ He spent all his time in his country estate, always putting the needs of his poorer neighbours before his own. His coachman had worked for the family for over fifty years and his servants treated him more like a brother than a master. ‘His domestics had grown grey in his service and it was curious to see him waited upon by four or five tottering servants of nearly his own age’. Although, unlike the Hawthornes in Book Two of The Master of Measham Hall, he was an ardent supporter of William of Orange and later, the House of Hanover. He wrote a family history entitled ‘An incorrect account of the Abney family’, a title I have borrowed here, since, as you might have noticed from the dates, my ‘Measham Hall’ was built a century earlier.

Like the Hawthorne family, it was said that in ‘the confusion of the Civil wars … the family suffered considerably’. James Abney, (b. 1599) participated in the Royalist defence of Ashby Castle in 1645, where he was taken prisoner by Oliver Cromwell, although later released. Unlike Alethea’s father, James Abney kept his estates throughout the Commonwealth and was appointed Sheriff for Derby in 1656. It probably helped that the Abneys were distantly related through marriage to the Cromwell family.

Sir Thomas Abney (1640- 1722) became Lord Mayor of London in 1700, despite being a Dissenter – a person who refused to join the Established Church of England, which caused some controversy. Daniel Defoe, a fellow Dissenter, denounced Abney for taking communion in an Anglican church in order to become mayor. Alethea in The Master of Measham Hall is equally pragmatic when it comes to occasional conformity – taking Anglican communion to avoid being fined or imprisoned. Thomas was also one of the founding Directors of the Bank of England and a governor of St. Thomas Hospital.

His second wife, Mary Abney (thirty-six years younger than Thomas!) inherited her brother’s estate in Stoke Newington, moving in there after her husband died. She carried out much of the landscaping of what is now Abney Park Cemetery.

Dr. Isaac Watts, known as the father of English hymnody and famous for hymns such as, ‘Our God, Our Help in Ages Past’, ‘came to stay with the Abneys for a week and remained a guest of Mary and her daughters for the rest of his life – another 36 years. Hopefully he didn’t outstay his welcome.

The Abneys’ last surviving child, Elizabeth, apparently something of a Miss Havisham, died unmarried, directing that the estate should be sold off and the proceeds left to various nonconformist charities. Fittingly, in 1839 several Protestant businessmen set up the Abney Park Cemetery Company and in 1840 the Abney manor became one of the only cemeteries in England open to all dissenters regardless of denomination.

Most of my family history has been passed onto me by my great uncle, another William Abney. Bill was an RAF pilot in the Second World War, flying over 30 different kinds of aircraft. His dare-devil activities earned him the nickname, ‘Ace Abney’ and he often ‘flew blind’ over cover of night. Bill was also an actor, working in stage, film and television. He was the last male in the Abney line.

I promised you more royalty, well, my great-grandmother, Janet Abney, neé Littlejohn of Aberdeen, was first cousin to Ruth, Lady Fermoy, grandmother of Princess Diana. Fans of The Crown might recall a rather unsympathetic Lady Fermoy in the last series. Because of this family connection, in 2012 my father was approached by Dr Jim Wilson, a geneticist from Edinburgh university. It turned out Dad’s mtDNA contains a genetic marker indigenous to India. It is rare even there, only being found in about 1% of Indians, but it proved he and Diana had a shared Indian motherline passed down from a great, great grandmother. A result which led to the Daily Mail headline, ‘DNA tests reveal Wills is actually part-Indian!’ Or what The Times called a ‘Doomed Indian love story’. But that’s the subject for another book.



Cope joins Duckworth as Publisher

Duckworth Books are pleased to announce that Rowan Cope will be joining our team on 9 August 2021 in the role of Publisher. She will report to Managing Director Pete Duncan.

Cope began her career at David Godwin Associates, followed by commissioning roles at Little, Brown, where she published bestsellers such as Tracey Thorn’s Bedsit Disco Queen and Netflix hit Orange is the New Black, and then Simon & Schuster, where she founded the Scribner UK list and rose to Associate Publisher. Scribner UK garnered Sunday Times bestsellers and Booker Prize nominations, including for Ian McGuire’s The North Water. Most recently, she has been Editorial Director at Faber & Faber, Penguin Press and Granta Books, working with authors such as Francesca Wade, Sara Pascoe, David Mitchell, Jared Diamond, Sir David Spiegelhalter, Suzanne Simard, Mariana Enríquez, Mark O’Connell and Sandra Newman.

Rowan Cope said: “Duckworth has a long and august pedigree, having published some of the finest writers in English in its history, and I’m thrilled to join at a pivotal moment for the company, to help shape its twenty-first-century revitalization. Duckworth today is smart, agile and blessed with a dedicated and energetic team who can offer a personalised approach. We have many brilliant and highly acclaimed authors on the list, and I can’t wait to work with them and to bring more of the best and brightest writers of non-fiction and historical fiction to join us.”

Pete Duncan said: “The whole team couldn’t be more excited to have Rowan join us and take the lead of Duckworth’s publishing at this moment of transformation. I have been a huge admirer of Rowan’s publishing since her Little, Brown days, and her experience, creativity and commercial acumen are second to none. For Duckworth, this is a fresh marker on its journey of reinvention as one of the great independent publishing houses.”

David Bowie Made me Gay – In conversation with Darryl Bullock

In his 2017 title, David Bowie Made me Gay Darryl Bullock brought to light the colourful legacy that has shaped our musical and cultural landscape, revealing the inspiring and often heartbreaking stories of internationally renowned LGBT artists from Billie Holiday and Dusty Springfield to Frankie Goes to Hollywood and George Michael. To celebrate Pride, we caught up with the author himself.

Darryl Bullock at the Dublin Bowie Festival, January 2020, by Billy Cahill

Anna Abney on Plague Remedies… then and now

Duckworth’s upcoming title The Master of Measham Hall is set in the mid-seventeenth century – 1665 to be exact. Fourteen years following the end of the bloody and draining Civil War, England was still addled by religious and political angst. To make things worse, plague struck the land once more.

After the last fifteen months, to say that we know a little bit about pandemics would be an understatement. Fortunately, with vaccine rollouts underway, Summer 2021 may see a bit of normality return. But what was it like in the summer of 1665? Without the technology we have today, what measures were put in place to tackle the disease? And how does it differ from 2021?

Author Anna Abney takes a look…

The idea for The Master of Measham Hall came some years ago, when I was teaching Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year to English Literature students. The knock-on impact a deadly pandemic would have on other aspects of people’s lives – apart from illness and death – hadn’t really occurred to me (this was before Covid-19). I was fascinated by the way London boroughs closed themselves off to outsiders and many people were made homeless. Defoe describes an encampment in Epping Forest set up by just such people and this was going to be the focus of the novel. My characters, however, had other ideas about the direction of the novel. Alethea Hawthorne is a headstrong young woman and, as I was writing, her journey and the need to get back to her home in Derbyshire took over.

A lot of plague cures and preventatives seem outlandish to us today, but editing the novel during lockdown, I was struck by how many of the precautions taken by people in the seventeenth century were like those we have been using against Covid. Social distancing, for example. was advocated because the plague was believed to be airborne (although it is a bacterial infection not a virus). Once infected by contaminated air, it could be passed from person to person. Stephen Bradwell, a London physician, advised:

‘be contented to live as solitary as your calling and business will give leave. … if you stand to talk with another be distant from him the space of two yards. But if you suspect the party to be infected, let the space of four yards part you’ (A Watch-Man for the Pest, 1625).

Francis Herring stated that ‘stage-plays, wakes, feasts and may-pole dancings are to be prohibited by the public authority’ (Preservatives Against the Plague, 1647). Though, as Margaret Calverton in The Master of Measham Hall notes, the authorities, then as now, could be worryingly slow to act.

Herring entreats the governors of the city of London and ‘all rich men’ to look after their poor brethren and stop ‘idle vagabonds’ wandering up and down, spreading infection. He is also, unusually, a keen proponent of hand washing, using rose-vinegar and water.

The streets were cleaned, getting rid sewage and refuse, which must have had a beneficial effect. Bradwell exhorted keeping every room in the house clean, leaving ‘no sluttish corners.’ Though another ‘learned physician’ suggested placing peeled onions in a room to ‘gather all the infection into them’, which can’t have smelt too good. Fires were burnt to purify the air, both inside and out. Margaret follows the sort of recipe Bradwell recommends, using pitch, tar, turpentine, and rosin. It must have been pretty pungent.

Some people also used masks, like my character, Giacomo, while others, like Alethea, carried medicinal posies of herbs and flowers. Bradwell warns against wearing absorbent material like wool or leather but thought women’s whalebone bodices were ‘good armour’ against the plague.

While there is discussion of vaccine passports being issued now, in the seventeenth century you needed a certificate of health to travel (as Alethea, discovers). Businesses closed and London went quiet. Special hospitals (or pest-houses) were built, and suspected plague victims were locked into their homes for enforced quarantine.
Then, as now, desperate people turned to dubious remedies. Herring advises against the popular wearing of amulets filled with arsenic around the neck. Fortunately, we don’t go in for the kind of ‘purging’ popular then – bloodletting, suppositories, and vomiting. Neither do we believe, as they did then, that disease is ‘sent from God’ to punish us, though at her lowest point, Alethea starts to fear this might be the case.

Debra Barnes’ The Young Survivors inspires piano piece by composer Julian Marczak

Debra Barnes has had plenty of wonderful reviews for her Holocaust historical fiction debut, The Young Survivors, but one recent review has really been music to her ears…

Last week, composer Julian Marczak sent her the following message:


Dear Debra,

It is 1.45am and I have just finished reading your wonderful book, The Young Survivors. It is so beautifully written, gripping and says so much on behalf of the Jewish people. I am not Jewish myself, but have several close friends who are and your book has really touched my heart.

I am a composer and your outstanding story has inspired me to write a further piece for piano. I have played it to friends and they have said that the emotion behind the music is especially evident. Thank you so much for the inspiration.

With all good wishes,



If you’d like to have a listen of Julian’s beautiful piano piece, ‘When All is Done’, just click here.

When All is Done © Julian Marczak


We’re hiring: Senior Commissioning Editor/Editorial Director

A fabulous opportunity to join and help shape a resurgent name in publishing

Duckworth is a publisher of first-class, eye-opening non-fiction, founded in 1898 and since revitalised for the 21st century.

We’re looking for a senior editor to commission and publish new original titles across the non-fiction list, including personal stories of identity, travel and nature; global history; and popular science and psychology.

The role will most likely suit a commercially-minded editor with at least 3-5 commissioning years experience and proven excellent networking abilities.

You’ll need the skills to shape and manage a book at every stage of its life, from the seed of an idea to profitable publication and beyond. You’ll be great at pitching, and working with our small, friendly team to develop each book’s positioning, copy and design, as well as being adept at communicating with authors and agents. Most importantly, you’ll be imaginative and full of ideas.

The role is advertised as either a part-time role or full-time – we invite applications on either basis. We also welcome requests for regular homeworking days or flexible hours.

Salary range: £28,000-£40,000 (pro rata), dependent on experience

Please apply with covering letter and CV to by 21 April.

We are currently working part remotely, and part in our Richmond-upon-Thames office, and initial interviews are likely to be conducted over video call.


Let the books blossom: Spring reads from Duckworth

Spring is around the corner! Here are some fresh, inspiring reads from Duckworth which we believe embody the invigorating season of re-emerging flora and fauna, and (slightly) warmer weather.

Floating: A return to Waterlog

Joe Minihane

In the breaststrokes of Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, this is the story of one man’s search for himself across the breadth of Britain’s wild waters. A remarkable memoir about a love of swimming and a deep appreciation for the British countryside.

Perfect for those aiming to try something new, look for ways of dealing with anxiety, and embrace the outdoors this Spring.


‘Lovely, lively, passionate… a celebration of nature’s ability to inspire healing and joy’ Robert MacFarlane

‘Roger Deakin’s Waterlog journey, rebooted for the 21st century, Floating is a delicious slice of nature writing with a truly human heart’ Alexandra Heminsley

Buy now



The Friendship Cure: Reconnecting in the Modern World

Kate Leaver

The Friendship Cure

In The Friendship Cure, Kate Leaver s much anticipated manifesto brings to light what modern friendship means, how it can survive, why we need it and what we can do to get the most from it.

A remedy for reconnecting with friends as lockdown is slowly eased this Spring.


‘A gorgeous book and a reminder of just how intense and special female friendship is.’ Emma Gannon

The Friendship Cure is here to make us love our girl friends all over again… you’ll want to buy it and give it to all of your friends immediately.’ Evening Standard

Buy now



Everyman’s England

Victor Canning

In this series of pen-portraits of England from the 1930s, Victor Canning evocatively captures the pattern and colour of the English countryside. His heart-warming and humorous observations of sleepy villages, pastoral scenes and busy industries are a delightful time capsule into life in England during the interwar years.

For those who desire a soothing account of nature’s beauty, laced with vivid imagery.


‘Wonderful… elegant, humorous, exuberant essays.’ Guardian

‘Evocatively captures the pattern and colour of English life.’ The Bookseller

Buy now

The Templar’s Garden & Like as the Hart

The Templars Garden and Like as the Hart
Book and album – immerse yourself in 15th century England



The first book in The Maid of Gascony series, The Templar’s Garden, is out today (12th November).

Accompanying the book is an album, Like as the Hart, produced by author Catherine Clover, performed by the Choir of New College, Oxford. A unique experience, it allows readers to immerse themselves – by both reading and listening – in 15th century England, where Lady Isabelle d’Albret Courteault faces a new and unforeseeable life under the reign of King Henry VI after being forced to flee the Duchy of English Gascony.


Like as the Hart

Like as the Hart

You can buy the book and buy the album exclusively from Blackwell’s.


Below is a video offering highlights from the trailer for the book and album. It features Catherine Clover, Robert Quinney, Alexander L’Estrange, Antony Pitts and music performed by the Choir of New College. It was filmed on location at Trinity College, Oxford and Temple Church, London. Film production by Ali Webb of Webb Street Studios, London.