The Shadowing
Date Published29 September 2022
Price£ 8.99

The Shadowing

by Rhiannon Ward

After her sister's death in a Nottinghamshire workhouse, Hester Goodwin is sent to investigate, but soon learns that sinister Southwell holds more questions than answers.


When Hester Goodwin learns of her sister Mercy's death, she’s not surprised by the news, as Hester has a closer relationship with the dead than most people, something she’s learned to keep secret from her strict, respectable Quaker parents. The knowledge that Hester sees the spirits – shadowings – of the dead isn’t something that makes others comfortable, but Hester is now used to living with the dead and mostly they don’t scare her. She has a worse time with her own nightmares.

Mercy’s name hasn’t been spoken in the Goodwin household since she rejected the union her parents had planned for her and eloped, but Hester hadn’t expected to learn that her sister had died in a Nottinghamshire workhouse. With her husband crippled by a severe stroke, Hester’s mother tasks her with travelling to the workhouse to learn more of the circumstances surrounding Mercy’s death and to find her burial place.

Hester travels alone to Southwell and has to spend a night in the coaching inn when Dorothea Francombe, an old schoolfriend of her mother’s, does not come to meet her off the coach, as she had expected. Taciturn landlord Matthew Alban is unwelcoming, and clearly disapproves of Hester’s intention to visit the workhouse, to ask what he considers to be unwise questions.

Southwell workhouse is, as expected, a grim place, run by the Kirkhams, a forbidding pair who demonstrate a total lack of empathy for their charges, particularly those who are categorised as the undeserving poor – men and women who are deemed to have brought their misfortune on themselves. Families are separated and children are kept away from their mothers, all living and working in harsh conditions. To her horror, Hester soon learns that Mercy, abandoned by the man she’d eloped with, had just given birth to a baby at the time of her death. The baby died soon after.

Shocked and saddened, Hester returns to Bristol with this unwelcome news, but later, a chance encounter with a former inmate of the workhouse leads her to question the version of events given to her by the Kirkhams and she returns to Southwell, where her enquiries lead her into danger.

Rhiannon Ward is a pseudonym of crime writer Sarah Ward, who puts her background in religious history to good effect in this dark tale of unpleasant goings on behind the forbidding exterior of a Victorian workhouse. Tales of a Pale Lady who spirits babies away from their mothers provide a suitably Gothic feel to the book. The ‘shadowings’ that dog Hester’s footsteps feel both otherworldly yet at the same time thoroughly real, a hard trick to pull off, but one that Ward manages with aplomb.

With a limited character set, getting some inkling of the identity of the villain of the piece isn’t too difficult, but narrowing it down became harder as the story progressed. In Southwell, making enemies is easier and finding friends is harder, but Hester does find some unlikely allies in a community steeped in fear and suspicion. The almost inevitable explain-the-plot moment somewhat broke the almost palpable tension surrounding the book’s closing stages and I must admit that the villain’s motivations did rather strain credibility for me but despite that, Ward’s tale of sinister child-snatching is both dark and gripping. I was dragged along with Hester over bumpy, rutted roads to a building that looms large over the surrounding area. The plight of those who found themselves within the walls of such establishments makes uncomfortable reading, depicting the horrors of a judgmental and unforgiving past.

Even with its dark undertones, I enjoyed this entertaining mix of grounded historical detail, ghostly encounters and interesting characters. I particularly warmed to brusque landlord Matthew Alban, and kind, ever-practical Joan who works for him in the inn. I do like a good spooky tale, and this was a very good one indeed.

Reviewed 29 April 2023 by Linda Wilson