Writing Martha’s Journey

From Idea to Novel

This book idea was founded on a little known snippet of family history passed on to me by my mother. It was a mystery why Martha’s family would send away such a young girl, across the sea to live with her childless Aunt and Uncle. Perhaps having so many children in the family, one less wouldn’t be noticed? It seemed such an awful thing to do to a young girl. I had to admire my Great-Great Grandmother for being so brave and for having the tenacity to undertake such a journey all alone.

However, little known details alone do not constitute a novel. In order to write a work of
fiction based on a ship at sea I needed to learn how to sail a ship, rig a sail, figure out what sailors actually did, and discover how people spent their time for all those months. So began a long period of reading and research. I borrowed books on nautical terminology, I visited many Maritime Museums and read endless diaries written and recorded by passengers about life at sea spent on these type of ships.

Most entries had a common theme- they all accounted for the disgusting lack of hygiene, sailing conditions, sea sickness, and death at sea.

Portrait of Martha Winstanley Circa 1880

Portrait of Martha Winstanley Circa 1880



Sample Page – ‘Martha’s Journey’

“On the deck, small bundles tightly wrapped in canvas lay lined up in rows. It was a pitiful sight. Martha gasped when she saw how many there were.

‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,’ said the Captain. With a grave voice he called for prayers and the passengers prayed. Martha thought she would faint as each small bundle, was named, blessed and placed on a long beam of wood. Two sailors held the beam aloft. Clutching Sara’s hand, Martha watched and silently prayed for the children. She cried out as their little shrouded bodies slipped into the sea with barely a splash to herald the watery grave they were interned into. The cries and wailing of the passengers grew louder as each small body slipped beneath the ocean’s waves into the endless depth of green water.

Mrs. Wilby made her way across to Martha. She hugged her tight.

‘My dreams…they were not me slipping beneath the sea, twas them I think,’ sobbed Martha, burrowing deep into Mrs. Wilby’s chest.

‘Perhaps it was,’ she sighed, lost for an answer.

After the services, the passengers silently returned below, leaving the families to comfort each other. Martha passed on dinner, feeling no appetite, only wanting to lie in her bunk, unable to push the memories from her mind.

1st March 1880,

10 degrees South of the Equator

‘I can barely bring myself to tell of the day’s events. I am heart-broken to have witnessed the burial at sea of small children and babies. I have cried and cried and think the images of the little bodies wrapped in the horrid canvas bags will be burned in my eyes forever. The sickness is smallpox. It has taken the very young and some of the elderly are likely to die next. It is like a black plague has settled on the ship and woven a web we all are trapped in. How I shall keep well in such a confined space I do not know. I fear I too may end up wrapped in a canvas sack and slipped into the murky depths just like in my dream. I am so very frightened.’