Great Lives – Ellis Peters

Ellis Peters was a literary giant whose name can be ranked among such greats as Ruth Rendell, John Le Carre, Dick Francis, and Leslie Charteris.

Ellis Peters in 1993.
Ellis Peters in 1993.

Her most famous creation was a sleuthing Shrewsbury monk, Brother Cadfael, her books being turned into a television whodunit series starring Sir Derek Jacobi and also inspiring the creation of an ill-fated visitor attraction in Shropshire's county town.

Peters was widely travelled but never wanted to live anywhere but the county of her birth. She died at her home in Madeley in 1995.

Those paying their respects at a special memorial service in Shrewsbury Abbey included Sir Derek, former Labour Cabinet minister Lord Owen and his wife Debbie – who was her literary agent – and MP David Blunkett, a friend of the writer.

The literary legacy of one of Britain's most popular novelists is 70 books, including historical works and crime novels, in a career spanning 60 years.

Ellis Peters in 1993.

Born Edith Mary Pargeter, she came from working class roots, being the youngest of three children. Her Horsehay birthplace at 26 Wellington Road was, in more modern times, named Cadfael Cottage in honour of her most famous literary creation.

Her father Ted Pargeter was head clerk and timekeeper of the nearby Horsehay Company.

Young Edith was educated at Dawley C of E School and Coalbrookdale High School.

Her first book, Hortensius, Friend of Nero, appeared in 1936. She was working at the time as an assistant in Bemrose’s chemist shop in Dawley.

The young novelist Edith Pargeter working in Bemrose's chemists shop in Dawley in 1936 – her first book had just been published.

“I was born among the poor, therefore I and my efforts belong to them. My voice ought, if it can, to speak for them.

“It isn’t any abstract and effortless love of humanity that’s going to work miracles, it’s a good turn, the words spoken in defence, the smile,” the 23-year-old said when asked about her plan of life in a contemporary interview.

She was living at that time with her parents in King Street, Dawley.

During the war she served in the Wrens, the Women's Royal Naval Service.

She enlisted in 1940 and, thanks to her typewriting skills, was assigned as a teleprinter operator, stationed at first in Devonport.

She was later one of the personnel who moved to Liverpool to work in the Western Approaches headquarters at Derby House, overseeing hundreds of convoys, with her colleagues moving wooden pieces representing ships on a huge map of the ocean.

Known to wartime colleagues as "Pargie," she continued to write, and in 1942 published She Went To War, a novel telling (surprise, surprise) the story of a young woman who joins the Wrens and is posted to Liverpool.

Edith Pargeter served in the Wrens

Her wartime work was recognised when Petty Officer Pargeter was awarded the British Empire Medal (Military Division) in the New Year Honours List of 1944.

After leaving the Wrens she returned to her native Shropshire, and already had a significant body of work to her name which had raised her profile.

In the 1950s she had moved to “Parkville” in Park Lane, Madeley, which she shared with her brother Ellis, and in her final years she lived at Lee Dingle, also in Madeley.

Brother and sister were at one time involved in local politics. Ellis was a former chairman of Dawley Urban District Council. Both quit the Labour Party in 1949 because they felt it had deserted socialist principles.

Her Ellis Peters pseudonym was to appear some time later, and was used for her thrillers. She wrote celebrated novels under her real name too, as well as using other pseudonyms, including John Redfern and Jolyon Carr.

Ellis Peters seems to have first been used in 1959, although it was applied retrospectively to her mystery Fallen Into The Pit which was originally published under her real name in 1951.

Originally she planned to use the name Aldo Peters, after two small children she knew.

Her publishers however didn’t like the name Aldo, and gave her a list of names which could be for men and women. Among them was Ellis and as this was the name of her brother, she chose it.

Peters came from the name of a Czech friend’s daughter, Petra.

However according to a letter to the Star by Mr V Hordley (Vic, we think) of Admaston in the 1990s, a relative of Edith's, there were misconceptions about how she arrived at her famous pseudonym.

"Edith was never called Edith at home until after the death of her mother, who was also Edith Pargeter," he said.

"She was always called Mary, and to close relatives she was still referred to as Mary up to fairly recent years.

"It is also a common misunderstanding that the Ellis in Ellis Peters was after the name of her brother Ellis, but this is not strictly correct.

"Both her brother’s name, Ellis, and the nom de plume Ellis in Ellis Peters, were derived from the maiden name of their maternal grandmother, Emma Ellis, who was born at Kinnerley, near Knockin.

"Emma Ellis married John Hordley, my great-grandfather. They had seven children the youngest being Edith Hordley who married Edmund Valentine Pargeter (this couple later becoming the parents of writer Edith), at Wellington Parish Church on June 3, 1906."

Her links with Czechoslovakia began when she and a small party from Dawley went on a Workers Educational Association summer school in Prague in 1947.

She returned regularly in later years, learnt the language, and was able to translate important Czech works.

This picture was taken on January 1, 1965, and the original caption read: "A Shropshire woman has been awarded a gold medal in Prague for her contribution to the friendship and co-operation between Czechoslovakia and Britain. She is writer Miss Edith Pargeter, of Park Lane, Madeley. A one-time chemist's assistant in Dawley, she is regarded as one of Britain's leading novelists."

The Brother Cadfael series with which Edith is most associated began in 1977 with A Morbid Taste for Bones. It concluded, as intended, with Brother Cadfael’s Penance, in 1994, which was shortly before her death.

Unsurprisingly Shrewsbury was keen to cash in on the international interest created by Cadfael and June 1994 saw the opening of an attraction called the Shrewsbury Quest in the shadow of Shrewsbury Abbey.

It aimed to give an insight into what life was like in medieval Shrewsbury and had a small section devoted to Cadfael. Within a month of its opening it had pulled in more than 10,000 visitors, with tourists flocking to the site from across the world.

However the venture was never a financial success and closed at the end of 1999.

Edith's writing career was punctuated by honours and global recognition. In 1963 she took an Edgar, the American thriller writers’ equivalent of an Oscar, for the best mystery novel of the year, Death and the Joyful Woman.

Edith, centre, at Shrewsbury Castle in 1961, with the manuscript of her latest book, The Heaven Tree, a 13th century historical novel in which the castle figured.

She received the Silver Dagger in 1980 and in 1993, a momentous career was crowned when she received the crime writers’ highest accolade, the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger, for her Brother Cadfael books.

She was then aged 80 and had considerable health problems including the loss of a leg.

And while most of her adult life had been spent, much of it with Ellis, at her home in Madeley’s Park Lane, Edith, who like Ellis never married, had by then moved to a new, all-mod cons house just minutes away off Glendinning Way, Madeley, with friends and relatives close by.

In January 1994 an OBE in the New Year Honours List marked her services to literature and that month she was also included in a new list of Britain’s top women earners.

She remarked of the OBE: "As it is supposed to be for services to literature, for a writer who has not been the critics' absolute pet it means a lot.

"It is a serious acknowledgement. Actually, I do get pretty good reviews, but the critics tend to classify mystery writing as something apart from literature.''

The spring of 1994 saw the first television adaptation of Brother Cadfael with which she had been closely involved. She thought Derek Jacobi made as perfect a TV monk as she could have hoped for.

Sir Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael.

In a 1983 interview Edith said: “I have no wish to move to the city. I like to go to London for a few days occasionally, but not to stay. I can’t say that I’m terribly fond of Telford new town. I prefer Madeley. There’s a very friendly atmosphere.”

And of her work: “I have been writing since I was at school. I always knew what I wanted most of all. I am lucky enough to have been doing exactly what I most wanted to do.”

Miss Pargeter was deeply private, and deeply religious, although not a regular church-goer. She did not drive, and only got a television towards the end of her life. When she got a set she enjoyed playing along with Mastermind and similar quizzes to see how she would do. (quite well, usually).

She had a large collection of classical music, and was particularly interested in early music.

In 1992 Edith went along to a BBC Songs of Praise show at Shrewsbury Abbey but had a fall at the end of the service and had to go to hospital with a leg injury.

This may have been the start of her health problems as in the summer of 1994 it was reported that she had had her right leg amputated after an operation at Telford's Princess Royal Hospital following a fall at her home.

After the operation Edith simply carried on as if nothing had happened.

She died in her sleep at the age of 82 in October 1995. Edith had just returned home from spending three weeks in hospital after suffering a stroke the previous month.

Accolades and recognition still came in after her death.

A stained glass window commemorating St Benedict and including a memorial to Edith was dedicated at a special service at Shrewsbury Abbey in 1997.

The window, on the south side of the abbey, depicts St Benedict who founded the Benedictine community, and also features an open book with pages bearing the Cadfael name.

The St Benedict window at Shrewsbury Abbey also acts a memorial to the Cadfael writer

In 1999 a new award in her memory was unveiled at the Oscars of the crimewriting world.

The first ever Ellis Peters Historical Dagger was presented at the prestigious Dagger Awards at the Cafe Royal in London’s Piccadilly.

Her nephew, Hugh Greatorex, who had travelled down with his wife, Eileen, from Newport, awarded the prize to Birmingham author Lindsey Davis.

Those who knew her well, speaking in 1998, recalled Edith fondly.

Mrs Diana Edge, of Little Wenlock, first met Edith Pargeter when she went to Workers Educational Association meetings in Dawley Library, and they became friends.

“We had this wonderful man, Professor Pilgrim, who came to do a series of lectures. We discovered he was an archivist and going through the archives in Shrewsbury.

“We got very interested in this,” she recalled.

Mrs Edge, a retired teacher, believed that this sowed the seeds which led to Edith’s Brother Cadfael stories, set in a framework of historical Shrewsbury.

She remembered Miss Pargeter as outspoken and forthright, but she lived for her writing and maintained her friends and connections locally.

“She had a very strong set of opinions on right and wrong and she was a believing Christian. She was very realistic and down to earth.”

Terry Thorpe, of Horsehay, also met Edith at Dawley WEA meetings: “She was a wonderful person, very intelligent, very serious. Her knowledge of painting, architecture and literature was phenomenal. She had very dark eyes which used to go through you when she was looking at you. Her superior knowledge made me feel six inches tall.”

Her housekeeper Hilary Allcock remembered her typing away in her front room, and sometimes whistling as she did so, and also having long chats with her illustrious employer over a coffee.

“We would talk about things, from Coronation Street and what we would like to do to Tracy Barlow, to, well, all sorts of things.”

Roy Morgan, of Church Stretton, said: “She was a walking Britannica. She had a phenomenal memory and a tremendous knowledge.”

And he added: “One never heard her say a bad word about anyone, which is remarkable. She was always looking for the good, and if there was no good, then she would say nothing.”

.............

ELLIS PETERS FACTFILE

BORN: Edith Mary Pargeter at Wellington Road, Horsehay, September 28, 1913.

FIRST BOOK: Hortensius, Friend of Nero, published in 1936 but actually written some years beforehand.

BROTHER CADFAEL: Her most famous series featuring a sleuthing monk, written under the pseudonym Ellis Peters, ran to 21 books, from 1977 to 1994.

ACCOLADES: 1944, BEM (Military) for her service in the Wrens; 1963, an Edgar, the American thriller writers’ equivalent of an Oscar, for the best mystery novel of the year; 1968, the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations gold medal and ribbon; 1980, the Crime Writers' Association Silver Dagger; 1993, the crime writers’ highest accolade, the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger, for her Brother Cadfael books. Awarded an OBE in the 1994 New Year Honours for her contribution to literature.

DIED: October 14, 1995, at Madeley, aged 82.

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