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Leeds student with thirst for history chosen to write grizzly book

An example of a typically gruesome image published in “penny dreadful” comics in the past. This shows the public execution by decapitation in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1794 of Robert Watt for High Treason along with David Downie. Public execution was a popular event and crowds of people would turn up to watch.

By Tia- Jane Coyle

A HISTORY fanatic has been asked to write a popular history book about the most notorious thieves, body-snatchers and cannibals that have ever lived in England.

Stephen Basdaeo, 31, is in his third year of a PhD in Victorian Literature at Leeds Trinity University.

One of the copy editors at the publication company Pen and Sword had seen Stephen’s work on his website and contacted him on social media and asked him to put forward a book proposal. When Stephen accepted they then offered him a contract.

The publisher traditionally concentrated on military history but had been expanding into crime history and cultural and social history.

As well as studying, Stephen also teaches modules in Victorian Literature and Representation of the Middle Ages two days a week.

Stephen said: “It’s quite interesting to teach, I enjoy it.”

Rosemary Mitchell, Stephen’s supervisor and professor of Victorian Studies at Leeds Trinity University, said: “His work is really original, he is very good at sharing scholarship with a broader non-academic audience.

“Stephen has always had an interest in historical crime and is an extremely promising young scholar.”

His thesis is on Robin Hood and the representation of him as more of a criminal than a national hero in history.

Stephen said it was an interest which was first encouraged by his supervisor at his previous university Leeds Beckett.

Heather Shaw is one of many leading crime historians and she introduced him to books which were published in the eighteenth century called criminal biographies which are short compendiums of historical thieves.

“I’ve always liked the bad boys of history. Each biography I’ve read is about 5,000 words long. They’re quite fun to read, not your typical Victorian novel,” said Stephen.

He did an undergraduate dissertation and then went on to do his masters dissertation which was on the last dying speeches of criminals, penny dreadfuls and Newgate novels.

Stephen said: “I want to resurrect this style of writing short biographies because it hasn’t been done in a while.”

Johnathan Wright, publisher at Pen and Sword said: “Stephen has proved to be a talented author with an eye for a good story and more importantly, selecting subjects that are popular with the general public.

“Interest in the criminal past of this country continues to rise and we feel Stephen’s new book will have great appeal to both historians and general readers alike.”

This will be Stephen’s second book. His first book is due to be published in January 2018, about Wat Tyler, the leader of the peasants’ revolt 1381.

Stephen said: “Reading popular history books is one of the reasons I went back to university as a mature student and did my undergraduate degree at the age of 24.

“Ideally I would like an academic career in a university but I have been exploring my options and thinking about maybe becoming a popular history book writer.”

Stephen has a website which is an online version of stories he writes.  He said his favourite grizzly tale is Charles Johnston’s history of the highwaymen, originally published in 1734.

Stephen said: “I hope I could inspire someone else the same way other writers have inspired me.”

Three Of the best history books of all time

History of the Peloponnesian War

Thucydides (c400 BC)      

Generally agreed to be the first of its kind, Thucydides’s history covers the war between Sparta and Athens, and though its accuracy remains moot – Thucydides was an Athenian general and so likely to be selective in his emphasis – it is an astonishing, rich and detailed drama to which historians return again and again.


The Making of the Middle Ages

R W Southern (1953)

Written while the author thought he had only a short time left to live, this concise and unadorned primer has become a classic introduction to how Europeans lived in the early Middle Ages.


Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

A satire of more than just war, Slaughterhouse-5 mixes elements of science fiction with the novel’s central event: the bombing of Dresden in 1945. Vonnegut was there at the time, an American PoW, who survived the fire storm by sheltering in a slaughterhouse.





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