Leading historian from St Albans releases debut children’s book

Benita Cullingford

Benita Cullingford - Credit: Archant

A leading historian has released her debut children’s fiction book.

Benita Cullingford's new book, Edwin and the Climbing Boys.

Benita Cullingford's new book, Edwin and the Climbing Boys. - Credit: Archant

Benita Cullingford, of St Albans, has penned a historical novel about a school runaway, based on a true story.

Edwin and the Climbing Boys was inspired by her research into Edward Montagu - a boy from a wealthy family who persistently ran away from Westminster School to live with a gang of chimney sweeps in the 18th century.

He is “terribly important” in history, Benita says, because his story created the myth that chimney sweeps would steal children away.

Although Edward lived in London, the fiction book begins in St Albans.

Benita, who is a former LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts) teacher, said: “Writing fiction is entirely different [from non-fiction] because it’s all very well writing facts but if you are writing about characters you have to become them, you have to get into their mind, feeling what they are feeling.

“As far as I could I tried to make it true. Some people will say “that didn’t happen” and of course with a children’s book you want to make it exciting so there are some things you have to exaggerate, but as far as possible I have tried to make it authentic.”

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She took more than two years to finish the 180 page book, although it has been developing in her mind for about 15 years.

Creating the novel package has been a family affair - Benita and her husband Pip have two married daughters and four grandchildren, who helped with illustrations and reading of the six hour audio book.

The 79-year-old would like the text to feature in school libraries, in order to educate children about historical chimney sweeping.

Benita is the leading authority on chimney sweeps in the 18th century. Her well respected non-fiction titles include British Chimney Sweeps: Five Centuries of Chimney Sweeping and she has lectured on that topic internationally.

She has also written for stage, screen, and radio. A short film called Smile Baby Smile was produced in 2013 and a radio play called Pick Up was broadcast in New York.

However, her feature film entitled Portia’s Pengiun ran into funding difficulties before it could be shot.