This enchanting story for younger children follows a gang of boys who befriend and rescue a Welsh dragon trapped deep underground in the Forest of Dean. The young boys are iron miners, and as the author points out in his introduction, children were still employed in mines in the nineteenth century despite legislation passed in 1842 banning boys under 10yrs of age from working underground (it outlawed women and girls of any age working underground). Author Keith Thomas explains how he was inspired to write the book by an artefact on display at Clearwell Caves:
“I was a close friend of Ray Wright who was the owner the caves and opened them up to visitors. In one of the display cases there are the remains of a pair of tiny children's shoes found during explorations of the deep underground iron mine levels. These would have belonged to one of the children working there. I pictured the children who had to work in such terrible conditions and it saddened me to think of their lives.”
Despite the real-life background to the story and its setting which is almost entirely underground, it is a million miles from the type of gritty ‘misery lit’ genre more often associated with Victorian working lives. It is instead a lovely story of friendship and adventure as ‘billy boys’ Tom and Matty, and their gang of juvenile workmates struggle to work out how they can get their new-found friend Bodkyn out of the mine.
The style of writing Keith has used is well suited to any newly-independent readers, and there are illustrations throughout. Equally it works as a bedtime story for parents/carers to read to young ones – and despite its underground setting there’s little that should prompt any nightmares! Apart from a few Welsh turns of phrase from dragon Bodkyn the boys speak in standard English, no doubt to aid the text’s readability. That said specialist mining and other local terms do crop up – such as ‘nellie’ and ‘scowles’ – and Keith has helpfully listed all of them with clear explanations at the front of the book.
Published originally in 2008, in the intervening years Bodkyn and friends has reached readers as far away as Australia with Keith himself giving talks in schools on the book and the real history behind it in both Perth and Sydney.
Keith is now about to publish a book very much aimed at adults, based on nearly thirty years of in-depth research on the life of Robert Mushet. It was Keith that designed and manufactured the wrought-iron Mushet Walk Archway in Coleford that commemorates the lives of David and Robert Mushet' and the huge contribution they made to the Iron and steel industries. We’ve heard rumours that Keith’s new book has prompted interest from a production company looking to turn it into a television documentary. We’ll keep you posted on that of course!
In the meantime, if you want to pick up a copy of ‘Bodkyn and the Dragon Gang’ (a Christmas present perhaps?) it can be purchased through the usual online retailers, is also available to loan from Coleford Library.